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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