Balancing the Common Core: The truth about informational text

By August 13, 2013 Blog, Common Core 2 Comments

While driving the other day, the talk on the radio shifted to the Common Core State Standards—specifically, the requirement that 70 percent of student reading be non-fiction by the end of high school. “What great literature will be tossed aside in favor of bus schedules and how-to manuals?” the host and callers wondered with alarm. This wasn’t the first time that I’d heard this Common Core recommendation misinterpreted and overblown.

What they—and others—have missed is the footnote on the bottom of page 5 in the standards: “The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings.” Most high school students have always been required to do a significant amount of reading in non-language arts classes. When you consider that the 70 percent includes reading in all subject areas, it doesn’t sound nearly as earth-shattering.

Further, ELA state standards, instructional materials, state assessments, and NAEP have been moving to include more informational texts for many years, so it is not all that surprising to see a greater balance between literature and informational texts in the Common Core, particularly for the middle and high school grades.

Another concern about the Common Core’s emphasis on informational texts is the fear that “bus schedules” will replace great literature in our classrooms. This fear is also not new, though it may have some merit. A federal tax form that found its way into my local state assessment for reading comprehension some years ago was the cause of much angst in the teachers’ lounge for years afterward.

While I cannot speak to the types of reading passages that may appear on Common Core assessments, I can say with confidence that the Common Core does not mandate the reading of bus schedules or tax forms in curriculum. Rather, the standards have called for rich primary documents, engaging “literary non-fiction,” and complex informational texts that support deep student learning across the curriculum and prepare them for college and career.

While you will find reference to “technical texts, including directions, forms, and information displayed in graphs, charts, or maps” in the standards for grades K–5 (p. 31), it is up to teachers and local districts to make decisions about the texts students read and to embed them within units of instruction that make their use purposeful. I believe that there are many functional texts that meet the expectations of the standards text complexity model that will also engage students in topics that interest them across the curriculum.

While the push for more informational texts is not really new, the standards’ emphasis on literacy instruction across subject areas and the quality of student reading materials in those areas is. Have you read any social studies textbooks recently? I don’t recommend them as exemplars of informational writing. Social studies and science teachers will need to identify and incorporate complex texts into their curriculum, and what is likely to be most challenging is that they need to be able to scaffold that reading with text-specific supports when needed.

Embedding literacy instruction within science, social studies, and other subjects is likely to be a real change and the real challenge of the Common Core’s emphasis on informational text—though it may make for a less alarming debate.

2008_RyanA former English language arts teacher, Susan Ryan is a standards consultant at McREL and co-author of Common Core quick-start guides published by ASCD on English language arts and mathematics standards at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

2 Comments

  • Caitlin H. says:

    I teach younger students. As an elementary school teacher, I have found that my textbooks have more non-fiction stories and articles within them. My students find non-fiction difficult to read. I believe it is important for younger students to be exposed to the different elements of non-fiction text so that they can be successful in their later years of education. I understand that much of the informational text the students are exposed to is cross curricular, however, it is important that the students be taught about how to read this genre of text. Thinking back to my childhood, I do not recall a time that I was taught how important a caption can be to an article.

  • Megan W. says:

    I am a middle school teacher, and as the other commenter stated, I find that most of our reading has fiction and non-fiction pieces paired together. For example, a fictional story about Pompeii is paired with a scientific report regarding volcanic eruptions and a newspaper article about excavation in Pompeii. I find it beneficial allow students to pick the order they would like to read to texts. Students are more likely to start with the type of text they are interested in and find easier to understand, which then makes the other texts easier for them to understand.
    I think you highlighted a good point that this reading should be done across all content areas. Language Arts teachers can make this easier for other teachers by teaching students different strategies to tackle non-fiction texts (and allowing the opportunity for practice), but we should still have the time to focus on classic literature.

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