Closer Readings Commentary

What’s up with the Distinction between Literature and Informational Texts?

Eileen Murphy Buckley is the founder of ThinkCERCA, the author of 360 Degrees of Text: Using Poetry to Teach Close Reading and Powerful Writing (NCTE, 2011), and is a former teacher and administrator in Chicago Public Schools.

Why teach Common Core State Standards in the first place?

The Common Core Standards expect that all students will acquire extremely sophisticated literacy skills: a radical change from previous education reform measures that were driven by a very different rhetoric, which centered on words like “proficient” and “adequate.” The authors of the Common Core State Standards, however, use words like “master” and “private deliberation.” Students who attain this “mastery” are readers who “readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature.”

The CCSS goal is set well beyond college and career readiness—aiming to develop the kind of citizenry that relies upon reading not just to build knowledge but to “enlarge experience” and “broaden worldviews.” In this vision, citizens “reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic.” (ELA Standards, Overview). The CCSS are therefore focused not only on skills and knowledge, but also on intellectual values, challenging our school systems to develop a country of thinkers.

The Core Anchor Standards in reading clearly spell out these ambitious goals in terms of performance tasks that seem to be perfectly reasonable ways of assessing this level of sophistication. But it is puzzling to some that the grade level standards for K–12 make a distinction between two kinds of reading: one for literature and another for informational texts. The CCSS documents even quantify the suggested percentage of instruction time that should be allocated to each.

Now, many are under the impression that there is a hard and fast line between a literary approach to reading and reading for information; but others argue that this distinction is often dubious. So, in the spirit of intellectual values and bold visions for a thinking and humane citizenry, let’s see how the difference between the two types of reading holds up in real life.

Reading in real life: Picasso’s paints

One real-life source of text accessible to students required to master the standards is the New York Times. While looking for an informational text of sufficient complexity to be worthy of instruction for sixth graders in the Common Core era, I readily found one in the Science Times section of the newspaper, “Picasso’s Masterpieces Made with House Paints.”

Students asked to “analyze in detail how a key individual, event, or idea is introduced, illustrated, and elaborated … (e.g., through examples or anecdotes),” as CCSS standards require, would quickly discover that the informational nugget of the text—about the Department of Energy’s nanoprobe x-ray machine, which measures the most infinitesimal particles on earth—is framed within a complex narrative that makes use of regular literary devices. The author makes a protagonist of the scientist who used sophisticated scientific equipment to end a debate regarding Picasso’s choice of paint. To generate suspense, he plays on the underlying tension between juxtaposed themes: the serious science requiring mega x-ray machines and the historical debate over whether or not Picasso was the first major painter to use house paint in his art. He employs three distinct narratives to do so: one about Picasso, the revolutionary artist; another concerning the art-historical debate about Picasso’s use of house paint; and the culminating one that tells the tale of the scientist at Argonne National Laboratories who had an interest in the Picasso controversy.

Of course! Reading in real life is complicated. Since Hammurabi’s Code, the Bible, and Homer’s Odyssey, evidence abounds that literary and informational texts have never easily been separated. Arguments are artfully presented throughout literature, from Renaissance sonnets to earth-shifting speeches of the 19th century: “Ain’t I a Woman;” the Gettysburg Address; or anything by Frederick Douglass. Even a cursory glance at literary traditions worldwide illustrates the ways in which cogent reasoning has been delivered in complex literary forms. Ground-breaking works classified as science such as Origin of the Species, The Double Helix, and A Brief History of Time, as well as contemporary works of fiction such as The Things They Carried are riddled with blurry distinctions between information and literature.

The missing literary standard

One of the most striking distinctions that the standards make in my mind is found in Reading Literature Standard Number 8: “Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.”

From grades K12, this standard simply reads “not applicable to literature.”

To that I say, who remembers the book Everything is an Argument? Are there English majors who disagree with the argument in this title? Sure, but not many. Depending upon whether we are classifying a text as an argument based on the author’s intended purpose, the forum in which it was published, the audience’s reading of text, or the features of the text, examples of arguments can be found throughout the history of literature.

In American literature, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin come to mind as texts that argue as much as they tell a good story—as do more recent works of fiction, such as Tony Morrison’s Beloved.

In the end, the distinctions between literary and informational texts are somewhat trivial and their purpose utilitarian—perhaps a concession to those who demand clarity, even at the cost of risking absurdity.

I hope we forge ahead. Those of us who aspire to the goal of a thinking and humane citizenry, sharing intellectual values that are developed in thoughtful classrooms across disciplines, will help students achieve success in the standards regardless of whether or not we declare a distinction between literature and information. Great science teachers will teach while championing art history and literature teachers will reveal the literary genius of Jonathan Swift’s argument in “A Modest Proposal” by providing informational texts about the history and science of Swift’s day—because that’s what sophisticated thinkers can do.