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On the Common Core and its “informational texts”

favicon The Common Core standards call for a major shift in reading in schools, from mostly fiction to mostly nonfiction.

Many English teachers are up in arms. What about literature? they ask. What’s going to happen to the power of stories?

David Coleman, the architect of the English Language Arts standards, emphasizes that English teachers do not need to bear the brunt of the change. If non-English teachers assign more reading, then everything will work out.

When I first heard Mr. Coleman make this assertion, I felt comforted (even though I find him smug). After all, I like nonfiction, too. I do Kelly Gallagher‘s Article of the Week. I like to supplement an anchor novel with various nonfiction texts to build background knowledge and to enhance student interest.

So do many other teachers. In fact, The New York Times just launched an effort that uses newspaper articles to drive instruction toward the Common Core standards. As a huge fan of the paper, I’d love to get on board.

But then I came across a problem. What the Common Core calls “informational texts” is not the same as what I call “nonfiction.”

If you take a look at the the Common Core’s text exemplars — in other words, suggested texts —  you’ll notice that American historical texts are highly prized. There is nothing wrong with these documents. No one would take offense to the “Gettysburg Address” or “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” especially in a study of rhetoric.

But I’m worried that English teachers will feel compelled to teach Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King rather than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

And if “informational texts” have to be old, what happens to all the excellent articles found in Time and The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker and The New York Times? What happens to Malcolm Gladwell and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nancy Gibbs? Do they belong in independent reading, read only by a minuscule percentage of students?

It’s clear that Common Core is going to shake up the place of reading in schools. And that’s great. I welcome the debate. But I hope that educators will be able to have an honest conversation about how to promote different kinds of reading across the curriculum. And I hope that we can take this opportunity to re-think the role of reading in our students’ lives. If we do things right, maybe we can bring back reading’s joy. favicon

2 comments

  1. Dave Keller

    Right now, I’m sitting in a Common Core training and have been asking the questions being raised on Iserotope. Here is what I’ve been told:
    a) In high school, the student diet of reading should be 30% fiction 70% informational. That ratio is school wide meaning if P.E., Social Studies, Science, etc. begin teaching reading then Common Core goals will be achieved.
    b) The Core gives many examples of the types of informational texts that would be acceptable in meeting their standards. Most are American authors as Isero pointed out – Gettysburg Address, etc. The question that remains, can teachers use Malcolm X as a piece of information text? What I’m being told is “Yes.” The problem is that in California our Social Studies Common Core standards have not been published (due out in 2014) so we don’t know what we’ll be asked to teach.
    c) For many schools, state tests drive instruction so what will be the assessment tools for the Common Core? This is the outstanding question which will determine so much of what many students get in their classes. Right now, I haven’t received an answer to that question and hope that some readers can share their knowledge on this topic.

  2. Mark Isero

    Dave, I love that you’re on the case and gathering intelligence on the Common Core State Standards! Good work. Some responses:

    a) I knew about the 70-30 split, and I appreciate that Common Core is pushing non-English teachers to do more reading with their students. Social studies teachers likely won’t have a problem with this shift, but I worry about Math and Science (not to mention other disciplines, like PE). What do you think?

    b) Yes, I think that Common Core won’t have a problem with the use of varied informational texts. But it’s a red flag that the exemplars listed are only historical texts, especially when they show up in English (instead of History). I also wonder about the term “informational,” and I wonder why CC didn’t use “nonfiction.” After all, “informational” suggests neutrality rather than argument (i.e., “reading to learn”).

    c) Yes, all of this is going to become much more real when the testing comes down. Does anyone else have information about this? Dave, I appreciate your call for other readers to weigh in on this question. (I wish there were more loyal Iserotope readers like you!)

    Thanks again, Dave!

Please share your brilliant insights!