Students read too little nonfiction

I recently heard someone mention a high school senior with a 96% average and I wondered if the kid can read or write.

My pessimism was fueled by reading the 2021 edition of What Kids are Reading from Renaissance Learning Inc.

I examined Renaissance Learning’s 2021 report for students grade 9-12, since they will soon be in the college/adult learners group I teach.

what students read
Data from Renaissance Learning Inc. 2021 edition.

Then I compared those students’ Lexile scores on nonfiction reading material to the 50th percentile numbers on Lexile grade level charts. I used the Lexile scores established 30 years ago because they make it easy to compare how today’s students compare to yesterday’s students.

What scores mean
Students are reading in the bottom half of their peer of 30 years ago.

I looked at students’ nonfiction reading skill because that is a employability marker. Students who read at the 50th percentile for their grade are at the middle of the pack. Half the students in their cohort read less well, and half read better. The 50th percentile isn’t good enough to get a kid into Harvard, but it will get kids into trade school programs and then into decently paying jobs (minus student debt).

My analysis wasn’t sophisticated or deep, but it was depressing.

Typically, three-quarters of the titles on the fiction list were available in both English and Spanish, which could mean a significant proportion of students are not reading those books in English. That wouldn’t be a problem as long as students are getting plenty of practice reading English nonfiction.

On an annual basis, high school students read roughly as many books, both fiction and nonfiction, as the number of nonfiction books I read every two months. Such a small amount of reading may leave students unprepared to tackle the nonfiction reading needed in the working world.

Most distressing of all the information in the Renaissance report is the Lexile rankings of students. Not one of the cohorts of students grades nine through 12 is reading as well as the lowest half of students at their grade level as established in the Lexile scores used for comparing the reading skills of students over time.

What scores mean
Students are reading in the bottom half of their historical peer group.


What Kids are Reading: 2021 edition from Renaissance Learning Inc.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Informal writing prompt: spelling bye Chirstine

Today I have another informal writing prompt for you to use with teens or adults. It uses a notice posted by a work-seeker.

Here’s an image of the posted notice (the phone number has been removed) which you should display and read aloud to students.

Here are the directions to give students.

First, in no more than two sentences, identify the error or errors you see in this notice and explain how you’d correct the error or errors. You have 1 minute to write.

Now, in one or two sentences, based just on what you’ve noticed, what do you think is the likelihood the writer will land a job, and why do you think that? You have 1 minute to write.

Here are the errors.

With a little luck, students will have found bye should have been by and Aid should have been Aide. Probably Chirstine should have been Christine. although I suppose it’s possible that someone is named Chirstine.

Why use informal prompts?

This is the sort of prompt that you can give at the beginning of a class to get everyone’s attention. Like all informal prompts, it requires students to respond immediately, so their responses will let you do a quick assessment of their spelling and editing skills. Moreover, you’ll be able to do quick assessments regularly.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Wrong word after linking verb

Here’s another informal writing prompt to use with teens or adult students in English classes. Show and read aloud to students this three-sentence section of a blog post for web designers:

The practice of sectioning off content with the use of design elements has become increasingly popular. It allows designers to create some visual separation and develop a rhythm. The idea is to place separate-but-related portions of text into dedicated containers that look differently.

Now ask students to identify in no more than three sentences what errors, if any, they notice and how to correct the error or errors. Give them 60 seconds to write.

The only actual error in the item is the word differently. Differently is an adverb. The linking verb look needs to be followed by the adjective different.

If students don’t find the error—or if they identify something as an error that isn’t an error—you can give them a miniature lesson on words that follow linking verbs.

Compare these two sentences:

  • Marlene looks fatly in that red dress.
  • Marlene looks fat in that red dress.

Also compare:

  • I feel awfully today.
  • I feel awful today.

Here’s a hint to share with students: You can usually tell if you used an adverb where you needed an adjective by replacing the verb in the sentence with is (or are if the subject is plural). Here’s an example of how that works: “Dedicated containers are differently” doesn’t make sense, but “dedicated containers are different” does make sense.

Short informal writing prompts such as this go a long way toward helping students master grammar and punctuation problems. What’s more, because the writing is timed, informal prompts also help students learn to write more quickly.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Writing prose and cleaning toilets

A neighbor whom I know well enough to greet by first name—hers and mine are the same—said to me yesterday, “You must really enjoy writing.”

“I enjoy it about as much as I like cleaning the toilet,” I replied.

