By Connie Matthiessen
“Mom will you read to me?”
For a decade and a half I’ve been responding to this question with stacks of books for each of my three children. My kids grew up alongside Harry and Hermione at Hogwarts, and Laura Ingalls Wilder on the Western plains.
We burned through A Wrinkle in Time, Treasure Island, and the Inkheart series, and — much to my chagrin — scoured every page of those Magic Tree House books. But there’s one kind of writing that we rarely read, one that experts now recommend every teacher and parent take special pains to make a part of their children’s education.
Call it the nonfiction revolution. Where children's reading and writing has mostly been composed of make believe — fairytales and talking animals and, as teendom approaches, overwrought coming-of-age dystopias — now educators. impelled by new educational standards, are extolling the importance of factual, informational reading.
Why nonfiction? Schools have always taught geography as well as literature, and science along with Shakespeare, but this mix of fiction-focused literacy with a little bit of reading and writing in other subject areas has produced spotty results. Many colleges have discovered that incoming freshman may be able to compute a math problem or analyze a short story but they can’t read a complex non-fiction text or write a well-researched essay.
Indeed, a 2006 report found that only half the high school students who took the ACT exam were ready for college-level reading (numbers were even lower for African American, Hispanic, and Native American students, and those from low-income families). To remedy this education gap, experts are recommending focusing on informational texts earlier — including nonfiction books, newspapers, magazines, atlases, and other reference materials — and teaching the building blocks of non-fiction writing earlier as well.
With so many distractions competing for our children’s time it can feel like a victory to get your child to simply open a book — any book. But recent research on education outcomes reveal that what kids read is equally significant. In order to create a foundation for later learning, educators now agree that students should begin reading informational texts in all subjects from the earliest grades.
These conclusions represent a growing awareness of what our education system is failing to provide high school graduates. Some 20 percent of students who go to four year colleges and 40 percent who go to community college have to take remedial courses. This lack of college readiness, in turn, contributes to the high dropout rate among college freshman — a staggering 30 percent, by some estimates.
"The clearest differentiator in reading between students who are college ready and students who are not is the ability to comprehend complex texts," the ACT researchers concluded.
The global economy has also been cited as a reason to emphasize non-fiction. “Research shows that workplace reading has become more complex in recent years," says Lisa Cebelak of the Leadership and Learning Center, a consulting division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. "Jobs that demand low reading and writing skills are being sent overseas, so even entry level workplace jobs now demand higher level reading skills."
Some experts argue that non-fiction reading teaches kids how to develop more complex thinking. In his article “Too Dumb for Complex Texts,” Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein explains why this type of reading is so demanding — particularly for kids growing up in an age of distractions: “Complex texts require a slower labor. Readers can’t proceed to the next paragraph without grasping the previous one, they can’t glide over unfamiliar words and phrases, and they can’t forget what they read four pages earlier…Complex texts force readers to acquire the knack of slow linear reading.…”
The importance of nonfiction reading and writing is a theme that runs through new 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.
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 new Common Core Standards put new 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.
Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you more
insights to help you help your child succeed.
Thank you! You will begin to receive newsletters from us shortly.
Great work! Only one more step. Now we just need you to verify your email address. Please click on the link in the email we just sent you to complete your registration.
Great work! Only one more step. Now we just need you to verify your email address. Please click on the link in the email we just sent you to submit your review.
Please click on the link in the verification email we just sent you to complete your change of email address.
Whoops! It looks like we still need to verify your email. To do so, please click on the link in the email we sent you. Can't find the e-mail? Click the button below and we'll send you a new one.
Thanks for registering. Welcome to GreatSchools, the largest online community committed to improving educational outcomes through parental involvement.
Thanks for verifying your updated email address.
Oops! You haven't verified your email address yet. To do so, please click on the link in the email we sent you. Can't find the email? Click the button below to receive a new one.
Oops! That email verification link has expired. Please click the button below to receive a new one.
Create an account to submit your answers.
Sign in with an existing GreatSchools account or using Facebook:
Your review has been posted to GreatSchools.
Share with friends! Post your opinion of on Facebook.
Welcome to GreatSchools!
For principals and school officials, we offer a special Enhanced School Profile (ESP) which allows you to update and add information about your school, as well as respond to reviews. If you are a school official, click Continue to start.
Please note that it can take up to 48 hours for your comment to be posted to our site. While you're here, we'd like to invite you to fill out a survey on your school's programs, activities, and extracurriculars. It only takes a few minutes and will help parents get a full picture of your school.
Get started now! You have successfully registered and can now start updating your Official School Profile. The information you provide is extremely valuable in helping parents and students learn more about your school, so thanks for taking the time!
Thank you for registering as a school leader. We just need to verify your email address. We've sent you an email - please click on the link in that message to get started editing your school's information!
Thanks! We just sent you an email – please click on the link in the email to post your answers.
Get timely updates for , including performance data and recently posted user reviews.