by Kathy Short, University of Arizona
One aspect of the Common Core State Standards that has received a great deal of attention is the increased focus on informational texts. The CCSS document calls for 50/50 split between informational and literary texts in kindergarten, gradually increasing to a 70/30 split in high school. This shift in the balance of texts has received praise from those who believe that schools have focused too strongly on literary texts and failed to prepare students for reading the types of informational texts that daily fill their lives in college and in careers. This shift is also seen as important in engaging readers who prefer nonfiction over fiction for their own personal reading. Although there are differing statistics, researchers argue that only 10-15% of the texts read aloud by many teachers in primary classrooms are nonfiction.
Misconceptions about this focus on informational text are plentiful, but the most serious is the belief that fiction or literary texts are no longer valued in schools. A kindergarten teacher in Tucson recently sent home a message to parents, asking them to read informational books on topics such as animals and solar system to their children and noting that some fiction was okay– but only in small quantities. Clearly, this message is an example of a misconception by the school that since informational books are now receiving more emphasis, fiction is thus devalued. This belief is a misunderstanding of the standards, which are an attempt to correct an imbalance, not to establish a new imbalance where kids are not reading enough fiction.
A related misconception is that students should be reading 70% informational texts in their high school English classrooms—definitely not the intention. The 70% relates to the kind of reading that students do across the day in math, science, social studies and other content classes and is a percentage that probably already characterizes most high schools. English teachers are encouraged to use more short informational texts, such as primary sources that can be found on-line and in newspapers to surround their reading of a novel, but not to switch their reading to primarily informational text. In fact, students need to primarily read literary texts in English in order to have the 30% of their day be fiction reading.
A misconception that is embedded in the standards is that fiction consists of narrative text structures–writing that tells a story–while informational texts use expository text structures–writing that explains. This distinction is overly simplistic as fiction and nonfiction both use narrative and expository writing and text structures. A science information book, such as The Tarantula Scientist by Sy Montgomery (2004) includes the story of that scientist’s life along with information on tarantulas. Nonfiction books often introduce readers to the community and practices of science and history; they don’t just give facts. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Septetys (2011) is a powerful novel about a fictional family’s struggle to survive when they are sent to a work camp in Siberia, but also includes information about Stalin’s invasion and policies in Lithuania. The difference is that informational books are about reality and the events, people, places, and ideas are not made up, while anything can be made up in fiction writing.
So what does this emphasis mean for global children’s and adolescent literature? One issue is that the vast majority of literature available in the U.S. that is written by insiders from specific global cultures is fiction, with some memoirs and biographies, only one type of nonfiction. Very few informational books are translated or imported from global cultures into the U.S. Informational books written by U.S. authors but set in global cultures are more available, but are clearly a small percentage of the large number of informational books published annually for children. Teachers who want to use global informational texts will need to make extensive use of the internet. The Library of Congress provides access to primary sources and Primary Source, has on-line curriculum units with documents and photographs.
An imbalance of literary and informational text in global inquiries is highly problematic. Using only informational texts can perpetuate a tourist perspective of gaining facts that remain on the surface of a culture without a deep understanding of the lives and values of people within that culture. Fiction immerses readers in character’s lives and thinking and allows them to experience that culture and to create caring relationships. Stories that are authentic representations of cultures allow students to live through the characters and go beyond superficial understandings of culture. Literature can help children see how people within that culture actually think and believe and how they view their world. They can see how their own lives and needs for belonging and safety connect in fundamental ways with children in another part of the world as well as what makes those children’s lives and ways of thinking unique and distinctive.
An exclusive use of fiction is also problematic in global inquiries. Story provides a single point of view, one family or character, while nonfiction develops an understanding of the extent of an issue or problem in our world. Nonfiction provides definitions, terminology, and facts to make the issues real–not just an interesting story, but something actually happening in the world. Through story, students understand the human emotions and struggles related to issues, and, through nonfiction, they explore the broader world context of those issues.
At Van Horne Elementary School, we found that students engaged in an inquiry about hunger needed both stories and informational texts to understand this global issue (Thomas & Short, 2009). They needed to explore the extent of the problem of hunger, especially since most had not experienced hunger themselves. Hunger affects many people in the world and the results are dire, going far beyond the stomach rumblings that our students associated with being hungry. We noticed that the characters in fiction usually found solutions to hunger that did not reflect the realities of on-going chronic hunger. Informational texts helped students develop an understanding of the extent and severity of the problem and the lack of easy solutions, along with a recognition that the problem exists in their own community as well as around the world. Story humanized the numbers. Through story, they came to feel empathy and sympathy for those who go hungry and, through information about the extent and causes of problem, they came to feel the need to get involved and be socially responsible.
John Dewey (1938) argued that we live in an either/or society and so often swing from one extreme to another. We need to avoid those dichotomies and instead look for ways to balance and integrate these various dimensions in new ways instead of setting up oppositions. Fiction versus nonfiction and literary versus informational text are examples of false oppositions that can have negative consequences for students as readers and human beings.
Dewey, J. (1938): Education and experience. New York: Collier.
Montgomery, Sy. (2004). The Tarantula Scientist. Photos Nic Bishop. New York: Houghton.
Sepetys, Ruta. (2011). Between Shades of Gray. New York: Philomel.
Thomas, Lisa & Short, Kathy (2009). Integrating fiction and nonfiction texts to build deep understanding. WOW Stories, 1(3).
Please visit wowlit.org to browse or search our growing database of books, to read one of our two on-line journals, or to learn more about our mission.