Toilet with plunger and brush beside it.
I’d as soon clean a toilet as write.

She recoiled. “That’s a horrible thing to say.”

Horrible, perhaps, but true.

Writing is my work. It’s not something I do eight hours a day for the fun of it.

I enjoy having written. When I finish something that accomplishes what it was supposed to do—introduce students PERT charting or drill sales people on the characteristics on an oncology drug—I feel good about my work. But the actual act of writing anything but a humor piece is work, and sometimes even being funny is a chore.

I can sympathize with students who moan about how hard writing is because writing is hard for me, too. But I refuse to allow students to dodge writing because it’s hard.

Writing is work.

Work is hard.

I don’t love writing.

Students don’t have to love writing either, but students must learn to do it and you and I must teach them how to do it.

We must teach students that not every piece of writing has to be art.

We must teach them to recognize when what they’ve written fulfills the assignment.

We must teach them that “good enough” is usually good enough.

We must teach them most writing they will be required to do in their lives will be a lot like cleaning toilets: something almost everybody can do, that almost nobody likes to do, and which they will often not be able to avoid doing.

Please excuse me now. I have to go write.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Back to basics: A post-pandemic step forward

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, parents of public-school students were generally happy with the programs offered by their schools. When schools closed abruptly and parents were expected to monitor children’s work, some parents enthusiastically praised teachers for doing every day what the parents found difficult to do two days in a row.

Other parents who hadn’t opposed art, music, physical education, or foreign languages as long as they were taught by a teacher became vehemently opposed to those subjects when the task of teaching them fell to parents who were doing their regular jobs from home.

How taxpayers will feel about public education after the pandemic remains to be seen.

I suspect the amount of money available for the teaching/learning component of public education post-Covid will be far smaller than previous allocations. School boards, like many other government bodies, have a tendency to prepare for a repeat of the crisis just past, so upgrades to, for example, ventilation in school facilities, may be given priority over upgrades to curriculum.

I also suspect any retrenchment will mean a “back to basics” approach if that hasn’t already become the norm by then.

Some people in the education community (other than myself) are already thinking in terms of concentrating on basics.

Jay Matthews, education writer for The Washington Post, had a column two weeks ago about the need to return to teaching essentials when the pandemic is over, and as early at last summer, teachers began talking about how teaching had to change beginning with the 2020-21 school year.

Sarah Schwartz, outlined “5 Steps for Keeping Kids on Track This Fall” Aug. 5, 2020 at Her first two points were:

  • Focus on the most important work of the grade, trimming the curriculum to cover only the essential standards.
  • Figure out what students will need to know and be able to do in order to successfully complete grade-level work.

Schwartz implies, but doesn’t explicitly say, that to begin repairing the damage to students’ educations caused by the pandemic, teachers should teach only what students need to know and be able to do in order to successfully complete grade-level work.

That will probably mean creative writing with be scuttled in favor of mundane, required, expository nonfiction.

shelves of books
Nonfiction books aren’t just reference books, and they aren’t just boring reading.

Personally, I believe expository nonfiction is the writing schools should teach even without the impetus of a pandemic. Expository nonfiction is required writing. Everyone, including Markus Zusak and Amanda Gorman, must write expository nonfiction. Outside the walls of a classroom, nobody is required to write nonfiction or poetry. Consider:

  • The cover letter with your job application was (or should have been) expository nonfiction.
  • The lesson plans you’re required to file must be prepared as expository nonfiction.
  • Your master’s thesis about novelist Mary Cholmondeley will be expository nonfiction.
  • The school board’s justification for cutting the creative writing program will be expository nonfiction.
  • Your letter to the editor of the local paper saying it’s barbaric to deny students the privilege of learning to write fiction and poetry will be expository nonfiction.

If I’m right about changes ahead in K-12 programs in schools after the end of his pandemic, you would be wise to start preparing now by evaluating everything you do for the rest of the school year to determine the least you must teach and the best way to teach that minimum of essential content so that every student in your class masters it. Warning: It is far more challenging to teach every student until every student masters a predetermined set of information and skills than it is to present to all students information and skills you expect only a few of them to master.

As Schwartz implies, in addition to enabling students to learn when the Covid-19 virus is under control, you’ll also need to support students who have social-emotional problems caused or exacerbated when schools were closed during the pandemic. If you thought learning to present on Zoom was a challenge, wait until the kids who didn’t learn on Zoom come back to the classroom.

Then you’ll find out what a real challenge is.

