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.