In Defense of Fiction Reading

Eductaion reform is a contentious topic, and everybody has their own ideas about the best ways to improve the teaching of basic skills. Some people favor a "whole language" approach, others think we should go back to teaching phonics and memorizing grammar rules. I've heard people speak of "diagramming sentences" as absolutely the worst idea ever, while others think it's the key element missing from our students' preparation.

It take a real outside-the-box thinker like Ann Althouse to suggest that the silver bulet is to eliminate fiction reading from schools:

And why does reading even need to be a separate subject from history in school? Give them history texts and teach reading from them. Science books too. Leave the storybooks for pleasure reading outside of school. They will be easier reading, and with well-developed reading skills, kids should feel pleasure curling up with a novel at home. But even if they don't, why should any kind of a premium be placed on an interest in reading novels? It's not tied to economic success in life and needn't be inculcated any more than an interest in watching movies or listening to popular music. Leave kids alone to find out out what recreational activities enrich and satisfy them. Some may want to dance or play music or paint. Just because teachers tend to be the kind of people who love novels does not mean that this choice ought to be imposed on young people via compulsory education. Teach them about history, science, law, logic -- something academic and substantive -- and leave the fictional material for after hours.

Really, this is a breathtaking suggestion. I don't think I've ever heard anyone else advocate that the key to education reform is to completely discard pretty much all of the humanities disciplines. (David Horowitz has argued for the elimination of humanities faculty, but not banishing their subjects from the curriculum.)

Like most cranky contrarian blog posts, this contains a tiny sliver of a good idea. There's really no great shortage of people saying that non-fiction reading is an important part of learning to read, and groups like Jon Scieszka's "Guys Read" project make non-fiction a major part of their strategy to encourage literacy among boys. Althouse is right to argue that reading non-fiction for content is an important skill.

The problem with this little outburst is that I'm not sure who she's arguing against.

If there are educational experts out there saying that the whole problem with the public school curriculum is that kids just read too many damn facts, I haven't run across them. I'm not aware of anybody saying that reading fiction is the only way to teach reading-- the reading programs that I'm aware of use a mix of fiction and non-fiction sources.

That's as it should be, because children are individuals, and what works to get one child to read may fail miserably for another. A proper reading curriculum should include all sorts of material, to appeal to the largest possible range of individual tastes and learning styles. Teaching exclusively through the use of non-fiction is as crazy as teaching exclusively through the use of fiction.

And there are good and important reasons to have students read fiction. Janet Stemwedel (from whom I got the original Althouse link) has a fairly comprehensive list, to which I'll add just one point:Reading fiction is sometimes a better way of teaching people "something academic and substantive" than simply lecturing them.

To cop a line from Teresa Nielsen Hayden, "Story is a force of nature." Stories are extremely powerful, and a well-told story can often make an important point more effectively than a well-reasoned lecture. This isn't exactly a shocking new literary theory, either-- pretty much every culture in the history of culture has used stories to teach lessons. Aesop wrote fables, Jesus taught in parables, the Grimm Brothers wrote gory little stories. We've got a big thick book of Jane Yolen's favorite folk tales around here somewhere, and pretty much all of those stories have a point that goes beyond mere entertainment.

The same is true of more recent history. There's a reason why Uncle Tom's Cabin is held up as an important part of the abolitionist movement in the mid-1800's, and books like Invisible Man are an important part of the Civil Rights movement of the Twentieth Century. Well told stories can make people understand reality much more effectively and immediately than pages of facts and statistics. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is almost entirely fiction, but on another level, it makes Vietnam more real than mere factual accounts. And for that reason, I first read it as a part of a History class in college.

Fiction is not just for recreation. And for that reason alone (let alone all the others that Janet lists), it has an important place in our schools.

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1. I'm skeptical that fiction reading isn't correlated to economic success, actually.

