CEP 900: Research Interests
December 11, 2000
In the following paper, I will provide an overview of the field of literacy, with particular focus on the research concerning children's use of nonfiction genres. I will begin with a historical overview of the field, and then in the focus on nonfiction, I will discuss current issues and important researchers in the field, methodologies, discoveries so far, and possible future research (including my own research interests).
The study of reading has been embraced by scholars from many fields (Gaffney & Anderson, 2000; Pearson, 2000). These scholars include linguists, psycholinguists, cognitive psychologists, sociolinguists, philosophers, literary critics, and critical theorists. Gaffney (2000) asserts that the major theoretical changes in the field can be delineated as follows: the behaviorist perspective dominated in the 1960s, the cognitive perspective rose to prominence in the 1970s, and sociocultural and psycholinguistic perspectives moved to the forefront in the 1980s and 1990s.
The arguments made by behaviorists regarding the stimulus-response nature of language learning were seriously challenged by the work of linguist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky argued that people are born with a language acquisition device; that essentially people are programmed to learn language. He further argued that it would be impossible for a child to be reinforced for every utterance he or she produces, and that the unique nature of these utterances suggests that they are not simply repetitions of language heard by the child. This nativist view of language acquisition spawned a new wave of interest in the acquisition of reading skills.
In their investigations of reading, psycholinguists were first devoted to determining whether the views of Chomsky could serve as psychological models of the reading process. Linguists contend that mistakes in oral language could be used to understand the rule systems that children invent for themselves in the natural acquisition of language. Psycholinguists argued that there exists a connection between the natural acquisition of oral language and the natural acquisition of written language. Leading the way on this were two prominent psycholinguists, Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith. Goodman (1996) argued that reading and writing are both dynamic, constructive processes. Oral reading errors serve as windows into the comprehension processes of readers. He coined the term "miscue" to describe the mistakes that children make as they read. Goodman asserted that these miscues should not be viewed as problems; instead, they are windows into the cognitive process of the reader. By analyzing these miscues, teachers can help students to make more efficient use of the three cueing systems employed by skilled readers: the graphophonic, syntactic, and semantic systems. Goodman (1982) described reading as a "psycholinguistic guessing game" in which readers don't read word by word, but instead use clues from all three cueing systems to make guesses about what will come next. Thus, Goodman takes a naturalistic stance toward the teaching of reading. Goodman's work led to the whole language movement in which teachers strive to see reading as a holistic process, and to provide opportunities for students to be immersed in reading and writing.
In the 1970s, Frank Smith argued that one is not taught to read, one learns to read. In the fifth edition of the book in which that argument was first presented (Smith, 1994), it is stated, "...little of substance has changed since the first edition of Understanding Reading was published in 1971" (p. ix). Smith believes that the function of teachers is not to teach reading so much as it is to help children read. "For Smith, all knowing and all learning were constructive processes; individuals made sense of what they encountered based on what they already knew" (Pearson, 2000, p. 169-170). Smith also argued that reading was only incidentally visual. Being able to see is necessary but not sufficient to achieve understanding of written text.
Thus, psycholinguists contributed to the field of literacy a means of gathering information (miscue analysis) and a theory (reading as a constructive process).
In the 1960s and 70s, it became fashionable for psychologists to study reading, and works by cognitive psychologists flooded the literature on basic processes in reading, including story grammars, expository structures, and schema theory (Pearson, 2000). Schema theory became one of the most popular and influential movements of the 1970s. Schema theory describes the structure of human knowledge as it is represented in memory. The theory asserts that readers and listeners actively construct meanings for texts they encounter rather than simply "receiving" meaning from texts (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). Early cognitive psychology contributions such as story grammars focused on the structure of texts, but not on readers or comprehension. Schema theory moved the discussion from one focused on the meaning within texts to the meaning that readers brought to text, and the interaction of new knowledge contained in text and a reader's prior knowledge, or schemata.
The field of sociolinguistics developed in parallel with psycholinguistics (Pearson, 2000). Sociolinguists mainly focused on issues of dialect and reading. They argued that dialects are not ill- or half-formed variations of standard English, but instead are well-developed linguistic systems. Sociolinguists also expanded the definition of context beyond the print that surrounds a word on a page to include the instructional, home, and community contexts of literacy. They emphasized that reading always occurs in a context; thus, they raised awareness of the fact that language is a social and cultural construct, with its varying implications for reading.
Finally, literary theorists such as Louise Rosenblatt offered reader response theory. In this theory, authority in meaning-making is given to the reader over the text. Unlike the early cognitive psychologists, who focused on the structure of text to the exclusion of the reader, Rosenblatt argued that meaning is created in a transaction between reader and text (Rosenblatt, 1994).
In the field of reading today, controversy continues to exist over the ways in which children learn to read and the best ways to teach reading. This controversy is especially intense in the whole language versus phonics debate (Baumann, Hoffman, Moon, & Duffy-Hester, 1998; Dahl & Scharer, 2000; Goodman, 1993; Smith, 1994; Wharton-McDonald, Pressley, & Hamston, 1998). Proponents of a phonics approach to early reading instruction (such as Jeanne Chall, Marilyn Adams, and Richard Anderson) argue that children need to be taught to "break the code" of written language, and that they should be taught explicitly the letter-sound relationships before they will begin to comprehend. Many of these researchers argue that once children learn to decode words, comprehension will naturally follow. On the other side of the issue are whole language proponents (such as Ken Goodman and Frank Smith) who argue that children will naturally learn to make sense of print the way they naturally learned to make sense of oral language. They argue for children to be exposed to print-rich environments with quality literature and to be provided with support in their attempts at making sense of written language. They further assert that it is unnecessary and possibly even harmful to attempt to force children to learn isolated phonics rules.
In the middle of this debate, there is a growing number of people advocating a middle ground between the two extremes of phonics-first code emphasis and meaning-centered, whole language emphasis. Researchers such as Michael Pressley argue for a "balanced" approach to literacy instruction in which children are taught skills in the context of authentic literacy experiences. Recent research (Baumann et al., 1998; Dahl & Scharer, 2000) suggests that teachers are already working within this middle ground as they carefully orchestrate their literacy instruction to meet the needs of the individual learners in their classrooms.
My specific interest in the field of literacy is nonfiction or informational text, and its use and production by elementary students. Within the field of literacy, the study of children's interactions with and comprehension of nonfiction text is quite new. Despite the limited research that has been conducted, however, there is general consensus that it is important to expose young children to informational genres. It is well documented that elementary reading experience is overwhelmingly narrative (Duke, 2000a). A small but growing body of research indicates that young children are able to interact successfully with expository forms of text (Caswell & Duke, 1998; Duke & Kays, 1998)). It is argued that providing children with more experience with expository text in the primary grades may help to prevent the difficulties students have with these texts later in school (Duke & Kays, 1998). Caswell and Duke (1998) argue that not only may early experience with nonfiction mitigate later difficulties, but it may also provide a "way in" to literacy. Their work with two struggling readers indicated that non-narrative texts could provide a catalyst for overall literacy development. Other research also suggests that opportunities to interact with non-narrative text is particularly important for "at-risk" children (Dreher, 2000)
One possible explanation for the fact that most of the reading diet of elementary school children consists of narrative is the belief held by some that narrative is primary. That is, some believe that there is a developmental progression from story forms to other forms of text. Moffett (1968) argues that there is a hierarchy of levels of abstraction, with drama at the lowest level (that which incorporates egocentric speech and performs recording functions) and essay at the highest level (involving generalizing and theorizing). Influenced by Piaget, Moffett proposed a sort of stage theory of the development of children's understanding of written forms of discourse. According to this view, young children are limited in the kinds of discourse they can produce and receive to those of lower abstraction; thus, they are limited to story forms. Moffett further argues that "children must for a long time make narrative do for all" (p. 49). Children communicate in stories, and they only understand the communication of others through stories. They move from these firsthand, first person concrete levels of abstraction to secondhand, third person timeless realms of abstraction. Finally, Moffett asserts that younger children are less motivated to read exposition that they are to read stories (Moffett, 1968). He argues that children first want to read about "the grandiose and the far-fetched" (p. 152), and only gradually do they come to accept every day situations.
