The Common Core has rightfully taken a good deal of heat. Rushed implementation. Invalid exams. Student scores tied to teacher evaluations. Families and schools soon showed signs of test-fatigue. Eventually, public criticism led to test boycotts and demands for reform.
The Common Core isn’t all bad, though. English teachers have always loved close reading and supported argument. And though initially, my literary heart broke when I was told that, by senior year, seventy percent of students’ reading would be non-fiction, I soon discovered integrating informational texts into curriculum maps could be a win-win.
Like many secondary English teachers, after seeing Common Core prototypes, I started out using non-fiction as test-prep. If kids were going to have to read about science and social studies on state exams, and if I would be rated on their performance, then everyone would benefit from a little structured practice. As a trusted colleague put it: “You wouldn’t take the road test without practicing a three-point turn and parallel parking.” I found articles that seemed interesting and wrote multiple choice questions and created writing prompts to parallel our ever evolving state tests.
And for what it was worth, this worked. Reading about the science of climate change did sharpen comprehension skills. Practice answering multiple choice questions did make kids feel more confident. Timed writing rehearsal promoted efficient test taking. Scores improved.
But stand-alone test prep ate up too much class time. Random readings—as interesting as they might be—weren’t doing much to help struggling scholars crack the historical code in Act 1 of The Crucible or to challenge high fliers to test the science in Jack London’s To Build a Fire.
There Are Many Advantages
Integrating meaningful non-fiction into secondary English classes not only improves test scores and strengthen skills, but enriches the core reading experience for all kids. The key word here is meaningful. Texts have to contribute to an enriched reading experience. Non-fiction must correspond to core readings. Thoughtfully chosen pre-reading texts, build a base of prior knowledge that supports all readers. Through informational texts, kids can dig into the setting of a literary text. They can experience the science of the conflict between man and nature. They can evaluate historical or scientific accuracy. Post reading texts can provide information to confirm or refute messages in literary works, promoting critical evaluation. Incidentally, prior knowledge and critical evaluation also contribute to higher reading comprehension scores on standardized tests. You can use these texts as a vehicle for differentiation. You can use these non-fiction readings as mentor texts, too.
Where to Find Informational Texts
Finding sound texts that actually go with the core reading in your classroom means you have to be an avid reader. Considering the amount of time teaching English demands, this is no small task. But good sources for non-fiction might already be on your nightstand or doorstep.
- The New York Times—Contrary to popular belief, the Times isn’t beyond most secondary students. The reading level in the NYT has been estimated at seventh grade. Kids can learn to apply contextual cues to puzzle out unfamiliar vocabulary. The Times features science articles, opinion pieces, human interest, travel, book reviews as well as current events. If you search the archives, there is almost always something you can use with any core literary text.
- Sports Illustrated—It may sound crazy, but the heroes in sports and the heroes in literature frequently share character traits: resilience, determination, endurance. The language used in sports reporting is colorful and engaging. Kids get reading experience with varied text structures.
- National Geographic (for both kids and adults)– NG can take kids to faraway places that can coincide with settings in literary texts. Brilliant photos can bring these places to life.
- Historical documents—Social Studies teachers use primary source historical documents all the time. English teachers not so much. For literary texts centered on historical events, documents can be a link to the past.
- Autobiographies—Personal accounts often correspond to fictionalized stories. Students can extract messages about people/characters who have found ways to leave a mark on their worlds.
- Excerpts from books in school and public libraries–Use these resources to fill in the blanks about science, history, economics, law.
What constitutes “literature” continues to evolve. We have an obligation to prepare kids for life beyond tests, beyond our classrooms. Academic success lies in curiosity, in critical thinking, in self direction. Making informational readings organic elements of the secondary English class experience supports all of these.