Why Teach Literature to Students?

Here in California, schools are shifting from No Child Left Behind to the Common Core State Standard. While I like the Common Core and its four key areas of emphasis – Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Cooperation, and Creativity – I’m not sure how I feel about literary student-related writing being reduced in favor of more expository-based assignments.

I think this thing is called a word cloud. I really don’t know. It just looks cool and is about the Common Core standards.
(Image Source: Fwsu.Wordspress.Com)

Expository writing is defined as the following by Stanford University:

Exposition is a type of oral or written discourse that is used to explain, describe, give information or inform. The creator of an expository text can not assume that the reader or listener has prior knowledge or prior understanding of the topic that is being discussed. One important point to keep in mind for the author is to try to use words that clearly show what they are talking about rather then blatantly telling the reader what is being discussed. Since clarity requires strong organization, one of the most important mechanisms that can be used to improve our skills in exposition is to provide directions to improve the organization of the text.

I do feel that expository writing has a place in the classroom, but I don’t think the amount of literature studied in the classroom nor writing exploring the nature of that literature should be reduced in favor of it, and here is why.

Writing is one of the best ways of synthesizing learning. It helps a student process what they have read and literature teaches students multiple valuable lessons that contribute to more than just their reading-based education.

Milla C. Riggio, editor of the book Teaching Shakespeare through Performance, notes in the introduction that, as a society, “we want students to realize that the past serves as a shadow presence in their lies…an artifice created by the records we keep and the descriptions of pass on from one generation to another” (17). Literature teaches kids not only history, but the context in which that history happened. This also creates a relatable human experience to the past so students can connect, through literature, to it and understand how it affects right now and implications for the future.

Beach, Thein and Webb, in their book Teaching to Exceed the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards take these implications one step further and recognize that when students are “studying events in their own lives, and as portrayed in literature, students can reflect on how events are framed in terms of goals, plans, roles, norms, and beliefs, as well as how, in topic, issues, or thematic units, historical, institutional/civic, cultural, psychical, and economic forces shape the framing of events” (35). Literature has a reflective property that allows students to relate and work themselves into the stories they are reading.

Dr. Edward Rocklin, a professor at Cal Poly Pomona that I work with on a regular basis, has told me many times that reading drama (in his and my case, Shakespeare) allows students to experience tragedy and conflict, see how other people’s value system plays out through the conflicts, and evaluate their own value system and how they’d handle such situations without having to experience them firsthand. This creates a more rounded person that is able to deal with problems and conflicts within their own lives because their values have already been tested and examined through reading literature.

Through literature, students can also explore social roles and values to come to an understanding of what their beliefs are. Bech, Thein, and Webb see that students, through exploring literature, can “constructing and enacting identities, or roles in events. For instance, to be a daughter/son, friend, student, sports team member, sales/wait person, neighbor, club member, etc., involves particular social practices, traits, beliefs, and attitudes” (48). These roles don’t just help a student understand history or social values, but it also helps the student understand themselves.

Literature serves all of this functions and more, which is why I am against cutting literature in favor of expository only text and expository only writing to reflect upon that expository text. It is possible to incorporate more expository writing into the Common Core State Standards by simply having students do expository writing assignments based on literature. Instead of having a student write an argumentative, compare and contrast, or other literature-based essay form, the students can explain the values they’ve found in the literary pieces they’ve studied in class and inform the reader of how those values affected them. I’ve seen assignments like this throughout my years as a writing tutor at Fullerton College, and it is particularly one I enjoy. Students are able to gain critical skills through literature and then execute an expository piece that reflects upon their critical thinking and creativity, which are, after all, two goals of the Common Core.


  1. Cesar Castellanos

    I shared many of your concerns when I first heard about Common Core. One of the reasons I wanted to become a teacher was because I wanted to share wonderful literature with generations of students. I feared this new system of standards that would place expository texts on a pedestal.
    I have to say though that Common Core standards do offer opportunities for students to read fiction. In fact, they are required to read plays, poems, and literary fiction as before, but now there is much more emphasis on supplementing that with expository articles to provide relevance and context. To be honest, many teachers are already doing this and are using fiction, as you noted, to teach history. Although my first reaction to Common Core was “oh no! Where will all the novels go?” But now I see it as a positive because other core subjects are going to have to do more work around literacy, and that is what our students really need.
    Great article. Your sentiments capture the rage, confusion, hesitance, fear, and even excitement many educators share about the transition into common core.

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