The nonfiction revolution

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By Connie Matthiessen

Nonfiction and the Common Core Standards

The importance of nonfiction reading and writing is a theme that runs through education standards that have been adopted 46 out of 50 states (note: the state of Minnesota adopted the English Language Arts but not the math standards).

The Common Core State Standards decry the paucity and poor quality of the current reading curricula: "…students today are asked to read very little expository text — as little as 7 and 15 percent of elementary and middle school instructional reading, for example, is expository…Worse still, [this reading is] too often of the superficial variety that involves skimming and scanning for particular, discrete pieces of information; such reading is unlikely to prepare students for the cognitive demand of true understanding of complex text.”

In contrast, the Common Core Standards calls for a shift in the balance of fiction to nonfiction as children advance through school. According to the CCSS guidelines, by the end of 4th grade, students' reading should be half fiction and half informational. By the end of 12th grade, the balance should be 30 percent fiction, 70 percent nonfiction across all subject areas.

Write all about it

The nonfiction revolution isn’t limited to reading but extends to writing as well. According to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP)'s 2011 National Report Card, only one-quarter of U.S.12th graders write at a proficient level, and only three percent write at an advanced level.  As a result, many kids arrive at college with poor writing skills.

The reason for the writing deficit isn't a mystery: kids simply aren't getting enough writing experience in elementary, middle and high school. NEAP researchers found, for example, that 41 percent of eighth through twelfth graders had less than a page of writing homework a week.

So if your child is accustomed to "What I did over my summer vacation" and “My favorite animal,” assignments, the increased writing demands may come as a surprise. The Common Core Standards put emphasis on nonfiction writing, including explanatory and persuasive writing, as well as writing across subject areas – including science, social studies, and math.

“We know that writing helps kids learn,” says Carrie Heath Phillips, a program director for the Council of Chief State Officers. “Kids should be doing more writing in all subject areas, including science and social studies. And not just a paragraph here and there, but regular writing in all their classes." (See writing samples for fourth and fifth grades.)

If all this sounds like your child is about to be hit by a ton of encyclopedia-inspired assignments, hold your fire. Though there’s plenty of consensus about the importance of nonfiction reading and writing, exactly how and when it will affect your child’s classroom remains to be seen. Many schools and districts today have been hit hard by revenue cuts, and will have to balance the new Common Core guidelines with other budget demands.

In the meantime it can’t hurt to add some facts to your child’s fairytales. After all, nonfiction isn’t about limiting their imagination, but opening their minds to the world of learning, wherever it resides. 

6 ways to spark your child's nonfiction reading and writing:

  • Pursue the passion: Get books that encourage your child’s interests.
  • More is more: Offer lots of nonfiction reading material – from books and magazines to newspapers and atlases.
  • Be the bookworm: Read a broad range of fiction and nonfiction, and talk about what you read.
  • Reality check: Talk about connections between what your child is reading and events in the news.
  • Reasons to write: Suggest new writing projects — from letters to grandma, to keeping a diary, to penning a play for the neighborhood kids.
  • Get the lowdown: Ask your child's teacher if your child’s reading list includes any nonfiction texts. If not, why not?

Connie Matthiessen is a San Francisco writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, Health, San Francisco, WebMD, and other publications. She has three children (who provide a close-up perspective on great and not-so-great schools) and two chubby cats.