The ineffectiveness of the reading curricula in American public schools has long been a concern to educators but has now become a critical issue. When reading instruction is organized around reading groups, reading material may or may not address a child's distinct reading levels or interests, and each child may only read a handful of sentences each day. The vast majority of books concern the make-believe antics of talking animals, or for teens, overwrought coming-of-age dystopias. Students are asked to read very little expository text, as little as 7-15% in elementary and middle schools.
Of course, this has implications for high school and college. The average reading level of the top forty books in grades 9-12 is barely above fifth grade - clearly, not high enough to prepare students for college-level reading, nor even for the true high-school level reading demanded of informed citizens. The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given every other year to American students in public schools was able to rate only 34% of students as "proficient" readers. To add to that, scores on the SAT Critical Reading portion dropped three points last year to a record low, only the second time in twenty years reading scores have fallen by that much in a single year.
All of this underperformance in American students has led to a non-fiction revolution; the Common Core has just stipulated that nonfiction must begin to outweigh fiction as children advance through school. To help American students become competent and at ease in reading highly complex material will require significant teacher training, new investments in learning materials, and a shift in instructional paradigms that will take years to implement successfully.
In the midst of this “revolution”, at MMS, we have been focusing on non-fiction for nearly two decades. After completing phonetic reading series such as Mac and Tab, MMS students read non-fiction books, typically reading a book each day at school and taking a book home to read aloud each night. By reading with their children, parents get to refresh their knowledge of a wide range of subjects, such as the eating patterns of arachnids, weaponry needs of Roman warriors, and the day-to-day lives of children in ancient China. They also see firsthand how reading non-fiction creates a foundation for their children’s later learning, especially for the cognitive demands of reading complex text.
Our students receive individual reading lessons that correspond to their precise skill level and interest. During their K4 year alone, they learn phonetic words, blends, sight words, eventually writing their own non-fiction stories using the movable alphabet. Lower Elementary students read and complete individual book reports using atlases, encyclopedias, and non-fiction texts about distinct subjects in geography, biology, zoology, botany, and history both ancient and contemporary – the type of reading that we now know prepares students for the cognitive demands of the true understanding of complex text.
The result of all of this focus is that MMS students are fantastic readers, and while test scores are no complete measure of curricular competence, the vast majority of our students read well above grade level. We credit this to several distinct factors: the age at which we begin reading instruction, the individualized instruction our teachers provide, the amount of time that we ask students to spend reading both in school and at home, and the type of reading material that we provide to our students.
Our decision to provide non-fiction reading material to our children is not limited to goals for reading competence. It has a great deal to do with the values we hold essential for our students. Reading books with titles like African Americans in History, The Life and Works of Mozart, Women in Science, Preserving our Great Lakes, and Recycling for Tomorrow help students understand how other people and animals live and have lived throughout the world. At a time when insight into the perspective of others seems more important than ever, books such as these are "windows on the world," informing others about the needs of people, other living creatures, and our shared ecosystems. Again and again, we have seen non-fiction books spark the natural empathy and curiosity of our students while building their leadership and stewardship skills. In the end, this character development may be one of the primary benefits of making nonfiction the cornerstone of our literacy program.