2. I'm also skeptical that teachers enjoy reading novels. Most teachers I know are semi-literate.

The key to education is to teach kids to read at home, before they ever set foot in a school. I have nothing against public education, but I think parents need to inculcate a thrill for learning before the kid goes to school for the first time.


I think you can make a legitimate argument that many teachers are semi-literate in math and science, but it would be hard to say that "most teachers" don't like to read. I'm talking about elementary teachers here. Frankly, if anything teacher tend to overvalue reading versus imaginative play or hands-on discovery.

Full disclosure: I teach 8th grade science.

I find it interesting anyone would be against fiction reading. I wonder if they would still feel that way if the reading was of Shakespeare. I believe the objection is in the use of books that are nonsensical.

To build that love of reading requires an exposure to books people enjoy to read. I prefer the Science Fiction genre, my wife the Fantasy. Every now and then I'll even read a Zanth. For a fourth grader this is probably going to include the Bearenstein bears or similar material.

I do believe reading needs a higher emphasis placed upon it in general in the U.S. education system. I still remember weekly book reports. The class that did it best was advanced composition in junior high where the book choice was left to us, the students. My junior high was combined in the same school as my elementary school where in 6th grade books were assigned. During the 6th grade year we had books assigned for reading. Throughout the year it covered at least one or two of each genre (I still dislike westerns). But by being exposed to them I found the genres I did like.

What's interesting, and noted in Chad's blog previously, is students dislike repetition of seemingly mundane tasks. Even though that repetition builds skills that are necessary for later success they breed contempt for the education process, or at least the teacher who has the unfortunate duty to teach math (usually the worst offender with memorization of multiplication tables). No offense to our math teachers out there, but the system used is horrid, the introduction of calculators in some classes that now mandate them is criminal (1st year high school algebra???). My daughter is turning 10 and already understands some of the basic concepts of algebra (substitutions of letters for numbers or sets of numbers, solving for unknowns) all it took was putting it into terms she could grasp. Or simply put, explaining it to her in her vocabulary and then introducing her to new terms that represented an idea she had become familiar with.

Joseph - I would say I disagree in the role parents play in the thrill of learning. Humans are a curious bunch, and at a young age humans have a genuine thrill of having learned something new, with or without adult intervention. It isn't that the parents need to impress a thrill of learning in their children; they simply need to encourage it. So I wouldn't say they need to inculcate it but rather simply encourage and nurture the innate curiosity.

What we need to do is show them how learning the facts behind something allows them to apply those facts to other things. Like the difference in pressure makes a balloon fly when the air is released is the same principle that makes them pop when poked with a pin. Both of those being something that children generally enjoy doing.

JYB: Teachers are all about students reading, and generally view it as a valuable pedagogical activity for people learning to read. But they don't necessarily view it as a fun activity for adults in any larger proportion than the general populace.

A quick ? comment. The thesis of the book "Cultural Literacy" was that reading scores decline at the point where factual knowledge is needed to make sense of the implied context of a sentence. (His classic example is knowing that Lee's surrender at Appomattox was at the end of the US Civil War and took place circa 1865.) We do a great job of teaching the mechanics of reading. Locally, our worst schools are still in the 90% territory in 3rd grade. After 5th it is all downhill. Because their homes lack the information resources to pick up random facts, and their school books don't fill that gap?

That argument is about having them read stories (like historical fiction) that teach related facts in a fun, easy going style, rather than ones that are mostly nonsense (like the one Bush was reading on 9/11). History books, like college physics books, are usually awful to read. Historical fiction (like science writing) can fill that gap.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 19 May 2007 #permalink

I could have done with out Jane Austin in high school.....

Fiction provides a setting to talk about how people and society interact in a highly idealized situation (sort of like assume like assuming no air resistance?)

re grammar I know it is just one data point but, I was not forced to do grammar drills as a child and can't write worth anything. My girlfriend was made to do grammar drills (by her mother, not school) and writes much better than I do.

There is also the question if the point of education is to bring everyone up to some (low) level, or prepare the best students to go on and do brilliant things. What your goal is determines the best way to get there.

