Common Core @ Home: ELA - Why is there such an emphasis on reading nonfiction in the Common Core?



Part Two of a continuing series

Kiersten Greene, PhD, is an assistant professor of literacy education at SUNY New Paltz. She was born in the Hudson Valley, and recently returned to the region after living in New York City for 15 years, where she taught 5th grade. When she’s not reading, writing, or teaching, you can find her knitting.

Do you have a homework question for Kiersten? Submit your question here. 





Dear Kiersten, Why is there such an emphasis on reading nonfiction in the Common Core? My child has never been much of a reader, and I’m worried she’s going to associate reading with “work” instead of discovering new imaginative worlds through fiction.

The authors of the Common Core (CC) believe that nonfiction, or informational, texts hold the key to success in college and beyond: “to be ready for college, workforce training, and life in a technological society, students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and report on information and ideas.”

Whether we agree or not, it’s undeniable that as technology grows, so does the need to read: the amount of digital text and number of screens we encounter on a daily basis make reading for information a vital skill.

But how is this interpreted in the curriculum, and at what expense?

While the CC offers a logical explanation for focusing on informational texts, its implementation lacks clarity. The CC calls for a 50-50 balance in literary and informational text instruction in 4th grade, and a 30-70 balance, respectively, in 12th grade.

Some schools have interpreted this shift toward informational texts as doing away with fiction; however, it seems clear that students learn best from a balanced curriculum. Students should learn how to identify the plot structure in a literary text and how to unpack the main argument or thesis of an informational text—and it should be up to teachers to determine what texts are appropriate for instruction, based on students’ interests and needs.

Careful, intentional implementation of informational text instruction is necessary — no single approach works for every classroom.

Here are some key points to consider:

Choice

Students’ choices matter. As adults, we devour texts of our own choosing: in any given week, I’ll engage with texts on topics from curriculum development and education policy to vintage knitwear patterns and do-it-yourself home repairs. This skill we take for granted as adults — to locate, sort, and organize information on specific subjects — begins with making choices about texts as young children. Classrooms need a variety of informational text choices that fill the spectrum of students’ interests.

Level

While interest about a topic can motivate a reader to engage with a text above their independent reading level, a text that is too difficult can shut down the inquiry process. Classroom library collections must contain books that vary in level of text complexity.

Varied structure

Not all informational texts are created equal: some tell stories, while others relay information fact by fact. Exposure to a variety of informational texts — both narrative and non-narrative in structure — broadens the understanding and applicability of texts that inform.

Not just ELA

Teaching literacy is not just the English Language Arts teacher’s job — it’s everyone’s. Students should actively engage with informational texts during content instruction in social studies and science, too, thus leaving plenty of room for fiction in the ELA curriculum.

Having more informational texts in classrooms isn’t, I think, a completely horrible idea; it’s how and why those texts are used that makes all the difference. In the end, students’ needs and interests—not a prescribed curriculum—should drive literacy instruction.

Read more answers to Common Core questions