Nonfiction Reading: Lasting Influence of the Common Core

Schools are working to get more nonfiction reading into the curriculum, senior editor Wayne D’Orio writes in this latest column. Is it boosting student learning? 

When the time capsule of 2015 is dug up, the most head-scratching issue will be the prevalence of all this talk of a common core. The Common Core State Standards came, and were widely adopted and praised: They promised to push learning deeper as more schools aimed to get students college and career ready. But a funny thing happened on the way to happily ever after. Groups from the right and left, for different reasons, started criticizing the standards. States began ditching the official CCSS tests and then repealing their acceptance of the standards.

The scoreboard of which states follow the standards, which adopted similar standards, and which ones never joined, doesn’t matter today. Schools and states are now trying to wrap their heads and policies around the Every Student Succeeds Act. But one aspect of the Common Core is still worth talking about: nonfiction reading.

If you remember when the standards were officially released in 2010 (yes, it’s been that long), one of the biggest surprises was the call to drastically up the amount of nonfiction read by students. The standards called for half of the reading in grades 3-5 to be informational texts. By grade 12, those ratios were expected to be 70 percent nonfiction.

Many states and schools still haven’t hit these marks. And given the relative disinterest in the Common Core, they may never get there. That doesn’t diminish the lasting effect this rule will have. By boldly proclaiming the value in nonfiction texts and stating an ideal ratio, Common Core got our attention. And schools began to alter their reading lists.

Reading Across the Curriculum in Kentucky

For instance, Carroll County Schools in Carrollton, Kentucky, has increased students’ nonfiction reading across the curriculum. In one instance, students at the Alternative Learning Center are expected to build a robot using only a technical instructional manual as a guide. “Building the robots requires students to read and follow directions,” says principal Ed Nelson. “Technical reading is one of the most important skills that students can cultivate. No matter the path that students follow after they graduate, they are going to be reading and following directions.”

The shift is happening all the way down to the district’s youngest learners where preschool instructional supervisor Leah Spencer says students are taught the difference between fiction and nonfiction and teachers use nonfiction texts when relevant.

But the big question remains: Is it making a difference? In many districts, officials say learners, whether they are teenagers or toddlers, are more engaged when nonfiction texts are used. The core’s standards were written, in part, because of a compelling research base that supported the shift to more complex texts.  I’m just not aware of any district that claims to have seen an increase in comprehension due to its shift away from fiction.

What about your district? Let me know if you are actively trying to increase your nonfiction materials and if that shift is leading to positive benefits for students.

Wayne DOrio

Wayne D’Orio, a senior editor for School Leaders Now, is an award-winning education reporter. His recent work has detailed how the play Hamilton is changing high school education and how the tiny, Silicon Valley-inspired AltSchool aims to change the entire educational system. D’Orio’s work has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post and Scholastic Administrator.


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