Does Literature Count as Knowledge?

  • 16 March, 2024

Teacher question:

Our district and state are making a big push to develop social studies knowledge through reading. I appreciate that and understand the importance of social studies (previously we hardly taught it at all). Our ELA textbook still has stories – each of these is connected to social studies or science topics. We are being told that if time is tight (and it always is – we have so many things to teach now) that we can skip the stories and focus on the social studies selections alone. I always thought reading class was for literature and social studies was for geography, history, and so on. That no longer seems to be the case. Am I just hopelessly old fashioned or can you provide me with support for preserving the place of literature in my classroom (I teach the fourth and fifth graders)? Don’t stories do more to improve reading achievement than social studies articles? 

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Shanahan responds: 

You are correct that for years, literature – or stories, at least – dominated reading instruction. It was the rare selection that trod any other ground (most often an occasional story drawn from history, perhaps).

That has changed for several reasons.

Researchers have identified important differences between expository or informational text and narrative text. Too many kids were leaving elementary school able to read the latter reasonably well, but not the former. Makes sense to include informational text – with all its lexical and structural challenges.

Then there were the concerns about knowledge and its role in reading comprehension. Readers are advantaged by knowing stuff. Your experience with social studies is enlightening. Perhaps if social studies and science had received adequate attention previously, we wouldn’t be discussing this. But this neglect was common.

Given all of that, arguing for reading instruction from texts that carry information worth knowing seems like a no-brainer.

That said, I, too, am seeing/hearing that things may have swung too far in some locales.

The problem here is that too many educators think of stories as motivational or entertaining, rather than informative.

This misjudgment of the value of literature is so pervasive that scholars have felt the need to defend it – not with regard to reading instruction – but in terms of its contribution to intellectual thought, philosophy, and our daily discourse (Miner, 1976; Peels, 2020; Wilson, 1976).

There’s no research I’m aware of showing that reading instruction is better served by stories than informational text. I don’t think you can win the argument making that kind of claim.

Perhaps you can refer to some of the leading voices for increasing the emphasis on knowledge. People like E. D. Hirsch, Natalie Wexler, David Coleman and so on, all agree that literature should have a space in this kind of knowledge building.

Likewise, there are long lists of scientists who gained their first interest in science through science fiction. The same can be said about historians with historical fiction. That’s not unimportant.

Not everybody concedes to appeals to authority, however.

Maybe a better way to go would be to argue that literature is an important source of knowledge that everyone wants for the children – and better yet, show how you would teach appropriate literature in ways that would result in not just improved reading, but greater domain knowledge or declarative knowledge. (And, here, I mean a source of knowledge on its own merits -- not as a handmaiden to social studies through historical fiction or science through science fiction).

Why is it important to teach literature?

There are the obvious literary payoffs in terms of literary interpretation skills, appreciation of artistry, development of imagination, and language and communication abilities. Those benefits aren’t likely to convince your antagonists on this either. But literature can be an important source of knowledge, too. For instance:

1.     Cultural understanding: It can provide a window into the beliefs and practices of different cultures. We can use literature to develop insights about the cultural experiences of different groups. Think here about stories like: Last Stop on Market Street (Matt de la Peña), Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (John Steptoe), The Silence Seeker (Ben Morley), or Grandfather’s Journey (Allen Say). These kinds of stories promote empathy and cultural understanding and can familiarize and sensitize students to various information about different cultural heritages.

2.     Historical and social context: Literature can offer insights into historical and social contexts, too, familiarizing kids with political and social issues of different time periods and the forces that shape societies. Books like Number the Stars; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; and Esperanza Rising fit the bill if you want to introduce the Holocaust, resistance movements, or the Great Depression. Go, social studies! 

3.     Human relations: Literature provides opportunities for readers to think about how we get along with each other – concepts like loyalty, competitiveness, loneliness, respect, compassion, bullying, empathy, and forgiveness are central to books like Wonder (R. J. Palacio), Each Kindness (Jacqueline Woodson), and The Hundred Dresses (Eleanor Estes).

4.     Identity and personal development: Literature considers personal growth and self-reflection, and involves readers in identifying with characters, grappling with moral dilemmas, and exploring existential questions. For this purpose, books like Oh, the Places You’ll Go (Dr. Seuss), The Little Engine that Could (Watty Piper), The Dot (Peter H. Reynolds), and the Giving Tree (Shel Silverstein) can be used to study resilience, self-confidence, perseverance, generosity, and sacrifice.

