Archives For NYTimes “Your Brain on Fiction”

Smartblogs recently ran a post by Bill Ferriter titled “Reading Nonfiction is not Optional ” where he argued that there is too much fiction in a student’s reading diet. “The sad truth,” he wrote, “is that fiction still dominates the literacy lives of young readers. Whether they are wrapped up in fantastic exploits written by guys like Rick Riordan or churning through the latest release in the hottest new vampire series, today’s kids rarely make room for nonfiction in their book bags.”

Sad truth? Why is this a “sad truth”? What is wrong with reading fiction? Fiction, like its counterpart non-fiction, offers our student readers valuable life lessons. For example, in an online article in September 7, 2011 Reading Fiction ‘Improves Empathy’, Study Finds, Professor Keith Oatly at the University of Toronto who studies the psychology of fiction reports that:

“I think the reason fiction but not non-fiction has the effect of improving empathy is because fiction is primarily about selves interacting with other selves in the social world. The subject matter of fiction is constantly about why she did this, or if that’s the case what should he do now, and so on. With fiction we enter into a world in which this way of thinking predominates. …. In fiction, also, we are able to understand characters’ actions from their interior point of view, by entering into their situations and minds, rather than the more exterior view of them that we usually have.”

Annie Murphy Paul noted the same study in her article in The New York TimesYour Brain on Fiction (3/17/12) writing that, “Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.” Apparently, our brains cannot differentiate between the fictional experience and the real life experience, “in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” Furthermore, the simulation of social experience in fiction through a character’s point of view  helps prepare our brains for real-life social interactions.

In other words, while the genre of non-fiction may be the recording of real life, the genre of fiction is critical in preparing readers for real life.

In his post, Ferriter also quoted young adult (YA) writer Walter Dean Myers:

“We all know we should eat right and we should exercise, but reading is treated as if it’s this wonderful adjunct…We’re still thinking in terms of enticing kids to read with a sports book or a book about war. We’re suggesting that they’re missing something if they don’t read but, actually, we’re condemning kids to a lesser life. If you had a sick patient, you would not try to entice them to take their medicine. You would tell them, ‘Take this or you’re going to die.’ We need to tell kids flat out: reading is not optional.”

Ferriter’s paraphrase of Myers’s statement, the title of his post, “Reading Nonfiction is not Optional,” strikes the wrong tone. Myers, a writer of both YA fiction and non-fiction, did not specify as to the genre he endorsed for student reading. Myers was advocating reading, period. Both fiction and non-fiction are critical to our students’ growth and development, not one genre at the expense of another.

Independent reading means a student can choose to read non-fiction OR fiction

Yes, the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (ELA CCSS) call for an increase in non-fiction. The authors of the ELA CCSS created a little chart on page 5 of the ELA CCSS that notes that students should be reading 70% non-fiction and 30% fiction by grade 12. But this is not the ratio for reading in an English Language Arts classroom. That is the ratio for a whole school curriculum.

I am particularly sensitive to the increasing number of attacks on fiction and the need to reducing fiction from the English classroom. Ferriter’s post makes a similar argument and could be associated with the myth that “English teachers will be asked to teach non-fiction”. This myth is directly repudiated in the ELA CCSS document:

“Fact: With the Common Core ELA Standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary non‐fiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.”

In other words, reading must be offered in every discipline, students must read across the curriculum.While Ferriter’s Reading Nonfiction is Not Optional makes the important point that all teachers are responsible for modeling reading, he oversteps when he says, “If you want students to love nonfiction — and you should considering the important role that nonfiction plays in learning — you really do need to stop spending all of your sustained silent reading time figuring out what’s going to happen next to Origami Yoda.” Good SSR programs allow for independent choice in any genre by students. What Ferriter could have suggested that the expansion of SSR to other disciplines would increase reading of non-fiction while having the additional benefit of satisfying the ELA CCSS.

Of course, I often hear arguments from teachers in other disciplines moaning, “What do I drop out of my course to include reading?” which could be interpreted as the reason why the authors of the ELA CCSS felt the need to develop reading and writing standards for History, Social Studies, Science and the Technical Areas. These disciplines need to step up the reading in their classrooms.

