What Should Children Read?

I have a very simple answer to the question of what children should read: Anything they want to.

But what got me thinking about this subject was not the usual overheated article on whether children are reading inappropriate books — which to my mind is a damn sight better than not reading at all — but rather a New York Times piece on new core standards being proposed for reading (and math, but the Times article was much more interested in the one on reading).

Under the proposed standards, fourth grade reading should be divided 50/50 between “literary” and “informational” work, eighth grade reading should be 45 percent literary and 55 percent informational, and high school seniors should devote 70 percent of their reading to informational work.

While this sounds outrageous at first glance, especially to those of us who put substantial value on fiction, there is another important part of these standards: They’re intended for every part of the curriculum except math, meaning that the informational reading would be done in other classes besides English.

That’s not unreasonable — assuming that by “informational” (why can’t they just say nonfiction?) they mean something other than the deadly dull textbooks generally used in those classes — but I still have my doubts about these proposed standards.

It doesn’t help that the first paragraph of the “Common Core Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects” (PDF) is not an example of great writing:

The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in
History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (“the Standards”) are
the culmination of an extended, broad-based effort to fulfill the charge issued
by the states to create the next generation of K–12 standards in order to help
ensure that all students are college and career ready in literacy no later than the
end of high school.

The copy editor in me itches every time I read that sentence.

Ironically, the first paragraph of the math standards (PDF) paper is much better:

For over a decade, research studies of mathematics education in high-performing
countries have pointed to the conclusion that the mathematics curriculum in the
United States must become substantially more focused and coherent in order to
improve mathematics achievement in this country.

It makes me nervous that the people in charge of setting reading and writing standards for education are worse writers than those charged with setting mathematical ones. I’d be willing to bet the reverse isn’t true. Though perhaps the English paragraph was written by a committee of people who all thought they could write, while the math one was delegated to one person who actually could write.

I’m a big believer in the importance of fiction, but I can see the value in exposing kids to well-written nonfiction. “Well-written” is the key, though. The books and essays suggested as illustrative texts in the standards for older kids — which include Walden and the Gettysburg Address — are good choices for history and civics classes, though I noticed they didn’t have any suggestions for science and technical classes. I worry that the actual nonfiction might not be of the caliber of those listed here.

I didn’t recognize any of the nonfiction books suggested as illustrative examples for younger readers, so I don’t know if they’re any good, but they did include science as well as social studies. And they do all sound better than those orange-bound biographies of famous people that were the available nonfiction when I was in elementary school. (I consumed them in much the same manner as I did Nancy Drew books, but I’m not sure they were nearly as “informational”.)

The truth is, I find myself skeptical of such detailed standards related to reading and writing, which probably means it’s a good thing I never became a school teacher. I can see the value more clearly in the math standards, because the basic math that everyone should learn is easier to specify. Reading is more subjective and writing is more diverse.

While I learned everything I know about math from good teachers (God Bless Mrs. Collins), I can’t trace my reading and writing progress quite so clearly. I certainly got more writing instruction from my mother — the world’s best editor — than any teacher and my reading was influenced by the books my parents liked. Eventually I expanded well beyond their tastes.

The author of the Times piece, Sarah Mosle, points out what any writer will tell you: You need to read to learn how to write. She thinks having children read good nonfiction will help them with their essays for school, and mentions Malcolm Gladwell’s observation that he read about 100 New Yorker “Talk of the Town” pieces before he wrote his first one.

I know that’s true. There are two reasons why I’m a good journalist. One, my mother was my first editor on a newspaper and two, I started reading newspapers when I was about five years old.

But that also applies to fiction. Some of the worst stories I’ve read by aspiring authors have come from people who don’t read much fiction. It’s not that you want to copy another author’s style — though most of us do, starting out — but that you need to understand what fiction is before you can write it. And the only way to understand it is to read it.

I’m not convinced these standards are going to solve our national problems with reading and writing, but I hope they do get more teachers to use good nonfiction in their classes. As long as they don’t do it at the expense of the fiction.



