The National Pulse
Photo credit: CollegeDegrees360 via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Why Common Core’s Lack of Literature Is Setting Kids Up for Failure

Recent research shows the average 12th grader reads at a 7th grade level. This finding isn’t terribly surprising. According to Renaissance Learning, developer of the popular Accelerated Reader, in 2015-16, the most frequently tested fiction book for grades three through seven was Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Categorizing the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series as fiction requires a certain elasticity in the definition — along the lines of categorizing the Sunday comics as literature.

Nonetheless, this is problematic considering first year college textbooks have complexity levels of 13.8 (one year and eight months post-secondary), and the same research found that less than 20 percent of high school seniors read texts at a 9th grade level or higher.

To set the stage, in 2009 the authors of the Common Core made what could be called radical changes to ELA requirements at all grade levels by increasing the required reading of informational text at the expense of fiction. The standards mandate equal parts fiction to non-fiction in grades K-5, increasing to 55 percent informational text in grades 6-8, and 70 percent informational text in grades 9-12. According to ivory tower elitists, the changes were geared toward improving student reading levels and, with any luck, would turn Diary of a Wimpy Kid readers into college and career-ready scholars.

Whatever college-and-career-ready means, it’s safe to say 12th graders reading at a 7th grade level isn’t it. Arguably, anything is better than the pablum served up by Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but increased reading of informational text has proven to be just another education reform gimmick.

Renaissance Learning research aside, recent ACT/SAT results indicate the experiment is failing. Furthermore, there is no empirical research to indicate the experiment would do anything other than fail. When words like “peevish,” “penetralium,” “soliloquized,” and “actuate” turn up on the SAT, it’s no small wonder that kids who have been reading dialogue in the thought bubbles of a cartoon character need remedial courses in college.

Fiction, especially literature, is simply better for students in a multitude of ways — ways in which informational text can not compare. Informational text being foisted on students under the guise of education has no literary value and is strongly biased toward progressivism and social justice: workers’ rights, LGBT rights, Muslim persecution, man-made climate change, and anti-capitalism, among others. One resource used by schools has a selection of articles solely dedicated to “far right extremism.”

Not only does reading of fiction make students better readers and writers, it makes them better humans.

First, the most obvious benefit: Research shows reading fiction is as important as reading in general with respect to vocabulary acquisition. In the study, people who described themselves as avid readers and specifically avid readers of fiction outscore those who read “a lot” but fiction only “somewhat” or “not much” by about 8,000 words. This is because the breadth of vocabulary typically used in fiction is far more expansive than in non-fiction writing.

Less obvious is that fiction, and in particular classic literature, has been shown on MRI to engage not only different parts of the brain, but portions of the brain that improve empathy and are used to process other people’s intentions. E.M. Forster, author of A Passage to India, described it when he said: “If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story. That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and of the reader or listener to the story.”

In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottshall said, “When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.”

A study performed at Stanford University explored the relationship between reading, attention, and distraction of subjects while reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Researchers found critical reading of humanities-oriented texts fostered analytical thought. As one of the researchers noted, “…literary study provides a truly valuable exercise of people’s brains.”

Scientists have also found that reading passages of literary fiction, in comparison to non-fiction or popular fiction, does indeed enhance the reader’s performance on “Theory of Mind” tasks, which are defined as the capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that may differ from one’s own. Study participants who read literary fiction scored higher on affective and cognitive tasks than subjects who read nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all. Unlike popular fiction, in which characters and their experiences are consistent and predictable, literary fiction portrays characters more vaguely, requiring the reader to be more introspective when making inferences about a character’s motivations and intentions.

Research substantiates that literary fiction shapes us and has the ability to knit us together as a community. Gottshall wrote, “By enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction. At the same time, story exerts a kind of magnetic force, drawing us together around common values.”

In the simplest of terms, classic literature is the common experience. It promotes a conversation that interests history, cultures, religion, and politics. As Dr. David Whalen, Provost and Professor of English at Hillsdale College, said in a speech given at the college, “(Literature) equips the imagination to recognize the moral, or consequential, or human, or perhaps divine significance of our lives and the events therein.” Classic literature is, by its nature, not a set of ideas or instructions, but an experience — even when vicariously lived.

Education reformers lament 12th graders reading at a 7th grade level and that an extraordinarily high number of students entering post-secondary schooling require remediation in English. Their response to fallen and stagnant SAT and ACT scores is more intrusive, agenda-driven education policy. However, education reform that facilitates the reading of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and social justice propaganda has done more to cultivate illiterate protesters who have been taught what to think than well-read students who have been taught how to think.

So here we are treading water, if not losing ground. The reduction of fiction, in particular classic literature, and its intrinsic value — vocabulary growth, increased empathy, the shared human experience, a reduction in social friction, and improved analytical thinking, has done nothing to improve student literacy. As a fellow lawyer recently commented about young law school grads, “They know the law, but they can’t write a sentence or tell a story.”

Unless, by chance, it fits perfectly into a thought bubble.

Photo credit: CollegeDegrees360 via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Lisa Hudson

Lisa Hudson is a founding member of Arizonans Against Common Core and an advocate of classical Christian education and the protection of student privacy. She graduated from Michigan State University School of Law in 1996 and is an active member of the State Bar of Michigan.

  • As a teacher, there are many things in this article that I agree and disagree with. I do wholeheartedly agree on the importance of fiction. However, I would suggest doing a bit more research on the topic of informational text (a type of nonfiction). Students need explicit instruction on the structures of informational text. They also need practice with those different structures to help them with comprehension of informational text. Vocabulary in nonfiction books is often academic and domain-specific, requiring teachers to spend time teaching that vocabulary. You will not always find these domain-specific vocabulary words in literature. And students unfamiliar with the structures and academic vocabulary of informational texts will struggle with comprehension. College textbooks are informational text which students will need to use to learn in their courses. If students are limited in their exposure to, and learning of, informational text, how will students successfully read to learn from those college textbooks?
    Here’s a great place for you to start your research on informational text:
    Nell Duke is a professor at Michigan State University and has spent much of her career researching literacy. The article also lists references you might find helpful as you embark on a deeper understanding of teaching reading and literacy.

  • Colette, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I certainly can’t apologize for my conservative value system or how your feelings about conservatism filter what you read. However, my experiences as a researcher and as a parent support my position regarding the nature and content of large swaths of informational text. Under the auspice of rigorous standards and improving student outcomes, much of what is being foisted on school-age children as fact is nothing more than mere opinion. If you have informational text resources you would like to provide that give even scant mention to conservative values (and not just to mock or degrade), I would be delighted to read them and comment further.

  • Lisa Hudson’s excellent article and research confirm what Dr. Terrence Moore asserted back in 2013. He reviewed several textbooks and Common Core lessons, and exposed the absurdity, superficiality, and political bias that has served to dumb down America’s children. “Common Core uses a deliberate undermining of the great stories of our tradition, the stories that in former times trained the minds and ennobled the souls of young people. Those stories are now under attack, and the minds and souls of the nation’s children are in peril.” Here is a link to a 22-minute presentation by Dr. Moore.

  • I agree with your points about the value of fiction b/c I believe in the research you cite. Your practice of mixing conservative Christian opinions about the content of nonfiction being pushed by educators with true research-based assertions is at best sloppy thinking. It insults your readers and reflects the expectation that they lack the critical thinking you purport to revere.

  • I think common core is the most stupid think that schools every Forced Up on kids of today why half the teacher at my kids school don’t even know how to teach or help kids who don’t understand