How do books like red badge of courage get classified under this scheme?

By a cornellian (not verified) on 19 May 2007 #permalink

To play the devil's advocate, I think that although certainly a great deal can go wrong with english teaching (requiring people to memorise things by rote, like facts of a novel), it can also be used as a basis to build up critical skills about the world. Namely, I think it is important to be able to pick apart the arguments used by a commenter in, say, a newspaper article, understand where they are coming from, find out what they are saying and what they are not, and then decide on the real nature of the situation that they are commenting for oneself. This sort of ability is an important anti-brainwashing technique, that is valuable for citizens to develop.

More generally, developing a skill for analysis of people and situations in a fictional situation, particularly if the prose is well written, can be quite valuable for young people to come to grips with, as it enables them to roleplay how to maturely deal with such situations if or when they occur within their lives. Of course bad literature can have the opposite effect; but so can bad teachers.

I'm sure there are also other good reasons for studying english pre-university, but these two are the ones that immediately come to mind.

By Masked Terror (not verified) on 19 May 2007 #permalink

Kids need to know that they aren't just learning things. They are learning how to learn.

So when a kid tells me that his dad has never used calculus once since he left school, and never missed it, I point out that people doing weight training aren't training to, some day, repetitively lift weights for real. They're doing it to build muscle, which can be used for lots of things (not least to impress people).

A large part of the point of school is building brain. And I think it's pretty clear that fiction excercises the intellect in ways that nothing else does. Even beyond the pleasure and the actual skills you get from reading fiction (as discussed above), it is important as an excecise.

By SmellyTerror (not verified) on 19 May 2007 #permalink

re grammar I know it is just one data point but, I was not forced to do grammar drills as a child and can't write worth anything. My girlfriend was made to do grammar drills (by her mother, not school) and writes much better than I do.

I would submit that writing is a lot more than adverbs and participles, my man. The gap in fundamentals (fundamentals. win. championships.) between you and your special lady seems to be indicative of a larger difference in education and experience, especially given that she was getting encouragement from her mom.

As a counter-data-point, I had one short course in 4th grade grammar at my hippy school -- we learned that Verbs were like Thor, Nouns like Oden, and adjectives like Freya; seriously -- and yet I write very well. I'd say that's largely because I had some great writing instructors later on in (public) High School, all of whom used both fiction and non-fiction quite well BTW. I found myself enjoying the act of communicating via written words, enjoying being a writer. After that, my the horrific spelling and lack of technical grammar skills were just tics to work on (that I still work on).

I tend to think that pedagogical tactics that rely on the "banking" concept have limited value. There are many disciplines where rote memorization of basic rules can be a helpful foundation, but the real education begins when students are engaged to utilize knowledge to make things happen, or to figure things out. This is praxis, thought-into-action, theory meeting practice. It is where knowledge becomes power, and it's also (coincidence?) where the system tends to really fall flat.

Greater thinkers that I -- Paulo Freire, John Dewey -- have been saying this for the better part of a century. A public education system which fosters critical thought rather than merely teaching conformity and test-compliance is a cornerstone of truly equitable society. Unfortunately we have a ways to go.

Teaching reading by having people read history is sort of like teaching math by having people solve science or engineering problems. Yeah, it can be done, and in many cases was the original motivation for some of the mathematics, but it only works for a few people... and even for those people it's usually more efficient to teach them the math and then turn them loose on the applications.

And Althouse's position is muddled by a direct conflation of the purpose of undergraduate and post-graduate education with elementary and high school education. In post graduate education especially (like, say, law school) you're there because you need tools for a higly specific discipline. Earlier in the process, you need more general tools.

By John Novak (not verified) on 20 May 2007 #permalink

"Eductaion" ==> Education.

"Zanth" ==> Xanth.

"... knowing that Lee's surrender at Appomattox was at the end of the US Civil War and took place circa 1865..."

