The first two of the six fundamental shifts inherent in the Common Core standards call upon educators to establish a balance between literary and informational text in the early grades, then shift that balance through middle and high school so that, by graduation, 70% of students’ literacy instruction is focused on the exploration of informational text. There seems to be considerable anxiety over this particular shift, from English teachers who perceive a demotion of literature to history and science teachers who perceive an encroachment of reading into their content-driven territory. There has even been misperception that the intent of the Common Core is to have English textbooks contain 70% informational text. Given this anxiety and misperception, it is worthwhile to explore this issue and look more deeply at what the Common Core actually calls for.
The Common Core standards are quite explicit in articulating shared responsibility for students’ literacy development across disciplines. The assumption that informational text should comprise 70% of the literacy curriculum by high school must include the reading, questioning, and writing that students are doing in their subjects beyond the English classroom in history, science, the arts. Literature has definitely not been demoted!
Balanced literacy in the early grades
In the elementary grades, the literature expected under the Common Core includes all of the familiar genres of stories, drama, and poetry, with specific reference to teaching myth. It is useful to note that the Common Core does not specify any list of required myths; this is up to the teacher and the particular needs of a school’s curriculum. Informational text for the early grades includes biography & auto-biography; texts about history, culture, science, and the arts; and technical texts such as maps, step-wise directions, and graphs.
The purpose of this shift is to build coherent knowledge with students and to develop deep understanding of important topics through the exploration of multiple genres and types of text.
70% emphasis on informational text in high school
At the high school level, the types of text articulated under the Common Core expand, and teachers of all subject areas have access to a rich array of written material that they should use to develop students’ knowledge, understanding, critical thinking, reading, and writing skills.
As with the early grades, the Common Core establishes wide parameters for three text-based non-negotiables. Our students’ education must include the study of:
- Shakespeare, and
- the foundational American works of the 17th – 20th Centuries.
The biggest take-away from the Common Core expectation that students read and discuss informational text is that if students can’t learn material by reading text, they are doomed in the world. Ultimately, we need to develop classroom instruction that brings together information and ideas from wide-ranging sources, helping students develop deep and interconnected knowledge. We also need to ensure that students interact with primary source texts in history and science classes, (e.g. the Constitution, an excerpt from The Origin of Species, news regarding the presidential election) and engage in the process of articulating what these texts mean rather than have the teacher simply tell them. This is the kind of instruction that we see in honors courses and elite schools, while other students are too often given reading and content “lite.”
Preparing for the increased emphasis on informational text
The best thing high schools can do to prepare for this Common Core shift is to make it clear to teachers outside of the English department that they share responsibility for students’ literacy development. Then, schools will need to support those teachers in making high quality text choices and engaging in the kinds of questioning and writing that we expect in English departments. One practical step to take here is to have teachers in history and science bring in the study of one primary informational text within each content-driven unit.
Of course, many English teachers may also need to incorporate more informational text in their classrooms (if they have been largely ignoring it), and we would argue that the best way to bring in more informational text to the English classroom is to construct thematically-based units. For example, a unit could include the novel, A Lesson Before Dying, the poem “On the Eve of his Execution,” sections (or all) of the book Dead Man Walking, and informational text regarding the death penalty in other parts of the world. Such a unit would also allow a teacher to develop students’ awareness of the rhetorical appeals that authors use to influence their readers’ perceptions. Similarly, a unit on Romeo & Juliet can incorporate an excerpt from a Renaissance treatise on love, or a unit on Sanity can incorporate informational text regarding the “rest cure.” Units such as these allow students to ask and answers questions that are more in-depth and broad in perspective than any single text alone.
It would be a shame to allow schools to view the responsibility for informational text as residing solely with the English department and to gut the literature curriculum, limiting students’ exposure to great texts as well as the cultural capital that those texts convey.
Especially at the high school level, it may be difficult for teachers to reach beyond their department silos, but we know it can be done! Teachers who are life-long learners and readers themselves will embrace the idea that, as David Coleman articulated in a recent Common Core panel discussion, “proper interrelationship between the disciplines strengthens them all.”
More than anything, the Common Core provides us with an opportunity to bring teachers of different disciplines together and help them link big ideas among departments and across literary and informational types of text. This is an area for professional development, teacher support, and leadership.
We think this is a topic worth further exploration. What kinds of supports do you think teachers will need to make this leap? Please post your responses!