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."
Duke points to her own study of several Boston area schools, which showed that first graders spent an average of 3.6 minutes daily usinginformational 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. "I want to help the children learn how to read books they have self-selected and are interested in," she says. "What I've found with first graders is that sometimes a genre of preference opens the door."
And while veteran teacher Nancy Lass had her doubts when she piloted the microscopic animals unit that Duke had designed, she discovered that dust mites, fleas and lice made good partners in engaging students. "When she first came to me with the unit, I said to myself, 'You've got be kidding,' " Lass recalls. "My second graders had to become aware of indexes, glossaries, captions, the bolding of words, and they had to work on comprehension strategies-questioning, schema, making inferences, and synthesis of what they had read.
"But the students loved it. When you treat kids as scholars, they rise to those expectations of being able to read and comprehend, and nine out of 10 times, they'll surpass those expectations. They're not afraid to pick up an informational text, and they still can get information if they can't read the words. They love what they call 'the new learning,' even if it's just a picture or a caption."
For more complicated materials, Lass records her own "books on tape" with simpler summaries, and she splits the reading curriculum evenly between informational and fictional texts. And while a district-wide reading and writing initiative helped 70 percent of second graders meet standard, her class rate soared to 98 percent, which she credits largely to her use of content-related texts. "I always knew it was important, but not to the extent I do now," Lass says.
While typical basal readers have been slow to incorporate non-fiction, Duke says, major educational publishers, along with specialty providers such as National Geographic, have been turning out collections of informational texts, as well as how-to books for teachers. Still, Duke adds, teachers will likely need professional development and help in finding quality texts that match their student levels.
Making a Major Commitment
The Literacy Collaborative is asking even more of teachers and their schools. This teacher development initiative, founded at Ohio State University last decade, requires schools seeking improvement to hire a half-time literacy coach, to devote up to three hours a day to literacy instruction, and to commit for five years to an ongoing support program for all reading teachers. The organization currently counts more than 500 schools in more than two dozen states.
"It's not a quick fix," says Sarah Mahurt, who runs the Literary Collaborative training site at Purdue University, one of three universities to which the program has expanded. (The others are Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. and Georgia State University in Atlanta.) "It's really systemic. It's looking at not just, 'How do we change just a few instructional practices in the classroom?' but 'How do we look at a professional development process that can be effective, knowing that literacy practices may change over time?' "
Mahurt says the results are worth the wait and reports that in a 10-year study of all Literacy Collaborative schools, 80 percent showed an increase in students' standardized test scores. She adds that the bottom quartile of students made the largest gains.
The four university sites train the new literacy coordinators during seven-week, on-campus seminars, which reinforce familiar approaches such as small group guided reading, read-alouds, shared reading, writing workshops and word study. The training then turns to the coaching of others. The coaches return to their schools, where they form a literacy team of teachers and the principal. They split their workday between working with reading teachers and teaching their own reading blocks.
"We ask teachers to spend two-and-a-half to three hours a day on reading, writing and language and word study. Time makes a big difference," Mahurt says. "And people have to be willing to put a lot of time into discussions and professional development."
That professional development includes having the literacy coordinator regularly visit classrooms and meet at least twice monthly with reading teachers. "The key is having someone in the building as a coach every day," says Mahurt "So when you say, 'I'm not sure I understand this, you've got someone who can come right there and problem solve with you.'
"There's also a lot of attention paid to assessment information and really using data, and so as a class room teacher, I'm looking at data to make instructional decisions, and the tools that I've learned which would be most effective for my students at this moment. I'm not just following a program."
The university, for its part, provides continuing support through two site visits a year and as a pipeline for the most promising literacy research. "Administrators tell us, 'We've never spent this much time on one thing,' " says Mahurt, referring to the five-year commitment required of schools. "[They say] 'We've done two years and then someone goes to a conference, and we bring another program in or if we get a new principal, we start something new.' "
Kristi Knapp, the associate superintendent of public schools in Richmond, Ind., has implemented the Literacy Collaborative model one school at a time, starting eight years ago with a failing elementary school. "There were all kinds of struggles along the way," she remembers. "It was a new model, and it took a buy-in from each grade level and the principal. But by the fourth year, we were seeing dramatic changes in that building and in student scores," which almost doubled to 80 percent meeting standard.
Since then Knapp has expanded the program to the district's seven other elementary schools and has witnessed a marked change along the way. "There's more time spent on teaching of reading, and it's purposeful and planned time," she observes. "Before, it was scattered and haphazard."
Computers have long had an impact in the classroom, and the area of literacy is no exception. For years, "text-to-speech" programs have helped new and struggling readers by highlighting words and sentences as a recorded voice speaks them, but a newer generation of tools and programs has expanded the possibilities.
Pam Solvie instructs pre-service teachers at the University of Minnesota, Morris. She has them use electronic whiteboards as a better way of engaging younger students.
The interactive components of the whiteboard, which can be connected to a computer, allow youngsters to use a special marker-or even their fingers-to perform exercises such as circling the "naming" and "describing" words in sentences or highlighting letter combinations at the beginning and end of words. Students also can write on the whiteboard and save their work .
The whiteboard lets teachers use PowerPoint presentations of everything from vocabulary to whole passages, which students can then mark up. Solvie says students' tactile involvement with learning makes a big difference. "They're enthusiastic about it, they're talkative, they're asking questions, and they're contributing."
Ron Schachter is a contributing editor