Unless you’ve slashed all the unessential material from your curriculum and rebuilt the remaining material so that students can experience success at learning, you won’t have the time or the emotional energy to address your students’ social and emotional needs in the coming year or possibly for several coming years.

Photo credits: classroom scene by neonbrand-zFSo6bnZJTw-unsplash, nonfiction bookshelves by Linda Aragoni,

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Histories of the famous and forgotten

Literary nonfiction with non-ELA appeal

photos of covers of 3 history texts
These three nonfiction books have very different approaches to historical story-telling.

I remember high school history texts as bland prose about dead people who didn’t seem to have led very interesting lives. The first quarter of this year, my literary nonfiction reading has been primarily histories that are anything but bland prose about people who didn’t lead interesting lives. What’s even better, the topics of the histories lend themselves to use in classes other than English. An English teacher and a teacher in another discipline could each assign the same book and perhaps even accept the same written assignments based on the books.

The Vagabonds by Jeff Guinn

An investigative journalist before he turned to writing nonfiction books, Jeff Guinn knows how to bring out the personalities of the men, warts and all, while sticking to facts, being respectful to his characters, and keeping the story rolling.

Cover of "The Vagabonds"
Ford and Edison ready to go on vacation.

Guinn’s use of the story of fiddler Jep Bisbee to open and close the book about the late lives of the three super-successful businessmen adds to the poignancy of the story.

The Vagabonds could be used by students of history, business, and technology as well as English. Students grades 10 and up should be able to read it easily.

The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn. 2019, Simon & Schuster. 306 p.

Barnum by Robert Wilson

Barnum: An American Life is a biography of P. T. Barnum, the man who created “the greatest show on earth, the Barnum & Bailey Circus.”  Born in 1810 in a small town outside Bridgeport, Connecticut, Barnum grew up in a rural community in which people did whatever they had to do to keep body and soul together. Barnum quickly learned that the way to make money was to give the public what it wanted.

Male figure is entering a huge circus tent.

He tried his hand at various get-rich-quick schemes before discovering his real talents lay in selling what we’d today call infotainment. He became a master of the art of self-publicity and never missed a chance to get his name in the papers.

Barnum suffers the problem that all biographies suffer: the biographer has to start with the lead character’s birth and stick to the facts until he dies. Unfortunately, the most interesting parts of Barnum’s life ended long before his death.

To get English classes interested in Barnum, I think teachers would need to give students writing topics that would force them to draw comparisons between what Barnum did to promote his business ventures and what businessmen do today to attract free publicity and to keep the news media’s interest.

Barnum could be used by students of history, business, advertising, and marketing as well as English. Students grades 10 and up should be able to read Barnum, although it’s not fun to read the way The Vagabonds is.

Barnum: An American Life by Robert Wilson. 2019, Simon & Schuster. 341 p.

The First Founding Father by Harlow Giles Unger

Historian Harlow Giles Unger’s The First Founding Father is about a man most people have never heard of, Richard Henry Lee. He was one of the Virginia Lees, a family noted today for the Lee that fought against the United States, Robert E. Lee.

The First Founding Father by Harlow Giles Unger
A portrait of silver-haired Richard Henry Lee

The wealthy and scholarly Richard Henry Lee was born in America, educated in England. He was respected by both the colonies’ aristocratic leaders like John Adams and the working classes’ leaders like Patrick Henry. From the mid-1760s through the Revolutionary War his opinions carried great weight.

As the book’s liner notes say, he was “first to call for independence, first to call for union, and first to call for a bill of rights to protect Americans against government tyranny.”

Lee seems to have been a man who thought far in advance. Even when he was fighting for American independence from England, he saw that the country needed to get rid of slavery to ensure its national survival in decades ahead.

Unger details how a man of such importance and influence was marginalized and eventually written out of the history books.

Although Unger is a scholar, his writing is not difficult to read. (It’s easier, I think, than Barnum.) If you use the book, make sure you make students read beyond the summary in the introduction.

Obviously, The First Founding Father could be used by students in history classes as well as English, but Unger touches on events that might be used to explore business topics as well. The book’s first chapter, for example, talks about the Virginia colony being divided between the Tidewater aristocrats and the upland farmers and backwoodsmen. It might be interesting to have students explore whether s similar class division exists in the state in which they live today.

The First Founding Father: Richard Henry Lee and the Call to Independence by Harlow Giles Unger. 2017, DaCapo Press. 306 p.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni