Reading is Believing (And That’s a Problem)

by Robert Pondiscio
August 30th, 2012

When planning class read-alouds as a teacher, I was an unabashed fan of historical fiction.  Christopher Paul Curtis’ Depression-era novel, Bud, Not Buddy; Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, set in Nazi-occupied Denmark; and the 19th century frontier novel Sarah, Plain and Tall were among the books that allowed me to weave history and geography—sorely needed by my inner city 5th graders– into the literacy block.

With Common Core State Standards calling for more non-fiction in literacy instruction, mixing more academic content into ELA instruction is becoming standard practice.  But not everyone is eager to see fiction and literature loosen its grip on language arts.  Dan Willingham’s science and education blog asks, can’t kids learn about the world through fiction?

They can and do.

“The advantage of fiction is that the narrative can engage students, transport them into the story. The fear is that readers will assume that information in fiction is true, whereas fiction may well contain inaccuracies. We don’t expect fiction to be vetted for accuracy the way a non-fiction source would be. (Certainly Hollywood movies are notorious for playing fast-and-loose with the truth.)”

Research shows inaccuracies in fiction can indeed later be remembered by students as true.  Willingham describes an experiment designed to test whether exposure to accurate or inaccurate information in a fictional story influenced how students responded to a later test about that information.  Exposure to correct information “makes it more likely you’ll get the answer correct on the test,” Willingham writes. “Reading the misleading information makes it less likely you’ll get it correct and more likely you’ll get it wrong.”

Sounds obvious, but there’s more.  “Prior knowledge is not protective. In other words, the misleading information has an impact even for stuff that most of the students knew before the experiment started,” (emphasis added) Willingham observes.   Encountering inaccuracies in fiction, in other words, can override what students knew before they read it.  But all is not lost: alerting students to the specific inaccuracies or misinformation in a story, Dan notes, “is very effective in preventing subjects from absorbing the inaccuracy.”

The takeaway for teachers?  Use fiction to engage and bring history, science and other subjects to life.  But you’ve got know your stuff so you can flag instances of literary license to your kids.


  1. The problem arises when you read literature FOR historical or scientific content. But what about reading literature for literature?

    I cannot think of an instance when a work of literature left me seriously misinformed about a historical event or scientific concept, but I have almost alwasy read literature for itself–that is, for the language, wisdom, and play. (The one exception that comes to mind is John Osborne’s play Luther, which I read for European history class in high school, at age 13. After reading the play, I thought I understood Martin Luther better than I actually did.)

    On the other hand, I have seen quite a few misleading statements in math, history, and science textbooks. (Last year I was helping a teacher find a suitable physics textbook and was alarmed by the errors and misstatements in some of the textbooks we reviewed.) Nonfiction status is by no means a guarantee of accuracy.

    The bottom line (as you say, Robert) is that teachers should know their stuff, so that they can alert students to errors. Beyond that, they should be true to their subjects. Yes, you can include a few works of literature in a history class, but you should do so with caution. On the other hand, you can read literature with abandon (as literature) in literature class.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 30, 2012 @ 9:24 pm

  2. Does anyone know where I can find grammar and punctuation pre-assessments for middle schoolers? I am starting my student teaching (not sure which grade), and I want to preassess the students to find out where they are. I have found a few random worksheets online, but I am hoping for a coherent “system” that is already written and available. Thanks!

    Comment by Jim — September 1, 2012 @ 7:14 pm

  3. Text books typically copy the out-dated ideas, mistakes, and outright misinformation of generations of previous textbook writers — who invariably were not specialists in the fields they are writing about.

    Comment by Harold — September 4, 2012 @ 10:29 am

  4. St Augustine remarked that when he recited “Medea flying through the air” at least he knew he was reciting fiction. Whereas the pseudo-science of the Manicheans masqueraded as truth (and was much less convincing to him, in claiming, for example, that certain animals were generated by the wind, than the science of the [Greek and Roman] natural philosophers, despite the fact that the latter were pagans.

    Comment by Harold — September 16, 2012 @ 9:51 pm

  5. I teach second grade and have loved using fiction to hook my students on reading. However, try as I may every year I have some that just hate to read. I have had much success with non-fiction as a hook. I have found that some students just get a thrill discovering the “cold, hard, facts”.
    One genre that I like to introduce my non-ficiton junkies to is Historical fiction. It can be tricky helping students discern between the fact and fiction, but usually this struggle to differentiate only builds greater curiosity and excitement to continue to read. I think it helps students experience the joy of curiosity and acquiring knowledge. Prior knowledge is not protective and this fact allows for students to problem solve, research, and come to their own conclusions about things.

    I am excited about the greater emphasis on non-ficiton in the new ELA Core and hope that it can benefit my fact junkies as well as fiction lovers. It will develop more well rounded readers.

    Happy teaching!

    Comment by Koreen — September 21, 2012 @ 12:41 am

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