Does Common Core Overemphasize Non-Fiction?

In an interesting editorial for the New York Times online, Sara Mosle takes up the debate around one of the key shifts in reading instruction advocated by the Common Core — a shift that calls for much more focus on non-fiction and less emphasis on fictional texts.  This shift has inspired a heated debate, but Mosle believes concerns are misguided.

On one side are the supporters of the new reading initiative. They argue that students currently lack a background in technical material and non-fiction in general — they type of reading that will be most practical to their future careers. For David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, current literacy work in schools focuses too much on personal writing: “It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’”

On the other side are those such as education researcher Diane Ravitch, who wonders “Why does David Coleman dislike fiction?” She fears for the students who will have to learn under the strictures of Common Core: “I can’t imagine a well-developed mind that has not read novels, poems and short stories.”

There has certainly been much argument between the two camps up to this point, despite the fact that, likely, it will not be until the 2014-2015 school year that formal testing connected with Common Core will be implemented.  Up to this point, most states, with the exception of Texas, Virginia, Nebraska, Alaska, and Minnesota, have elected to implement the standards.  By 2015, states that have accepted Common Core will have at least 85% of their curriculum in line with the Common Core Standards.

Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that until now, the only official Common Core Standards that have been created are for English and Mathematics, both of which were released in 2010.  However, since the English standards are officially the English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects Standards, the impact of the standards transcends the ELA classroom and encompasses the reading taking place across subjects.

Under the Common Core guidelines, 4th graders are required to devote half of their reading time in classes to historical documents, scientific tracts, maps and other “informational texts” — like recipes and train schedules. 12th graders will be required to devote 70% of their reading time to non-fiction.  Again, it is essential to keep in mind that this does not mean 70% of reading only in English class; rather this includes social studies, science, and technical subjects as well.

Mosle’s key point is that both of the arguments miss the point that non-fiction does not mean uninspired writing:

A striking assumption animates arguments on both sides, namely that nonfiction is seldom literary and certainly not literature. Even Mr. Coleman erects his case on largely dispiriting, utilitarian grounds: nonfiction may help you win the corner office but won’t necessarily nourish the soul.

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call “narrative nonfiction”: writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways.

Narrative nonfiction also provides a bridge between the personal narratives students typically write in elementary school and the essays on external subjects that are more appropriate assignments in high school and beyond. David Coleman may dismiss self-expression. Yet he recommends authors, like the surgeon and medical writer Atul Gawande, who frequently rely on personal storytelling in their reporting.

For more information, see the original editorial here:

For more information on Common Core, see these links: and