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Elementary teacher doing a lively read aloud for class
Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Does Literature Count as Knowledge?

Literature can be an important source of knowledge, but only if our choice of books and pedagogical moves support that kind of learning.

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?

Shanahan’s response

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 (Lois Lowry), Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Mildred D. Taylor), and Esperanza Rising (Pam Muñoz Ryan) 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.

Selected comments

Comment from Natalie Wexler

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 here (opens in a new window)), 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.

Comment from Tammy E.

Oh my. This question and the black-or-white, either-or-thinking by curriculum adopters that prompted it are crushing to me. It’s 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 through 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.

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.

See more comments here (opens in a new window)

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
March 18, 2024