Thinking back to the days when you were young, as you sat on the lap of a parent or on a carpet square in your primary grade classroom, do you recall the titles of some of your most cherished childhood stories? Was it a classic Dr. Seuss creation, a nursery rhyme such as Hickory, Dickory, Dock, or possibly The Little Red Hen that drew you in a little closer? Oftentimes these types of childhood classics dominate bookshelves within homes and classrooms across the country. However, the tide may be changing.
The recently released English Language Arts (ELA) Common Core State Standards, adopted by many states across the nation including Ohio, call for stronger and more focused attention to non-fiction texts, even within the early grades. In alignment with the 2009 Reading Framework presented by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the creators of the Common Core Standards recommend an increase in exposure to non-fiction texts as students progress through grades in order to better prepare them for later encounters with real-world texts. The Common Core heavily emphasizes the alignment of k-12 standards with future college and work expectations.
Many educators across Ohio have either witnessed first-hand or heard about the ‘fourth grade slump’ (Chall and Jacobs, 2003), which describes a national trend characterized by an overall decrease in standardized assessment scores, usually occurring during the late elementary school years. During this same time period the over-arcing goal of reading instruction shifts from students ‘learning to read’ to students who ‘read to learn.’ This coincides with a dramatic increase in the amount of informational texts used within language arts and content area classrooms.
Expectations that students can effectively and efficiently read a variety of complex, informational texts continues to compound as students move out of elementary and into both middle school and high school. And while classic fictional literature often contributes positively to general reading development, what it fails to do is prepare students for the structures, features and complex vocabulary found within informational texts. In addition, fictional literature often does not provide students with the layers of background knowledge required to deeply comprehend topics later studied within content areas, topics that essentially help children understand the world around them.
This push for greater exposure to non-fiction should not be interpreted as a rally to rid primary grade classrooms of high-quality fictional literature! To the contrary, there is concrete evidence that literary texts do contribute to the development of a variety of reading skills such as building phonological awareness and word recognition skills, contributing to greater reading fluency and general vocabulary development, instilling a love of reading, as well as others (Report of the National Reading Panel, 2000). Instead, this initiative should be viewed as a gentle reminder targeted at early childhood educators, librarians and parents alike, to keep the end in mind. In fact, a staggering 90% of texts encountered by adults are informational in nature (Stead & Hoyt, 2011).
Specifically, the Reading Framework and Common Core State Standards propose an equal balance, or 1:1 ratio, of informational and literary texts in fourth grade. Thereafter, exposure to informational texts increases; in that eventually a twelfth grader would be exposed to informational text 70% of the time and literary text just 30% of the time. Although no specific guidelines are published for the early grades, primary teachers certainly have a responsibility to prepare students for the demands of fourth grade and beyond. For instance, teachers in third grade could plan to use informational texts approximately 40% of the time, second grade teachers 30% of the time, and so forth.
Certainly, selection of texts should not become a mathematical process designed to align perfectly with these percentages, nor should educators choose books simply because they are literary or informational in nature. Instead, teachers should choose books to share with children for authentic purposes, while also being mindful of the approximate amount of genres used. In this way, the teacher would choose books that match instructional objectives while also keeping in mind what types of texts have been used over the course of the year. For example, a kindergarten teacher who has traditionally used a text such as Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar could add an informational text about caterpillars to the lesson, which would provide students with the opportunity to enjoy quality children’s literature while also exposing them to facts and concepts that build a knowledge base about real caterpillars. In doing so, children become accustomed to relating fictional literature to real world knowledge, which can aide them in becoming more knowledgeable and skillful readers ofmultiple genres.
Undeniably, young children have an insatiable appetite for learning about the world around them. So why not feed this hunger for knowledge with high-quality, informational texts the next time they curl up on your lap or sit ‘pretzel-style’ on a carpet square within your classroom? Informational texts CAN assist students in developing a love of learning and reading at the same time!