Huck, Hamlet or EPA insulation manuals?

Huck Finn, Hamlet, Gatsby — or a manual on invasive plant species? Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted Common Core State Standards that call for students to spend more time — 70 percent by 11th and 12th grade — learning to read “informational text.”  Suggested texts include “FedViews” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the EPA’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation,” and “Invasive Plant Inventory” by California’s Invasive Plant Council.

“All in all, this is a great way to make the kids who like reading hate reading,” writes Alexandra Petri in a Washington Post commentary.

The goal is to prepare students for college reading.

Reading complex literature is the best way to prepare students to read difficult college texts, argues Sandra Stotsky, who created Massachusetts’ respected English Language Arts standards.

. . .  the decline in readiness for college reading stems in large part from an increasingly incoherent, less challenging literature curriculum from the 1960s onward. This decline has been propelled by the fragmentation of the year-long English course into semester electives, the conversion of junior high schools into middle schools, and the assignment of easier, shorter, and contemporary texts—often in the name of multiculturalism.

Already, high school English teachers say they’re being told spend half or more of their teaching time on nonfiction, which means reading novels, plays and epic poems only as excerpts.

Reading less literature “may lead to a decreased capacity for analytical thinking,” Stotsky writes. When students read literature, they must understand “characters, literary devices, tone, ambiguity, elaboration, structure, intricate language, and unclear intentions. ” Informational texts, including literary nonfiction, are much simpler with little “ambiguity, subtlety, and irony.”

Common Core’s critics are confused, write David Coleman and Susan Pimental, who framed the standards for ” English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects.”  Students will read literature and informational text, they write  in the Huffington Post.

The standards say:

… the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary non-fiction, [and] a great deal of informational reading in grades 6-12 must take place in other classes…

The point is reiterated in a follow-up footnote: “The percentages … reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings.”

Two standards explicitly require reading Shakespeare, they write.  Students must “demonstrate knowledge of foundational works of American literature, so texts like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are likely to receive a great deal of attention.”

Coleman doesn’t understand how the standards will be understood and implemented, writes Diane Ravitch on her blog.

Teachers only have so much time.

Betsy Woodruff piles on, arguing that reading literature develops imagination and empathy.

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  1. Cardinal Fang says:

    Ms. Stotsky offers us a remarkably poor argument for K-12 students studying literature rather than non-fiction. She says students should study literature rather than non-fiction “because, as ACT (a college entrance exam) found, complexity is laden with literary features: It involves characters, literary devices, tone, ambiguity, elaboration, structure, intricate language, and unclear intentions.” So, she wants us to believe, complexity in the kinds of informative reading that we want our students, as adults, to be able to understand is just like complexity in literature. That is, literature is complex and difficult in just the ways that non-fiction can be complex and difficult, so when students learn to analyze literature, they are also learning to understand the kind of writing we care about them understanding: the pamphlet on how to apply pesticide, the legislative analyst’s description of the effect of the new tax regulations, your psychology textbook’s section on certain experiments using mice.

    But then she says, “It will be hard to find informational texts with similar textual challenges (whether or not literary nonfiction).” Really? If literature’s complexity is just like informational text’s complexity, then why would it be difficult to find complex informational texts? And if informational texts typically do not pose the kinds of analytic challenges that literature poses, then why do students need to analyze literature in order to understand informational texts? I don’t care if my electrician can analyze Shakespeare’s use of language; I just want him to install the electric work so my house doesn’t burn down, and for that, he needs to be able to understand the manufacturers’ manuals, not Hamlet.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Wait… would Freud be an informational text? How about “The Federalist Papers”, Darwin? Plato? DeToqueville? The Narratives of various Victorian explorers? Carl Sagan? “The Psychopath Test?” Oliver Sacks? Who says ‘informational’ has to mean ‘government publications?’ ‘All the Beautiful Forevers?’ This seems to demonstrate the bias of people who only read literary fiction….

  2. facebook_amyrsch says:

    Hi Joanne, love the blog. How frustrating! “Reading complex literature is the best way to prepare students to read difficult college texts” — it turns out that wasn’t really true for me. For whatever reason, I never really enjoyed fiction, and to this day still read more non-fiction. In college, given my majors in Zoology and Poli Sci, I read much more non-fiction than complex lit and I’m glad because I’ve just never really been into literature. I wish in high school we would’ve done more critical text analysis, regardless of whether it was fiction or non-fiction, instead of assigning an amount of reading that was no problem for a voracious reader, but overwhelming for me. My literacy was good, but my speed in complex lit was not, and therefore I didn’t enjoy English class.

  3. I’m not sure I would categorize the “Fedviews” as informational text.

  4. GEORGE LARSON says:

    I agree this was a poor argument for reading fiction. But…

    As a nonfiction reader I do have an observation to make in favor of reading fiction. Reading better quality fiction has improved my expository writing. The non fiction textbooks I had to read in school were not very well written and were a poor example for my expository writing.

    Reading bureaucratic gibberish is probably not a skill we want to teach because we would also be teaching them how to write it.

  5. “Coleman doesn’t understand how the standards will be understood and implemented, writes Diane Ravitch on her blog.”

    Ravitch is right — the standards will be understood and implemented by educators who are too dense to read plain English and figure out that increasing the reading in history and science classes doesn’t mean subtracting reading from English classes.

  6. We read persuasive historical essays in English class, but definitely not science texts. Informational texts vary in complexity…instructions for assembling a bookcase or a recipe are informational, and probably an appropriate ‘hands on’ activity for elementary/middle school kids. The techniques that I used to analyze literature are very different from the ones that I used to read science texts. Learning to read while taking notes/organizing the information is important if students need to read complex nonfiction. I never really read fiction like that – I’d read the whole thing, then go back and sort through the story. I never read a primary article without a pencil in hand to make notes or a flowchart as I go…and I teach that to my science students because I don’t expect English teachers to read primary literature in biology.

  7. There will certainly be schools that implement the standards thoughtlessly or poorly, as they did with their old state standards. There will certainly be teachers who take the standards super-literally and implement them inflexibly, if only to prove how stupid they are and how right they, themselves, are to resist them. But the schools that understand and embrace the challenge of broadening the definition of literacy, exposing students to rich and challenging texts in all subject areas (beyond and away from the pre-digested textbook) and encouraging all teachers to share the responsibility of grappling with difficult, ambiguous, provocative texts will be exciting places to teach and learn.

  8. As English is only one of 5 or 6 classes high school students take each day, they currently only “read” literature for 20% of their days. The other 70% should absolutely be informational text in the content areas. English teachers and critics are crying foul and screaming “Atticus, the sky is falling” like scared little Scout in TKM. Alas, they simply can’t “read” the standards.