What Should Children Read? — 7 Comments

  1. I’m always suspicious of ‘new standards’ but the thing that makes me most suspicious of the promotion of ‘informational’ texts is the lack of interesting, accurate and well written texts aimed at middle & high school students. And textbooks don’t count! When I was in 7th grade I really, really loved physics. And I went to the teacher wanting more stuff to read about physics. She gave me a high school textbook, which was essentially math, and as dull as dishwater. What I would have wanted was something in between Muse Magazine and Brian Greene.

    And students should be reading real academic work as well. Short journal articles that display how argumentation works, and what research actually is are useful. Textbooks are essentially anathema to inspiring people to think. They say – look, here’s all the knowledge you should ever need, memorize it. What people need to hear is – look! Here are all the things we don’t know yet! You should help figure it out!

    So, yeah, I think students should read more informational texts – that do this. Fiction has had to hold up the banner for a long time – dystopians and war stories ask questions about why people act the way that they do. But why not write YA nonfiction too? Informational texts like technical manuals and textbooks? No.

    (Also, where does philosophy lie? It’s not fiction, but is it informational?)

    • Yes, it does sound like there’s little room for philosophy. They mention creative nonfiction as something to be used in English classes, which I do support, but not philosophy (which really doesn’t belong in an English class anyway). Now that you mention it, it’s odd that we don’t incorporate specific classes in philosophy in our secondary school curriculum.

  2. Oooh, I’m not going to get off on my rant about Common Core from the teacher’s perspective, but….let’s just say that while it’s good that this article launched public awareness and skepticism about the Common Core, it’s not a complete picture of what is going on (and Math is not exempt, either, or at least that is what teachers are being told).

    Essentially, rather than necessarily being a complete transformation of the English Language Arts curriculum (the latest, trendiest acronym for English Lit class is ELA), the foundation of Common Core is supposed to be that every content area teacher, including Math and PE/Health, is supposed to be a literacy teacher. Kind of a “duh” notion in many respects, but it’s being codified and imposed from the top down. There’s a kernel of goodness in the idea but the application is…sigh. Somewhat underwhelming. The other piece is that the content in Science, Social Studies, etc, ends up being subordinated to the literacy piece of reading and writing techniques.

    On the good side, Common Core emphasizes “document-based questions” and primary sources. On the not-so-good side, many of those primary source materials I encounter for my Social Studies class (US History, 8th grade) come edited so heavily that they make me wince.

    You said: The truth is, I find myself skeptical of such detailed standards related to reading and writing, which probably means it’s a good thing I never became a school teacher.

    Grin. Actually, you’d be in good company, as many mindful teachers also wince as we pore over these standards and try to apply them to our classes.

    Also, the reason there often aren’t specific classes in philosophy in the secondary curriculum is that the standards we’re supposed to be testing and the race to higher levels of proficiency just simply doesn’t allow space in the curriculum. Allegedly it’s addressed under the category of “teaching critical thinking” but it’s not really prioritized. A sly and savvy teacher can do a lot to introduce basic philosophical concepts but doing so requires a very careful dance.

    • I’m sure this stuff drives many good teachers crazy. I’m just constitutionally unable to keep my mouth shut about the annoying aspects of official standards. Also, I couldn’t do a job where I have to be at my best in front of a room of kids (especially ones that don’t want to be there) every day. The more I think about it, the more I am in awe of teachers. They put up with bureaucratic nonsense like these standards and they also must put on a show and impart knowledge all day every day. Hard work and very underpaid and under-appreciated.

  3. Speaking as a mom, for children there is no bright line dividing line between fiction and nonfiction. The distance between “Land Before Time” and “Big Picture Book of the Cretaceous” is zero. There might be some slight confusion about the data (brontosaurus and stegosaurus contemporaries, yes or no? Do they really sing?) but the dino-mad child rapidly digests it all and in no time is tiresomely pointing out to you everything that is wrong with the movie.
    Teachers, poor things, have to wrestle with this jargon and bureaucracy. Children, with their voracious appetites for information, just sail past it all. Thank heaven, that we cannot ruin them so easily.

