How to Change Reading and Writing by Sundown

by Robert Pondiscio
November 2nd, 2011

The Common Core is one of the biggest stories in American education right now, and has been woefully undercovered in the press,” writes Dana Goldstein. To her mind (and I agree) the “potentially most controversial recommendation” embedded in CCSS is its insistence on balancing the amount of fiction and nonfiction studied in U.S. schools.  ”Currently, according to [CCSS author David] Coleman, American students are reading about 80 percent fiction and 20 percent ‘informational texts.’” CCSS shifts the balance to 50/50, in order to “better approximate the kinds of reading and writing students will be expected to do in college and eventually in their careers.”

Goldstein applauds the shift noting, “I have written in the past about the problem of American teens not reading and writing serious non-fiction.”

“If I’m skeptical of any part of this effort, it’s probably the strong belief, voiced by advocates like Coleman and [Laura] Solver, that high-quality assessments will drive states, schools, and teachers to faithfully implement these new standards. There’s a long history in American education reform of believing that better tests will lead to better schools and deeper learning; as authors like Nick Lemann and Herbert Kliebard have demonstrated, that isn’t usually the case.”

I’m slightly less skeptical than Goldstein. High-stakes assessments certainly do change practices, even if those changes don’t always impact outcomes. That said, I’ve long felt that if you really want to see a change –and create a boom in close reading and academic writing–the single best strategy would be to get colleges to stop asking for personal essays and demand instead at least two pieces of teacher-graded academic writing as part of the application process. If getting into a competitive college did not turn an applicant’s ability to churn out 800 words on “how you’ve grown as a person” or “the most difficult challenge in your life”–if instead you had to demonstrate your ability to engage in close reading and textual analysis–the change would occur overnight.

It has often been observed that the best way to change public education would be to make private schools illegal.  This might be the second best way.


  1. I’d be skeptical based on the fact that the amount of fiction/non-fiction is a question of curriculum, not standards, and I’ve seen no evidence that the current fiction/non-fiction reading balance has anything to do with the current standards themselves.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — November 2, 2011 @ 9:12 am

  2. I, too, am skeptical of high-stakes assessments if only because we don’t know what they are nor do educators (K-12 or college) have much say as to what they should comprise. Would they require an actual analytic piece of writing written by a student that would be evaluated carefully by someone qualified to do so? (If yes, then okay, let’s talk.) Or would such an assessment be a multiple choice test about analytical writing? Or something in between?–which is kind of what we have now with high-stakes writing assessments.

    As for the analytic papers as part of the college application process (versus the personal essay), I like this idea. One question I have, though, is would that merely create an industry, as the personal essay rather has, of tutoring or “helping” college applicants to write analytic papers for the purpose of getting into college, without the students actually doing much of the work themselves? Or would that the incidences of that be relatively low and hence an acceptable trade-off.

    Comment by Rachel Levy — November 2, 2011 @ 10:33 am

  3. My son, not big on self-disclosure, submitted a paper he had written for a class in place of a personal essay. The college was fine with it.

    Comment by JB — November 2, 2011 @ 11:30 am

  4. @Rachel There will always be a subset of applicants (and their parents) who will seek a leg up in the admissions process. But if colleges required academic papers
    graded by teachers I think it would make doing such work a more important part of high school than it is right now (paging Will Fitzhugh!). Sure coaches and tutors would certainly try to cash in as they do now, but it would clearly make academic writing a seminal part of high school. Parents would demand it.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 2, 2011 @ 11:31 am

  5. Just curious. Assuming that it’s true that students read four times more fiction than non-fiction (an assertion that I find questionable), why do you think that is so? Another question: Why do you think teachers don’t assign enough scholarly writing in high school?

    I’m not disagreeing with the idea of requiring a piece of academic writing for college admissions. But if you think that this piece of the admission process will rarely be scammed, you haven’t been reading the news. I also believe there are reasons for colleges to require personal essays: being a “good fit” with a university’s strengths and mission is about more than the ability to analyze and synthesize text.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — November 2, 2011 @ 11:47 am

  6. The fiction/non-fiction mandate seems bizarre to me. My belief is that readers should be allowed to read what interests them and that non-readers should be lured into reading by polling their interests and finding materials that interest them.

