English Class Showdown: Non-fiction vs. Fiction Books

(Source: David Michael Slater's "Battle of the Books" cover)
                                (Source: David Michael Slater’s “Battle of the Books” cover)
I still remember the books that I read in my high school English classes: Death of a Salesman, The Great Gatsby, Macbeth, Life of Pi, Pygmalion, The Princess Bride, Antigone. . . and recently, as I pondered over why I had read so few non-fiction books during those four years, I realized that the books I read in school were all fiction. Why is that?

Could it be because non-fiction classics are just few and far between? But that’s not the case; I would consider books like Thoreau’s Walden, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species “classics” among non-fiction, along with other prominent essays and poetry/prose collections. Could it be because non-fiction is kind of dry? Doubt it. Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies are definitely more interesting than some of the books I’ve read for English class. Then is it just habit? Do we love English classics because we’ve loved them for years and years?

I don’t really know the answers to these questions, but in the last few years, non-fiction has been slowly (and grudgingly, in some cases) being incorporated into English classes in the U.S. through the Common Core State Standards. This means that texts such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream address, EPA’s Recommended Levels of Insulation, Jefferson’s The Declaration of Independence, Amy Tan’s Mother Tongue, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and Wayt W. Gibbs’ Untangling the Roots of Cancer, among many other “informational texts”, as they are being termed, are emerging in the classroom1. (See the Scholastic collection of Common Core reads for a better idea of what kind of books kids are reading nowadays. Color me impressed!)

Although I’m disappointed that I missed out on this amazing variety of reading material, I understand why many English teachers and readers don’t approve of this change: more non-fiction requirements means less time to read the classics, thus changing – maybe even to the point of restricting – how students read and think critically2 3. From my point of view, I’d prefer to get literary breadth before depth, because how else will we know if we like classics, history, science fiction, or poetry if we haven’t been exposed to it early on? However, it’s definitely problematic that the increase in reading material will cause important literature lessons to be cut short.

What do you think about this battle between non-fiction and fiction books in the classroom? Are you pro-“informational texts”, pro-classics, or a fan of both?

  1. Common Core State Standards Initiative (2012). Common Core Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Appendix B: Test Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks
  2. NPR (2013).New Reading Standards Aim To Prep Kids For College — But At What Cost? 
  3. Huffington Post (2012). Common Core Nonfiction Reading Standards Mark The End Of Literature, English Teachers Say. 

9 thoughts on “English Class Showdown: Non-fiction vs. Fiction Books

  1. Very interesting post–and let’s take it in the opposite direction–
    Should literature be incorporated into content area classes? Many teachers say no–they have all they can do to get through the required material of, say, a history course without bringing literature into the mix. However–literature can be a motivating and engaging complement to content area instruction. Bringing some well-chosen historical fiction into the history curriculum could be just the thing to engage reluctant learners. Same thing with science. Does it take some creativity and the ability to think outside the box? Absolutely. Is it worth it? If it helps to reach some of those unengaged kids, I think so!

    • Good question! It does seem as though history and science teachers are reluctant to incorporate literature into their classes, and I agree with you that historical fiction (and even historical non-fiction!) can engage students who might not like history, et cetera. I know I definitely would have benefited from that!

      I think what students really need is a more interdisciplinary curriculum, where the right books for art, science, history, and other classes can be integrated into lessons so that there could be cross-talk between the different subjects. . . if that’s the case, there would also be less of a burden on English teachers to delve into material that they might not be familiar with.

      Alas, our education system doesn’t allow for that. But at least they’re trying to add more books into the curriculum! I await the joyful day when Flatland gets assigned as reading material for math classes. 🙂

  2. I’m not in high school yet, but I’m just going to contribute to the discussion with my little comment 😛

    I can’t say that I am angry about the fact that there is a lack of non-fiction in ny English class, but I do think there should be some time devoted to it. Autobiographies can make for great class discussion, and essays can also lead to them. Also, my Social Studies teacher makes us read historical fiction to let us feel it was like during the time in history we’re studying. So it’s not like fiction and non-fiction can’t mix.

    Great discussion post!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Lesley! It’s great that your Social Studies teacher added some historical fiction into your lessons… I wish mine did that, haha.

      And I agree, autobiographies and essays would definitely be great discussion prompts, and I think some teachers are trying to “mix” fiction and non-fiction; they’d pair up one non-fiction book with a fiction book to emphasize key components that are seen in both. It will be interesting to see how this U.S. Common Core thing develops over the next few years!

  3. Yay! I know this could cut down on the number of fiction classics students read in high school, but I still think it’s a good thing. So many people are intimidated by non-fiction or sure they don’t like non-fiction even though they’ve never really given it a go. I hope that reading some non-fiction in high school could help fix those problems and that reading a few fiction classics will be enough to get people hooked on that genre too 🙂

    • I agree, Katie – I definitely think it’s worth it to add more non-fiction into the curriculum so that people can actually get a sense of what non-fiction is. Maybe YA non-fiction will be the next big thing? I guess we’ll see in a few years if it makes a difference or not!

      • That would be awesome! I feel like that’s kind of a gap right now. You can find some children’s non-fiction and plenty of adult, but I don’t think my library has any in the YA section. I’ll have to check it out next time I’m there and see if that’s true.

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