Narrative and Informational Texts & the Common Core

“There’s my nonfiction loving friend”— my friend announced to me not long ago when we ran into one another on the soccer field where our sons were playing.  Indeed, I enjoy reading nonfiction, as I’ve blogged about previously, but I love a good novel, short story or collection of poems, too.  One of my favorite aspects of the nonfiction book I just finished was the narrative embedded throughout.   While reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  by Rebecca Sloot, I experienced a biology refresher without having to read an informational textbook like text.  I’ll spare you my version of a summary or book review because the New York Times did a better job than I will, and I’d rather write about the topic of teaching narrative and informational text to K-12 students, especially given the dictates of the common core standards which call for greater emphasis on informational text.

This demand has caused a wide range of feelings and reactions from educators across the United States.  Some embrace the idea; others are outraged.  Most teachers with whom I have spoken plan to do what needs to be done to meet the needs of their students.  In a PBS Newshour report from May 14, 2012, John Marrow stated befittingly “savvy teachers do what works best.”  The report included interviews with teachers and administrators implementing a variety of reading programs for elementary aged students, and it questioned whether the common core standards will pay off.

As you will likely have noticed in the Newshour report, I’m not alone in thinking we don’t actually have to give up narrative completely.   Savvy teachers will do what works best when teaching students to read, write, speak, and listen and to be intelligent citizens in a global society.  Let’s consider Thomas Newkirk’s argument “Narrative is the deep structure of all good writing.  All good writing.  We struggle with writers who dispense with narrative form and simply present information because we are given no frame for comprehension.”   Acting on this proposition, we need to help students analyze text when they read and teach them to employ similar structures when they write.

Others have also written about not giving up narrative completely and with good reason; we can learn about various topics by reading narrative.  Take for example the way I experienced a biology refresher when reading Rebecca Skloot’s book.  I guarantee I would not have cared as much about DNA, cells and chromosomes had no narrative context been provided for me.  Skloot drew me into the story by telling me about the life of an African American woman from poverty whose cells were taken from her without permission and then used in research allowing scientists and researchers to profit.

Consider this explanation of cells and DNA from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

“Everybody always talking about cells and DNA,”  Deborah said at one point, “but I don’t understand what’s DNA and what’s in her cells.”  “Ah!”  Christoph said, excited, “DNA is what’s inside the cell! Inside each nucleus, if we could zoom in closer, you’d see a piece of DNA that looked like this.”  He drew a long squiggly line. “There’s forty-six of those pieces of DNA in every human nucleus.  We call those chromosomes—those are the things that were colored bright in that picture I gave you.”

Told within the context of narrative the explanation makes sense and serves as a nice biology refresher for me.  Would this explanation work in a biology classroom?  What if a teacher paired this explanation with other print and non-print texts to help students comprehend?  By providing students opportunities to read and to write interesting and complex texts we prepare them for life and the experiences that await them.

Thomas Newkirk.  “How We Really Comprehend Nonfiction.” Educational Leadership.  March 2012.

Rebecca Skloot.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  New York, Crown Publishers, 2010.


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