Common Core reading: Too hard? Too factual?

The new common standards for K-2 reading are too hard, “harsh” and “dreary,” writes Joanne Yatvin, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, in Education Week. The standards “overestimate the intellectual, physiological, and emotional development of young children,” Yatvin writes.

This amounts to meeting children where they are and keeping them there, responds Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. He lists the standards’ “three big ideas.”

1. Students should read as much nonfiction as fiction.

2. Schools should ensure all children—and especially disadvantaged children—build coherent background knowledge that is essential to mature reading comprehension.

3. Success in reading comprehension depends less on “personal response” and more on close reading of text.

The standards call for teaching vocabulary and background knowledge. It’s too much academics too soon, writes Yatvin. She thinks children should “learn words connected to their everyday lives and their interests rather than to things and experiences as yet unknown.”

We learn most words in context, Pondiscio replies.

So while it certainly it makes sense to connect words to kids “everyday lives and experiences” it’s something very close to educational malpractice not to make a concerted effort to expand a child’s knowledge base beyond their immediate experiences.  If there is anything that ensures a low-level of academic achievement it is the idea that kids can only learn from their direct experiences.

Yatvin also disagrees with the standards’ call to teach non-fiction as well as fiction. Young children have “limited experience in the fields of science, geography, history, and technology,” she writes. “It is one thing for a child to read The Little Engine That Could for the pleasure of the story and quite another for her to comprehend the inner workings of a locomotive.”

Actually, many children, especially boys, enjoy reading about science, nature and technology, including trains. I was a huge fan of history and geography — anything that wasn’t about the boring suburb where I lived.

Little Engine That Could “is ripe with opportunities to build background knowledge” about “colors, mountains, trains and transportation, to name but a few,” writes Pondiscio.

I’m all for reading for the pleasure of the story.  But start building background knowledge of the world beyond a child’s immediate surroundings today, and you geometrically expand the number of stories a child can read for pleasure tomorrow.

Very few kids have personal experiences with dinosaurs, dolphins, pirates or superheroes, yet many enjoy reading about them.  The first graders I’m tutoring in reading love the Magic School Bus series, which teaches science. They can’t read the book I’ve got (about kitchen chemistry), but they’re longing to be able to.

About Joanne


  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    What she really means by too hard is more challenging for the teachers who will need to develop a little background knowledge themselves – more work in other words. Harsh and dreary means not touchy-feely and of no personnal interest to the teacher.

  2. Yep, Yatvin doesn’t seem to know a lot about little kids’ interests. Non-fiction stuff like space, sea life, human anatomy, reptiles and amphibians and insects can be a very big deal for preschoolers and early elementary kids. Plus, where are they supposed to get knowledge of non-fiction subject areas if nobody makes an attempt to broaden their horizon?. If anything, the “everyday lives and experiences” stuff that she likes is much more limiting and dreary.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    I dimly recall, when my kids were little, watching a bit of Sesame Street. IIRC, there were some urban/ghetto signifiers in the background. Maybe a garbage can, something else.
    There was a movement, although perhaps it was too uncoordinated for that title, to emphasize the poor/black/ghetto experience, and minimize the experiences of the middle-class and the lower-but-not underclass, and expanding knowledge. Remember the term “regatta” as a signifier for the elitist tone of the IQ tests. Not sure “regatta” was on the IQ test, nor what an IQ test looked like. Seems like ten percent of my HS junior year was spent in the cafeteria filling in bubbles. Point is, never having seen a regatta, nor been in one, nor a boat larger than a rented rowboat, I knew what a regatta was. More or less.
    Perhaps it’s hip, edgy, and addresses liberal guilt to presume kids can’t/don’t need expanded horizons, as long as the horizons are restricted to some kind of authentic experience the teacher is fortunate enough not to have to experience directly.

  4. How odd! Both of my sons, now 18 and 15, have been history nuts since they started reading. They share that passion with me and my mother in law, and we have had fun discussions since they were little.

    They also loved trucks, and we didn’t study the “inner workings” of a truck engine, but they could tell you the difference between a dump truck and a back hoe in the first grade.

    I have niece who, when she was small, pronounced “tr” as “f”. We were in a fast food burger joint on our way to the beach with her family when a fire truck came speeding by with its siren wailing. She stood up on her seat and said, “Look, mommy! A fire ____!” Hilarity ensued.

