Beginning reading instruction has been focused on the use of narrative text on the assumption that stories are easier to comprehend because of their predictable structure. This assumption is so deeply ingrained that almost all of the available programs for beginning reading instruction are based on story text.
It is curious to think about the task demands in light of this assumption. Surely one would believe that reading stories would be the primary task for individuals throughout their school experiences as well as for the remainder of their lives. It only takes a cursory examination of any school curriculum to notice that beyond the earliest grades, the primary genre of text to which children are exposed is expository. That is, outside of reading instruction, students must read and process text that conveys information as its primary function.
Pappas (1993) has raised questions about the efficacy of stories as opposed to information text for Kindergarten children. In her study, Kindergarten students showed equal abilities to recall information and stories. They expressed preferences for information, at least under some circumstances. Educational Testing Service (1995) has evidence that suggests that fourth grade students who read more types of text have higher reading scores than students who read fewer types. In this analysis, students reported whether they read storybooks, magazines and information books. Students who read all three types of materials had the highest proficiency. (p.4)
In a series of small-scale studies, Kamil and his collaborators (1994) have shown that students checked out a significantly greater number of story books, compared to information books, from the school library. However, there was a larger number of information books, compared to story books, checked out of a neighborhood library (in the same neighborhood). The librarians reported that there was no apparent difference in the proportions of information and story books in the two libraries. In another study, it was found that teachers were interested in doing more work with expository material, but felt constrained by the curriculum. Approximately 80% of the teachers used predominantly narrative materials because they felt that expository materials would be "too hard" for the students.
Another study (Bernhardt, Destino, Kamil, & Rodriguez-Munoz, 1995) demonstrated that reading information text was correlated with science achievement while reading story text was not.
At the very least, these pieces of evidence, taken together, suggest that the overwhelming emphasis on instruction in story materials is misguided.
Finally, the idea of predicting what will happen in a story becomes a simple task after a student has learned the basic story grammar. This is not such an easy task in an information text. Consequently, we believe that students need--at least--INSTRUCTIONAL exposure to different types of text.
Note that we are suggesting that reading instruction should involve instruction that goes beyond that which can be provided in the context of stories. We are NOT suggesting that instruction in story text is irrelevant. We are suggesting that it should not be the entire focus of reading instruction as it is in many current programs.
The study to be reported is a two-year observational/intervention study of two first grade classes with the same teacher. The major intervention was the inclusion of an approximately equal amount of information text in reading instruction. Concomitantly, instruction was provided in strategies that were necessary for students to read information books efficiently. Students were also given parallel instruction and opportunities to write information text as well as story text, again in more nearly equal proportions than is typical.
The instructional program involved teaching students how to recognize different genres of text, how to make use of text features (i.e., indexes and tables of contents) in information text, how to assess information text in critical ways and how to make use of multiple sources of information. The program stressed writing as much as reading and all instruction was balanced between information and story text. Free reading and writing were encouraged in both information and story books.
Early on, students learn to use different features of expository text that are usually not present in or appropriate for narrative text. Among the first of these "lessons" is the ability to distinguish between information and story text. (These words are chosen to make it simpler for first grade students to remember.) Lessons in the use of a Table of Contents are given early in the year. This is taught in conjunction with the skill of learning how much of a text one has to read.
Clearly, the students need to know that they have to read the entirety of a STORY to be able to understand it, while an information book can be read in smaller pieces. The students seem to take to this distinction easily and are able to extend it. This "attitude" is reinforced by extensive use of the K-W-L procedure (Ogle, 1986). Students need to be fairly specific about what they want to know and then do reading that is targeted at finding out that information. This is an opportunity to provide lessons on intertextuality by pointing out to students that they can learn different parts of the answers to questions from different books. This is reinforced by the teacher-directed questions (embedded in an expository reading context) "Did that answer your question?" or "Is it a good idea to read two information books?"
Coupled with instruction in reading information text is learning how to write expository text. The KWL questions are used as a guide for writing. Students are encouraged to search in books for answers. They are also encouraged to focus on the information rather than the mechanics of what they write. A cornerstone of the instruction is that the students must use their own language so they will be able to read the material at a later time.
Other instructional elements that are emphasized are other features of expository books that do not appear in narrative books: glossaries, indexes, etc. The students quickly come to realize, however that the distinction is not as clear as they might wish. Some story books have "true" information in them; some information in information books is not "true."
Also important here is an instructional principle that narrative is used after the expository has been studied? The background in the expository makes the narrative more meaningful.
Most of the instruction in reading exposition is embedded in themed units: Farm animals, pets, mammals, rain forest, etc. This gives students wide latitude to contribute what they know and what they need to find. The "products" of these projects can be books, large murals, or individualized writing about the topic. Students due "research" by reading books that will allow them to answer the "W" questions posed at the outset of the unit. Parents often help their children in this by taking them to the library outside of school hours, reading the books with them, and even helping with some of the transcribing of compositions. The feedback about the program from the parents has been positive. Many parents have shared with the teacher the excitement of their child telling them new facts about animals. The parents become part of the learning process for their child.
Parents are also regular participants in the classroom. They receive notes about class activities, participate in a daily parent/teacher dialog journal and come to class for special days with the children.
Another major feature of daily instruction in this class is "Daily News." At the beginning of each day, students participate in a whole group activity in which they write (and then read) the specific activities of the day. This activity begins as a highly formulaic activity and changes over the year to become more creative.
