Nonfiction crowding out the classics? Another Common Core debate

The Common Core education standards have elicited a national debate that extends well beyond the classroom — touching a wide range of fears, from a federal takeover of local schools to government use of databases to collect information on children.

Some critics have focused more narrowly on instruction, arguing that an increased emphasis on reading nonfiction will lead to a reduction in students' exposure to great literature.

Writers of the Common Core standards wanted to see students learn to better analyze and write arguments using primary sources and nonfiction, but doing so means taking time away from something else in the classroom.

The new standards, which took effect this school year, call for students in lower grades to read 50 percent fiction and 50 percent nonfiction — a figure that takes into account texts from all courses. Those nonfiction texts, supporters argue, will be more appealing to boys who have read mostly fiction in their elementary classrooms.

By the time students hit their senior year in high school, the standards call for about 70 percent of their reading, through all courses, to be nonfiction.

The National Council of English Teachers, in its guide to the Common Core, notes that the switch doesn't mean reading good fiction in English classes will be diminished.

Most of the nonfiction will be read in science, social studies and other disciplines, the Common Core standards say, so that doesn't mean that 70 percent of English classes will be devoted to nonfiction.

Kate Hamill, a Catonsville High School English teacher who has written curriculum and taught for decades, said teachers have been moving away from teaching literary texts in recent years.

"We do worry about the reduction of time for literature — fiction, poetry, drama — in new English curricula," she said. "But it's the fact that middle- and high-school students don't any longer read enough challenging nonfiction in their other classes that has forced English to take it on, not the explicit dictates of the Common Core."

Hamill, like most teachers, supports the Common Core. Two recent surveys have shown that the majority of teachers like the new standards, which spell out what students should be able to do by the end of each grade in reading and math.

Still, teachers often are concerned about how their local school systems decide to implement those standards — how well the curriculum is written, what books are chosen and the pace of what they must cover.

Liz Bowie

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