I often hear rumors that the Common Core State Standards require English classes to devote more and more attention to “informational text” as students advance through the grades–so that, by grade 12, 70 percent of their reading will be informational text and 30 percent literary.
This is not so; the percentages are for all the subjects combined, not for English class alone. Yes, English classes are supposed to include more “literary nonfiction” than they have in the past, but this is not supposed to eclipse the study of fiction, poetry, and drama.
This is what the Common Core State Standards for ELA say (on page 5):
Fulfilling the Standards for 6–12 ELA requires much greater attention to a specific category of informational text—literary nonfiction—than has been traditional. Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally. To measure students’ growth toward college and career readiness, assessments aligned with the standards should adhere to the distribution of texts across grades cited in the NAEP framework.
Ah, a sigh of relief. So I don’t have to stop teaching Aeschylus after all. (I am not currently teaching, let alone teaching Aeschylus, but if I were, I wouldn’t want to stop.)
Even so, I wonder whether such heavy emphasis on “informational text” is wise. By all means, students should read more primary and secondary sources in history class. They should learn to write research papers that integrate information from numerous sources. In science class, where possible, they should read articles on current research as well as select works on the history of science. But is there any reason why the percentage of informational texts should come to 70 percent?
Here’s why it should: colleges and employers supposedly require one to read large quantities of informational text and amass the information in a very short time. Students unpracticed in this will find themselves at a severe disadvantage.
Here’s another reason why: the reading of informational text is in many ways a distinct discipline. With practice, students come to recognize the structures of arguments. They can locate the ideas and supporting details quickly.
And an even better reason: through reading, you learn about the subject, be it history, science, economics, or music theory. It is very difficult to understand a subject well without reading about it. And textbooks rarely offer enough insights into the field on their own. One needs to read more.
Yet another reason: even literary study, at the college level and onward, involves some informational text. But the reverse is rarely true. Yes, one might read a Donne poem in a physics class, in passing. But in a literature class, students might be required to read a great deal of criticism. Thus, informational text pervades all disciplines, whereas literary text does not, at least not obviously.
But here are some reasons not to give such preference to informational text:
First, literary text is by no means easier. Often it is harder, as the meaning is not apparent on the surface. Students need to take time with it in order to go past their first impressions and understandings.
Second, employers may not require knowledge of fiction, poetry, and drama, but that does not make it unimportant. It stays in the mind, sometimes throughout a person’s life. I vividly remember poems and fiction I read in eighth grade and earlier. I often recite poems in my mind. Moreover, literary allusions are everywhere, even in informational text, and if one misses them, one misses a great deal of the meaning of what one reads and hears.
Third, the term “informational text” is a bit of a misnomer. Why would Martin Buber’s I and Thou be considered “informational”? Why would the Iliad not be considered informational? The implication, it seems, is that we gain knowledge from a certain kind of text and not from another. This is not so; there is much to be learned from literature, and much in nonfiction that raises questions and draws our attention to mysteries and ambiguities.
Fourth (related to the above), literature often cuts to the quick. It can tell us things about humans in ways that informational text cannot. (And of course the reverse is also true.) One learns things from Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night that could not be told through history, psychology, or sociology. In a wonderful new book, A Jane Austen Education, William Deresiewicz tells what he learned about life from Austen’s novels. (He’s giving a reading here in New Haven today.)
Fifth, literature is beautiful, perplexing, moving, haunting, funny, daring, strange. So is nonfiction, or so it can be, but literature helps alert us to this.
Perhaps, instead of setting forth a ratio, it would make sense to look at the curriculum and the readings in it.
I'd like to hear from readers. When you were in high school, what was the approximate ratio of literary to informational text in your studies? What do you think of the current emphasis on "informational text"?
For me, it was probably about 80/20, since I was reading French, Latin, Greek, and Russian literature in the original, in addition to the literature I read in English class. I don't think I suffered for it. We read a fair amount of nonfiction in history class; it was there that I became acquainted with the work of Richard Hofstadter, whom I read with admiration. I also enjoyed the work of Daniel Boorstin and C. Vann Woodward. Each of us had to write a paper on a court case; I chose the "Sick Chicken Case," which not only had an amusing name but was very interesting. I wrote a research paper on anti-intellectualism in nineteenth-century American schools (drawing on Hofstadter, obviously, but also referring to a number of primary sources that I found in the Boston Public Library).