It is enlightening to think about the task demands of reading in school in light of the preponderance of narrative over exposition, either by assumption or empirical estimate. 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.
There are several assumption that seem to be responsible for state of affairs. The first assumption is that students will find it easier, in beginning reading, to process stories than exposition. Corrollary to this is the assumption that students prefer stories to exposition.
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. This finding suggests that there are separable skills in reading the two types of text. Students who have little or no exposure to reading exposition might well be at a disadvantage when it comes to learning science.
At the very least, the pieces of evidence presented in the preceding section, taken together, suggest that the sole emphasis on instruction in story materials is misguided. What is needed, at least, is an approach where students learn strategies appropriate for both types of texts.
Why are types of text important?
As a basic premise, we believe that there are critical differences in in the way in which readers must approach different genres of text. Further, we have come to believe that differences between text types are so important for readers that they must be part of instruction. For the purposes of this presentation, we put forth three dimensions on which we believe the reading of different genres differ: Truth value, thoroughness of reading, and text structure.
By ‘truth value’ we mean the default assumption of whether or not the information in a text is ‘true’. This is the default assumption, not the determination whether it actually is true or not. A story is can be equally ‘good’, entertaining, etc., whether or not it really happened. Exposition, however, is not useful if it is untrue. A reader must make the assumption that the text is true until such time as there is evidence it is not. Otherwise there would be no point in trying to read the information for a further purpose. If students are provided reading instruction ONLY in stories, they do not receive instruction in how to evaluate the truth value of a text. Consequently, they may not think of that dimension as an important one in comprehension when the move to reading expository text.
The second dimension is the amount of text one needs for comprehension. Stories routinely have to be read completely in order to be fully appreciated. Exposition is often read in small bits—as the reader searches for relevant information. Text aids built into exposition make this possible—tables of contents, indexes, headings and the like. Comparable text aids are typically not available in narrative text. If students do not have the strategy of reading ONLY what is necessary in information texts, they may have to work their way through much information that is irrelevant and, ultimately, distracting for the task at hand--whatever it may be. It is interesting to speculate what students could do to learn to formulate questions and read only some of the text to find the answers in stories.
Finally, the idea of predicting what will happen in a story becomes a simple task after a student has learned the basic story grammar. While stories may or may not adhere rigidly to a single story grammar, there is more uniformity in the structure of stories than of exposition. Researchers and theorists have identified as many as 6 different structures for exposition. Thus, identification of structure of text is far more difficult when reading non-narrative material. Consequently, we believe that students need--at least--INSTRUCTIONAL exposure to different types of text.
It is important to note that we are suggesting that reading instruction should go 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 narrative should not be the entire focus of reading instruction as it is in many current programs.
The study grew out of a common concern about the nature of the materials being used for reading instruction. As set forth in the argument above, there are reading skills that cannot be taught in the context of stories and there are reading skills that cannot be taught in the context of exposition. Given the emphasis on reading information text in school content areas and the workplace, we have found it surprising that reading instruction is predominantly story or narrative in nature. Consequently, we thought it important to attempt to teach reading with expository materials on an equal footing with narrative materials, beginning at the first grade level.
The study to be reported is a three-year observational/intervention study of three first grade classes and one second grade class 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.
The study is in its fourth year. We have chosen not to make causal comparisons between the years since those differences probably reflect differences in general student abilities and in classroom organization, rather than instruction. The first year students were in a self-contained classroom with 27 students and one teacher. The second year students were taught in a team teaching classroom, with 44 students and two teachers. The third year returned to a self-contained classroom, with 22 students. These same students have now entered second grade with the same teacher and continue to be part of the study. The second year students were less capable, as judged by the proportion of students qualifying for, and being enrolled in, special academic programs. There was also a number of students for whom English was not a first language. However, the results clearly paralleled the results with the students from the first year. Students showed significant improvement in reading and writing, could easily distinguish between text genres in reading and writing, and were able to use appropriate strategies to deal with specific forms of text. The third year students seem to fall somewhere in between.
Because the study is ongoing and observational in nature, the data cannot be explored fully in a short presentation. Results clearly showed that students did learn to read and write in a wide variety different genres. Reading achievement was measured by taking running records in materials that were leveled by Reading Recovery standards. Reading data for the students from the three groups of students across the three and a half years are shown in Tables 1, 2, 3, 4. Students from the first year learned to read at a relatively high level. They averaged 9.3 levels passed in Reading Recovery materials. 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. They averaged 7.6 levels passed. While they did not perform as well as the first class, their improvement was substantial. Students from the third year showed and average of 9.6 levels passed in January. By September of the same year, when they had entered second grade, they averaged 19.0 levels. Analyses of portfolios of written work showed similar gains across and within the classes.
Text Genre Issues
In the first year, students were given opportunities to express preferences for either story or information text at various points during the year. They showed differential preferences for the two genres. They expressed preferences for reading information text (22 said they liked it more) compared to only 5 who preferred reading stories. When asked which they liked to write, 17 still indicated a preference for expository while 8 said they would rather write stories. Two were undecided. One of the students indicated that he liked to write stories because he had to read books to find out information to put into his information writing.
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.
Difficulty of Material
Much of what the students read was well above their grade placement. Despite this, Students learned strategies for dealing with complicated information text that, at least as judged by readability, should have been beyond their capabilities. They routinely consulted books and reference works that were adult level, as measured by Fry readability calculations. One of the primary sources was the National Geographic Encyclopedia of Mammals.
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, instead of a broader request.
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 readers brought in some material from the local 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 routinely 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.
Sources of Information
Perhaps the most important instructional feature of this intervention is that students should learn when to use texts for different purposes. When students in the first year were asked where they would get information on something we wanted to know they responded with a long list of possibilities, in this order: Movies, books, shows on TV, field trips, parents, etc. (This was in March.) Students in the second year were asked the same question in the context of the farm unit. They listed: Farmer, parents, going to a farm, library. Clearly the students were not as aware of books at the beginning of the year. One student noted that he thought going to school was the way to get answers!
Another important example of the importance of reading information text first occurred when the students read Eric Carle’s book A House for 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.
Composing and Editing
Some of the more interesting observations of the instructional program came from the writing the students completed. When one class had finished the farm unit, they put together a book that contained all the information they learned. Since this was relatively early in the year, a few of the more capable students were selected for the tasks of proofreading, editing, etc. One student pointed out that the computer printouts did not have page numbers, so she could not complete her assigned task of compiling an index.
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.
Finally, the students began to use the activity to convey information they thought was important: Reminders of special events, upcoming birthdays, trips, class schedules and the like. They had come to understand and use information text for their own purposes.
This study also demonstrated that it is not only possible but desirable to teach students at the first grade level about information text genres, features, and uses. Students of widely differing abilities were able to understand, learn, and make use of this information in reading and writing while making normal or above average progress. Moreover, it is possible to conduct early reading instruction in expository texts, rather than relying solely on narrative forms. Given the text demands of later schooling and life after school these are important skills that students need to acquire early.
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. We believe that exposition should not be presented as a secondary text genre.
While we would like to claim that our instructional intervention accounted for the results, 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 encouraged 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 yet know what the optimal combinations of text genres 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 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.
Given the strong rationale we believe is present for having students learn about exposition, the present results are encouraging. Our students seemed to do at the very least as well as they should have in the more traditional story-based curriculum. That evidence suggests that this intervention is worth the investment.
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.
Carle, E. (1988). A House for Hermit Crab. New York: Simon & Schuster.
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