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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

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.

Informational Text and Young Children

March 16, 2015

So the woman who runs my local children’s book store told me that more and more parents of young children are asking for “nonfiction beginning readers” because “that’s what Common Core wants.” Really? In kindergarten and first grade? Aren’t beginning readers supposed to develop their decoding and word recognition by reading simple stories (the ones populated by talking pigs).

I’ve seen “easy” nonfiction books that are full of difficult multisyllable words and proper names. The publishers have made the books (supposedly) appropriate for beginning readers by reducing the number of words in the sentences (until the point they are almost incomprehensible), putting fewer words on a page and enlarging the font. The result is a dumbing-down of the content.

I agree that teachers should be reading more nonfiction to young children but is the interpretation that Common Core wants young readers to be reading more nonfiction on their own correct?

The short answer is that Common Core says nothing about kids’ personal choices and how they spend their out-of-school time. The standards do set educational goals — that is, they establish what it is that schools need to ensure students know and can do. These standards require that kids have the skills to read informational text effectively (which are somewhat different than the skills needed to read literary text).

I assume the anecdote reveals a parent who wants to help her child do well at school. What a great parent. She might not understand, very clearly, what the standards require — the standards also require that students learn how to read literature effectively, too — but she recognizes that schools need help and isn’t going to leave her kid’s success to chance. Good for her.

I have no doubt that the practice will help. But, let’s remember there are more reasons for reading than just to do better in school. I’m pleased about this parent, but I might be even more excited if she had said, “I want some nonfiction texts for my child because he’s interested in spiders.”

Your letter expresses concern that Common Core is transforming home reading practices. There are other observers who fear that it is imposing reading experiences that are not “developmentally appropriate” for young children (your letter might have been prompted by that, too).

Those claims are Loony-tunes (with apologies to Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck). It's great that the standards are encouraging young readers to take on informational texts. Nell Duke reported that first graders had the opportunity to read such texts at school only about 3.6 minutes per day (and she even included the bulletin boards) — that’s less than 11 hours per year!

This gap is even more important given the large percentage of youngsters (Correls, 2011), who are dying to read about snakes, horses, dinosaurs, rocket ships, skeletons, submarines, pirates, etc. (I get to see that these days with my grandkids and nephews, and I used to see it with the first-graders that I taught in my own classrooms).

What you say about beginning level texts is often true, sad to say. Too often the content is dumbed down … but that is no less true for stories. Let’s be honest, beginning reading texts have rarely merited praise for their literary quality (Dr. Seuss being one of the rare exceptions that proves the rule). The limits on children’s decoding skills definitely limits what can be put into the texts for young readers, but this is true for all texts, not just informational ones. Teachers rarely read nonfiction texts to kids, and they rarely make such texts available to children to read on their own.

However, these practices seem to be changing. Even the National Association of Educators of Young Children — a group focused heavily on the learning of preschool children (ages/grades not covered by CCSS) are encouraging the promotion of informational text even with younger kids.

Kids definitely can learn from talking pigs, but they can learn from pigs (and dinosaurs) that don't talk. In fact, many of them prefer it that way.

Comments

Wow, we are doing something right! Teaching (K-5) using the text features of non-fiction to access key details/facts. Using Non-fiction read aloud for content that is then used to practice writing. Providing level text in the classroom for student choice reading (fiction and non-fiction). Teaching essay writing using prompts for all genres and multiple article sources.

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"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller