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.