Learning Literature, Learning Life – An Argument for Fiction

It’s spring, which means it’s time for high stakes testing in high schools across the nation. This week, schools in Illinois are preparing their students to take a test that will show whether or not the school has met Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP.  This one test is used to answer a host of questions: are these students college and career ready? Do these students know how to read, write, do math, and understand science? Is this school a good school?

As a high school English teacher, I have experienced the pressure that high stakes testing can bring. Students, parents, schools, and communities alike worry about the scores these two days of testing produce.

The government pays special attention to these tests, too, and it has come to policy makers’ attention that students in our nation are graduating high school unprepared for college and careers, and policy makers are working around the clock to develop new, national standards for school curriculums. These national standards focus not only on preparation for high stakes testing, but on a core curriculum that applies to what students might encounter in college or in their future career. For English classes, then, this means a move toward reading more nonfiction and technical writing.

I became an English teacher because I fell in love with literature at a very young age, and I wanted to share that love of literature with students. This doesn’t mean that I hope all of them go on to college and become majors in English literature; I know that won’t happen. However, I want them to see literature as a way to broaden their minds and their understanding of the world. It can give them a perspective on a problem that they may not have encountered in their young lives. It can open up new worlds and new ways of thinking and understanding.

When they read about a character that is similar to themselves, they can learn ways to cope with the world; when they read about a character that is similar to someone they know, they can see the world from his or her perspective and learn how to practice empathy. Nonfiction and technical writing cannot provide this for students. It is too real to transport them to a new way of thinking. Similarly, standardized testing cannot test whether or not students’ minds have been opened by literature.

Students in my classes are currently on a quest through literature. They started this semester with a question about something that has been bothering them for a long time, or something that happened to them that made them see the unfairness of the world. Their questions are heartbreaking and honest, from asking why their father left their family, to why a friend changed so drastically upon entering high school. As we read new texts, students have to take what they have learned and apply it to their quest in the form of a paper. With each installment of their quests, the answers they find in the literature they read are vivid explanations of the world around them, and they find these answers whether or not the texts directly relate to their questions.

Of course, standardized testing is important. It is a measure of how students stack up against their peers and how ready they are for college and careers. As a teacher, I want my students to be college and career ready by the time they graduate high school. However, I am also using literature to prepare them for life in a broader sense. To take literature out of the curriculum and replace it with test prep and technical writing is a dangerous move. With a lack of access to literature, students will lack access to the human experience, and their lives will be poorer for it.

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Photo Credit: albertogp123


Terry V.
Terry V5 years ago


Tatyana Ivanova
Tatyana Ivanova5 years ago

Thank you for the article and for being a really good teacher. You teach your students to THINK and it's significant. I also love literature and believe that while reading I learn life.

Sophi Z.
Sophia Z5 years ago

I believe if everyone saw the movie, "Race to NoWhere." Standardized tests and grades would be de-emphasized.

Sophi Z.
Sophia Z5 years ago

I am a teacher. I do no teach to the tests. I teach children not tests.

Marie W.
Marie W5 years ago

If life is a standardized test; then the kids will do well. However I don't think so.

Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle5 years ago

I've read a lot about these tests and that teachers must teach for the tests. This is not an education. Children should be taught the basics and critical thinking and love of learning.

Christine Stewart

It is hard to evaluate students properly without doing something really intensive like interviews, written essays, etc- but all we have time for is a multiple choice tests...I wish I had the answer to judge learning and achievement in a simple format!

Mercedes Lackey
Mercedes Lackey5 years ago

My father in law is an award winning teacher with terrific innovation skills who teachers his kids to think and be creative. He works with the extremely disadvantaged, and they love him.

And he LOATHES "No Child Left Behind" and all this test-cramming. Yet he is forced to spend 75% of his time on it, time that could be used for them to actually learn things.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L5 years ago

I agree with teaching a child to love to read. Unfortunatey that didn't happen for me until I was in high school and took and American Lit class with a fantastic teacher. I love to read and I learned to love history by readtion historical fiction. One of my favorate authors is John Jakes.

Testing never worked for me; I have just never been a good test taker. They should allow more for essay type testing, there one has to think not just fill in a bubble or make a guess beore filling in the bubble.

Robert Fitzgerald

Part of the problem with education in America seems to be our need to be number one in everything, and as a result we suffer in many areas. Our basic theory of education is to create people to serve our national and corporate interests. We strive to remedy this with what we think are logical corporate free market linear solutions that have little connection with what it means to be human. Standardize tests, and push students to become what we want them to become. Logically, this should work. But it doesn't. We need our children to become scientists or personnel for corporate positions in our corporate world and workers to support those corporations. In the process, creative and arts programs suffer. And, I would suggest, depression soars, and suicide and other negative emotional conditions increase.