Give students a reality check: Assign more nonfiction books.

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010

It wasn't until I was in my 50s that I realized how restricted my high school reading lists had been and how little they had changed for my three children. They were enthusiastic readers, as my wife and I were. But all, or almost all, of the required books for both generations were fiction.

I am not dismissing the delights of Twain, Crane, Buck, Saroyan and Wilder, all of which I read in high school. But I think I also would have enjoyed Theodore H. White, John Hersey, Barbara Tuchman and Bruce Catton if they had been assigned.

Could that be changing? Maybe rebellious teens these days are fleeing Faulkner, Hemingway, Austen and Baldwin, or whoever is on the 12th grade English list, and furtively reading Malcolm Gladwell, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and other nonfiction stars.

Sadly, no. The Renaissance Learning company released a list of what 4.6 million students read in the 2008-09 school year, based on its Accelerated Reader program, which encourages children to choose their own books. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter has given way to the hormonal allure of Stephenie Meyer's teen vampire books, but both school and non-school books are still almost all fiction.

When I ask local school districts why this is, some get defensive and insist that they do require nonfiction. But the only title that comes up with any frequency is "Night," Elie Wiesel's story of his boyhood during the Holocaust. It is one of only two nonfiction works to appear in the Top 20 of Accelerated Reader's list of books read by high-schoolers. The other is "A Child Called 'It,' " Dave Pelzer's account of his alleged abuse as a child by his alcoholic mother.

Will Fitzhugh, whose Concord Review quarterly publishes research papers by high school students, has been fighting for more nonfiction for years. I agree with him that high school English departments' allegiance to novels leads impressionable students to think, incorrectly, that nonfiction is a bore. That makes them prefer fiction writing assignments to anything that could be described by that dreaded word "research."

A relatively new trend in student writing is called "creative nonfiction." It makes Fitzhugh shudder.

"It allows high school students (mostly girls) to complete writing assignments and participate in 'essay contests' by writing about their hopes, experiences, doubts, relationships, worries, victimization (if any), and parents, as well as more existential questions such as 'How do I look?' and 'What should I wear to school?' " he said in a 2008 essay for EducationNews.org.

Educators say nonfiction is more difficult than fiction for students to comprehend. It requires more factual knowledge, beyond fiction's simple truths of love, hate, passion and remorse. So we have a pathetic cycle: Students don't know enough about the real world because they don't read nonfiction, and they can't read nonfiction because they don't know enough about the real world.

Educational theorist E.D. Hirsch Jr. insists that this is what keeps many students from acquiring the communication skills they need for successful lives. "Language mastery is not some abstract skill," he says in "The Making of Americans," his latest book. "It depends on possessing broad general knowledge shared by other competent people within the language community."

I think we can help. Go to the online version of this column at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle and post comments with nonfiction titles that would appeal to teens. I will list your choices in a future column.

I can see why students hate writing research papers when their history and science reading has been confined to the flaccid prose of their textbooks. But what if they first read "Longitude" by Dava Sobel or "A Beautiful Mind" by Sylvia Nasar? What magical exploration of reality would you add to your favorite teenager's reading list?

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