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Will testing kill fiction in schools?

favicon Many English teachers are getting worried that the combination of standardized testing and the new Common Core standards will lead to the disappearance of fiction in schools.

An excellent op-ed piece today in The New York Times makes this claim well. Teacher Claire Needell Hollander, in “Teach the Books, Touch the Heart,” believes in teaching classics like Of Mice and Men and Macbeth to her New York City middle schoolers. But ever since her school’s reading scores dropped, Ms. Hollander has felt pressured to devote more time to test preparation.

Even though her students reported feeling more equipped to handle high school English courses, Hollander has mostly scrapped her program, which now allows only the proficient readers to participate.

That’s right: Good readers get The Catcher in the Rye, while the struggling readers get disjointed test passages.

This dynamic — created by testing culture and data-driven decision making — promotes tracking and inequitable outcomes. Hollander writes:

The problem is that low-income students, who begin school with a less-developed vocabulary and are less able to comprehend complex sentences than their more privileged peers, are also less likely to read at home. Many will read only during class time, with a teacher supporting their effort. But those are the same students who are more likely to lose out on literary reading in class in favor of extra test prep. By “using data to inform instruction,” as the Department of Education insists we do, we are sorting lower-achieving students into classes that provide less cultural capital than their already more successful peers receive in their more literary classes and depriving students who viscerally understand the violence and despair in Steinbeck’s novels of the opportunity to read them.

Hollander is correct that less-privileged students read less at home, so it’s sad that many schools have thrown out independent reading and full-length novels and substituted test preparation.

And I worry that the Common Core standards, which go into effect in 2014, may continue this trend. Although the Common Core purports to encourage more critical thinking and rigorous reading, its emphasis on non-fiction over fiction may eradicate the teaching of novels entirely.

We’re already seeing this pattern in the California State University’s push to change the English 12 class to one called “Expository Reading and Writing.” The university system, concerned that students are not prepared for high-level college work, has encouraged high schools to modify their curriculum. The proposal is to organize the course around several non-fiction pieces and to teach just portions of two novels, one per semester. (I’m going to a training in June.)

I’m not (yet) a detractor of the Common Core standards, and I don’t think all testing is evil. I also think that some English teachers have focused too much on fiction.

But I worry about this trend toward testing and away from fiction. It tells students that the only things worth reading are cut-up, disconnected passages with questions at the end. It makes me sad — and angry.

What do you think? favicon


  1. John at TestSoup

    Tough issue.

    On the one hand, I do know that I spend much more time reading brief passages these days (online) than I spend reading books.

    On the other hand, one must know how to read a book (the whole thing) to acquire the skill of connecting random bits of seemingly disjointed information. That’s something that reading fiction does for us quite well.

    I understand encouraging kids to be able to read and understand short passages. That’s undeniably useful. But life in our world will rely more and more on the ability to connect information from multiple sources. And that’s definitely something that can be learned organically through fiction, I think. (Most easily, that is.)

  2. Mark Isero

    It’s definitely a tough issue. There’s value in teaching the classics. There’s value in letting kids choose novels to read independently. Then there’s value in non-fiction, whether it’s news, online pieces, or brief passages.

    It’s pretty clear to me that the answer to reading is to have much more of it, all the time. The question for me is how much of each type.

    • John at TestSoup

      Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right about that. More reading is probably the best bet. Being able to read (well) really expands your world.

      I would love to see students offered more choice in what they want to read. Not every genre or type of writing is interesting to everyone. Still, you need some firm guidance to expose people to that which may be valuable but is difficult to get into.

  3. Zaretta Hammond

    Mark, I am with you. It communicates the wrong message to students that the only things worth reading are cut-up, snippets of passage (of any kind). But what really makes me mad is that this approach to “helping” low-income struggling readers doesn’t really help at all in making them better readers and writers! It does just the opposite and contributes to the widening of the achievement gap. To accelerate the learning of struggling readers they need whole texts — books, articles and they need the tools to build their skill and stamina coupled with solid instruction in reading development that is engaging. We need to really rethink our approaches to helping struggling readers. Slowing down instruction and cutting up rich text until it is unrecognizable isn’t the answer. We do know what works. We just need to start using that knowledge.

