What Should Children Read? Less Literature, More Nonfiction?

From an opinion piece by Sarah Mosle in the New York Times-

"...the Common Core dictates that by fourth grade, public school students devote half of their reading time in class to historical documents, scientific tracts, maps and other “informational texts” — like recipes and train schedules. Per the guidelines, 70 percent of the 12th grade curriculum will consist of nonfiction titles. Alarmed English teachers worry we’re about to toss Shakespeare so students can study, in the words of one former educator, “memos, technical manuals and menus.” David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”"

The suggested compromise- literary nonfiction. What do you think kids should be reading, especially for the purposes of improving their writing skills?



686 reads
Charlie's picture

That's a very interesting question, Susan. I don't have an answer. But I do wonder if part of this stems from an inability of adults to appreciate literature. Literature doesn't have to be merely entertainment; the best literature invites ongoing reflection into the realest parts of reality. The issue seems to me to be not so much what gets read, but how things get read. Now, I'm also a fan of a great books style curriculum, but that curriculum is still going to have a decent amount of fiction in it. I speak as a hypocrite, since I generally read only 2 or 3 fiction books per year out of the about 200 books I read.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Susan R's picture


I agree that both what is read and how it is read are essential components of increasing comprehension and appreciation, as well as writing skills. As you said, the best literature doesn't depart from reality, it resonates with it. The small distance that fiction creates from 'life as we know it' often allows us to contemplate hard issues we otherwise avoid.  

Genre fiction is often dismissed as populist tripe, but there is plenty of genre fiction that is well-crafted and thought-provoking. Science fiction and even horror are often dismissed by critics as low-brow schlock, but some of it stands right up to the classics and smacks 'em down with deeply drawn characters, and explorations and sights into the human condition. But it takes time to teach kids how to deconstruct fiction into its components of theme, metaphor, symbols, etc... Most parents don't know how to do this, and quite frankly, very few teachers can do it without a TE to spoonfeed them.

The author of the article advises that as schools adopt the Common Core Standards, they don't stop at infusing the curriculum with nonfiction, but with well-written and compelling literary non-fiction. 

What Tom Wolfe once said about New Journalism could be applied to most student writing. It benefits from intense reporting, immersion in a subject, imaginative scene setting, dialogue and telling details. These are the very skills most English teachers want students to develop. What’s odd is how rarely such literary nonfiction appears on English — or other class — reading lists. In addition to a biology textbook, for example, why can’t more high school students read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”?

I realized after reading this article that the reading lists I gave my kids this year are about 70% literary nonfiction and 30% fiction. They read plenty of fiction on their own, but they have grown to enjoy literary nonfiction almost as much as fiction. A couple of the books mentioned in the article, The Tipping Point, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, are on their reading list, as well as Hiroshima by John Hersey, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, and The Great Bridge by David McCullough. 

I think the inclusion of a significant amount of literary nonfiction is a good idea, but to become better writers and communicators, kids have to practice writing and communicating. This seldom takes place in a traditional classroom, with the emphasis on teaching to a list of standards for testing.

I just finished Write Like This by Kelly Gallagher. Most parents would sell their souls to have teachers like him mentoring their kids, but very few schools are able to find and keep talented, dedicated teachers. 

I don't read as much fiction as I used to, and now I read it more for purposes of reviewing than relaxation. My personal ratio is also about 70% nonfiction to 30% fiction. I tend to read books about books and authors, and reviews from sources like the NYT and Publisher's Weekly, as well as a few good book blogs/podcasts. I sometimes wonder what my reading life will be like when I'm done homeschooling.