The latest research provides evidence that calls into question Moffett's assertion that children are incapable of understanding and using nonfiction texts, and it signals a major shift in the thinking about the place of nonfiction texts in instruction. Studies that look at children's pretend readings (Duke & Kays, 1998) and individual literacy development (Caswell & Duke, 1998; Pappas, 1991) clearly demonstrate that young students are capable of successful interaction with nonfiction texts. Duke and Kays (1998) present evidence to suggest that even kindergarten children can learn features of nonfiction texts such as timeless verb construction, thus calling into question Moffett's assertion that young children must begin with first person concrete levels of discourse before moving to timeless realms of abstraction. The thinking about the issue of motivation to read varying genres has also shifted from the view that children are less motivated to read exposition to an understanding that for some children, nonfiction offers a "way in" to literacy that narrative had failed to provide.
Research into the ability of young children to use nonfiction texts has led to a change in thinking about literacy development and literacy instruction. It is generally agreed that young children are capable of successfully using nonfiction texts. Further, it is being argued that to exclude nonfiction texts from the literacy instruction of young children is to deny them potentially important understandings and skills that may help to mitigate later difficulties with such text, and possibly to deny some students an important entree into literacy that narrative doesn't provide.
Current Issues and Important Researchers
To learn more about the current issues in this field, I talked with Nell Duke and Vicki Purcell-Gates here at MSU, as well as with Jan Kristo and Rosemary Bamford at the University of Maine. The field of research on children's use, comprehension and production of nonfiction texts is a big one at grades four and up, but it is just emerging at the primary level.
At the primary level, there is still some debate about the importance of nonfiction genres, although the prevailing belief is that even young children are capable of dealing with such texts and should be exposed to them. Nell Duke is one researcher who focuses much of her attention on this issue at the primary level. She argues that it is vitally important for children to be exposed to nonfiction texts early in their education (Duke, 2000a). Studies show that the majority of reading and writing done by adults is nonfiction, that approximately 96% of sites on the World Wide Web contain nonfiction text, and that academic achievement in a range of school subjects depends on the ability to read and write nonfiction (Duke, 2000b). Despite this data, reading instruction continues to focus mainly on fiction, especially at the primary level.
At the fourth grade level and higher, studies tend to focus on the ability of children to locate information in nonfiction texts (Guthrie, 1988) or on methods of teaching comprehension strategies (Palincsar & Brown, 1984). With the recent explosion in publishing of high quality, attractive information books for children, there are more articles for teachers that offer suggestions for incorporating nonfiction into the literacy diet (Doiron, 1994; Moss, 1995). However, I am still searching for research that describes how students are helped in becoming writers of nonfiction. (I'm sure there's some; I'm still in the process of finding out). One interesting research article (Dreher, Davis, Waynant, & Clewell, 1998) described a study in which students were engaged in inquiry projects related to social studies. This idea of inquiry process with intermediate (grades 3-5) students is of great interest to me. I will return to it later.
A variety of methods are employed in the research on literacy. Nonfiction issues have similarly been explored using a variety of methods. One method used both with literacy in general and nonfiction in particular is think aloud strategies (Bereiter & Bird, 1985; Hartman, 1995). Proficient readers are taught to think aloud while reading, thus exposing their implicit strategies to direct study. Then, these strategies are taught to struggling readers or developing readers under the assumption that these struggling and developing readers often don't employ the same strategies as proficient readers.
