A+ Advice for Parents

Common Core Encourages Shift to Nonfiction Reading

Q: One thing I don't like about the Common Core is that it removed fiction from the curriculum. I'm a liberal arts graduate who loves reading fiction books each night to my children. What's wrong with that?

A: There's nothing wrong with that -- keep it up. But one evening after the kids are in bed, read up on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) at corestandards.org. You'll learn that you're wrong. The Common Core provides for plenty of fiction reading. But it also encourages a shift in emphasis to nonfiction -- educators like to refer to it as "informational texts" -- especially in the higher grades.

"There is extensive research establishing the need for students to leave high school with much more proficiency in reading complex informational text -- nonfiction -- about real people, places and events," says educator Matt Gross, co-founder of Newsela, a daily news website for kids that offers high-interest nonfiction articles at five levels of complexity.

"One CCSS goal is to get students ready for college and careers," Gross explains. "Unless you're a literature major, a high percentage of college reading is nonfiction in every subject area. And as adults, most of what we read in our careers requires being able to comprehend informational text.

"Being a strong nonfiction reader requires different comprehension skills than fiction. Nonfiction texts such as autobiographies, biographies, essays, almanacs, research papers, maps, graphs and charts require readers to think critically, analyze, interpret and evaluate data and opinions."

Many elementary teachers pair fiction and nonfiction to teach content and concepts. This is especially true in elementary life sciences, where "hands-on" lessons aren't always feasible, safe or effective, says Melissa Stewart, co-author with Nancy Chesley of "Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction and Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2" (Stenhouse Publishers, 2014).

In a first-grade lesson on how animals protect themselves, they pair Leo Lionni's book "Swimmy" (Dragonfly Books, 1973), a fictional tale about a small fish who hatches a plan to stay safe in the ocean, with "What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You?" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, 2001), a captivating explanation of how animals protect themselves by noted science author and illustrator Steve Jenkins.

Teachers love it when parents add nonfiction into their reading choices at home. Choose books by authors with a true passion for their subjects, who can write authoritatively and imaginatively.

For example, award-winning science writer Sandra Markle, author of more than 200 children's books, went to the ends of the Earth -- Antarctica -- to research her book on penguins! Michael Patrick O'Neill travels the planet to take his eye-popping deep-sea photography. His goal? To get kids to read, write and discuss ocean science and conservation.

As students move up the grades, they'll find more nonfiction in all subjects. Passages in the 2009 fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress test were split evenly between fiction and nonfiction. The eighth-grade test contained 45 percent fiction and 55 percent nonfiction; by 12th grade, the ratio was 30/70.

The Common Core doesn't sell fiction short, says Newsela's Gross. "Instead, it expands students' abilities to read nonfiction genres that are so important to succeed in life."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

More like A+ Advice for Parents