Our ProSquad Literacy expert answers more questions about Common Core standards, and what the standards mean for reading requirements in school.

I keep hearing about the new Common Core standards that all schools are going to have to follow by next year. Is it true that English teachers are going to stop teaching stories and make children read things like instruction manuals instead?

Officially known as the Common Core State Standards, the new educational guidelines coming out of Washington have thrown classroom teachers and principals into a state of confusion regarding the place of literature in the K-12 curriculum.

The new standards require that by 4th grade, children's classroom reading will be evenly divided between 50% literature and 50% informational. By 12th grade, students must be reading 70% informational texts. These ratios are based on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading exam. (NAEP's purpose was to organize test material, not dictate course content.)

Pros and Cons of CCSS Requirements

In a highly mobile society like ours, having the same educational expectations from state to state and grade to grade is highly desirable. Universal reading lists and graded teaching sequences can ensure that a child moving to Arkansas from California will be able to pick up where he left off and not be ahead or behind.

The Purpose of School Standards Is to Outline Expectations

Specific expectations such as "a child entering fourth grade will be able to read Charlotte's Web with ease and understanding" is meaningful and useful. Prescribing a list of particular works of literature to be studied is acceptable. Even specifying a timetable for the teaching of certain concepts could be acceptable for the sake of children transferring schools mid-year.

Presuming to limit the amount of literature that may be taught, however, is not within the scope of such standards. It's not surprising that the CC directive provoking the most interest, confusion, and indignation is the one that decrees that by the 12th grade, text being studied by students will be in the proportion of 70% "informational" texts to 30% literature.

Negative Effects Are Already Being Seen

An 8th grade teacher in my town has reluctantly cut six weeks of poetry from her syllabus and replaced a unit on legends of King Arthur to make room for a chapter from a faddish book about "social behavior." She says that her students are "shutting down," and that she's seeing more behavior problems in her classroom than she has ever seen before.

The sad thing is that she needn't have made any changes at all.

The CCSS document contains 600 pages with footnotes in very small print. It's in the footnotes that one finds the exemptions for English teachers. For example, this statement appears in a footnote on page 5 of the Introduction:

The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in [English /Language Arts] settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade would be informational. (Emphasis mine.)

Unfortunately, not all administrators have read the footnotes.

Although the bulk of "informational" texts are supposed to be read in history, civics, music, math, etc. — as was the case before CCSS — many principals are instructing English teachers to reduce the amount of literature they teach.

Changes in CCSS Are Inevitable

The CCSS, drafted by two professional consultants who have no K-12 teaching experience, were not field-tested before adoption. The need for changes will certainly become evident as they are implemented. An important misconception to clear up before changes can be made in the master document is the idea that English teachers are supposed to reduce the amount of literature they teach.

It just isn't so.

If you hear your school's English teachers complaining that they've been required to cut literature, take the matter up with your school's administration. In another footnote in the 600 pages, they'll find this statement: English classrooms retain their focus on literature.


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Literacy Pro, Maeve Maddox

Maeve Maddox is an academic generalist who has taught language and literature at every level from pre-school to university, in the United States and abroad. Now a freelance writer, she focuses on topics of cultural literacy, including beginning reading instruction and universal knowledge.

Her academic articles have been published in Education Today,The Christian Science Monitor, Translation Today, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, and a recent textbook about the Middle Ages. Her children's fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Highlights for Children and Jack and Jill Magazine.

Several hundred of Maeve's still-timely articles on language are archived at Daily Writing Tips where she was editor and chief contributor from its inception in 2007 until 2011. She is the School Reform Editor at the women's magazineBellaOnline.com. She offers tips on reading instruction and cultural literacy at AmericanEnglishDoctor.com, and discusses English usage in the media atBottomlineEnglish.com. Her most recent books available at Amazon.com include So You Want to Write! (50 essays on the writing craft), A Joan for All Seasons (film guide to six movies about Joan of Arc), and 100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid (brief style guide to common writing errors).

Maeve holds bachelor's degrees in English from Oklahoma City University and the University of London (England). She holds the M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).