Reading Fiction in Schools

Nancy J. Cohen

Recently I heard that the new core curriculum in schools is going to require 70% of reading assignments be based on non-fiction. I don’t know if this is true or not, as a quick search didn’t provide me with any further information. Nor do I know the grade level for which this would apply. However, it’s a scary thought.

Schools have already stopped requiring students from learning cursive writing. Now they are discarding literature as well?

I’ve always felt education should include popular fiction, in addition to the classics. Let kids choose fun and entertaining books to read, and you might create long-term fans. After all, the commercial fiction of today could become the classics of tomorrow. And look what Harry Potter did for kids’ reading habits. Thanks to that series, a whole generation might have been hooked on reading novels. We need more successes like this one if we are to inspire children to read.

Rather than a wordy tome or dry biography, give them a ghost story or vampire tale or a mystery. Engage their senses with wonder like we were engaged reading Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. Otherwise, where’s the fun? And if an activity isn’t fun for kids, then it’s competing with online sites, games, movies and TV shows that provide easier entertainment.

Having children read a work of fiction and then analyze its components can encourage creative and analytic thinking. Without this benefit, will human imagination still range to other stars, to lands far away, and to adventures beyond the mundane? Or will these same imaginations be stifled because works of fiction were denied them, and they were forced to read boring texts that killed their interest in reading?

So is this true, and if so, how do you feel about it?

18 thoughts on “Reading Fiction in Schools

  1. Nancy, fear not.

    I teach high school British Lit, and the Core Curriculum takes up only a portion of the time I spend teaching each semester. Yes, we’re being required to bring in more non-fic, but it’s to accentuate the fact that essayists’ and philosophers’ writings haven’t been emphasized nearly as much as they should have in the past. This is especially true of American historical non-fic. Also, students can learn a lot more about the craft of organizing and structuring an argument (which helps them prepare for the kinds of informative and persuasive writing they will need to do in upper grades, like mine, and then in college).

    The common core in general is an attempt to push kids harder because so many of them are arriving in high school and–to a degree–college with woefully inadequate skillsets.

    But we still teach fiction, though the curriculum has always put more weight on the classics. However, a lot of teachers like me are taking time to have students engage in SSR (sustained silent reading) at least once or twice a week, for about 20-30 minutes at a time. For SSR, a student has to have something NON-school related, be it popular fiction, a new celeb biography, the latest manga or graphic novel, or even their favorite magazine. I just want them to read something they know they will like in addition to Orwell, Shakespeare, Shaw, and the rest. The more they read, the better they will become at doing so, and if they spend time each week reading something they’ve chosen, they’re more likely to read it on their own time as well.

    Besides, I also teach Advanced Placement Senior English, and if anyone were stupid enough to legitimately try and force me to go 70% non-fic, my AP kids wouldn’t have the background in the classics to be successful on the AP exam. College Board ain’t havin’ that, and the Core Curriculum has no say in my AP Audited, College Board approved syllabus for that class.

    So don’t worry. Even if they try to eliminate fiction all together, we’re smarter than they seem to think we are, and we’ll still do what’s best for our students.

    • Jake, this is gratifying to hear. It’s great that you give your students time to read books or magazines of their choice. As you say, if they choose something they like, they may keep reading it on their own time. Thank goodness for wise teachers who know what’s best for their students!

  2. When I first read your article, I was with you. I was unhappy they were placing too much stress on the non-fiction and what was that going to do for our children’s imaginations and everything? Thinking about it a little bit more, though, and reading Jake’s post, I’m ok with it. Students are coming to college with woefully inadequate skillsets. (Grammar, writing, etc., is a pain point for me. I was a teaching assistant in an Intro to Mass Communication class, for four semesters. The large majority of each class didn’t seem to know how to string a sentence together, let alone write an essay or a paper about something.) Nonfiction will stretch their brains to thinking about how it really was for someone else, like reading biographies or a history-based story. The majority of U.S. people have very short-term memories when it comes to history, so I’m all for reading more real-life stories that might make them think of how it was 30 or more years ago in this country, or how someone else has lived in the past 10 years.

    • Brittany, I’m not opposed to non-fiction. I was just concerned that kids wouldn’t be able to develop a love for fiction if that aspect of an education was squashed. It’s true that much non-fiction can bring a period to life through the writer’s experiences. And the lack of writing skills? That’s another concern.

  3. Maybe because my high school daughter is in a couple higher literature classes, she’s been exposed to such a great variety of books– fiction, a few popular fiction, non-fiction, classics. I’ve not been offended by anything they’ve chosen and since I’m an avid reader, she and I often talk about the books. So far, so good. Mama’s pleased. I haven’t heard any trends to do otherwise, yet.

    • That’s great you and your daughter have a common subject you can discuss. It seems literature brings you together which should make reading extra special to her.

  4. As a teacher in the muddle of this (misspelling intentional), I originally thought the same. However, 70% isn’t correct. There are different recommendations for different age groups but most are 50-50 fiction and non. Reading the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and MLK’s speeches count as non-fiction and we already read those things in schools. So this change affects the elementary grades more. is the official website. I suggest clicking on Resources then scrolling down to the Criteria for Textbook Publishers for a reasonable introduction for authors. It can be hard to locate what you’re looking for so remember to bookmark or save anything important.

  5. BTW, for all your TKZ commenters out there who’ve had trouble posting comments: I finally figured out the problem on my end. You MUST allow third party cookies to be stored on your computer. This is in your browser settings. Even though comments are built-in to Blogspot, part of the process is treated as third party. I’m guessing it’s the new CAPTCHA interface. Anyway, change that setting or add an exception for * and see if commenting works for you again.

  6. I hope it continues to go the teachers above mention. My wife is Korean, it took a lot to get her to encourage the kids to read fiction regularly because the system she grew up with, and continues in Korean education today, frowns on fiction and concentrates only on facts. Those facts usually studied through rote memorization. While the system has been great to help Korean kids get to top of academic lists worldwide, there is little of creativity. That is not to mention the extremely high suicide rate among teens and college students, usually related to the scourge of not getting straight A’s or getting into the college their parents demand. My belief is that this sad trend is due to lack of imagination, when failure is feared the kids are unable to imagine a way out, a life different than that which the facts before them seems to state. Anything less than straight A’s and the best college results in utter failure and there is no alternate ending.

    Lack of imagination can bring tragic results.

    • That’s so very sad, Basil. What a rigid system. They expect kids to excel and yet make them memorize facts instead of teaching them critical thinking and analysis.

      Fiction reading requires imagination, as you say. It also provides an escape from daily life, allows us to mentally travel to distant places, and shows us alternate solutions to problems we all share. It’s a sad state when those students aren’t given this gift.

  7. There’s another reason fiction is important in a student’s life, besides the development of a creative imagination. The best works of fiction contain themes that challenge readers to think about the big issues of the world by engaging them with both heart and mind. The emotional intensity possible in fiction helps develop empathy and compassion, and helps build an individual’s moral code. Think how much more powerful it is to learn about racism through ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, for instance, or about the dangers of totalitarianism in ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984.’ Story-telling is virtually hadr-wired into our brains – it’s the way we interpret the world since earliest times.

  8. As an English teacher, I, too, was concerned about this for all the reasons you raised. Upon looking more closely, though, I discovered that the 70% guideline meant across ALL classes– that includes history and biology texts, research papers, and the whole lot. It will mean adding a few non-fiction texts to English classes, but it won’t mean sidelining novels. Whew.

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