A second method employed by literacy researchers at the early childhood and primary levels is pretend reading (Pappas, 1991). It is assumed that even before children can read independently, they are learning about the structure of the different types of text to which they are exposed. Asking them to pretend to read a text elicits examples of their developing awareness of text form and structure. Pretend reading is one of the several forms of assessment being employed in the TEXT project currently in progress at MSU. Nell Duke and Victoria Purcell-Gates, the principal investigators, want to assess what second graders are learning about features of informational and procedural texts. Because it can't be assumed that all second graders can read independently, they are including pretend reading as a way to overcome the possible confounding variable of decoding difficulties in order to determine what knowledge these students have about text features.
Other methods currently being employed by literacy researchers include performance assessment (Dreher et al., 1998) and intervention research (Palincsar & Brown, 1984).
Discoveries So Far
Research on nonfiction, especially at the primary level, is still quite new and thus is mostly
descriptive. Researchers have conducted case studies with single children (Caswell & Duke, 1998; Pappas, 1991) or within single classrooms (Duke & Kays, 1998), and they have attempted to describe the extent to which nonfiction is included in the reading diet of young children (Duke, 2000a). The results of such studies reveal that while children seem quite capable of interacting with nonfiction texts, and that in fact for some children, nonfiction can provide a way in to literacy, informational books and other nonfiction genres are practically nonexistent in classroom libraries and in literacy instruction.
The research studies I read about read aloud of nonfiction included case studies conducted in homes (Maduram, 2000; Warren & Fitzgerald, 1997); and school studies that considered pretend reading (Duke & Kays, 1998; Pappas, 1993), intertextual connections (Oyler & Barry, 1996), and pseudonarration (Jetton, 1994). Practitioner pieces tended to argue for the inclusion of nonfiction in read aloud programs at the elementary (Doiron, 1994; Moss, 1995; Reese & Harris, 1997) and secondary (Carter & Abrahamson, 1991) levels, and to suggest ways of including such texts (Vardell, 1998).
In addition to the studies noted above in which informational texts were one of several genres read aloud to preschool children, Maduram (2000) presents a case study in which she details her preschool daughter Amy's spontaneous responses to information books, especially those responses that occurred outside book sharing sessions. Maduram noted five types of "response episodes." The first type of response episode occurred during casual conversations; conversations that an observer unfamiliar with the child's frame of reference might dismiss as having little significance. However, these occurrences highlighted for Maduram the spontaneity and fluidity of her daughter's meaning-making process. Other response episodes: 2.) indicated that Amy was reevaluating her understanding of given facts, especially facts which interested her; 3.) reflected Amy's complex thinking about and comprehension of complex concepts about which she had read; 4.) appeared as transactions between Amy's life and literature as when Amy's interest in slugs led her both out into the world to look for slugs and back to the books to gather more information; and 5.) painted portraits of Amy's personal inquiry. Maduram concluded that Amy's spontaneous and unstructured responses indicated her ability to deal with information books, and they represented the richness of her meaning-making process.
In contrast to all of the previously described case studies in which parents read to their children as they naturally would, Warren and Fitzgerald (1997) present a study with a single-case multiple-probe design that included some training for parents in helping their children identify main idea and details. Their findings indicated that focused work with parents that specified how to highlight main ideas and details had moderately positive effects on children's main idea and detail understanding of new texts. They argue that this finding is important because it suggests that helping children to understand main idea and details may have a wide-ranging effect on their learning, that this type of instruction can be conducted in "normal, everyday circumstances" (p. 355), and that the learning seems to be generalizable to new, previously unread texts. In addition, they noted that they received positive parental comments about the study, and that "as in our study, the form of parental work with their children for expository texts need not be complicated nor 'anti-fun'" (p. 356).
