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The “What should children read?” debate continues

KidWithBooksfavicon 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. favicon


  1. Tony

    I saw this article last week and have mixed responses to it as well. I agree with much of what Mosle says in terms of having exemplars and that students would benefit from reading quality non-fiction. I think it is important to name however that the chasm of fiction / non-fiction is more complicated than Mosle or your framing of it suggests. It is not just about what to read – it is also very much about how to read and why one reads. Rather than teach children that the text and the purpose for reading shapes how and why we read – the CCSS is pushing for an extremely narrow and limited view of the activity of reading.

    • Mark Isero

      Tony, thank you for your insight. Another reader (on the FB page) suggested that we aren’t asking the right questions. I like that you add the how and why questions to the what we read question.

      Although CCSS has a limited view of reading, I appreciate that Common Core is encouraging a conversation about reading. It might not be a deep conversation, but it’s a good start. It’s pushing English teachers to consider more nonfiction, and it’s encouraging other teachers to introduce more text in their lessons.

  2. Dave Keller

    I just sat through 8 hours of training on CCSS. Here are my take-aways:
    1) CCSS focuses Social Studies on informational writing and argumentative writing. This means I’ll be choosing more argumentative and informative readings to provide students with more “exemplars.”
    2) Social Studies and English teachers are collaborating much more because of the testing system. We’re all talking about how to teach reading and teaching it in a much more explicit way – talking to kids about the how and why of reading.
    3) This year I may have to eliminate some of the “fun” activities. Focusing instruction on informative/argumentative writing and reading may require dropping some of the more creative, fun assignments. Not sure what that will do for motivation or developing a love of learning.

    • Mark Isero

      Thanks, Dave! Hope the training was helpful. I agree with you: Social Studies is really the “secret weapon” of CCSS. After all, many of the suggested texts are historical. In addition, English teachers are more interested in teaching fiction and are more likely to challenge the Common Core. I’ve been reading a lot of pretty incendiary stuff the past two weeks. If that’s true, teachers from other disciplines will likely become more involved.

      I’ll be really happy if #2 happens. You and I have done serious interdisciplinary collaboration before, and overall, I still believe in it. If more teachers are telling students that reading is important, that it’s an actual skill that can be improved, and that it has real value (instead of fake “teachery” or “schooly” value), then I think we’re going to make a lot of progress. The “Reading Apprenticeship” model still holds weight.

      It’s too bad that you might drop some of the fun activities, but that might be the overall trend. Argumentative writing seems fairly easy to make into an engaging project, but I get stuck with informative. What exactly is exciting about writing about a violin (for instance).

      Thanks again for your thoughts — they’re always thoughtful and helpful.

Please share your brilliant insights!