Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Non-fiction vs. Fiction Issue

Since Common Core first shambled onto the education stage, teachers (particularly language teachers) have sounded the alarm about the infamous 70/30 split between fiction and non-fiction. "We'll have to drop studying Shakespeare to make room for reading instructions for IKEA shelving assembly," goes the complaint.

As a high school English teacher, I'm not very concerned about this requirement of the Core. If it's something that troubles you, I have a suggestion for how to deal with it.

Ignore it.

Seriously. First, the 70/30 split is supposed to represent the student's entire program, so you can legitimately count on every other class in the student's schedule to provide the non-fiction content. Second, this split is part of what I call the unenforced content of the Core.

The 70/30 split is like collaboration-- sure, it's in the CCSS, but if you don't do it, then.... what? Someone from the US/Pearson Dept of Ed will stop by the room to look at you sternly? [Edit-- yeah, I know. In some places, teachers have already lost control of their own teaching and are required to stick to the script. That does raise this issue to a whole new level, and I'm sorry if you are stuck in such a place, because that sucks hugely. I was writing this post for the people who are still arguing about the issue, and I jumped to the assumption that where there is an argument, there are still options.]

I mean, if the 70/30 split were coming from a group of educational experts who had done extensive research and determined that there will be real education benefits for students from a 70/30 split, then I would look at it long and hard and think about ways to incorporate it into my practice. But the 70/30 split, like the rest of the ELA standards came from a bunch of civilians-- most particularly one guy who has fewer educational credentials than my last student teacher and no research to back up his personal choices. The 70/30 split recommendation carries no more weight than the guy who stops me in the grocery store to suggest that I need to have my students read more books about hunting, cause he likes hunting. I'm going to go ahead and use my best professional judgment to select readings (both fiction and non) based on what will best serve the educational needs of my students, thanks.

If your administration is really sold on the 70/30 split, just keep asking why. Other than David Coleman put it in the CCSS because he thinks it's a good idea, what sound educational basis can your admins point to as support for the split?

Of course, you'll likely find yourself back at the Ultimate Justification for all educational choices these days-- we need to get ready for The Test.

And that brings us to the real problem with CCSS reading.

I am not nearly as worried about the emphasis on non-fiction as I am in terrible, short, context-free, boring-as-hell excerpt reading, which is what is actually on the test and consequently what is being fobbed off a "close reading" when in fact it is some sort of twisted hybrid-- Close Reading 2.0.

The continued emphasis on short short selections or excerpts, with a special focus on items that students are unlikely to have previous knowledge of (or interest in), presented by teachers who deliberately don't give any sort of background material, as well as an insistence on staying within the four corners of the text-- all of these add up to soul-crushing experiences designed to kill any love of reading.

And that's not even getting the mandate, most damaging at the elementary level, to force students to read grade-level materials, even if those are also frustration-level materials. It doesn't matter to Pat whether it's fiction or non-fiction if it's all Greek.

Again, none of this is designed on a bedrock of research and expertise. Well, reading or teaching expertise. The expertise on display here is test-design expertise, because what we've done with CCSS is define good reading skills as "those reading related skills that can be measured on a standardized test."

This is like declaring that good runners can run a 50 yard dash in six seconds; distance runners are by definition bad runners. Or by decreeing that the only good pets are scaly ones that fit in a showbox.

So don't expect me to get excited about the whole fiction vs. non-fiction thing. I am far more concerned about the need to, say, do away with reading entire books because we need more time to do our daily one-page-plus-multiple-choice-questions drill for reading test prep, or to just generally teach reading in a manner guaranteed to make students hate it.


  1. Many districts and schools are forcing teachers to assign more informational text and less literature through the mandated curriculum -- and through the tests --so these arbitrary quotas cannot be completely ignored.

  2. Yes, mandated curricula come with a whole set of issues, and this can definitely be one of them.

  3. Sadly, Leonie describes what is happening across the nation. Bad policies fuel bad policies.

  4. At our training on Friday, we were told that 6th graders should be reading materials with Lexiles between 950 and 1155, which is a bump of at least 100 points. Many books that fall in that range are completely age-inappropriate for 6th graders. Of the 10 stories on the 6th grade exemplar text list in the CCSS, 7 are below that range (with a low of 660), 2 are above (1300) and 1 has no Lexile. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst has a higher Lexile (970) than Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (940). Going solely by Lexile, Night by Elie Wiesel (540) is appropriate for 2nd grade. I was given the party line (preparation for college and career) when I asked for the justification for the bump in levels and completely blown off when I pointed out my concerns about the age-appropriateness.

    1. Lexiles have to be one of the dumbest "tools" to come down the pike in ages.

    2. There are no dumb tools, just dumb uses by ignorant users. All reading level measures are limited and don't begin to be useful until you understand a) how their derived and b) the limits on their accuracy. None of them is designed to be used for making this kind of curricular decision.

  5. Here is a crazy thought. If a HS student is taking the following courses, ELA, Math, US History, Physics, Spanish, Health, PE and Sociology (elective). How do you divide the 70/30? A student would then have non-fiction reading in at least 4 classes with at least some additional non-fiction reading in Math and Spanish. So, it is possible that non-fiction reading could be higher then the 70% meaning what? Schools would have to introduce more fiction in Spanish?

    In NYS, non-fiction is now more then 50% on the released ELA test questions for 3-8 and a significant portion of the ELA regents. So, we are stuck with this for now.

  6. In CA, the Cal States were removed from the remediation business in 2010, with a few narrow exceptions. If incoming freshman could not pass the placement test, which included an essay, they had to attend a CC to remediate. Well before the 2010 deadline, faculty up and down the state got together to discuss how best to proceed. Out of those discussions grew the ERWC (Expository Reading and Writing Course) for high school seniors, which was constructed and piloted with help and input from high school teachers, and eventually adopted by a number of districts, including LA. I had a small role in LA, and taught the class with continuation students. Teachers in 9-11 can read as much fiction, poetry and drama as they pleased, but the ERWC helps students to transition to the expository text that comprises most education post high school. Google it.

  7. Here's what happens with this type of thing. The split is 70/30 upper grade levels; however, it has already found it's way down to K-5. Besides that, the 70/30 split sends a message to teachers, parents, and students. Nonfiction > Fiction. This message come across not just in Reading, but in Writing, too. So, even in a place where you have the freedom to ignore this particular mandate in your English class, the overall message that fiction is not important is still being proclaimed. This type of thinking permeates the standards and the propaganda that sells them. Eventually, after we've convinced students that no one gives a shit about what they think, they'll catch on and realize that if no on cares about what they think, why should they care about what some other person thinks. So, it's not the 70/30 split that necessarily matters so much; it's the thinking and values behind it that are so damaging.

  8. It is insane that there isn't even the most cursory attempt at explaining what this is even supposed to mean. How would one even calculate it? Does your math book count as 300 pages of informational text? Or 1 work? How does that compare to a short story? Or should you count by time? Is every period and hour of homework spent "reading" your math text equivalent to a period of English class or time at home reading literature? Or does this all only apply to things being "close read?" If this was meant to be taken seriously, it would have been explained.

    There was something kind of similar in the old NCEE "New Standards" -- they called for high school students to read something like 25 books or "book equivalents" a year. Whether or not this was a good idea, at least they bothered to spend a paragraph or two explaining what they meant by "books."

    The other difference was that in the New Standards, it was actually an enumerated standard. The CC has dozens of "range of reading" standards, none of which -- NONE -- mention a balance between literary and informational texts. As far as I can tell, nobody has ever explained (or asked, for that matter) why the 70/30 split was not actually included in the enumerated standards.