  4. When I was young, I was allowed to read anything I wanted. So long I understood what the book was about, it was permitted in my parents’ house. At school – because I was an advanced reader and above the average reading in my class – I was allowed into the senior section of the school library. A lot of children from years 5 – 7 didn’t like it that a year 4 student was reading in their section; but Mrs. Martin couldn’t say anything against me being there. Besides, it encouraged my other school friends to try newer material; to keep up with me.

    Now, today, there’s so much political correctness, so much politeness… so much bulldust about how and what and where and when children should read that it’s becoming a problem. When my niece turned 5 I gave her the whole ‘Faraway Tree’ Series before she could read. She was bummed out because she couldn’t read it; but I said the best thing is to be read to… until she could read the words herself. This got her curious about reading; and she hasn’t stopped. I told her, as she got older, that if teachers won’t tell her the answer to something she’s asked, it’s because they’re scared it might get out of hand… that it might cause problems. The best thing to do is to look it up herself; there’s nothing stopping her. Now, she doesn’t look things up too much on the net, instead she looks up things in books and asks family questions. Teachers are okay, but they don’t give her full answers. And my niece is finding that her reading list at school isn’t as open as the one my brother and I had at school. So, I am tracking down books we read and I’m getting her to read the books we read at school in her spare time… so she can get an idea of what we learned; and she doesn’t feel as though she’s missing out on anything.

  5. I think when we say “kids should read whatever they want” we maybe aren’t considering that some people would include porn and graphic violence in that. I don’t think anyone (that I’d trust to raise a child) would suggest a 7 year old should read “Silence of the Lambs” or would bring in an anthology of erotica for their bedtimes stories.

    There’s an old aphorism: “You are what you eat.” I think that’s even more true of what we put into our heads than it is what we put in out stomachs. Even adults weave mental environments from what they read, watch, listen to. And many of us do it with little or no self-awareness that we’re doing it.

    I’ve had to learn to be aware of how what I ingest affects me. That’s why I don’t go to films like, well, Silence of the Lambs, or Schindler’s List (for very different reasons). Heck, one viewing of The Day the Earth Stood Still and a couple of Outer Limits epis at age 6 had me using a nightlight until I was 15.

    What we read is part of how we build our realities. As an adult, I’ve built up a lifetime of conscious filters that I can snap into place to keep ideas (terrifying, disturbing, addictive) from becoming “mind worms”. Children have no filters. What they read, especially without any commentary to indicate how they should process new information, becomes part of their environment—it gets “normed.”

    My 10 year-old reads at an adult level in terms of decoding, though she’s certainly not in possession of adult emotional maturity (if there is such a thing) or world knowledge. She understands the words, but not the import and what she does understand in more adult works she reads sometimes disturbs her (such as the sexually charged violence in a book targeted to 10-13 year olds.) Fortunately, she’s the kind of kid that asks questions and displays her concern. Not all kids will do that if something they read upsets or confuses them. It’s simply absorbed.

    So, I’m not sure I agree completely that reading “anything” is better than not reading at all.

    Having said that, I think the idea of prescribing certain doses of fiction and non-fiction is an artificial and seemingly arbitrary system. If I were a teacher, I’d be looking for reading material that reflected best what I wanted my kids to focus on. Sometimes a work of non-fiction might fit the bill, sometimes “classic” lit and sometimes popular fiction.

    Honestly, I even object to the fiction reading lists that teachers give out in elementary and secondary schools. It bothered me that my daughter could read A Wrinkle in Time, but not Something Wicked This Way Comes or Shoeless Joe Jackson for credit. Wasn’t the point simply that they read?

    My 10-year-old has a sweet deal with her teacher. She’s allowed to read whatever she wants, then is supposed to write a story of her own based on what she’s read. Then the two of them discuss plot and execution. I’d hate to see some arbitrary system of standards stifle that.

    About the idea of “informational” as opposed to non-fiction. I think it may be used instead of non-fiction to opt in historical fiction or fiction that is informative on subjects under study. And of course, it’s impossible to study literature without actually reading some. The $104,000 question (adjusted for inflation) is: What is literature?