Because the study was observational in nature, a full treatment of the data cannot be presented in a short presentation. Results clearly showed that students did learn to read and write in a variety different genres. Students from the first year learned to read at a very high level. While this is partially confounded with their native abilities, they performed above teacher expectations, independently and showed great motivation. A significant portion of the second-year class qualified for some sort of special reading program. While they did not perform as well as the first class, their improvement was substantial. Reading achievement was measured by taking running records in materials that were leveled by Reading Recovery standards. Analyses of portfolios of written work showed similar gains across and within the two classes.
In a recent class the students read a book called, "Monkeys in the Jungle." It is a fictional story about animals and where they live. The only problem that the students found with it, is that the author did not use only jungle animals. There were a penguin, bear, goats, etc. An explanation was offered that in fiction the author can include any animal that they want, but that did not satisfy the group. The teacher offered the class the opportunity to change it into a non fiction book. The students listed different animals in the jungle. Each person was given an animal and the class wrote their own Jungle Book. Some examples: There are toucans in the canopy. Giraffes live outside the rain forest. There are ants on the forest floor.
An important strategy was that students would try to locate the "neighborhood" of the text where the information was located, even if they could not read the passage. They would then ask one of the adults in the room to read a relevant section to them. For example, they might look for numbers in the National Geographic Encyclopedia article about whales when they were trying to determine sizes of whales. They knew that the request for reading would more likely be honored if it were targeted at the information they wanted.
By the end of February in the first year, students were using two books about whales that measured between the sixth and seventh grade level in readability. By the end of April, one of the better students brought in some material from the Columbus Zoo. The accompanying information sheet about bullfrogs, which she read fluently, had a readability level measured at the mid-tenth grade level.
The students checked out school library books that were assessed at the fourth through seventh grade level of readability for use in their writing projects, and even for leisure reading. At one point during the year, a fourth grade teacher wanted to know why all of the books on whales were checked out by the first grade students.
Another important example of the importance of reading information text first occurred when the students read Eric Carl's book about a hermit crab. The importance of the story is bound up with knowing that hermit crabs move from "home" to "home" using abandoned shells for houses. Without having learned about hermit crabs first, the students would have had little or no knowledge of the important characteristics used in story.
Students seemed to pick up the various ways of locating information rapidly. They liked the idea of being able to select from a Table of Contents in a book only one chapter or a few pages without having to read the entire book.
They also clearly began to understand the various uses of other text features for finding information. One interesting extension was when the students questioned the teacher about the list of other books in the same series. One student mis-identified it as an index. When the teacher explained it, another student asked whether or not the book she was reading would be in the list of other books in the series. Clearly, the students were not just learning these features; they were thinking about them in sophisticated ways.
Daily News began as a classic, teacher-led language experience/dictation activity and evolved throughout the year into a full-fledge independent writing and editing activity. Early in the year, students simply dictated sentences about the daily activities. (Each day, the sentences were used to illustrate and teach facets of reading, decoding, etc.) A transition took place in which the students began to "edit" what they dictated. This was done as a whole group activity. As they became yet more proficient, the students were allowed to take over the whole activity. Individuals would write their contributions on strips of paper and post them. They would then be edited by the class, with little teacher intervention.
This study demonstrates that it is not only possible but feasible to teach students at the first grade level about information text genres, features, and uses. Students of widely differing abilities were able to make use of this information in reading and writing while making at least average, or above average progress. Moreover, it is possible to conduct early reading instruction in expository texts, rather than relying solely on narrative forms.
An important caution is needed. We are not advocating the elimination of narrative or story text from the curriculum, even for reading instruction. We are advocating a balance that we feel is missing at present. In the present study, approximately 50% of reading instruction in first grade was conducted in the context of expository or information texts. The remainder was accomplished with narrative or literary forms. Students in the classes we studied read a great deal in literary formats. However, they also read far more in exposition than most students ever do in reading instruction.
This last is a crucial point for the perspective we have adopted. Many programs emphasize the combining of literary materials and information. Almost all of them, without fail, suggest that exposition should be used in a secondary role to narrative. However, our emphasis is different. We believe that these genres are sufficiently different AND important that reading instruction needs to account for both.
There are many factors that account for the findings reported in this paper. There is a deliberate attempt on the part of the teacher to make literacy authentic and comprehensive. Parents are enlisted to help their students. They are encourage to participate in the classroom. There is also clearly an attitude that the students can and will learn, even when they are struggling. Also, literacy activities are clearly valued in the classroom. The beginning of each day is devoted to individual, independent reading. Everyone participates in this activity, including the teacher.
We do not know what the optimal points are for reading instruction. How much information text in relation to story text is still an important unanswered question.
However, we do know that the skills that students develop in this environment are crucial in their later lives, both in school and at work. We want to track this programmatic change to see what effects it can have throughout a school. We are encouraged that other teachers in the school have begun to adopt the practices and principles embodied in this study.
Bernhardt, E., Destino, T., Kamil, M., & Rodriguez-Munoz, M. (1995). Assessing science knowledge in an English/Spanish bilingual elementary school. Cognosos, 4 (1), 4-6.
Educational Testing Service. (1995). A Synthesis of Data from NAEP's 1992 Integrated Reading Performance Record at Grade 4. Washington, D. C.: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education.
Kamil, M. L. (1994, April). Matches between reading instruction and reading task demands. American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.
Ogle, D. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. Reading Teacher, 39, 564-70.
Pappas, C. (1993). Is narrative "primary"? Some insights from kindergartners' pretend readings of stories and information books. Journal of Reading Behavior, 25, 97-129.