5.     Literary touchstones: Think of all the allusions to children’s books that come up in daily language such as “down a rabbit hole”, “your nose is growing”, “he cried wolf”, an “ugly duckling”, and “beauty and the beast”. Knowing such touchstones and usages and from whence they come is valuable content with a literary provenance.

To develop such lessons, think of the specific concepts, vocabulary, and knowledge that students would be expected to develop and how you would hold them accountable for gaining this information.

Literature can be an important source of knowledge, but only if our choice of books and pedagogical moves support that kind of learning. Let’s make sure this pendulum doesn’t swing too far.


Miner, E. (1976). That literature is a kind of knowledge. Critical Inquiry, 2(3), 487–518.

Peels, R.  (2020). How literature delivers knowledge and understanding. British Journal of Aesthetics, 60(2), 199–222. 

Wilson, C. (1983). Literature and Knowledge. Philosophy, 58(226), 489–496.


LISTEN TO MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Podcast


See what others have to say about this topic.

Tammy Elser Mar 16, 2024 06:36 PM

Oh my. This question and the black or white, either or thinking by curriculum adopters that prompted it are crushing to me. It that circumstance where a sliver of science poorly understood, pushes a massive, and in my opinion, inappropriate shift.

Story is central to learning. We hold things in memory through narrative. Great expository and argumentative texts employ narrative structures throughout to make complex concepts accessible. I teach about this often Pre-k - 12. As Tim says, choice of books and pedagogical moves make all the difference.

I show teachers how they can select highly motivating literary texts and use them as anchors, then pair them with MANY support texts including informative articles and complex primary sources. The result is a vibrant and highly motivating learning experience dense in reading practice, rich vocabulary, connected concept development and unique and compelling contexts. For teachers Pre-K to 3rd (but also useful through 12), I encourage mining great picture books for both science, ss, and even mathematical content. I teach them to take 30 seconds to identify the time, place, people, and genre. An old fashioned map center permanently in the classroom makes this fast and supports consistent connections. Kids are always ask it they think the story is or could be real (genre), then where do they think it takes place? (And where are we by comparison? Is it hot, or cold, etc?) Who are the people or characters, when? (concept of chronology). I also then mine the language repeated in the text for phonics patterns etc as part of reading foundations, language, words work and vocabulary. Story and literature should always hold a critical place instruction. Our standards move from 30/70 to 70/30 fiction to nonfiction over grades, but don't drop either, ever. Both and more are part of a dynamic learning ecosystem.

Gabrielle Mar 16, 2024 02:48 PM

Literature is what makes us care about knowledge. It breathes soul into facts and figures.

Sarah Rodriguez Mar 16, 2024 03:08 PM

I love that sentiment, Gabrielle. I agree.

Steve Mar 16, 2024 03:29 PM

How often have teachers preferences dictated what gets read?

Timothy Shanahan Mar 16, 2024 04:05 PM

That varies district to district and sometimes even school to school. It also often varies on the basis of grade level. Sometimes this is an act of individual choice and often it is one of a teacher vote on curriculum packages. In any event, this blog is not just written for teachers, but for principals, curriculum directors, superintendents, school board members and parents, too.


Annonymous Mar 16, 2024 07:21 PM

Part of the problem is Edreports has said that literature in K-5 is not knowledge building.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 16, 2024 08:07 PM


That isn't my problem -- that is the problem of whoever might make such a foolish claim. That position is neither supported by research or by expert opinion (e.g., Hirsch, Willingham, Wexler).


Mary Ann Reilly Mar 16, 2024 09:07 PM

I’d like to think the world is expansive enough for multiple studies across a school year that include essays, stories, poetry, drama, other literary genres, expository/nonfiction, and so on. One additional benefit of literature and nonfiction is the delight one can take in authors’ use of language.

Natalie Wexler Mar 17, 2024 05:06 PM

Thanks, Tim, for clarifying that I and other advocates of knowledge-building have never argued that literature fails to build knowledge. The problem has been that many kids were getting little or no exposure to anything but simple fiction in the elementary grades, and that imbalance needed to be addressed.

I completely agree with your list of the kinds of knowledge fiction can build, and I would add that there's some evidence that novels can also provide a powerful boost to reading comprehension. A study was done in England that had teachers read two novels aloud (one classic and one contemporary) to students in the equivalent of 7th grade who were average or poor readers over the course of 12 weeks. At the end of that time, all students had made an average of about 9 months of progress in reading comprehension, as measured by a standardized test, and the poor readers had made an astonishing 16 months of progress. It's only one study (you can find it at, and I wish someone would try to replicate it, but I think it's worth paying attention to.

