Common Core State Standards: Nonfiction Versus Fiction

William H. Young

One of the principal new features of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts (ELA) & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects is the inclusion of specific requirements for the amount of nonfiction versus fiction to be read in all grades from K‒12. The CCSS increase the reading of nonfiction for information in order to (1) build the knowledge and vocabulary of students to enable them to comprehend increasingly complex texts over the grades and (2) help make them more capable of gleaning and writing about information from such texts as they are expected to do in the marketplace and college—rather than about themselves as they do now, as I discussed previously in "Our Literacy Problem."

The CCSS explain those new requirements:

In grades 3‒5, literacy programs shift the balance of texts and instructional time to include equal measures of literary and informational texts. The standards call for elementary curriculum materials to be recalibrated to reflect a mix of 50 percent literary and 50 percent informational text, including reading in ELA, science, social studies, and the arts….

In grades 6‒12, ELA programs shift the balance of texts and instructional time towards reading substantially more literary nonfiction….including essays, speeches, opinion pieces, biographies, journalism, and historical, scientific, or other documents written for a broad audience….The standards emphasize arguments (such as those in the U. S. foundational documents) and other literary nonfiction that is built on informational text structures rather than literary nonfiction that is structured as stories (such as memoirs or biographies)….

To become career and college ready, students must grapple with a range of works that span many genres, cultures, and eras and model the kinds of thinking and writing students should aspire to in their own work….

Materials aligned with the…standards should help students acquire knowledge of general academic vocabulary because these are the words that will help them access a wide range of complex texts….[1]

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading framework has long identified the ratio of literary and informational texts that students need to be able to read well and that is used to assess student achievement at grades 4, 8, and 12. The latest NAEP genre ratios (tilted slightly more towards informational since 2007) are 50 percent literary and 50 percent informational at grade 4; 45 percent literary and 55 percent informational at grade 8; and 30 percent literary and 70 percent informational at grade 12. Those ratios are invoked by the new CCSS reading genre requirements.[2]

Ironically, education professor emerita Sandra Stotsky has been both a leading critic of the CCSS and a preceptor for the constructive implementation of its reading requirements. She critiqued the CCSS in a recent essay for NAS, "Revise or Reject."[3]

Earlier, in a Heritage Foundation Issue Brief, Stotsky had argued:

This misplaced stress on informational texts (no matter how much is literary nonfiction) reflects the limited expertise of Common Core’s architects…in curriculum and teachers’ training….It makes English teachers responsible for something they have not been trained to teach….

There is absolutely no empirical research to suggest that college readiness is promoted by informational or nonfiction reading in high school English classes (or in mathematics and science classes)….The decline in readiness for college reading stems in large part from an increasingly incoherent, less challenging literature curriculum from the 1960s onward…and the assignment of easier, shorter and contemporary texts—often in the name of multiculturalism….[4]

In another paper presented last January at an educational policy conference in St. Louis, Stotsky explains that

high school teachers will readily tell you that low-performing students have not been assigned complex textbooks or literary texts because, generally speaking, they can’t read them and, in fact, don’t read much of anything with academic content. As a result they have not acquired the content knowledge and the vocabulary needed for reading complex textbooks in any subject.

And this is despite (not because of) the steady decline in vocabulary difficulty in secondary school textbooks over the past half century…and the efforts of science and history teachers from the elementary grades on to make their subjects as text-free as possible….[5]

The architect of the CCSS, David Coleman, illustrates a specific result of that turn:

ACT just did a study of how well students could read a complex science text; 24% of the students who take the ACT can read a college-level science text. That’s those who take the ACT….[6]

Coleman describes the underlying thinking of the CCSS on nonfiction versus fiction:

We in…K‒5…curriculum focus 80% of our time on stories, on literature. That is the dominant work that is done in the elementary school and that’s what’s tested on exams and that’s what’s in our textbooks….The general knowledge that you develop in those years plays a crucial predictive role in not only your performance in…other disciplines, like science and history, but your ability to read more complex text itself….

So the core standards demand that 50% of the text students encounter in kindergarten through 5th grade is informational text, meaning primarily text about science and history, text about the arts, the text through which students learn about the world…The standards…demand…that the building of knowledge through reading text plays a fundamental role in those disciplines.[7]

The founder of Core Knowledge, E. D. Hirsch Jr., comments that:

Transforming the elementary school “literacy block” into a rich, meaningful and sustained engagement with subject matter would be the single greatest transformation of instructional time in decades….To their credit, the authors of the Common Core standards have taken pains to get this right…

Of course, plenty can go wrong. If textbook publishers hear the message “more nonfiction” instead of “coherent curriculum” then the effort will have come to little. Slapping random nonfiction (duly tested for complexity) into existing textbooks will be no more effective than the reading of random fiction has been.[8]

Hirsch’s latter concern is well-founded. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the element of the Blob that, beginning in 1989 as I explicated in Our Literacy Problem, accelerated the descent of reading and writing into mediocrity, is hard at work seeking to subvert the CCSS. Stotsky notes that its recommendations on informational texts offer as examples, “selections on computer geeks, fast food, teenage marketing, and the working poor.”[9]

Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein notes, in an essay in Academic Questions and for NAS, "Common Core as Tactical Advantage," that NCTE simply ignores the CCSS literary-historical standard:

Instead of highlighting literary-historical knowledge and foundational works, the authors speak enthusiastically about the value of blogs, videos, podcasts, and graphic novels to English instruction. They mention several classics, but when they pause over them it is usually to surround them with contemporary materials…

Bauerlein adds that NCTE relegates the mandated content in CCSS to teacher discretion, stating that the texts mentioned in the list of “exemplars” are

simply offered as examples of topics and genres that teachers might include, not as specific texts to be adopted in all classrooms. Teachers need to select texts appropriate for their own students and for the content in which they work.

