Is non-fiction more important than fiction for students?

Is non-fiction more important than fiction for students?

I ran across this fascinating article in my Flipboard reading:

What Should Children Read?

by Sara Mosle in the New York Times.

It addresses a standard in the

Common Core State Standards

To meet this standard, a student should be reading 70% non-fiction in school, and 30% fiction.

Naturally, this concerns some people, and the Standards do address some “myths”:

“Myth: English teachers will be asked to teach science and social studies reading materials.

Fact: With the Common Core ELA Standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary non‐fiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.”

I think what they are trying to do is not reduce the amount of fiction being used, but increase the amount of narrative non-fiction.

They specifically say that English Arts teachers don’t need to be using non-fiction.

However, the 70/30 split suggests that reading non-fiction is more important than reading fiction, and the article indicates that is done to better prepare students for the work world.


First, I like non-fiction, and read it a lot…and yes, I did that in elementary school and up through high school (the standards cover K-12…Kindergarten through 12th grade) as well.

Gerald Durrell, for example, was just as interesting a read to me as any fiction.

While reading non-fiction has certainly helped me at work, I have to say…reading fiction helped me just as much.

There are few job where having an understanding of people isn’t a plus, and that’s what reading is at its heart: perceiving things through another person (the author).

I’m a much better employee (and person) for having read Doc Savage, and for that matter, having watched The Lone Ranger.

Presuming that non-fiction somehow better prepares people for being at work seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of how people interact in organizations, in my opinion.

Normal adults are motivated first by social standing when they are at work.

Will people make their best suggestions if making a suggestion gets the boss angry at them? Not often, and not often with good consequences.

I would love kids to read narrative non-fiction along with science textbooks, certainly. Textbooks often strip as much subjectivity out of their contents as they can…which absolutely justified, but makes it harder to engage students.

Narrative non-fiction doesn’t do that. Read Carl Sagan or Jared Diamond or Nate Silver…those are not dry recitations of facts, and the opinions of the authors are clear. You don’t have to agree with them to find it engaging.

I also have to say: how often do you get to read narrative non-fiction at work? What we get at work is often a lot more like those textbooks…stripped down to facts and figures.

I’ve had a great boss who encouraged people to tell stories about what was happening at work in meetings…and that was a valuable tool!

I’m a little concerned that the easiest way for schools to meet this standard will be to reduce the amount of time spent on English. Let’s say that a student is reading, oh, five hundred pages a year of fiction in school. The science teacher, who hasn’t really been assigning narrative non-fiction, comes up with a book that is two hundred pages to teach. Preparing the lesson plan and such will make a two hundred page book a considerable commitment.

With the 70/30 ratio, how many fiction pages does a student get to read if all they get in narrative non-fiction is that two hundred page book? About eighty-six pages.

Want to maintain those 500 pages of fiction (which isn’t much over the course of a school year, depending on the grade)? Assign about 1,230 pages of narrative non-fiction…along with the lab work and so on.

It would seem more logical to me to say that a certain percentage of the time spent in non-English classes be spent reading narrative non-fiction. Why base the amount of narrative non-fiction on the amount of fiction?

I’ve just been accepting as a postulate here that K-12 should be designed to prepare you for college and for the work world…there could be a hearty discussion around that as well.

What do you think? Should the amount of fiction that gets assigned in K-12 be based on the amount of narrative non-fiction that is assigned? How valuable is fiction to a student? Should elementary and high schools be just about preparing people for work and college? Do you think the best employees with whom you’ve worked have been fiction readers, non-fiction readers, non-readers, or a mix?

Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

6 Responses to “Is non-fiction more important than fiction for students?”

  1. Zebras Says:


    I was not blessed with children, but if I had had them, I would emphasize reading anything and everything above all else! I wouldn’t be worrying about percentages, if they had the same joy of reading that I seemed to have been born with, the volume would take care of anything way beyond the school would have them read.

    I’m sure these guidelines will improve schools who think pizza counts as a vegetable and/or a breakfast food, but I hope it doesn’t drag down schools that have already figured it out.

    Reading is really the universal key to open up everything else, and its really too bad its importance is up for debate in our schools!

  2. Edward Boyhan Says:

    At a party recently I was talking to a neighbor who is a high school English teacher here in Florida. She stated that in her school English is 70% about reading and 30% about writing. She went on to state that in the reading part of the curriculum NO literature is used only “Informational” texts. I asked you mean like computer manuals? She said yes — stuff like that. She didn’t state so explicitly, but implied that the no literature stance was to avoid all the political, diversity, ethnicity, and other “choice” issues that choosing what literature to read would entail. They have to learn to read to get a job so non-controversial “informational” texts is what they get.

    Interestingly, she said they also had a “college prep” track — but it was not what I expected it to be. It’s for students who want to go to college, but will have to take remedial reading classes when they get there. The “college prep” track prepares them to navigate the remedial courses they will have to take.

    The only kids who get to read literature are those in the AP (Advanced Placement) English program.

    I don’t know if this is Florida-wide — it was only an anecdote from a single local high school teacher. I want to laugh, but this is so sad, and ultimately damaging to us all.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      Interesting story…thanks for sharing it!

      No literature at all in English…unless you are in AP?

      My guess is that they are finding that most kids can’t meet the reading requirements for college or a career, so they are concentrating on that. The AP kids can, presumably, already read at the necessary level…so they get the life changing literature.

      I could certainly see somebody filing a suit over that! Kids who are at a high reading level to begin with may demonstrably (but not universally) tend to be from homes which are better off financially. Those kids then get literature, which I would argue further advantages them later.

      When I was in high school, I could take a science fiction English class…and did. I wonder how many of those (or other specialized literature not related to a foreign language) are now offered in public schools (which is where I was)?

  3. tuxgirl Says:

    The one thing I would hope from this is that perhaps schools will pay more attention to the narrative non-fiction over textbooks. I’ve known *so* many people who think that history is utterly boring. When I talk to them, they refer to their history textbooks, and tests that were focused exclusively on names and dates. Yeah, if that’s all that history was, I’d probably think it was boring too.

    I’m one of the people who honestly has a very hard time with names/dates. Thankfully, I was fortunate to attend a school where most of the history teachers focused more on issues. Most of our tests were essay-based, and many of our readings were primary sources instead of textbooks. We discussed how different historical events likely influenced each other, and how people thought and felt during different historical events. We still had the history textbooks, but I honestly remember very little from our textbooks. Most of what I remember is from the primary sources we read and the discussions we had.

    Since getting out of school, I’ve sought out a lot of historical non-fiction (as well as quite a bit of historical fiction) because I find a lot of it fascinating. I recently read a nonfiction book (Operation Mincemeat), where I think the characters in the story were more interesting than the characters in most fictional books I’ve read. I’ve read some fascinating primary source material (free public domain stuff — yay!) that allowed me to learn more about people I’ve read about in history books. It’s absolutely fascinating to read a biography about a historical figure that you consider a hero, when the book was written by someone who actually knew and talked with the person!

    I still wouldn’t do away with fiction. I *love* a good fiction book too, and I probably wouldn’t be able to do non-fiction all the time, but I think narrative non-fiction is one area that is *very* underused in schools these days.

  4. You ought to be in pages Says:

    […] Is non-fiction more important than fiction for students? […]

  5. Review: Burning the Page | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] series of essays (or better yet, blog posts), than it is narrative. I do think it would qualify as “narrative non-fiction” under Common Core, but if you think of a narrative as having a beginning, a middle, and an end, this isn’t […]

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