Thursday, April 1, 2010

Could teaching nonfiction as literature improve American kids' reading ability?

In a Daily Beast article called "How to Make American Teens Smarter," Dana Goldstein takes stock of the disappointing progress we've made with children's reading skills:

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test known as "the nation's report card," only one-third of American kids can read at the "proficient" level. Over the past two years, no national gains have been made in closing the achievement gaps between rich and poor, white and black, white and Hispanic, or girls and boys. And though some individual states did better than others on the assessment, the overall picture of literacy in America is bleak—a decades-long achievement plateau that leaves most young adults unprepared for higher-level work.
Are we not allowed to suggest that this might be caused in part by the custom that reading and writing are taught almost entirely through fiction rather than nonfiction? Goldstein goes there:
In no grade do students typically read nonfiction, beyond memoirs like the The [sic] Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel's Night—even though success on standardized tests, in college, and in many jobs requires the ability to comprehend dense nonfiction texts. . . . [In the comments, my dad takes issue with this paragraph, and Goldstein responds. -- JAC]

"People don't really understand the nature of reading. They feel that reading is a skill, that it's transferable, so once you're a good reader, you can read anything that's put in front of you," says Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia cognitive psychologist who focuses on K-12 education. "But that's only true for decoding—what you learn until grade three or four. After that, when you see good readers versus poor readers, what you're looking at is mostly differences in the knowledge that kids bring to the reading. It's easy to read something when you already know something about the topic. And if you don't know about the topic, it's utterly opaque to you."

That's why children should read newspapers and magazines, texts about nature and technology, and biographies—genres that increase real-world knowledge. This is especially important for poor children, who may not be exposed to as much "background" information at home: the random vocabulary, facts, and associations that make it easier to do well on tests like the NAEP and SAT, and to succeed in the workplace.
My favorite example Goldstein gives is that high-school students are regularly taught George Orwell's novels 1984 and Animal Farm; why shouldn't they read "Politics and the English Language"? And that's just one of his great essays. Children are taught to write essays for specific purposes, but they're not taught to read essays for the sake of encountering an intelligent mind contemplating the world (as opposed to the utilitarian, non-literary nonfiction in science and history textbooks).

My mom made this proposal (which "really stirred people up"):
[W]hy does reading even need to be a separate subject from history in school? Give them history texts and teach reading from them. Science books too. Leave the storybooks for pleasure reading outside of school. They will be easier reading, and with well-developed reading skills, kids should feel pleasure curling up with a novel at home. But even if they don't, why should any kind of a premium be placed on an interest in reading novels? It's not tied to economic success in life and needn't be inculcated any more than an interest in watching movies or listening to popular music. Leave kids alone to find out out what recreational activities enrich and satisfy them. Some may want to dance or play music or paint. Just because teachers tend to be the kind of people who love novels does not mean that this choice ought to be imposed on young people via compulsory education. Teach them about history, science, law, logic -- something academic and substantive -- and leave the fictional material for after hours.
Back to Goldstein's article:
"One of my big gripes is the imperialism of literature, of trivial fictions and poetry," says E.D. Hirsch, a literature professor and advocate of "cultural literacy." Hirsch rejects the idea that storybooks are the only books that appeal to children. "Fiction doesn't have a monopoly on narrative," he says. "Take, for example, biographies. They have the form of fiction. It isn't whether kids can read it or not, it's whether it is taught or not. And boys tend to be more interested in nonfiction than fiction. It's one of the reasons… that boys do less well and are turned off from reading."
Matthew Yglesias agrees that reading should be taught through nonfiction as well as fiction, but bristles at the gendered angle:
The thesis about boys is provocative, but it’s probably best not to get this tied in too much with controversial claims about gender. The essence of the issue is that clearly some people are more interested in reading non-fiction than fiction and might find reading lessons oriented to non-fiction material more engaging.
That does make a certain amount of strategic sense: if you're mainly trying to advance a controversial position (the nonfiction idea), you probably shouldn't connect it to a second controversial position that's not your driving motivation.

Maybe it's unfortunate that the idea that we should care about boys is so controversial. But, as Yglesias says, the more useful perspective is that we want to help people. The gender-neutrality of that goal is a good thing. While it might make some people feel good to say of a certain policy, "This helps women [or girls]," and it might make some other people feel good to say, "This helps men [or boys]," there's no inherent virtue to those statements beyond the general idea of helping someone.

I also don't see any need to stereotype boys as liking one type of reading and girls as liking another type of reading. (The article doesn't include any actual evidence to support the claim that boys especially enjoy reading nonfiction.) Rather, we need to stop stigmatizing nonfiction as unserious and privileging fiction as the only real literature.

IN THE COMMENTS: My dad, who works in this field, points out that things are a little more complicated than this post may have suggested. Admittedly, I'm no expert in nationwide English curricula (I used the time-tested writer's technique of extrapolating wildly from my own experiences), so I'm glad to hear that nonfiction-for-its-own-sake isn't quite as absent from schools as I thought.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

English-language literature wasn't part of the standard curriculum till about a century ago, precisely because it was considered entertainment rather than serious intellectual work (unless it was in Latin or Greek, which added the mental exercise of learning a language). Not having heard about Shakespeare in school didn't seem to hurt Milton or Keats; on the contrary, it freed them to love him without duress.