I'd be interested to know what you think about why this might happen. My own theory: We know that novels engage our emotions, and we know that when our emotions are engaged our memories are heightened. So maybe students were able to recall a lot of the new vocabulary they heard when listening to the novels, and that enabled them to understand the passages on the comprehension test.

I'd say this provides some evidence for both reading aloud (not exclusively of course--kids also need to be reading on their own) and for reading full novels rather than just brief stories or excerpts.

Bruce William Smith Mar 17, 2024 05:47 PM

What I find extraordinary here is the lack of attention to language learning, and the fact that I don't find the word "pleasure" anywhere in this discussion. A major advantage to reading literature is that the language being acquired through novels, poetry, and drama (yes, these are all required in the English National Curriculum, which also allots separate time for science and social humanities & sciences) is substantially richer than in the non-fiction texts you so frequently focus on. And the whole theory of reading classic and contemporary children's literature, of the sort I trained my children on decades ago, has long been to encourage reading for pleasure, so that children would acquire fluency, as well as the habit of reading outside scheduled class time. The over-correction evident in the Knowledge Matters Campaign may signal why we are seeing such a collapse in free reading, and even school attendance, in recent years, and the even worse ignorance of language awareness as an essential domain of English language studies portends a future in which young Americans arriving in secondary schools will continue to have missed their best opportunity to acquire a second language, and will be so linguistically hobbled in their English as to be unable to access the Shakespeare and other classics that continue to reign in the reading lists of our language as taught outside the U.S., without which these young Americans will not be considered generally educated, should they ever travel abroad.

Mae Lindenberg Mar 18, 2024 06:19 PM

I remember in a college history class we read historical fiction text and had to pick out the important information. It was really hard for me. I had to become part of a study group in order to pass the class. I do see the advantages of using literature to teach on some topics, but students must be taught how to approach the text and how to draw out the important information. My professor said to read the text, we then discussed some of the information in class, and then he gave us a test. Since history is not a subject I enjoy, it was really hard for me. I did pass the class, but I did not do as well as I would've liked.

Dr. Bill Conrad Mar 18, 2024 07:48 PM

The ability to derive meaning from informational texts like science essays and books is as important as the reading of literature. Could the paucity of training in science and social studies contribute to the educational system gravitating more toward literature?

Our society is science and math illiterate. 60% of Americans are unable to read a science article in a popular journal and understand it. Is it any wonder that we have such a large groundswell of rejection of immunization in America? Maybe some time spent in reading about the life saving work of scientists like Jonas Salk would be a good idea! No?

It is time we confront the zeitgeist of conspiracy theories and misinformation with some solid reading and interpretation of informational texts with the hope that the fringe right does not ban these book

Mark Shinn Mar 19, 2024 01:04 AM

All of these aspirations about what our students should engage in and master is important but in so many ways naive. Too many kids don’t bring the prerequisite reading skills to the table to begin with, but it is more than that. We make so many assumption about both (for simplicity sake) narrative and informational text. That students have some minimum background knowledge including language and vocabulary. But more than that. Interest and MOTIVATION. Not all kids will be interested in what we adults think is “interesting” or “important.” And even “if.” What are the competing contingencies? Sports, music, life challenges? And for some kids, just plain school transportation! Print resources. Internet. I’ve tried to engage my sons over the years in discussions of their English assigned novels. Good luck with that. Or tried to get them interested in informational text, even short articles about topics I’ve heard THEM speak about. Delivered to their door in their preferred electronic format. As easy as can be. No luck. (Oh and no tests nor essays)! Tried modeling. Tried priming. I believe we know about as much as we can know about the what and the how, but the difficult still lies in the getting the horse to water. We still fail to prepare students with foundational reading and language arts skills. That’s on us. I believe our success in tackling THE ISSUES here would be higher if we had “happier, more successful readers and writers” who didn’t cringe at the idea of reading more.

Pam Apr 03, 2024 11:34 AM

The push to eliminate literature also eliminates connections to our own humanity. A story for the sake of a story still becomes a way to connect to something already read about. We read Watsons Go to Birmingham. It opened the door to connecting people's experiences to the history...making more meaning of the facts. When we read The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind we can attach science and geography and environmental conditions and adaptations and the importance of technological advances. Stories are what we remember and those stories become the reason we want to know more. We have a few short years to teach to read and create a genuine love for the desire to learn. The way it has been since Common Core removed literature shows it is not how children learn. The solution is bring back content in elementary school and teach knowledge as knowledge and read the texts to do so. Allow reading to be about literature and language arts to build vocabulary and grammar and writing. I have watched the education of my children shift....and it has not been for the better. I am glad no more of my own children are in school.

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Does Literature Count as Knowledge?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.