Magazine article District Administration

Making Reading Count: Districts Are Trying Many Strategies-From More Time on Task, Extra Non-Fiction Texts and Reading Coaches-To Boost Scores for Struggling Students

Magazine article District Administration

Making Reading Count: Districts Are Trying Many Strategies-From More Time on Task, Extra Non-Fiction Texts and Reading Coaches-To Boost Scores for Struggling Students

Article excerpt

In Okemos, Mich., Paula Pulter's first grade class at the Cornell Elementary School has covered units on American history, the Revolutionary War, U.S. presidents, weather and recycling. At the Thorn Apple Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Nancy Lass had led her second graders through a six-week unit reading and writing about microscopic animals.

Forays into science and social studies might be familiar ground to many a primary school teacher, but these Michigan classrooms stand apart. The non-fiction texts students are finding in these subject areas are at the core of teaching them to read. These students and teachers are part of an accelerating movement to bring more "informational texts" into the reading curriculum, and to expand student literacy in the process.

And this approach is just one of several initiatives--from increasingly sophisticated computer programs to five-year literacy plans--that are enhancing reading and writing as usual, and with some impressive results.

Nell Duke, an associate professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, is a leading advocate for bringing more informational texts into the elementary classroom. She says while many primary grade students read non-fiction, from biography to geography, these materials are seldom a major part of the reading curriculum. As a result, Duke says, young students get a late start on key comprehension strategies, vocabulary, and the subject knowledge they will need later in their school careers.

Take the oft-practiced skill of predicting, she suggests. "With a fictional narrative, students need to figure out what is going to happen next. With a non-fiction text, they have to think about what the author is going to tell you next. And you can also see how summarizing a story is really different than summarizing an informational text. We can't just teach students how to summarize stories and somehow assume they'll be able to summarize informational text."

Likewise, Duke adds, young students are more likely to encounter valuable words ranging from "describe," "compare," and "investigate" to subject-specific language, such as evaporation or metamorphosis, in informational texts, rather than in fiction.

"But in the U.S., there just hasn't been a lot of informational reading and writing, particularly across the primary grades," Duke says. "One of the things that I hear over and over again--and this certainly isn't true of all schools--is that some librarians and teachers don't even allow students to go to the non-fiction section of the library until they are in fourth grade."

Raising Expectations

Duke points to her own study of several Boston area schools, which showed that first graders spent an average of 3.6 minutes daily using informational texts. Her solution is to have teachers introduce informational texts early and often, and she recommends non-fiction for one-third of the reading curriculum, even in kindergarten and first grade. "The research that is out there consistently suggests that young children can interact successfully with informational text," she notes. "The challenge isn't as great as people may think. There are informational texts that are as simple as 'Dogs have four legs. Dogs have fur. Dogs have babies.'"

Paula Pulter, who has taught first grade for seven years and studied with Duke, agrees with that approach. "It's changed the way I view literacy, and it's my absolute love," Pulter says.

"The way I used to teach was with three reading groups--high, medium and low level--with the same three fiction books. When a group of my students came in with a question on the moon and how it changes shape, I pulled the books out of the library myself, spent two weeks going over them, and then gave a presentation to the class."

Nowadays Pulter stocks 25 percent of her classroom library with informational texts, and lets the kids find the answers for themselves. …

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