In the future, the only War they'll teach about in the USA is the War of 1812, and the only question they'll ask (multiple choice) is what year was it fought.

So the people who read Harry Turtledove's take on the Civil War with AK-47s won't be at an unfair advantage.

One of the lectures that I went to at Seminar Day, part of the annual Caltech Alumni weekend, was be Jenijoy LaBelle, the first woman hired as a professor at Caltech. [she comments "but Olga Taussky Todd should have been"].

He talk was on how she wish she'd taught us Shakespeare. Fascinating, clever lecture. Claimed that Love's Labors Lost was a play written in 1595 about Caltech.

Anyway, an alum or spouse of alum asked how students today differed from when she'd started teaching English Lit here circa 35 years ago.

One one hand, she said, she could no longer assume that they'd get the allusions to the Bible, Greek Mythology, Roman History, or, for that matter, had read Chaucer, Spenser, or Milton.

On the other hand, they had typically read more American fiction.

By the way, if you completely ban all reading of fiction, and punish those who are caught, the readership and passion will increase greatly. Forbidden fruit.

There are a lot of things wrong with public education and I do not think banning fiction would help. First of all many of the history textbooks I had were all but unreadable. So unless they'll be written as more of a narrative, kids would never like books. Science texts would be even more problematic.

Unfortunately, some tools designed to help teachers test reading can make reading a chore rather than a pleasure. My little sister's school uses Accerlerated Reader, a computer program that tests a child's understanding of a book and provids the teacher with the student's grade, point level of the book and reading level of the book. Her teacher makes them earn X number of points each grading period (based on the grade level and score on the test). I won't go into all the gory details but this teacher is ruining reading for some of the students because she is so rigid about all of this. A couple of quick examples: my sister has an upper limit on the grade level she is allowed to read; she has to read books from the school library with AR stickers because she has to take the tests; non-fiction test are harder than fiction tests for the same reading level. I could go on. This has been a very frustrating year for me, my parents, and my little sister (and I hope we have driven her teacher up the wall all year).

By marciepooh (not verified) on 21 May 2007 #permalink

P.S. - I should add that I think the AR program can be very useful when implemented differently than this year's teacher has. I normally would not wish ill of any teacher. Teachers are wonderful people.

By marciepooh (not verified) on 21 May 2007 #permalink

I would add that there's a lot to be learned from the structure of fiction. I'm not speaking specifically of the broader plot elements (beginning, middle, end), but instead of how good writers use a narrative to portray an idea that is too subtle and too filled with qualifications to be summarized in a sentence or two. (Yes, high-school students are asked to summarize themes just this way on short-answer quizzes all the time, but that's a different issue). Sometimes the story itself is the simplest and briefest form the author's idea can take.

If people need to know anything in today's political environment, it's that sometimes things cannot be reduced to simple platitudes (Immigration is Bad versus The Land of Opportunity). Fiction, I think, could be the best way to teach this.

"... the structure of fiction. I'm not speaking
specifically of the broader plot elements (beginning,
middle, end)..."

The underlying algorithm was given classically as:

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. 'Where
shall I begin, please, your Majesty?' he asked. 'Begin
at the beginning,' the King said, very gravely, 'and
go on till you come to the end, then stop.'"
[Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland]

Modern scientists note that (beginning, middle, end)
is a fractal structure, as the beginning has its own
(beginning, middle, end), the middle has its own
(beginning, middle, end), and the end has its own
(beginning, middle, end).

The fractal is ruined by the quantization of words (or
letters, pixels of adobe of letters, whatever). But
we do see a power-law of structure, when works of
fiction are run through various types of

In a screenwriting course that my wife and I took, the
professor emphasized that, in screenplays, the best
place to begin is just AFTER the beginning, as late as
possible; and the best place to end is just BEFORE the
end, as early as possible. He had a nice acronym for
people who put extraneous material in screenplays:
SIFYN: Save It For Your Novel.