Friday, December 13, 2013

Informational Text vs Non-Fiction (Common Core)

I am reading the November 2013 issue of ASCD's Educational Leadership magazine. It is focusing on the Common Core expectations for reading. The Common Core is calling non-fiction works "informational text", which brings to mind all those manuals that come with items we buy, but we rarely read them unless we need to know something specific. That is where it is falling apart when trying to bring Common Core to the public. The language was changed to something that seems daunting to an adult, so why would we force the youngest of our students to read "informational text"?

So as I'm reading the articles in the magazine, I'm having flashbacks to a couple of weeks ago as I was on the treadmill, watching Fox News. I was reading subtitles, and only half paying attention but there was this one woman who did catch my attention so I read along as she talked. She is a mom and she does not agree with the Common Core, so much so, she has started a group to try to stop it from being taught in her district. She is encouraging parents to pull their kids out of school to home-school them until the Common Core is dropped. Why? Because what the Common Core is asking her elementary student to read is too hard.

In the magazine there is a Research Alert about this very issue. "Text complexity has decreased over the past 50 years - but at the middle and high school levels, not the primary grades./There's nothing in the research that supports the connection between 2nd and 3rd grade text levels and students' future performance in reading texts at the college and career levels."(pg 8) So does she have a valid argument that by upping expectations at the elementary level, are we setting up students to become frustrated with reading? And I think a more important question that those two bullets present is: why has the complexity decreased for our secondary level students over the past 50 years?

That made me think about my own students. A lot of what we do in my Computer Science classroom requires research. They need to research when designing Web pages, because those require accurate content. They may need to comb through coding language libraries to find out what certain code fragments do before using them. They will often have to visit forums and weed out the solution to a problem they have encountered. All good skills that require close reading. So where is the loss?

I asked my students where they do most of their reading, and the majority say "online". That is their preference for research and informational text. If I ask them what they read for fun, most say "I don't read for fun", and a few tell me about some series of books they love in the vein of fiction. None talk about non-fiction as fun reading. Few to almost none read magazine or newspapers anymore either.

When I was teaching Kindergarten, many of my students gravitated to fun-fact types of books. Usually centered around animals, these books have large colorful pictures with facts about how fast they can run or fly, the habitat they live in, what they eat (or what eats them), and other facts to hold their attention. Some of my students loved these books more than the fiction books. What happens between Kindergarten and High School to make non-fiction less appealing?

I think back to my High School students. They see non-fiction as go to material. It is for what they must know in the moment, and not something that will be entertaining or enriching, and for them, this information is more accessible online but not in books. Where as fiction is entertaining.

Now, personally I have found many non-fiction pieces to be entertaining as well as informative. Many times I stumbled on those pieces by accident, thinking it was fiction, only to find out it was non-fiction half way through the book. But the books were compelling, because they read like a story and not like a store of information.

So as educators heading into the Common Core, we'll need to find compelling non-fiction to hook them into the informational genre of non-fiction. It doesn't have to be dry or only online. I think the biggest mistake that was made was calling it informational text, when it should have been called non-fiction text all along. The former sounds like some kind of monster waiting under the bed, whereas, the latter is a familiar friend we may want to revisit.

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