Stotsky: Rigid Instruction:Lit Ratio is Disservice to Ed

Sandra Stotsky, a co-author of the Massachusetts Standards for English and Language Arts, believes that David Coleman, one of the movers behind the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, might be misguided in enforcing such a rigid 50/50 ratio between the time spent in the classroom on informational texts versus the time spent on literature texts. The balance is skewed even further after fifth grade, when 70% of students’ time will be spent on informational texts.

Coleman’s rationale behind this guideline is his belief that, currently, elementary school students spend nearly 80% of their time on activities like story time, with scant attention being paid to broadening their knowledge base and improving the skills needed in later stages of education. But how can this be the case, asks Stotsky, if math alone takes up at least an hour of instruction time at most schools. Elementary schools allot 2.5 hours of every elementary school day to “literacy” time, but even then, as most teachers would be happy to confirm, reading stories doesn’t take up the entire block.

Coleman also claims that, as a result of the badly balanced school days, history and science instruction is being left by the wayside.

 If anything, elementary teachers reduced reading instructional time after the 1960s to make more time for writing and revising experience-based stories. Over the years, sales of history, science, grammar, and spelling textbooks declined for a variety of reasons. Education schools stressed hands-on science (which most elementary teachers were not trained to teach) and “more engaging” history materials, much of which came to be written in story form for the sake of struggling readers.  Reading instructional series (A.K.A. basal readers) then integrated spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and composition study as part of their programs to make the language arts cohere with what students were reading.

To say that all that happens during a literacy block is story time, is to mischaracterize how that period is truly being used. Reading comprehension and ability to not only absorb but also effectively express what one has learned, is a necessary first step before any kind of instructional material could be tackled. Teachers are spending class time in improving literacy in children, but even then, the texts often used are informational in nature.

By the upper grades in a self-contained elementary classroom, language arts time was used for high quality children’s literature. Reading instruction focused on comprehension strategies, while reading and discussion of informational material, as well as projects based on them, took place in the rest of the school day. In other words, informational material involved a considerable amount of time during the school day, and it was likely that high quality children’s literature got much less time than it deserved.

By the time children leave elementary school, their day is no longer divided into literature time and informational time. Students take on the schedule familiar to anyone who’s attended a school: a day divided into subject areas, each focusing only on the material mandated. Although the literacy and reading comprehension instruction continues in English class, teachers of other subjects can’t afford to pause to make up the gaps in that area of student knowledge. Without allowing elementary school teachers sufficient flexibility in deciding how to tackle the teaching of these skills, students risk being left unprepared for higher-level coursework.