We all have heard that the Common Core ELA Standards specify more non-fiction reading skills than state ELA standards appeared to do. In a workshop I attended on Implementing the Common Core, the presenter stated that approximately 70% of what students read at school should be non-fiction. Here it is a little bigger.
There’s nothing wrong with this, except I’ve already seen it misapplied two different ways:
- My friend teaches middle school social studies. This year, her time with students will shrink from five periods a week to only four periods a week, so that ELA teachers can teach an extra period to accommodate all of the non-fiction requirements. WHAT?! My friend teaches social studies. They do almost nothing BUT read, discuss, and respond to non-fiction in her class!
- I know an English teacher who has been very concerned about properly implementing Common Core in her classroom as quickly as possible. This year students will only read two novels in her class instead of four, in order to accommodate two new non-fiction reading units. There is precious little creative writing in her curriculum plans, because, apparently, she has to focus on building her students’ non fiction skills.
Why, at this moment, are schools and teachers making rash decisions, instead of making the appropriate push to teach and practice reading across content areas? Students actually read almost nothing but non-fiction in every class throughout the day, except ELA.
Here are some sensible ways to make sure students are getting a strong daily dose of non-fiction, both in and out of ELA class.
Support content area teachers in establishing solid reading practices in their classes.
- Read, recommend, or create a book group around Cris Tovani’s important book, Do I really have to teach reading? on applying reading strategies and structures in any discipline.
- Many content area teachers include tons of reading in their courses. Have them share how they do this!
- Have all content area teachers (as well as ELA teachers) monitor how much time they allow for students to actually read (whether silently, aloud, in partners, or by listening) in their classes. For teachers who feel uncomfortable assigning their students reading tasks, provide support! Use those PD funds! Or pair them with teachers who have this skill set to work together during all that PD time.
- Don’t go crazy! Social studies and science should still include plenty of hands-on investigations and group work. Social studies, math, and even science curricula should be peppered with small doses of poetry and fiction.
Embed non-fiction reading in a literature-based ELA classroom.
- My students are reading novels at most points during the year. But I’ve begun regularly including complementary non-fiction articles and books in these units. For exanple, I find students are extremely motivated to read articles about the life of an author whose novel they are reading, intrerviews with the author, or articles and autobiographical pieces by the author.
- I’ve included excerpts of literary criticism that allows students to view the literature we’re reading from another angle. I tell them, “This stuff is really nerdy and difficult! See what you can make of it!” And they do. Their interest is piqued by the challenge. I have them read a chunk with a partner. On chart paper, they must write down 2-3 things they think the writer is saying, and a comment, reaction or question in response to each one. The discussions that come out of this exercise are fascinating.
- I also introduce students to articles that relate to a topic or theme from literature we’re reading. This can work whether we’re reading a novel, poetry, or any other litarary form. Sometimes these are required in class assignments and other times they are optional extensions. When we were reading When you reach me by Rebecca Stead, which includes an element of time travel, riffing on A wrinkle in time, the collaborative team teacher I worked led interested students to read non-fiction books about the theoretical possibilities of time travel from a science perspective. It was wildly successful for those who chose to participate.
- Non-fiction can provide important background information for students when reading literature that takes place in unfamiliar settings. When we read Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian, which takes place mostly on a reservation in Washington State, I had my NYC students read articles about the conditions on reservations across the country today. At the same time, students were studying Native American history in their social studies class. Their motivation to engage both with the fictional elements of the book and the realities of the history and modern day reality were impressive.
Please let’s not rob students of a well-rounded education just because the Common Core seems to have added some new focal points to literacy instruction, making it seem like there’s “more to cover.” Collaborate across disciplines instead.
Finally, from the Common Core State Standards Initiative site:
Myth: English teachers will be asked to teach science and social studies reading materials.
Fact: With the Common Core ELA Standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary non-fiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.