Needless to say, the CCSS do not insert “appropriate for their own students” into the standards.[10]

In a paper for the Pioneer Institute, Stotsky and Bauerlein show how states and local school systems can still structure rich secondary literature curricula for ELA within the CCSS requirements:

Our aim in this paper is to convince state and local education policy makers to do two things:

  • To emphasize Common Core’s existing literary-historical standards, requiring English departments and English teachers to begin with them as they redesign their secondary English curricula.
  • To add and prioritize a new literary-historical standard of their own along the lines of “Demonstrate knowledge of culturally important authors and/or texts in British literature from the Renaissance to Modernism.”

Far from contradicting Common Core, these actions follow its injunction that, apart from “certain critical content for all students, including: classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s Founding Documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare…the remaining crucial decisions about what content should be taught are left to state and local determination.”[11]

Bauerlein comments further in his Academic Questions essay that

in requiring students to show knowledge of two centuries of American literature, Common Core retains the very literary patrimony that humanities educators have criticized and undermined for the last forty years. It strikes against the call for more contemporary and “relevant” readings, and, in regarding certain works as “foundational,” it flatly contradicts a cardinal premise of literary studies from the 1970s onward, namely “anti-foundationalism”…[which] maintains the provisional historical character of all texts, asserting that one work stands as canonical, “great,” or foundational only because it has been constructed that way by professional and amateur readers at a particular time or for social or political reasons….

Common Core states otherwise. It doesn’t qualify the standard with hedges about how foundations shift…Instead, it reiterates the foundationalist outlook again and again. A reading standard in the “Informational Text” strand for grades 9‒10 asks students to “Analyze seminal U. S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’). Another one for grades 11‒12 does the same: “Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U. S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address).”…

The language of “classic,” “seminal,” “foundational,” and “timeless” runs against principles of post-structuralism, postmodernism, social constructionism, political criticism, and cultural studies that have licensed the breakdown of the traditional English curriculum….This standard, then, along with the other statements listed above, resists the quota system that shapes English syllabi and tables of contents in popular anthologies….[12]

The battle lines between the CCSS and the Blob could not be drawn more clearly, as the Blob seeks to sidestep CCSS requirements and preserve its postmodern multicultural themes and content.

Carol Jago, a former president of the NCTE, offers a fresh new ray of realism and hope:

Teachers don’t have to give up a single poem, play, or novel…But students are going to have to read four times as much as they are now. Where will the time come from? From substituting good-quality reading for “busywork,” movies shown in class, and the hours students spend daily on electronic entertainment such as texting as they are now.[13]

The CCSS respond to the national need for graduates who can read complex informational texts in the workplace and college as well as rich literature—which most cannot now do. The answer is to replace the Blob’s dumbed-down politically correct fantasy fiction and content-free nonfiction with appropriate, more complex literary and informational texts—not replace rich literature with more politicized, trivial, contemporary nonfiction.

Propitiously, in The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, Stotsky further suggests how to do so, providing a detailed roadmap for the reconstruction of a coherent curriculum containing both rich literary and informational texts.[14] This guidance and Bauerlein’s sage counsel should assist those who seek the appropriate balance between fiction and nonfiction materials in implementing the CCSS— and to win the war against the forces of the Blob.

The next article will examine criticism of how the CCSS approach close reading of the Gettysburg Address.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: "book" by maratinhisbath // CC BY-SA

[1] ELA and Literacy Criteria, Grades 3‒5; ELA Curricula, Grades 6‒12,  National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2 May 2012. David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, Revised Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3‒12, 2 May 2012.

[2] Reading Framework for the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, Reading Framework for the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress,  Achieve, Comparing the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects and the National Assessment of Educational Progress Frameworks in Reading for 2009 and Writing for 2011,, 1 September 2010.

[4] Sandra Stotsky, "Common Core Standards’ Devastating Impact on Literary Study and Analytical Thinking," Issue Brief No. 3800, The Heritage Foundation, 11 December 2012.

[5] Sandra Stotsky, “Literature of Technical Manuals: Who Should Be Teaching What, Where, and When? Paper presented at the Educational Policy Conference, The Constitutional Coalition, St. Louis, Missouri, 25 January 2013.

[6] David Coleman, “Bringing the Common Core to Life,” Remarks at Chancellors Hall, State Education Building, Albany, NY, 28 April 2011.

[8] Valerie Strauss, “E. D. Hirsch Jr.: Common Core Standards Could Revolutionize Reading Instruction,” The Washington Post, 6 April 2010.

[10] Mark Bauerlein, "Common Core as Tactical Advantage," 16 April 2013.

[11] Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky, "How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk, "Pioneer Institute White Paper No. 89, (September 2012).

[12] Bauerlein, "Common Core as Tactical Advantage."

[13] Catherine Gewertz, “Scale Tips Toward Nonfiction Under Common Core,” Education Week, 13 November 2012.

[14] Sandra Stotsky, The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2012), 125‒95.

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