One interesting (though as yet untested, I believe) alternative to the model provided by Warren and Fitzgerald would be to educate parents about the many ways to share nonfiction texts with their children. Vardell (1998) argues that read aloud of nonfiction can be spontaneous and interactive, even for older children, and that adults should realize that there are many ways to share nonfiction aloud with children. Unlike narrative, most of which rarely makes sense unless read from beginning to end, nonfiction books can often be explored in various ways. Vardell identifies the following ways of sharing nonfiction books: cover to cover read aloud, participatory read aloud, chapter/excerpt read aloud, browsing, believe it or not or trivia sharing, and introduction of access features and text structures through read aloud. Perhaps if parents were trained in the various ways to share books, then children would come to enjoy nonfiction while at the same time learning about the features of this genre and the many ways in which information may be gathered from nonfiction books. In general, I feel that it is important to help students gain competence with nonfiction genres, but that this competence is not necessarily defined in the traditional ways in which nonfiction books have been used.
As for research on nonfiction read aloud undertaken in schools, some researchers have used the practice of student pretend reading to gain insight into children's knowledge of the discourse of information books (Duke & Kays, 1998; Pappas, 1993). Pappas (1993) used evidence from kindergarteners' pretend readings of information books and stories to argue against the notion that narrative is "primary"; that is, that children's abilities to understand and compose stories precede their abilities to use and understand non-story written language. The children's pretend readings indicated that they were able to take on the discourse properties of information genres as well as story genres. Further, Pappas reported that the children preferred the information books over the story books. She argued that a curriculum that includes only fictional texts may be a barrier to children's full access to literacy.
Duke and Kays (1998) carried this research further by investigating the pretend readings of kindergarteners both before and after they had spent three months listening to information books read aloud in their classroom on a near daily basis. They found that the initial pretend readings of information books did contain key features of information book language, and that their pretend readings after three months of read aloud experiences contained far greater use of these features, and among more children. They added their voice to the chorus calling for the dismantling of the "narrative as primary" idea.
In another classroom study, Oyler and Barry (1996) incorporated interactive read aloud of nonfiction books as a regular feature of a first grade classroom. They found that this interactive read aloud allowed children to make connections to a variety of other texts, including what they called the "remembered text", thereby developing important knowledge and reading strategies. This remembered text was a personal connection; the authors described how the children used their personal lives as texts to connect to the information books. Thus, the goal of the teacher was not only to help students to better understand information texts, but also to "connect the people in the room to a community with shared understandings, pleasures, and memories" (p. 332).
There is a growing body of writing aimed at convincing practitioners to include nonfiction in their read aloud programs. Carter and Abrahamson (1991) present suggestions aimed at secondary teachers. Doiron (1994) and Moss (1995) provide lists of reasons to support the inclusion of nonfiction in read aloud programs for elementary children. The reasons include: to expand children's knowledge, to sensitize children to patterns of exposition, to provide tie-ins to curricular areas, to promote personal growth and social response, to encourage children's interest in information and by extension their desire to read nonfiction independently, to inspire children's writing, to stimulate discussion, to support critical thinking, and to help children develop flexibility in their reading. Reese and Harris (1997) cite research on the benefits of nonfiction books and then provide descriptions and examples of various genres of nonfiction books. In fact, all of the articles cited in this paragraph include title suggestions for teachers. I even have an entire book devoted to helping teachers to choose quality nonfiction literature (Bamford & Kristo, 1998).
While all of the above studies indicate the importance of incorporating nonfiction genres into classroom instruction, and while many have written urging teachers to do just that, one final study I will consider about the read aloud of nonfiction reminds us that there is still much to be explored in the realm of nonfiction literature and its use in instruction. Jetton (1994) examined the responses of second graders to "pseudonarration", that is, text in which factual information pertaining to a specific content area is presented within a story. She found that even students who were asked to listen to the story Dear Mr. Blueberry in order to learn about whales focused more on story idea units than information idea units in their immediate and delayed recall writing tasks. This study raises the important issue that children will need extra support in gaining content knowledge from books that are "fuzzy" in genre. This finding is important in light of the fact that teachers may use such pseudonarration as part of interdisciplinary units in which they expect students to gain particular content knowledge (Jetton, 1994). Clearly, more work is needed on the various genres of nonfiction books and how books that can be considered "mixed genre" affect children's reading and comprehension.
