How to Increase Literacy Through Changing the Genre of Classroom Materials

When I said, “change genre” in the title of this post, I meant it literally. Many advocates of reluctant readers have in the past mentioned that U.S. school rely too heavily on fiction–especially certain kinds of fiction–to teach students. Studies of boys’ reading preferences have pointed out that boys frequently prefer non-fiction selections, but that their schools often rely on fiction. Students sometimes complain about the value of reading short stories and novels in the long term. Are they really going to need to know the major characters and plot points of Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, or Moby Dick as adults?

Now a study in New York City schools described in today’s New York Times online adds evidence that increasing the use of non-fiction in classrooms has concrete benefits. Students using an experimental–mostly non-fiction–curriculum scored better on reading comprehension assessments. They also internalized the content of those pieces sufficiently to increase their scores on tests of social studies and science knowledge. The NY Times article mentions that this is particularly useful, as classrooms have generally reduced the amount of time they spend on those subjects in an attempt to improve students’ scores on standardized test that focus on reading and math skills. Interestingly, the students that participated in the study were largely from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The study has its opponents, and I would never say fiction should be tossed out of schools (I love novels! I love short stories!), but I hope that this study will prompt school districts to reconsider their current balance of classroom materials.

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