Beyond Fiction: At a Glance


One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Common Core State Standard’s approach to English Language Arts is the explicit call for more reading, interpreting, and analysis of nonfiction texts alongside novels, drama, and poetry. 

Common Core authors defend the move as crucial to ensuring students leave school “able to read and comprehend independently and proficiently the kinds of complex texts commonly found in college and careers.”

Common Core critics claim that the emphasis will drive literature out of classrooms, with some questioning whether so-called informational reading even contributes to students’ college and career readiness.

In this research brief, the Center for Public Education examined the role of informational reading in postsecondary education, workplace and day-to-day life and how well American students and adults perform in this domain. After sifting through the available data on this issue, we arrived at several conclusions:

  • The ability to understand and retrieve information, whether it be from an encyclopedia, a billing statement or the back of a prescription bottle, is a necessary life skill
  • American grade school students do well at reading literature, compared to their international peers but not in reading for information
  • This gap widens with age; U.S. 15-year-olds are at the international average in reading while literacy rates of American adults overall ranked below the international average on an OECD survey  
  • Poor literacy skills often lead to a host of negative outcomes including fewer employment opportunities and depressed wages

Whether your state or district has adopted the Common Core or is defining its own standards, our findings clearly demonstrate the importance of giving informational reading co-star billing to its literary sibling.

Informational Literacy, an Issue That Grows with Age

By most accounts, the U.S. is one of the most highly educated nations in the world. Yet one in six U.S. adults has weak literacy skills, according to a survey by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, making “weak literacy more common in the U.S. than on average across [comparison] countries.”

To put this into perspective, roughly 30 million adults in this country can’t read or understand a newspaper article, while another 27 million can’t follow directions on a street map.

Higher unemployment levels and lower wages are some of the consequences for individuals with weak literacy skills. Those costs continue into the community, in the form of lost taxes, higher demand for social services and lower voter participation.

Interestingly, American students are good at reading― literature. Among fourth-graders, only Finland’s students outperform their U.S. counterparts by statistically significant margins on international assessments of reading for “literary experience.”  

However, fourth-graders’ performance drops off when it comes to informational reading, slipping behind four other countries. Meanwhile, our 15-year-olds drop behind their peers in 14 countries when asked “to acquire and use information” from written texts, a skill required in everyday life and work.

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), euphemistically known as the nation’s report card, show a similar pattern. 

Despite posting reading gains overall, nearly a third of fourth-graders still score below NAEP’s “basic” level in reading, meaning those students are not able to “locate relevant information, make simple inferences, [or] use their understanding of the text to identify details that support a given interpretation or conclusion.”

Even more worrisome, a majority of 12th-graders—62 percent―do not score above the “basic” reading level. And once these students graduate from high school, many continue to struggle with poor literacy skills as college students and young adults. In 2013, the ACT found that only 44 percent of high school graduates who took its college-entrance exam demonstrated an aptitude to handle the reading requirements of first-year college coursework.

More Reading Across Subjects, Not Less Literature

A lack of exposure to informational texts -- and the reading strategies necessary to comprehend the content -- may play a role in pulling down the overall reading achievement of American students.

Informational content comprises most of the reading required in college and the working world. Yet, expository texts make up just seven percent of instructional reading at the elementary level and a mere 15 percent in middle school―and the complexity of those texts has declined in recent decades. 

The Common Core attempts to change that by encouraging a different balance between informative and literary content as shown in the accompanying chart.

Toward this end, the Common Core delineates reading standards specifically for history/social studies, science, and technical subjects at the secondary level, in addition to standards for the English language arts classroom. 

A cross-curricular approach to secondary reading instruction brings implementation challenges since middle- and high-school teachers generally function as subject-matter specialists and traditionally have lacked the training―and responsibility―for reading instruction. 

Research shows that students need sustained exposure to informational texts to build critical reading strategies and that instruction in informational texts, along with literary content, enhances students’ overall literacy skills. 

Clearly, today’s reading standards need to be high and rich enough so graduates are ready for the demands of college, careers and citizenship. Exposing students to a balance of nonfiction and fiction can provide them with valuable literary knowledge as well as the practical literacy skills they need to function in daily life. 

This won’t be achieved by simply replacing fiction texts with nonfiction. Rather, school officials need to broaden students’ exposure to all forms of written content and incorporate more reading across all subjects.

Questions for School Leaders

Standards are, of course, only the first step. School leaders must also make sure their schools have the capacity to teach students to new standards. To begin, we suggest that school leaders consider some of the following questions:

  • How do our students perform on national and state reading assessments? Does performance remain consistent or does it decline in specific grades, among specific groups or in specific content areas?
  • Does the existing curriculum provide a balance of informational and literary texts?
  • Do our schools provide reading instruction across subjects or only in English Language Arts?
  • What support or professional development do content-area teachers need to incorporate reading instruction into their lessons?
  • What interventions do teachers and schools use to support struggling readers?
  • What partnership opportunities exist in our community to extend capacity?
  • What resources are available to help parents reinforce their child’s literacy development at home?


Christine Duchouquette is a former policy intern at the Center for Public Education, who now works as the coordinator for the University of Maryland’s Academic Achievement Program. Kristen Loschert is writer, editor, and editorial consultant, specializing in education and public policy issues. Patte Barth is director of the Center for Public Education.

Published October 2014.
Copyright the Center for Public Education.