Fiction involves brain science. Brain science is not fiction. Repeat.

“Curiouser and curiouser.”

Fiction involves brain science. Brain science is not fiction. Repeat.

In a recent post, I was talking about the importance of nonfiction when it comes to balanced literacy programs vs. core knowledge. And if that means anything to you at all, you may also have heard about the piece that was in the Times on Saturday about how brain science is alive and well when it comes to reading. All hail brain science!

To begin, how many solid arguments do you suppose there are for advocating fiction in the classroom? Yeah. Hi. Only about a billion!

From NYT:

Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

Did you know this? It’s fascinating that a certain part of our brain can detect what cinnamon smells like just by reading the word. How often do you suppose that word comes up in essays or nonfiction? OK, maybe the answer is a lot. Or if it is not found often outside of recipes, then there are bound to be tens of thousands of other descriptive words that any essayist may have in his arsenal. I think the general idea is that, in nonfiction, you can’t use a word like lavender in the same way that you can in a fictional tale. It would not be quite as magical and would stir up only connotations of its color (or smell, depending on context). And yes, soap is soap is soap. Do our brains really register that much of a difference if it’s real or imagined?

The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.

Fall into the story. I’ve tried to understand what that means my whole life. Is there any equivalent to reading a novel? What it does to you or how it makes you feel; how it forms in you (at an early age) so many different ways in which you can view your own world. How you relate to others based on characters you once knew in books. How much of an influence stories were in our lives! If we are read the right ones, I suppose. Whichever those may be.

 … novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. … A 2010 study by Dr. Mar found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind ( [the] capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions )

It is true that when reading a straight narrative of who, what, where, why, and when, you aren’t often given the emotions behind the facts. And that’s probably how it should be. Students should learn from informative texts as EQUALLY as they do from their stories and their fantasies. Again, heh, I am respectfully (and I guess politically) on both sides of this. Why should one side outread the other? Can’t there be a fair and equal balance? I imagine the problem would come then between grades. If a student has different teachers as he/she progresses through K-12, who’s to say which texts are right for each level? Who is to say? Maybe there doesn’t have to be such a fuss about it after all. Maybe these are only idiosyncrasies in an otherwise scattered and non-centralized educational system. Can any one answer be right?

Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.

Word to that.

-LW

*Interesting note: When you type the word “fiction” into Google Images, the first that pops up is Alice and her croquet racket (above).

Core Knowledge or Balanced Literacy, who’s to say?

I have been hearing rumbles of the “great comeback of nonfiction in today’s schools” for well over a year now. Is it just a crazy fad like Laverne and Shirley or “washing your hands,” or is it the real deal? Surely, I jest on all fronts. Nonfiction text has always been on the rise. What’s funny is that it was never down to begin with!

On Sunday, the NY Times reported that a recent study found that “second graders who were taught to read using the Core Knowledge program scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests than did those in the comparison schools.”

What is the Core Knowledge program?

Here is a well written piece of it by the Core Knowledge Foundation’s curriculum page: Explicit identification of what children should learn at each grade level ensures a coherent approach to building knowledge across all grade levels.

That is pretty unapologetic and stringent. It sounds as if they are recommending that our students become drones! However, this next part redeems it.

Every child should learn the fundamentals of science, basic principles of government, important events in world history, essential elements of mathematics, widely acknowledged masterpieces of art and music from around the world, and stories and poems passed down from generation to generation.

I think that just about covers the gamut of nonfiction, don’t you? How teachers deliver the information and what that precise content is is what seems to be at the center of this. The Core Knowledge program strays from the popular guided reading techniques and seems to include very little in the way of teaching reading through fiction or fairy tales.

From NYT:

Reading nonfiction writing is the key component of the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is based on the theory that children raised reading storybooks will lack the necessary background and vocabulary to understand history and science texts.

Disagree? I don’t think they are going as far as to say that we should be reading our babies and young children The Wall Street Journal every evening in order to instill a better early vocabulary and context for the world (although I’m pretty sure a nighttime rendition of WSJ might knock the wee ones out cold, bonus!). However, there is definitely a hint of the ludicrous suggestion, albeit never quite as bold.

Nonfiction texts have a place in American education today, absolutely. It is widely agreed that teen boys will prefer to read a harrowing story of a mountain climber’s survival or the true story of an Iraqi war veteran over such blather as Romeo and Juliet or The Great Gatsby. That’s all well and good. We should be pushing them toward the texts they love while using our other hand to nudge them toward the classics. We still need imagination in our lives and in our future. I’m on both sides of this. Ooh, how diplomatic.

Is it naive to think there can be one instructional reading program for all and all for one instructional reading program? Well, if that were the case then someone would have a monopoly on our youth’s minds. That in itself is dangerous enough to give me the willies. But here’s a thing about great nonfiction: it is great because it reads easy, like a book. It is captivating and it can move the reader to think differently or even act differently. That is an incredible power that should never be overlooked when discussing the issue. No matter what the text consists of, if it touches someone, it’s gold.