    I thought common core was supposed to reduce whole class instruction with everyone doing the same activity (and reading the SAME book) in favor of MORE individualized activities. The reading prescription seems to run counter to this.

    Comment by Retro EdTech Collector — November 2, 2011 @ 11:48 am

  7. Oops, I meant to say “academic” papers not “analytic.” I suppose, also, it would change things if the paper had to be done for a course and graded by a teacher, and not merely produced for the application. Yes, I like this idea. I can see that personal essays end up being so much more about how clever or interesting an individual can be rather than about what they know and how they think.

    Comment by Rachel Levy — November 2, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

  8. @Nancy If you count the number of words read by a high school student in all classes, including math, then readings from textbooks would probably tip the balance from 80/20 more towards nonfiction. However, if you’re talking about reading a full length work of literature, and analyzing it as a whole, then I don’t think it’s 80/20. It’s 99/1, probably. I’d guess that the vast majority of high school students are never assigned a book-length work of nonfiction.

    And, again, I’m not saying you can’t “scam” a teacher-graded work of nonfiction analysis. I thought I was clear, but I’ll be clearer: I really don’t care how it effects college admissions. But if the requirment were to turn in academic work that demonstrated ability to handle colleege writing, it would create a sea change in K-12 practices, because such academic work would hold the key to college admissions. It would be emphasized because there would be real-world consequences attached to it.

    That strikes me a pretty obvious, frankly.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 2, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

  9. To us Core Knowledge fans, this is old news. E.D. Hirsch wrote about all this at length in “The Knowledge Deficit” in 2006, and even before that in his other books.

    Of course it’s necessary to read a lot of non-fiction to be well informed, and to be able to write coherently. How can anyone express opinions on contemporary topics like Keynesian economics, radical Islam, global warming, health care reform, free speech rights, etc., without knowing a lot of facts that reading fiction won’t provide?

    Frankly, as an avid (and amateur) reader of serious books for the 30+ plus years of my adult life, the emphasis on kids reading fiction strikes me as getting things exactly backward. Once my own knowledge base in history, philosophy, economics, psychology, etc. became much deeper, I’ve been able to make much more sense of serious literature than I did as an adolescent or young adult without that knowledge base (and life experience).

    I don’t want to diminish the importance of good imaginative literature for K-12 kids. But I struggle as a parent over what I should encourage my middle school age kids to read on their own. They read lots of great fiction at their CK school, but I’d like them to do what I did at their ages: read a lot of age-appropriate biographies and other non-fiction.

    Comment by John Webster — November 2, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

  10. “All history is biography” — Goethe

    Comment by Harold — November 2, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

  11. Perhaps college admissions should require both academic, and personal essays. Just a thought.

    Comment by Jenn — November 2, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

  12. @Jenn They could, but frankly, I wonder how the personal essay ever became the standard. What has writing a personal essay to do with anything? Work samples of research papers demonstrate an ability to do college-level work. The personal essay? Not so much.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 2, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

  13. Jenn ” I wonder how the personal essay ever became the standard. ”

    In a commercially-oriented society you have to know how to sell yourself.

    Comment by Harold — November 3, 2011 @ 12:13 am

  14. So, sorry, I misread – that comment should have been addressed to Robert Pondiscio. My apologies.

    Comment by Harold — November 3, 2011 @ 12:26 am

  15. Fiction is by no means less challenging or less important than nonfiction. Increase the nonfiction–in history class–but don’t decrease the fiction, poetry, drama.

    About 80 percent of what I read in high school was fiction, drama, and poetry. I read these works in Latin, French, Greek, Russian, and English. I did not suffer for the emphasis on literature. Nor was I at a disadvantage when it came to reading scholarly or technical texts. I would do it this way again.

    Yes, schools should enhance the curricula across the subjects. No, they shouldn’t treat fiction as a lesser or more trivial sort of reading than nonfiction. And the percentages convey the wrong message. Instead of fretting over percentages, have students read works that will stay with them.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 3, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

  16. I meant, in the first paragraph,

    “… but don’t decrease the fiction, poetry, drama in English class.”