  5. Most little kids (including mine) LOVE to be able to say ‘Hey, Mom, did you know that…’ and are thrilled when they know something that you don’t know or don’t remember. While most kids will probably find some subjects that they don’t enjoy, they won’t know what they like or don’t like if they aren’t every exposed to it.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      This is what show and tell used to be about in the early grades. My at the time 8 year old son brought a small model of the Pentagon, which we picked up on a trip to D.C., to school. He enjoyed explaning about the architecture and shape of it and why it was built in this way. Little show-off. 😉

  6. To keep schooling to that which children already have familiarity with is to further disadvantage those children. As soon as possible, students ought to have lots and lots of nonfiction reading about science, technology, other cultures, etc. Especially boys – is there a boy who ISN’T excited about trucks, cars, planes, and dinosaurs? This woman is truly clueless, and not fit for her job.

    • Besides, what’s the fun in only experiencing what you already know? I would not be a reader if the only fiction options to me were “stories like real life as it is now and where you live” and if non-fiction was only stuff I’d already learned abou.

    • This woman is truly clueless, and not fit for her job.

      This.  A thousand times this.

  7. “It is one thing for a child to read The Little Engine That Could for the pleasure of the story and quite another for her to comprehend the inner workings of a locomotive.”

    I expect most kids are capable of easily understanding how a locomotive works, at a basic level, and a high % of them would actually find the knowledge interesting.

    Too bad this isn’t true of many professional “educators,” who seems actually hostile to any form of knowledge which isn’t essentially solipsistic.

  8. “She thinks children should “learn words connected to their everyday lives and their interests rather than to things and experiences as yet unknown.””

    In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C S Lewis contrasts the characters of Adam and Satan, as developed in Milton’s work:

    “Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve…Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’ Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan. And that “one thing” is, of course, Satan himself…his position and the wrongs he believes have been done to him. Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament…”

    The “monomaniac concern with self” seems to be something that the education establishment seeks to inculcate and grow in every child.

  9. Roger Sweeny says:

    Females do better in school than males. The “over-representation” of females in high school and college completion is substantial. It would seem that for many males, school is a somewhat “hostile environment.” Without realizing it, Ms. Yatvin seems to want to keep it that way.

    In Marxist terminology, she is an objective oppressor.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      For whatever reason the early elementary years seem to be taught by women, and women not particularly interested in science, math, or history. They do seem interested in talking about feelings, “responding” to literature, and journaling – all things that induce vomiting in young boys.

      I know this is an overgeneralization; there are female teachers delighted with dinosaurs, romantic about rocks, and batty for bugs, but they’re a rare breed, and if they become teachers, they teach at the high school level.

  10. “Apparently, the authors deem such a shift in curriculum content necessary for students to reach the goal of college and career readiness. But are their expectations for classroom practice realistic? The fact that fiction now dominates the elementary curriculum is not the result of educators’ decisions about what is best for children, but a reflection of children’s developmental stages, their interests, and their limited experience in the fields of science, geography, history, and technology. It is one thing for a child to read The Little Engine That Could for the pleasure of the story and quite another for her to comprehend the inner workings of a locomotive.”

    I’m puzzled about Joanne Yatvin concern here. I don’t think that the standards she is unhappy with are expecting the K-2 kids to be reading Chilton’s auto repair manuals. I’m expecting reading more like “Tough Trucks: The Bulldozer”. This book is roughly as difficult to read as “The Fire Cat”.

    As a number of commenters have already mentioned, boys tend to like books about machinery (trucks, cars, tanks, airplanes). Also dinosaurs. And I find that my son likes history as much as fiction.

    The idea that you’d keep kids in K-2 away from non-fiction strikes me as very strange.

    Does anyone know if Ms. Yatvin is an outlier here? Or is her position common for K-2 teachers?

    • Christina Lordeman says:

      I can’t really vouch for K-2 teachers as a whole, but I find that an overwhelming majority of language arts teachers even at higher grades seem to focus exclusively on novels. English teachers seem to think non-fiction is boring – at least in my experience – or at least be oblivious to kids’ interest in it.

  11. It is so simple. Read The Little Engine That Could, then bring out the nonfiction picture books (there are so many!) about locomotives and related topics. Kids – boys and girls alike – love it all, as long as the person presenting it to them has some enthusiasm about it. And therein lies the problem, I guess.

  12. By the 6th grade my wife’s little cousin could recite all the Presidents in order, their VPs, and home States. For years we just bought him Presidential fact books and biographies, and he loved them.
    Now that he’s a HS freshman, I can’t wait to see how he does in History class.

  13. I don’t know about the k-2 standards at all, but at the high school level,depending on how your local district implements the common core and what you’ve been doing, you could find yourself expected to teach more non-fiction in English classes.

    It’s not a problem at all for people who have a lot of background and cultural knowledge and a district that will let them discern what to teach, but if you think of yourself as a literary person concerned with literary studies and literary analysis, and your district tries to implement these standards with “informational text” essentially defined as test-prep passages and textbooks, it could be a little off-putting.

    I wonder if Yatvin is feeling the k-2 version of this.

