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Fiction and Nonfiction and CCSS Standards

Some alert readers sent me an article from the Jay Mathew's education column in the Washington Post about the "Fiction v. Nonfiction Smackdown," as he puts it. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a comprehensive set of guidelines for what skills students should have mastered in every grade level and in every academic discipline, have increasingly begun to emphasize nonfiction over fiction reading, particularly in high school English Language Arts curricula. The result, they say, will be to improve students' ability to do the type of reading they'll need to do in college and the workplace.

Opponents of this policy are vocal in their criticisms. First, they say, English teachers have not been trained to implement curricula that are so heavy on nonfiction and so light on fiction; most high school English classes are still structured around reading certain canonical works of fiction (Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, plays by Shakespeare) and poetry. Second, the comprehension and analytical skills students develop through reading the literature aren't restricted to English class; they can be applied to any other type of reading and studying students will do in the future. And third, these critics point out, the onus should be upon science and history teachers to provide nonfiction documents.

I'm inclined to agree with these critics. I don't think reading nonfiction is the only way to develop strong analytical skills, and in fact, I feel I owe my own relative academic and professional success to the strength of my high school's English curriculum, in which we read almost exclusively fiction--that is, fiction of incredible depth and complexity. I remember reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in 11th grade, and James Joyce's Dubliners in 12th. At the time, I knew there were aspects of both those books that were over my head--in truth, there probably still would be today--and yet, I still consider my education experience to have been stronger for puzzling over them.

When I asked my students what they thought of adding more nonfiction to the English curriculum, they groaned. I asked them why, and they told me nonfiction is "boring." I asked them what they thought I meant by nonfiction, and they muttered something about the Document Based Questions they have to answer in history classes. Then again, they also complain periodically that whatever we're reading in class (currently Lord of the Flies, next either Animal Farm or Julius Caesar) is boring, and much of that is fiction. And in the spring term, we usually read Night--a Holocaust memoir by Elie Wiesel, which is about real-life events and thus technically nonfiction--which they all like just fine. So that's probably not a good litmus test for the utility of teaching either fiction or nonfiction.

Rather, I think the deficits in comprehension and analysis that need addressing aren't solvable at the high school level; they date back to childhood, where students simply aren't developing the necessary baseline skills in vocabulary and reading comprehension to tackle high school level reading, or anything beyond that. This once again brings us to the question of accountability for these skills, not only on the part of teachers, but on the part of families, who have the opportunity to foster a literary environment in the home.

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