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 3, 2011 @ 10:12 pm

  17. My sense is that the emphasis on fiction comes from thinking of writing as something that’s mainly done in English class, and having English teachers who were English majors in college because they were interested in fiction and fiction writing.

    Comment by Rachel — November 4, 2011 @ 2:50 am

  18. Diana Senechal,

    I agree with you 100%. Poetry is especially important, IMO, because it is rhetoric distilled to its utmost. It has always been a key component of language learning because it sticks in the mind. When I think of the reams of poetry (not all of it “high art” by any means) my grandmother used to know — she was for 30 years an elementary school teacher. She would recite it while we made the bed or washed the dishes. It made the work more pleasant. Poetry is essential to help learn vocabulary. It is fun to learn, as well, and can be recited in chorus, in case people are shy.

    A friend of mine teaches adult ed. She was astonished that her pupils did not know what a valley was, or the concept of altitude. These people could read. They said, now I understand what they mean on the backs of packages when it says “high altitude directions.”

    As far as languages, I also learned a lot of poetry in other languages. They say you do not begin to understand your own language until you can compare it with another. Finland’s emphasis on learning several other languages I am sure must be a reason why they do so well on international achievement tests. A I see it, removing language requirements was the beginning of the end as far as our educational system was concerned.

    Comment by Harold — November 4, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

  19. Harold,

    Yes, indeed! Your mention of “altitude” made me think of Yeats’s “multitude” in the poem “To His Heart, Bidding It Have No Fear”:

    Be you still, be you still, trembling heart;
    Remember the wisdom out of the old days:
    Him who trembles before the flame and the flood,
    And the winds that blow through the starry ways,
    Let the starry winds and the flame and the flood
    Cover over and hide, for he has no part
    With the lonely, majestical multitude.

    The last five lines should be in italics.

    The “Him who trembles” is wonderful, the way it sets you up to wait for the subject of the clause. And then there are the “starry winds”–both impossible and vivid–and the “lonely, majestical multitude,” which change the way one hears the word “multitude.” It isn’t a mob anymore.

    And I like to pronounce “flood” so that it rhymes with “multitude.”

    Yes, this poem has distilled rhetoric and luminosity. It is sad that poetry is often treated as a “something for everyone” affair, like a lunch buffet. Take your pick of poems, find a simile or metaphor, write your own, wipe your hands, and bus your tray.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 4, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

  20. Literature is news that stays news.

    I don’t think younger children need be bothered bother with technical terms such as similes and metaphors, myself, until they are rather older — say, in high school. It is enough to know what the words mean — deeply.

    My friend, whom I mentioned, was teaching about China and Chinese history, but she found she had to start with elementary geographical terms, because her students didn’t understand the words she was using.

    There are so many old songs that have the word “valley” in them, not to mention the Bible, “Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death.”
    It makes me wonder what we have lost when people aren’t familiar simple concepts such as these. When I went to an English school overseas, our second grade the teacher would read us a poem, such as “Who has seen the wind, neither you nor I” and our assignment would be to make a drawing of it, thus making it live in our imagination. My son would do this spontaneously at an early age (four or five) when I sang him a song. This is how children really learn.

    Comment by Harold — November 4, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

  21. As persuasion is at the heart of all communication, I believe there’s no more important skill than that of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. I don’t care if it’s about literature, virtues, theories of war, or the question of whether or not the Romans precipitated their own downfall.

    I teach nothing more important than the skill or organized, articulate argument and persuasion.

    Personal narrative is lovely, truly lovely, and I adore teaching students how to find their unique voice and identify who they are in words, but beautiful description in the absence of the ability to sway others to one’s point of view is empty speech.

    Comment by Jess — November 7, 2011 @ 9:54 pm

  22. I love the idea of having to submit a graded class paper as part of your college admissions application. There is a huge problem right now with kids needing remediation once they get to college despite having fine grades and test scores. Seeing an actual sample of the student’s writing would help you see whether that “A” in English or History really means something.

    Comment by Janice — November 8, 2011 @ 11:26 am

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