Excerpt from So Much More than the ABCs: The Early Phases of Reading and Writing
Why Read Informational Books?
Teachers of young children typically devote more time to stories than to informational books, and also include more storybooks in classroom book areas (Duke 2000). These practices are based on beliefs, such as thinking that informational books are more difficult and less appealing for young children than stories. Interestingly, in a small study, researchers found that teachers in the United States thought narratives were easier than informational books for preschoolers, and also far more appealing, while Korean teachers held exactly the opposite view. Not surprisingly, the books these preschool teachers read aloud and included in their classroom libraries strongly reflected their attitudes (Lee et al. 2011).
Preschool and kindergarten teachers will probably provide more balance between storybooks and informational books in the years ahead because the Common Core State Standards require more informational book use in the primary grades (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers 2010). This change is important because informational books benefit young children’s learning in so many ways.
Informational books are interesting
The content of informational books is interesting to almost all preschoolers, and some young children actually like informational texts far better than stories (Caswell & Duke 1998; Correia 2011; Duke 2004). Having access to books that are preferred can affect a child’s interest in books and in reading.
This affective response is related to a child’s reading success (Guthrie, Schafer, & Huang 2001), which makes sense because children who are interested in books read more and develop greater reading skill. They also acquire more content knowledge and associated vocabulary. In fact, the majority of new vocabulary acquired during the school years (i.e., third grade and beyond) comes from the books that children read (Nagy, Anderson, & Herman 1987).
In the U.S., about 40 percent of school children read only what they must for school, and not at all just for enjoyment (Gambrell 2011). When preschool teachers read informational books and include them in the classroom book area, all children have a better chance to develop interest in books.
Informational books support vocabulary development
Because informational books contain many sophisticated technical words and explain them explicitly, reading this kind of book helps children learn higher-level vocabulary. In contrast, stories contain fewer technical terms and provide very little explicit information about their meanings. As a consequence, children must infer the meanings of unfamiliar words when listening to stories, or they learn them from information teachers or family members provide.
A few examples from Crayfish by Lola M. Schaefer illustrate the explicitness of explanations typically found in informational texts. This book’s first page says, “Crayfish are sea animals without bones. They are invertebrates” (p. 4). In this case, invertebrates is explained in the first sentence (i.e., “without bones”).
Preschool teachers can also provide additional support for word meanings, because young children do not always link information from one sentence to information provided in another. A teacher’s comments can also foster broader and deeper word learning. For example, children learn more about a technical term’s meaning and how it applies to other instances. Children also learn related words, and increase their understanding of a story event that is related to the content of the informational book shared. Unlike the connected ideas and flow found in storybooks, many informational books are written with one fact or explanation per page, which makes it easy to stop and comment after reading each one.
Informational books help children acquire content knowledge
Informational books help children learn about things that are impossible or impracticable to experience first-hand. Even when first-hand access to information is possible, informational books allow children to see things they might not otherwise notice.
Suppose that children found a bee or fly outside. Teachers might identify the bee or fly by name, tell a little bit about it, and prompt children to observe some of the insect’s physical features and behavior. The problem, though, is that children cannot safely approach some insects, and others fly away before children can observe them thoroughly. Informational books benefit learning, in part, because they make things “sit still” for examination in ways they often do not in the natural world.
Informational texts expose children to dense and abstract language
Because informational books are packed densely with content words, their syntax differs from the syntax in stories (Nagy & Townsend 2012). Informational books also contain verb forms that are timeless (e.g., “Crayfish are . . . ” “Crayfish live . . . ” “Rocks do not melt . . . ”), rather than mostly past tense verbs that one finds in most stories.
Thus, in addition to giving children access to vocabulary and content information, hearing informational books read aloud acquaints children with language of a specific kind. This familiarity helps all children comprehend content area books they read later in school (i.e., science and social science textbooks), and it seems especially helpful to children who are learning English as a second language (Council of Chief State School Officers 2012; Kelley et al. 2010).
Informational books help children understand narratives
Although children do not need to understand all of the facts in every story to enjoy and comprehend most of it, the more a child understands, the better. For example, a young child can enjoy the story Raccoon on His Own without knowing much about crawfish because crawfish are not central to the story’s problem or plot. Many stories are like this, but others are not.
A good example of such a story is Farfallina & Marcel by Holly Keller. Children will realize why Farfallina (a caterpillar, early in the story) does not return to her friend, Marcel, for such a long time only if they understand that the life cycle of a butterfly or moth includes a metamorphosis from caterpillar to the adult butterfly. Similarly, children will only realize that the butterfly appearing later in the story is still Farfallina, not a different creature altogether from the caterpillar they met earlier, if they have knowledge of a butterfly’s life cycle.
When content knowledge is central to a story, it is a good idea to provide experiences from which young children can acquire the relevant information and concepts before they hear the story the first time, or at least within the time period of the book’s multiple readings (e.g., three readings across a period of about a week). With either of these approaches to scheduling relevant content experiences, children will have opportunities to integrate the content knowledge with information provided in the story’s text, and to draw inferences about story events and characters’ behavior based on these multiple sources of information.
It takes time, of course, for children to acquire the full range of content knowledge that would inform all of the stories they hear. Although it is not possible for preschoolers to acquire vast stores of information, it is realistic for teachers to help them develop content knowledge in some domains and to support their use of it to understand some of the stories they hear.
From So Much More Than the ABCs: The Early Phases of Reading and Writing, by J.A. Schickedanz & M.F. Collins. Copyright © 2013 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.