But who said reading non-fiction was an option? I can assure Ferriter that English/Language Arts teachers are dedicated to improving student reading. They are not hung up on genre, but when they teach fiction, English/Language Arts teachers are teaching their subject matter. The adoption of the ELA CCSS means that all disciplines must offer for opportunities to share their subject matter. To re-frame Ferriter’s argument to align with the new standards, reading non-fiction in every classroom is not an option, and reading non-fiction in an English/Language Arts classroom can be a choice. After all, that growing body of research shows that fiction is just as important as non-fiction for our students, including what happens in Origami Yoda.

English teachers are seduced by literature. We fell in love with an author’s language, a fascinating plot turn, or a well-developed character, and we are bold in our love. While students may roll their eyes when we proclaim The Great Gatsby  or Great Expectations as  a favorite book, or snicker when we dramatically recite lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we hardly pause in our attempts to introduce 1984 into 2012 brains. They may groan while we happily distribute Lord of the Flies and assure them they will “love” the book; they may find us positively deranged when we weep at the death of Lenny (Of Mice and Men), or the Man (The Road) or Willie Loman (Death of a Salesman). However, nothing makes an English teacher happier than the conversion of our reluctant readers into admirers of an author’s work. The teaching of literature as a record of man’s humanity sums up our purpose, our raison d’etre. For writing and grammar, we will roll up our sleeves and revise, and conference, and edit, edit, edit. For the newer standards in listening and speaking, we support presentations in class and incorporate technology when necessary, but the joy of teaching English is in the literature, in the wealth of stories told by others.

Now, the adoption of Common Core Standards has many English Language Arts teachers concerned. Why? According to one of a number of  Common Core websites, (NOT the Common Core State Standards website) the standards are designed around the “basic idea” of a “utilitarian education.” David Coleman, one of the architects of the Common Core, supports the expansion of informational texts, a genre formally known as non-fiction, into all disciplines, “For example, students are asked to read a variety of texts. In 4th grade, they must read 50% literary text and 50% informational texts; by high school, they read only 30% literary texts and 70% informational texts.” Of course, English teachers have always included exceptionally well written pieces of non-fiction into their teaching. For example, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal illustrates power of satire, Elie Wiesel’s Night is a haunting memoir, and Roger Rosenblatt’s The Man in the Water is a memorable personal essay, and all have found homes in English curriculums. But the disproportionate ratio of 30% fiction to 70% informational text? That ratio for lovers of literature is alarming.

In order to achieve the inclusion of informational texts, The Common Core of Standards for English/Language Arts includes a separate set of standards that address reading and writing in history, science, math and the technical areas. While these standards were developed to expand reading and writing in these disciplines in order to advance core knowledge, these standards still fall under the umbrella of the English/Language Arts Standards. Note that these standards have not been developed by the respective disciplines of history, science, math and the technical areas. Moreover, there is no mechanism for enforcing these standards through history, science, math and the technical areas except through the English/Language Arts Standards. English teachers are understandably concerned that they will ultimately be responsible for the increase in the reading of informational texts at the expense of the literature they so dearly love.

So, it is with great delight that I read in an informational text (aka news article) that science supports the reading of fiction.

According to an article in the New York Times, Your Brain on Fiction (3/17/12) by Annie Murphy Paul, neuroscience is riding to the English teacher’s rescue! The article is centered on research that demonstrates “Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.” Apparently, our brains cannot differentiate between the fictional experience and the real life experience, “in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” Furthermore, the simulation of social experience in fiction through a character’s point of view  helps prepare our brains for real-life social interactions.

Researchers Dr. Oatley (University of Toronto)  and Dr. Mar (York University-Canada), in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that because of these fictional experiences, readers were more empathetic.

Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, ‘is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.’

Dear Common Core, take note. Science has the research to prove that the reading of fiction is equally critical to the development of our social life skills; fiction is not limited to a ratio of 30% importance. The usefulness of fiction in social development is not an arbitrary argument from the heart, but a means by which our brains experience our world.  Yes, informational texts can deliver content and support core knowledge, but fiction is what develops our humanity. Which is why we English teachers fell in love with stories in the first place.