No time for stories?

Under the new Common Core Standards, students would spend half their reading time on “informational” texts in K-5 and 70 percent in middle and high school. This will weaken the public school curriculum, writes Sandra Stotsky, who directed the development of Massachusetts’ English Language Arts standards.

Standards writer David Coleman overstates the percentage of the elementary school day spent on literary stories and misunderstands why teachers use stories, Stotsky writes. It’s easier for poor readers to understand narratives.

If anything, elementary teachers reduced reading instructional time after the 1960s to make more time for writing and revising experience-based stories. Over the years, sales of history, science, grammar, and spelling textbooks declined for a variety of reasons. Education schools stressed hands-on science (which most elementary teachers were not trained to teach) and “more engaging” history materials, much of which came to be written in story form for the sake of struggling readers. Reading instructional series (A.K.A. basal readers) then integrated spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and composition study as part of their programs to make the language arts cohere with what students were reading.

Schools didn’t eliminate science, history, and geography; they just eliminated the means by which these subjects could be taught systematically and accurately by teachers who knew little about these subjects. In addition, struggling readers couldn’t read (or didn’t want to read) history and science textbooks, no matter how much publishers lowered the reading levels of these textbooks.

As tracking fell out of favor in middle schools, English teachers “began teaching more literature written at an elementary school reading level and fewer challenging or even grade-appropriate literary texts,” Stotsky writes.

An elementary teacher can make time to teach students to read literary stories and understand informational texts, she writes. A secondary-school “English teacher has only 45-60 minutes a day . . . to teach everything assigned to the English curriculum.”

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  1. Ponderosa says:

    The Common Core writers seem to buy into the idea that reading is what makes good readers. But this conventional wisdom is wrong. Kids need KNOWLEDGE to become good readers, and for weak readers knowledge is NOT best obtained by reading. It’s best obtained by having adults explain stuff.

    I can already forsee the Common Core ship crashing and sinking. Kids are going to flounder or revolt when forced to confront difficult non-fiction texts about history and science. The only hope for making these subjects palatable and intelligible is to do it through animated direct instruction. The embrace of the reading-makes-good-readers idea is a fundamental error in the Common Core.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      I don’t think the standards *require* that the non-fiction be difficult. There is plenty of non-fiction available at almost every grade level.

      Now … will we wind up with non-boring, correct-level-of-difficulty non-fiction?

      Your guess is as good as mine …

      • Actually, they DO have specific technical recommendations for determining text complexity, which is actually a much more important feature of the standards than this whole fiction/non-fiction distraction.

      • Lightly Seasoned says:

        I think the exemplar texts are a little ambitious. Letter from Birmingham Jail, for example, isn’t something I’d do in 8th grade. I also don’t think 9th graders (in general) will grasp the symbolism of Rose of Sharon’s stillborn dead baby floating away in the flood in Grapes of Wrath.

  2. I think there are valid reasons to be concerned about CC in English, but the way I understand things, the writer here may be ignoring that CC also creates literacy standards for classes other than English/Language Arts.

    Some of the information text reading can actually be in history and science classes, etc. Doesn’t it kind of make sense that 70% of reading in high school would be informational if you include reading for all the other disciplines as well as English?

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      This is true. I’m lobbying hard to get social studies on board (turn off the frickin’ DVD player and make them read something for the love of Pete) — but in the end that non-fiction shows up under the English assessment and we’re accountable. At least that’s what the Smarter Balanced Assessments look like so far (what a name!).

  3. My bad: it always pays to read the entire article before you post. The linked author doesn’t ignore the literacy standards for other subjects; she dismissed them as empty.

    I’m not sure they are emptier of content than any of the ELA standards.

  4. It’s interesting what Stotsky admits in the linked article: (1)more ES time is spent writing/revising experience-based stories (all about me!!), (2)ES-MS texts in history, geography, science, grammar/spelling/compostion are no longer used (replaced by “hands-on” science and story-based history), (3) average MS kids can handle grade-level texts in the disciplines, which are no longer used, and (4) the replacement of ability-level classes with heterogeneous classes has resulted in less science and history and more literary stories, at a level below grade level (and nothing challenging).

    In other words, not only literature, grammar and spelling but academic content in the disciplines has been gutted because struggling students can’t handle it; therefore none of the above will be offered to any students – because of the removal of ability-based classes. This is progress? I call it anti-academic and outright fraud.

  5. There is no actual standard which specifies the amount of fiction or non-fiction reading. The entire point of standards based education — particularly its heavily data-driven implementation — is that the amount of time spent is as much as is necessary for students to achieve the standard.

    This entire conversation is off topic, and there seems to be quite a bit of energy driving it off topic.

  6. Cranberry says:

    Schools didn’t eliminate science, history, and geography; they just eliminated the means by which these subjects could be taught systematically and accurately by teachers who knew little about these subjects.

    Doesn’t that amount to the same result? “I didn’t take away your car; I confiscated the keys.”

    Eventually, to avoid having classes designated for different levels of academic challenge, most grade-based cohorts of middle school students were placed heterogeneously in the same subject classes. To cope with the widening range of reading skills in an English class, middle or junior high school English classes began teaching more literature written at an elementary school reading level and fewer challenging or even grade-appropriate literary texts.

    This doesn’t strike me as a ringing endorsement of the status quo.

    Perhaps the time spent “writing and revising experience-based stories” could be spent learning about something other than one’s own experience.

    The Massachusetts Frameworks of 2001 did specify that instruction in English Language Arts was to include BOTH imaginary/literary content AND Expository/informational content. Students were supposed to read and write both types of writing. (

    That the teachers may have seen fit to ignore the frameworks does not mean that the Common Core would weaken the public school curriculum. In the emphasis on both literary and expository texts, it seems to me to be in step with Massachusetts’ previous written document–if not in line with the watered-down elementary level texts teachers may have presented to middle school and high school heterogeneous classes.

  7. Stuart Buck says:

    I’m not sure she knows what she is writing about — the Common Core website says very clearly more than once that any 70% non-fiction standard applies across the entire grade, NOT to English classes (in other words, students should be reading for history, science, etc.). Yet her entire premise is that English teachers will have to start teaching non-fiction. See

  8. It’s funny how the pro-CC are showing up to proselytize.

  9. Stuart Buck says:

    I’m not pro-Common Core; I’m just pro-not-saying-things-that-are-blatantly-untrue.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      No, you’re right. But the proof is in the assessment pudding. It’s the test that will drive the curriculum, not the standards per se, since the test results will determine teacher evaluations, etc. So if the test is heavy on non-fiction, so will go English instruction.

      • Lightly Seasoned,

        This may be a dumb question, but it’s not something that’s been discussed in my state. It seems so obvious that Common Core could lead to common assessments, but are they really being developed already?

        Earlier when you mentioned the Smarter Balanced Assessment, is that a test in your state or a CC test that a bunch of states are giving?

        • Through the power of google, I may have just answered some of my own questions, but LS, if you have anything you’d like to say about SBA, I’d love to read it.

          • Lightly Seasoned says:

            Not a whole lot — what I know is based on the website at this point. I was invited to write questions this summer, but declined. I do know that all the publishers are basing their materials on Smarter Balanced’s work.