Writing About Literature in the Age of Common Core

Literature Books on Shelf

By now, most English language arts teachers at the secondary level are aware that literature has not been eliminated or even drastically reduced by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). By now, most ELA teachers understand that the 70/30 ratio of nonfiction-to-fiction reading prescribed by the CCSS refers to the “sum of student reading” across all disciplines, including science, mathematics, history and social sciences, health, physical education, foreign languages, arts, and technical subjects, leaving plenty of literature to be read in English class (see the footnotes on page 5 of the ELA and literacy standards).

In fact, the CCSS’s “Key Shifts in ELA” document states that literature remains “the core of the work of [grade] 6-12 ELA teachers,” and the introduction to the ELA and literacy standards notes that “[b]ecause the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.

But what still leaves many educators scratching their heads is where to find literary analysis in the CCSS. I know this because I was recently searching for it as my colleagues and I tried to figure out where it fit in the CCSS for ELA and Literacy’s three writing “types”: arguments, informative/explanatory texts, and narratives.

On the one hand, some of us argued, literary analysis presents an argument about the meaning or value of a literary work. On the other hand, others of us suggested, the language of “claim(s) and counterclaims” in the standards’ definition of arguments doesn’t sound much like traditional literary analysis. Even more confoundingly, the standards for writing both arguments and informative/explanatory texts include the word “analysis.” Why was literary analysis not explicitly in the Common Core’s writing standards for ELA? Where exactly could it be found implicitly? How would the CCSS classify this essential genre of writing? To get to the bottom of our questions, I searched more widely and deeply in the CCSS and made some useful discoveries.

Literary Analysis in the CCSS for ELA and Literacy

In order to prove that the Common Core State Standards (1) require students to write about literature, (2) require the teaching of literary analysis, and (3) identify a genre of writing in the writing standards for literary analysis, I had to look outside the boundaries of the writing standards and to the following locations for support:

  1. CCSS Myths vs. Facts Document.

    The writers of the CCSS got so tired of hearing false information about the standards, they created a handy “Myths vs. Facts” addendum, which includes a remark that “stories, drama, poetry, and other literature account for the majority of reading that students will do in their ELA classes. In addition to content coverage, the standards require that students systematically acquire knowledge in literature and other disciplines through reading, writing, speaking, and listening” (emphasis mine). Clearly, the CCSS intend for students to write about literature.

  2. The Standards for Reading Literature.

    If there’s any doubt that the CCSS requires students to analyze literature, look no further than the Reading Literature (RL) section of the standards, in which eight of the ten standards (1-7, 9) for grades 9-10 as well as 11-12 mention the words “analysis” or “analyze.” For example, RL9-10.6 requires students to “[a]nalyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.”

  3. Appendix A of the CCSS.

    I think appendix A is the least appreciated (and perhaps least-read) part of the CCSS for ELA and literacy. The three types of writing are defined on page 23. Under the definition of argument, the appendix states, “In English language arts, students make claims about the worth or meaning of a literary work or works. They defend their interpretations or judgments with evidence from the text(s) they are writing about.” The next definition, however, posits that “[i]nformational/explanatory writing includes a wide array of genres, including academic genres such as literary analyses” (emphasis mine), and clarifies that, “in an argument, the writer not only gives information but also presents a case with the “pros” (supporting ideas) and “cons” (opposing ideas) on a debatable issue.”

Considering all three statements, I came to the conclusion that the CCSS includes literary analysis in the category of informational/explanatory texts, while noting that many of the arguments students will make in an ELA class will also be about literary texts and their value, effectiveness, and meaning.

The language of the writing standards seems consistent with these distinctions: literary arguments must distinguish between “claim(s) and counterclaims,” while expository writing, such as literary analyses, will “introduce a topic,” develop the topic with “concrete details [such as] quotations,” and include an “analysis of relevant content.”

Other Written Responses to Literature in the Age of CCSS

Traditional literary analysis, of course, is not the only way we can ask our students to respond to literature in writing. Here are some other suggestions that would encourage our students to engage with literature while building writing skills the CCSS ask them to develop.

  1. Literary arguments. E.g., Choose two texts and write an argument about which story’s protagonist better attracts the reader’s sympathy.
  2. Imitative narratives. E.g., Re-read the description of the protagonist’s first day of school. In the same descriptive style, write a narrative about your first day of high school.
  3. Speculative narratives. E.g., The story we’ve just finished leaves the reader with a lot of questions about what happens next to the protagonist. Write the next chapter/scene of the book/play in which we find out how the protagonist’s decision pans out.
  4. Thematic arguments. E.g., The characters in chapter 4 debate the importance of being kind to strangers. Write an argumentative essay in which you take a side on their debate, using evidence from their discussion and at least two other sources.
  5. Reflective expository essay. E.g., The story we’re reading has provided us with multiple perspectives on economic disparity in the inner city. Write an essay in which you explain what you’ve learned about inner-city living, using ample evidence from at least two different characters from our novel.

Have you had similar conversations to the one my colleagues and I had about literary analysis in the CCSS? Did you come to similar or different conclusions from mine? What other ways can you think of to get your students writing arguments, expository texts, or narratives about the literature you teach? Please share your thoughts, experiences, or ideas in the comments below!

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