Saturday, February 14, 2015

Do all students need to read fiction?

The idea that all students should read fiction is one of the unquestioned assumptions of the education establishment in general, and of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in particular.

Some in the education establishment have criticized the CCSS for de-emphasizing fiction. But on their Myths vs. Facts page Core authors reassure us that the emphasis on fiction in English and Language Arts classes will persist:

Myth: The standards do not have enough emphasis on fiction/literature.
Fact: The Common Core requires certain critical content for all students, including classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s founding documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare. Appropriately, the remaining crucial decisions about what content should be taught are made at the state and local levels. The standards require that a portion of what is read in high school should be informational text, yet the bulk of this portion will be accounted for in non-ELA disciplines that do not frequently use fictional texts. This means that stories, drama, poetry, and other literature account for the majority of reading that students will do in their ELA classes. In addition to content coverage, the standards require that students systematically acquire knowledge in literature and other disciplines through reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
Factor in the CCSS's one-size-fits-all approach (see also here and here) to preparing students for college and career, and you have "stories, drama, poetry, and other literature" for all.

But how well does this requirement serve kids on the autistic spectrum? I first raised this question here several years ago; I raise it repeatedly with my students. Many of them, even though they themselves are teachers of students on the autistic spectrum, share the general assumption that all kids need to learn to read fiction, AS students included. They share this assumption despite the fact that, as they themselves have seen, and as I noted a couple of days ago, reading fiction is one of the most challenging academic tasks that many AS students face.

The many AS students who struggle with fiction are unlikely to be English majors in college. They are unlikely to have jobs that require reading fiction. True, fiction might serve as a medium for them to work on their social reasoning and empathy skills: why was Hamlet so mean to Ophelia?; why did Lady Macbeth assail Macbeth's manhood? But more targeted, simplified, social skills training conducted by trained professionals and specifically tailored to AS kids and focused on real-life interactions is probably more effective.

In other words, it's highly questionable whether the CCCSS requirement that "that students systematically acquire knowledge in literature" helps AS students attain the CCSS's ultimate goal for all students: "preparation for college and career."

So why should autistic students be required to read fiction? I'm still waiting for an answer.

4 comments:

lgm said...

Possibly because they need to learn to distinguish between fact and fiction? The lessons learned in lit are going to apply to what they see on the screen and in the drama of real life.

Anonymous said...

I think all students should be familiar with culturally relevant literature. However, I *don't* think that the focus on literary analysis is helpful for most students. I would much prefer that English courses spend their time on academic writing of all types. And I would prefer there to be a mix of well written fiction and nonfiction assigned--not just in English class, but in history and science as well.

Cranberry said...

A researcher at the New School for Social Research did find that reading literary fiction improved students' theory of mind: http://www.newschool.edu/nssr/faculty.aspx?id=16180.

It's important to note that this improvement was not seen when students read popular fiction.

Scientific American report on the study: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/.

An interesting question would be, whether students who do not read at elevated levels would be able to profit from reading literary fiction.

kim said...

I was an English major in college and studied literature in grad school, so more than just about anyone, I see the value of reading fiction. Yet, when it comes to autistic students (my son is one), I don't think reading fiction is necessarily useful.

With visually impaired students, we recognize that they will learn less than peers when it comes to, say, art appreciation, because of the nature of their disability. Yet with a developmental or cognitive disability like autism, we think that if students just try harder, they will be able to overcome the wiring in their brains that makes interpreting other people's (or characters') emotions and motivations difficult to understand.

There is an enormous amount of literature that is not literary fiction that could be appropriate for autistic students. Philosophy, history, or political theory may be sophisticated or difficult, but it won't require students to understand what characters feel or why they act. Even classical or medieval literature, before the early modern period where there begins to be a more psychological or introspective approach to individual characters, could be appropriate to some students.

I am worried that I may have to homeschool my autistic child at some point because of inflexible standards like these may be.