Thus, where nonfiction is concerned, there is increasing agreement that even very young children are capable of dealing with and enjoying information book language, and there is growing interest in discovering the best ways to incorporate nonfiction literature into schooling at all levels. Read aloud is but one powerful way to promote nonfiction literature. While it seems obvious as a strategy for use with young children, it should not be limited to such use; children of all ages can benefit from hearing nonfiction literature read aloud.
As was indicated earlier, more research exists on older students' use of nonfiction. One important study was conducted by Dreher and her colleagues (Dreher et al., 1998). This intervention study differed from previous studies on students' ability to locate information in nonfiction texts, which typically included the teaching of research-related skills out of context. In contrast, Dreher and her colleagues investigated the effectiveness of research strategy instruction that was integrated with the demands of inquiry-based content-area projects. They used a variety of complete resources (rather than researcher-created summaries or excerpts of information sources). Their participants included students at the fourth grade level from both a middle-class school and a Title I school. Research activities and instruction were situated in integrated social studies units. Students were taught a research model, and they were given performance assessments in order to determine whether they were able to apply the skills they had been taught during the integrated units to a new situation. Results showed that students at both schools showed significant improvements in their ability to find and use information, to write a response to a research question, and to apply their learning to a new problem. While the inclusion of performance assessments and the attempts to measure what students are learning in context are important, and the results encouraging, this study didn't address the important issues involved when students pose their own questions based on a topic of interest or relevance to them, nor did it explain or discuss the types of sources provided for students or how the sources were chosen.
Possible Future Research (and My Research Interests)
The future research possibilities in the field of nonfiction are practically limitless, especially
at the primary level. Dreher (1998) suggested that future research continue to explore how students learn to locate and use information in the context of inquiry-based units, and that this research should include larger sample sizes as well as the use of a control group. Duke (2000b) recommends research looking specifically at the development of informational genre knowledge. She also urges researchers to investigate the premise that greater experience with informational texts in the early grades does actually make a difference in children's ability to use these texts in later grades. Researchers should compare different methods of incorporating nonfiction texts into instruction to determine whether some practices have a more positive impact on achievement than others. Research also needs to address the question of how much informational text experience is enough to prepare students for the demands of later schooling and life.
My own research interests grow out of my experience as a fourth grade teacher. In my teaching, I introduced my students to the inquiry process in the context of science content. I used nonfiction resources, particularly information books, to both help students learn science content and to teach them how to become writers of science text. I found that one of the biggest difficulties students had with the process came early: posing questions. Much of the research I've read so far hasn't addressed the question of how do students pose questions; instead, the topics and research questions have been provided to students. I believe that it's important for students to pose their own research questions, and thus I want to look at how teachers can support this process.
A second major area of interest for me involves the read aloud of nonfiction texts. I found read aloud of information books to be a powerful instructional tool when used in the context of science inquiry process. Again, the research I've read makes no mention of the use of read aloud. I want to investigate how read aloud can support and enhance students' learning of science content and of text structure and features.
Finally, there is a big question underlying my research interests: What is important for students to be able to do? I'm learning to unearth my own assumptions; assumptions that were present in my teaching, though unacknowledged by me at the time. A big one is that I believe that students need to become critical readers of nonfiction. Too often science is presented as a static set of facts that aren't open to questioning and that aren't influenced by opinion or point of view. Students are to read the textbook and learn the content, simple as that. To counter this, in my teaching I presented students with multiple authors' perspectives on a topic, and helped them to understand that all authors have their biases; that all authors made decisions regarding what information to present (and what to leave out), and how to present it. The bottom line is that I feel that knowledge, even science knowledge, is constructed, not handed down, and that students need to understand the nature of the process by which information is accepted or rejected by the scientific community and by society. I want to investigate how teachers can help students to become critical of the texts that they read. I believe that this is essential in a society that places such a high premium on information, but in which there is much misleading information present. I would appreciate any suggestions as to researchers or keywords to search for related to this topic, and/or to the questions listed below. These questions are the beginning of what I hope will be the next phase of inquiry for me in my doctoral program.
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