And this leaves aside the question of whether being studied in schools and universities is good for literature. Experience trying to read the fiction of university-trained contemporary writers doesn't convince me it's so.

Nevertheless, I think Yglesias & Co. are underestimating the extent to which nonfiction is taught in schools. I write English textbooks for a living, at all grade levels, and the typical basal anthology has at least one unit on essays as well as those on fiction, drama, and poetry. I'm currently writing a series of 16-32-page readers for the elementary grades, and fiction and nonfiction are evenly divided, as is standard in the field. "In no grade do students typically read nonfiction..." is factually wrong. It's not implausible that as many high school students have read (or at least been assigned) Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" as "1984" or "Animal Farm," because short works are more frequently assigned. And when textbooks are arranged chronologically, as they usually are with upper-grade American and British literature, an increasing percentage of nonfiction has been included in the past generation: for instance, slave narratives and Civil War diaries or letters and Lincoln's speeches are now standard in the units on Civil War literature, in addition to Whitman's poetry and Crane's fiction. As many students are now stultified by Chief Seattle's "I will fight no more forever" speech as used to be by William Cullen Bryant's "Thanatopsis."

Ultimately, I think that if more nonfiction were put on the curriculum, it would bore kids just as much as fiction and poetry do now. And the idea that boys don't like fiction is ridiculous. All those comic books and video games and the movies derived from them are fiction, while the celebrity magazines targeted at girls are, in theory, nonfiction.

Dana said...

Great post, John, and thank you for reading my article and linking to it! Just want to clarify--per Richard's comment--that when I wrote that in "no grade do kids typically read non-fiction," I was referring to non-fiction *books* in particular. Should have made that clear in the piece. I myself read Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" in school, though I can't remember which year.

Keep up the smart blogging!

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Dana's right in saying that novels are more often assigned than nonfiction books, although exceptions can be found, a couple of which she mentions. I think a wider and deeper selection of nonfiction books would be great. Currently, "Black Boy" and "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and some others are at least excerpted in anthologies, and sometimes assigned, or given as options, in toto. Multiculturalism has been a boost to the reading of nonfiction in schools. BTW, I think Orwell's essay on language would be a wonderful assignment. It might be considered too difficult or controversial -- a persistent obstacle in curriculum design in English.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Thanks for stopping by, Dana!

Thanks, Dad, for the corrections/clarifications. I was aware when I was writing this that I'm hardly ominiscient about what reading assignments are given across the country -- I pretty much assumed that my experience reflected everyone else's.

Currently, "Black Boy" and "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and some others are at least excerpted in anthologies, and sometimes assigned, or given as options, in toto. Multiculturalism has been a boost to the reading of nonfiction in schools.

Good point about multiculturalism, although Their Eyes Were Watching God is fiction. I wish nonfiction writing were appreciated as meritorious in its own right without needing to be justified on diversity grounds.

Jason (the commenter) said...

RLC:Ultimately, I think that if more nonfiction were put on the curriculum, it would bore kids just as much as fiction and poetry do now.

Yes, they'd still have the same teachers.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Fahrenheit 451 was the only book I enjoyed reading that was assigned to me in class. And I was under the covers each night, voraciously reading books, throughout my high school years.

After the teachers, I would say the problem with the reading material is not its focus on fiction over non-fiction but its abhorrence of commercial material; after that, its abhorrence of books written in a foreign language. If someone bothered to translate a book into English, it's probably good; better than the average book you'll find in a bookstore written in English. They're the only truly multicultural experience you can have.

Dan Willingham said...

Another way to think about the amount of non-fiction taught in school. . . is the right baseline "ratio of fiction to non-fiction" or is the right baseline "fiction relative to the other arts?" That is, why does literature have a privileged place among the arts? Why are students exposed to so few serious works of art in music, dance, visual arts?

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Sorry for my mistake about "Their Eyes Were Watching God." I haven't read it!

Jason: I agree about the desirability of teaching foreign-language literature in translation. To some extent this is done: World Lit is commonly taught in grade 10; and again multiculturalism promotes inclusion of various foreign classics as supplemental pieces in American and Brit literature. The Odyssey is often taught in high school. I think to some extent the teaching of American Lit is thought of as connected to American History.

Dan: Good point, and funding for classes in visual art and music appreciation, which used to be standard, has notoriously evaporated in recent years. On the other hand, teaching literature, whether fiction or nonfiction, is a way of teaching reading, and everyone needs to read, while not everyone needs to play an instrument. Also, the delivery system for literature is much more convenient for school than that for visual art or music. When you read Poe in a textbook, it's the actual experience; when you see a reproduction of a Winslow Homer, it's only an approximation. And paints, musical instruments, etc. are messy and/or require a lot of room and/or make noise. (Just riffing here -- I haven't thought this out much.)