Considering Common Core: Why Fiction Matters

If you, like me, are in a state that has fully adopted the Common Core, then you know one of the major shifts in literature is away from fiction and into informational text. That’s not to say that we are to throw away all of our novels and short stories, and stop writing poetry and narratives, but the emphasis of the Common Core is clearly on non-fiction, informational writing and reading.

For many of us, particularly those of us who teach in elementary levels, this is going to be a huge shift in what we teach, how and the resources we have available to us. Although we do use smaller non-fiction texts in my classroom, much of the reading that we do right now is fiction: novels, short stories, narratives, poetry, etc.

The rationale, as I understand it, is that being ready for the world of work and college requires analytical thinking skills and understanding of the world, and the writers of the Common Core seem to believe that non-fiction is a critical component to that kind of learning. Fiction is still part of the expectations (and in Massachusetts, our state has put fiction in greater measure than some other states thanks to our state officials using their “wiggle room” to add in more fiction standards), but reading and writing and research will mostly unfold around informational strands in the new standards.

I had this in mind as I was reading a great piece in the The Boston Sunday Globe last weekend.  In the piece, called Why Fiction Is Good for You by Jonathan Gottschall, the idea of reading fiction as a way to explore the world, make moral decisions, and use critical thinking skills for a whole range of reasons gets its due (although the act of writing fiction is barely mentioned.) Gottschall notes that recent research around the brain and stories seems to indicate just how important this connection is:

This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.

But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. More peculiarly, fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.


When we think of how learning informs the future citizens of the world, we want to remember that a balance of texts is a key consideration, and as this article shows, the reading and understanding of fictionalized stories is not a frill, but an important part of how we come to understand ourselves and the world in which we inhabit. I surely hope that the push into Common Core does not mean that there are classrooms where these ideas are not longer fully explored.

As he writes, fiction shapes us — for the better.

Fiction is often treated like a mere frill in human life, if not something worse. But the emerging science of story suggests that fiction is good for more than kicks. By enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction. At the same time, story exerts a kind of magnetic force, drawing us together around common values. In other words, most fiction, even the trashy stuff, appears to be in the public interest after all.


Peace (in the real world of stories),


  1. The emphasis on non-fiction extends down the grades into kindergarten. My students are passionate about non-fiction so it’s an easy bump for me. The colorful texts, full of interesting illustrations, help students better understand the content and generate lots of questions/thinking. Even the quietest kids can forget themselves and contribute to conversations. Early writing work is based on real life experiences as those are the things children have first hand personal knowledge of and they can explain them with more emotion and better detail.
    I connected with, “Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds.”
    Very often children do better when situations are not real, and not part of their own personal experience banks, because the fictional threats and insecurities can be experienced in their heads and still learned from.
    The guided reading and interactive read aloud experiences can really tap into the comprehension of text – within, beyond, and about the text. When I dropped by your classroom yesterday, you were reinforcing a foreshadowing that a student had picked up on. Authors give us so many things to think about. In picture books, we have character expressions and movements, background colors, and often rich detail in setting. I like the movement toward non-fiction because many teachers have avoided them. The book closets are limited in those selections. A few years back, I ordered lots of science related guided reading texts for the closet and they are well used now.

    • I wonder if early childhood grades will have an easier shift than upper grades? Is there more flexibility in the kinds of texts that you do, Gail? Just wondering …

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