Using 'Real Books' To Teach Reading Said To Heighten Skill, Interest
Denver--Twelve years ago, alternative programs at three elementary schools in Upper Arlington, Ohio, abandoned their basal reading texts and many of the other trappings of a conventional reading curriculum. Instead, the children in the suburban Columbus alternative programs, which now enroll more than 600 students, learn to read from "real" books--picture books and children's literature, including works by such well-known children's authors as Tana Hoban, Leo Lionni, Maurice Sendak, and Brian Wildsmith.
"The school has 300 to 500 picture books on its shelves," explains Barbara Z. Kiefer of the University of Houston, who has studied the program. "Students select books and read to themselves or to each other. They produce murals, dioramas, paintings, written works, puppet shows, and displays about the books they read."
This "holistic" approach to teaching reading, Ms. Kiefer asserts, encourages young children to pay attention to details, to wonder about the sequence of events, to extend their imagination and use of language, and to begin to relate the world of books to their own experience.
The children in the Upper Arlington alternative programs have fared well compared with students taught in a more traditional way, adds Marilyn D. Reed, the instructional coordinator who developed the alternative program.
Informal follow-up studies of students indicate that there is "no significant difference" between the reading test scores of the two groups, she says. Yet the junior-high-school teachers who now teach the former Barrington students generally say that the students exposed to literature are "superior writers" and "independent thinkers."
Such programs are rare outside laboratory and alternative schools, researchers say. They note that their development is impeded by pressure to improve students' standardized-test scores, tight library budgets, and the reluctance of many teachers and administrators to adopt new methods. Even so, they point out, growing numbers of educators are finding value in literature-based reading programs.
A group of primary-school educators and researchers, meeting here last month for the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, agreed that the nation's elementary schools could improve their reading curricula more by introducing more high-quality children's literature into the classroom than by continuing to emphasize "skill-and-drill" exercises.
Speakers and participants said literature-based reading programs produce children who make reading a lifelong habit and enjoy it more than do students who are taught to read from the "banal" textbooks and workbooks that have been the mainstays of elementary-school curricula.
They also asserted that students tend to write better, are more "self-directed," better understand complex sentence structures and difficult vocabulary words, and develop more "higher-order" thinking skills when they learn to read with an array of books that they themselves select than when they are taught only from the simplified basal reading texts.
About 95 percent of elementary schools have basal readers and 65 percent use them every day, estimated Donald J. Leu, assistant professor of education at Syracuse University.
Because of the readability formulas that publishers and educators rely on to characterize the difficulty level of basal texts, most of those used in the nation's elementary-school classrooms are composed of simple words and short sentences; consequently, the stories in the books tend to be bland and colorless, participants said.
"The emphasis is on test-taking skills, not learning reading or writing as a creative process," asserted Margot Ely of New York University.
Others pointed to the work of researchers from the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, who have suggested that children develop reading problems partly because basal texts and workbooks emphasize word recognition at the expense of comprehension skills, rely primarily on a "fill-in-the-blank" format, and are so simple that children find them boring. (See Education Week, Nov. 23, 1981.)
"Basal readers prepare children to read Reader's Digest and People magazine," said Charlotte S. Huck, professor of education at The Ohio State University, who worked on the Barrington School project.
Ms. Huck, the author of Children's Literature in the Elementary School, said the importance of providing students with an assortment of books has increased because declining numbers of students receive encouragement to read at home.
Research indicates that children become better readers if their parents read to them. But parents today do not spend as much time with children as used to be true, and television often distracts children from reading, Ms. Huck said.
The introduction of children's literature in class, Mr. Leu noted, provides an "important affective dimension" that helps students understand more about the world and their own emotions. He added that lively and well-written books tend to extend the interests and learning capabilities of students, who "strive to handle more difficult texts if they are fascinated by them."
Moreover, Mr. Leu and others concurred that books, folk tales, and fairy tales help spur the imagination of students. Psychologists, most notably Bruno Bettleheim, have argued that fiction and fairy tales "delight and instruct" children because they present the world as the child perceives and experiences it.
The researchers also noted that students "take on the language and structure of the books" they read. According to Ms. Huck, a study comparing the writing of children who learned to read from literature with that of students who learned from basal texts indicated that the content and form of students' writings mirror those of the writings they read.
The study, conducted by Diane E. DeFord of Ohio State, indicated that students who learned to read solely from books that were not readers were more imaginative, wrote more stories and poems, experimented with more writing forms, and demonstrated greater awareness of the subtleties of language than did students who learned to read from basal and basic-skills texts, Ms. Huck said.
Christine C. Pappas, assistant professor of education at the University of Oregon, presented preliminary findings from a study of how children who know nothing about reading can "re-enact" the syntax, vocabulary, and story concepts presented in a book after the book has been read to them several times.
Her research on how children "learn to read by reading" suggests that those who hear a story and begin to tell it as they flip through the pages gradually "repair" the mistakes they make as they continue to read. Children expand their vocabulary, understand more about relationships between words, and naturally begin to recognize sentence structure, she explained.
Few elementary schools teach children to read solely through the use of literature, but many good language-arts programs do incorporate the use of library books and "encourage students to read every day," according to Ellis Vance, resource teacher in reading and language arts for the Clovis, Calif., school district. He said that in most good reading programs "teachers read aloud to students and make a lot of library time available."
Besides the move toward basics, cuts in library expenditures have been major deterrents to developing reading programs based on literature, some at the meeting noted. They pointed to the results of a recent survey of more than 1,250 school libraries that indicated that school-library expenditures have not kept up with the levels necessary to maintain a "basic book collection."
(The average annual per-pupil expenditure for books is $4.58, and the median expenditure is just $3.71, less than half the cost of a new or replacement hardcover book, according to the survey, which appeared in the October issue of School Library Journal. While per-pupil averages have increased by 33 cents from 1978, children's book prices have risen 30 percent in the past five years, the survey said.)
The ncte has taken a step to help librarians and teachers select the best books available, speakers noted. In 1981, it established a children's literature project. Committees of teachers and librarians from five sections of the country meet several times each year and select a list of the outstanding new children's books for students in elementary and middle schools.
(Other reading lists designed for the same purpose include those published by the Library of Congress, the International Reading Association (ira), the University of Chicago Center for Children's Books, the American Library Association, Hornbook, and the Newbery and Caldecott Award programs.)
(This month, the ira released Children's Choices: Teaching with Books Children Like, edited by Nancy Roser and Margaret Frith. The book includes suggestions on how to develop a children's literature program and how to select books with children, and presents a bibliography of more than 800 books selected as "children's choices" from 1974 through 1981.)
But perhaps the biggest task, the researchers said, is to encourage teachers to "loosen up" their highly structured classrooms to permit discussion and silent reading to suit students' tastes.
Ms. Huck said she could envision one of two futures. In the pessimistic version, she said, "Schools will put the worst of the workbooks on computers. Every student will be plugged into a computer and, though the children will find the computer intriguing, they'll never understand the joy of reading a book."
In the more positive scenario, she said, everyone will be reading children's literature. "There are 20,000 to 40,000 books to choose from. There are lots of wonderful books and [there is] lots of trash. It will be up to teachers and librarians to lead all students to good books that are appropriate for them."