  14. Ted Craig says:

    NDC, My daughter had her English teacher present “facts” about genetics yesterday following a reading on the sterilization controversy of the 1920s. She pointed out to her that her “facts” were the opposite of what they learned in bio last year.
    My 1st grader has to bring home one fiction and one non-fiction book from the school library each week. The main problem is the non-fiction books are terrible. Fiction goes a long way toward helping children understand the world. Think of books like “A Chair for My Mother.”
    I know this goes against the thread, but I see little point for more non-fiction reading in K-2.
    Now, when it comes to older kids, that’s another matter. I actually dislike fiction in my later elementary years and probably would have read more if non-fiction were promoted. Remember, brains change a lot at age 8.

  15. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Ted– A lot of good nonfiction actually gets catalogued as ‘picture books’ not ‘non ficiton.’ So it may be that your son’s teacher is being too restrictive. The stuff that actually gets PUT in nonfiction is too often ‘stuff that’s handy for writing a report because it’s straight facts with no elaboration.’ But there are a lot of biographies, science books (think Gail Gibbons and Aliki) and history books in the picture book area at most libraries.

    Also, folktales are a great way to teach kids about the world, especially if they’re well-illustrated. And my kids generally enjoy ‘day in the life’ type stories that show how kids lived in another time or place.

    Also, the Little House books are technically fiction, but my 4 year old has learned a lot of practical, real-world, things from them. His careful study of Pa has taught him all sorts of neat things!

    One problem is that, in many classrooms, teachers don’t seem to be able to pick out GOOD children’s fiction–the sort that teaches about the wider world. If it’s all fiction based on the same environment the kids live in, it’s not helpful. If it’s fiction about people in different places and times, it’s an excellent educational tool.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    Said it before: Rosemary Sutcliff for the older kids.
    WRT non-fict ion: In “Lucifer’s Hammer” after a world-wide catastrophe, a couple of volumes of “How Things Work” were worth more than gold, literally, as gold was useless. I have seen in bookstores and in friends’ homes–actually friends of my kids–books about how things work. Likely to be picture books, but many adult manuals have illustrations and diagrams.
    Don’t people have an inborn desire to know how things work, and feel gratified when they find something out?
    Yeah, purposely or as a matter of ideology, this plan is going to keep the less-advantaged stuck there.
    Cloward-Piven, anybody? They’ll be more likely to be on the dole.

  17. Deirdre Mundy says:

    One year, for our one book – one city program my town read “Into the Forest” an atrocious book about the end of modern society. One point the author hammers home is how the girls’ ‘book learning’ renders them totally useless in the woods without modern technology. They can’t fix a roof or find food, everything just decays.

    Except, if they’d had the Little House Book, and Axe, and a gun, they could have gone a long way toward subsisting. The books provide a how-to guide for a lot of pioneer and wilderness living skills.

    Rosemary Sutcliff’s books are great! Historical fiction is a great way to learn. I also recommend the more recent “Book of the Maidservant”

  18. Richard Aubrey says:


    You capitalized “Axe”. Is that a typo for a tool, or a reference to Paulsen’s “Hatchet”?
    Ya know, it might not be a bad idea to read a bit about Paleolithic stone knapping. Knives wear out.

  19. Cranberry says:

    “The main problem is the non-fiction books are terrible.”

    I think that’s a librarian problem, not a general indictment of the entire field of nonfiction for K-2.

    The leveled reading approach is so limiting. It limits the students to the adults’ perception of their interests and abilities. I think it’s especially difficult if the children and adults have very different backgrounds. If you expect children in the city to be incapable of learning from books about farm animals, you won’t present them basic reading materials. We expect young children to be able to chatter about animals–dogs, cats, zebras, cows, sheep, etc., although very few of us live on farms or run zoos.

    Of course K-2 is a wonderful time for nonfiction. It’s a time children can be very interested in knowledge in depth on one topic, and the materials are there, for those who are interested in them. My children were interested in volcanoes, dinosaurs, knights, maps, and trucks. That’s pretty normal for that age range. It makes me very sad to read the opinion that teachers should plan to restrict children’s reading so drastically.

    • It makes me very sad to read the opinion that teachers should plan to restrict children’s reading so drastically.

      IM<HO it should be prosecuted as child abuse.

  20. Christina Lordeman says:

    It took me a very long time to realize that, contrary to what I thought for virtually all of middle and high school, I actually didn’t hate reading. I just didn’t care for much fiction. Nearly every book I was required to read for school was fiction, often of the sort I could never relate to or which I simply didn’t find interesting or relevant. In every subject except language arts, we only ever read from the textbook, and in language arts it was almost exclusively novels. A more balanced blend of literature would have made those classes much more interesting AND beneficial to me.