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Reading for Pleasure

One of the criticisms of the Common Core State Standards is that it places too much emphasis on non-fiction at the expense of fiction. As a former English teacher, I can understand the concern of my colleagues. But there is another side of the controversy that warrants comment.

In 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts published a study showing a dramatic drop in reading for pleasure among young people ("The Young and the Bookless," The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 26). As most teachers will acknowledge, affective outcomes are as important as cognitive outcomes. This is certainly the case for English teachers. They don't want their students to pass their literature class but never pick up a book again.

Yet the assumption is that only fiction will imbue students with a lifelong love of reading. That's simply not true. Students can develop a lifelong passion for reading through non-fiction as well. In fact, I submit that if one of the goals of an English class is to help students learn to write clearly and effectively, non-fiction is far more useful. Browse through any newspaper or magazine. With the exception of The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper's, for example, fiction is virtually non-existent. Reportage, op-eds, editorials, and letters to the editor are the coin of the realm.

I make one exception to my argument. If English teachers want their students to develop an appreciation for great fiction and develop the ability to write fiction, then it behooves them to place sufficient emphasis on both. That's because reading and writing are inextricably linked. The same advice holds true for those teaching creative writing, as the term is used in most high schools. It's not that non-fiction writing doesn't fall into the creative category. The Pulitzer Prize should make that abundantly clear, witness its list of non-fiction awards. Nevertheless, creative literature and creative writing continue to be associated almost exclusively with fiction in the minds of most people.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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