There is a great debate happening in the world of reading instruction.
On one side, you have David Coleman, architect of the new Common Core State Standards, who believes that high school students should be reading mostly “informational texts,” — in other words, non-fiction.
Then on the other side, you have Stephen Krashen, opponent of the Common Core, who believes that students should be spending most of their time independently reading fictional texts.
In a recent piece in the New York Times, Sara Mosle, a middle school English teacher, weighs in on the debate. But instead of focusing on reading, Ms. Mosle argues that students should read more non-fiction to enhance their writing skills — that “careful reading can advance great writing.” (Check out Iserotope Extras for the article!)
Beginning with an anecdote about Malcolm Gladwell, who read 100 “Talk of the Town” articles in The New Yorker before attempting his own, Ms. Mosle notes that the best way to improve writing is by studying strong examples, which she says happens too infrequently in schools.
Ms. Mosle writes:
As an English teacher and writer who traffics in factual prose, I’m with Mr. Coleman. In my experience, students need more exposure to nonfiction, less to help with reading skills, but as a model for their own essays and expository writing.
In education-speak, these models are called “mentor texts” or “exemplars.” On this point, I agree with Ms. Mosle. Students improve their writing not just through direct instruction and practice but also through emulation and apprenticeship. That’s the kind of writing instruction English teacher Kelly Gallagher calls for in his latest book, Write Like This.
But as Ms. Mosle continues her argument, I begin to disagree. She advocates for “narrative non-fiction,” the genre that emerged from New Journalism and that has become famous over the past decade or so, thanks to Mr. Gladwell and This American Life host Ira Glass. Specifically, Ms. Mosle suggests that most English teachers are looking for “writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways.”
I’m not opposed to writing that is vivid. And I do not have a problem with self-expression. But let’s separate personal narratives from argumentative essays. When focusing on argument, let’s encourage students to choose precise evidence from text rather than from their personal lives.
My stance may seem rigid and my approach to writing instruction formulaic. But I worry that Ms. Mosle and other English teachers may confuse their students, particularly those practicing the basics of non-fiction. Before graduating to the advanced writing moves required for narrative non-fiction, there’s nothing wrong with mastering the basic argumentative essay structure first.