    • Mark Isero

      I just read your post and left a comment. Your post helped me connect the dots between teaching fiction and non-fiction.

      With Common Core coming soon, I don’t think the “fiction teaches us empathy” argument will hold. It’s too soft. But your point — that fiction teaches us how to make sense of non-fiction — is an excellent one. I’m going to do more research to see what’s out there on this topic.

  4. Mark Isero

    It’s wonderful to hear from you, Zaretta. Thank you for joining this conversation.

    When I’ve taught books and articles well, my students have felt proud of their accomplishment, and they’re more able to enter into new challenging texts.

    An example: My class is reading Frankenstein right now. The book is easy for them because they’ve already read The Metamorphosis and Beloved and The Awakening and six other books. Frankenstein is not easy, but it’s easier now because my students are able to make connections with prior texts.

    You and John are getting me thinking that authentic reading must be taught across the curriculum. English teachers can’t be expected to teach novels and non-fiction texts and independent reading all in one class. I’d love to have two blocks with my students — so that I can fit in some writing, too!

    But unless we think differently about the centrality of literacy, reading and writing must happen everywhere.

  5. Dave Keller

    An old student of mine interviewed me about the Common Core when it first came out. She was convinced it was a signal of the end but I’m not sure. Social Studies and Science both have very strong writing (and I think reading) component in the Common Core. If schools are smart they will spread the expository writing and reading requirement around the curriculum so that fiction is not sacrificed. Unfortunately, Social Studies and Science don’t have the Common Core specifics in California so it will be hard to tell how we implement it but I’m a glass half full teacher until we see the details. As for the cultural literacy issue – just another challenge in the urban classroom. I’m looking for solutions and will keep reading this blog for suggestions.

    • Tony

      Hi Dave,
      Working at Cal with some of the people who were involved in writing the core curriculum sections on reading and writing. In their view – the common core, as it is written, allows for some flexibility for teachers to meet the standards in a diverse set of ways (not enough imo). HOWEVER – and this is key – the ways that the core curriculum is being used by the publishers of textbooks and tests actually limits the ways teachers can meet the core standards, and limits them in ways that make the administering of tests on the core standards cheaper and more efficient for them. The initial authors are up in arms – but the ship has sailed.
      Anyways, all my best to you and your family. Tony

  6. Tony

    Love this conversation. Near and dear to my heart.
    I appreciated the op-ed piece as well when it came out – but it does not go far enough. What is lost when students do not read a long text (fiction or nonfiction or epic poems or plays) either at home or in school? A number of important concerns need to be added to the op-ed.
    1. the stamina and persistence required to read a longer text is a skill and habit that benefits students, both for reading and out of school activities.
    2. deep engagements with a text provides students the chance to immerse themselves in another’s words – a chance to “try on” a different discourse than those they normally use or encounter. This is important when we think of students who may have “fixed” identities.
    3. as students continue to read passages to prepare them for standardized test formats it reinforces a single way one might approach a text – the new criticism approach (sometimes called close reading). Applying a critical theory lens, or a reader response lens, or any other many approaches that help students read not only words but the world from a more complex perspective is lost.
    4. exposure to primarily short passages, or chopped up unknown texts, also re-enforces the notion that the meaning of the text lives within the text. as opposed to the meaning of a text being the result of the text, the reader, and the activity and purpose for reading.
    I could go on, but… sigh.

    • Mark Isero

      Great points, Tony.

      Are you suggesting that the Common Core’s focus on New Criticism may prevent some students from engaging deeply in texts (Reader Response)?

      What would you say to the New Criticism people who say that teachers are too quick to ask students how they feel about a reading?

Please share your brilliant insights!