Elementary school teachers all across the United States are facing a major problem: a time shortage. It seems like every year teachers are asked to cram more and more content into the school day. With more reading, math, and writing requirements being squeezed in, other important subjects such as science and social studies often fall to the wayside. Most schools argue that reading and writing fall well ahead of science and social studies when listed in order of importance and I think we can all agree that they are correct. Being able to read and write is much more important than learning what a plant needs to survive. Meanwhile, other schools are finding a more creative solution to making sure students don’t miss out on important science and social studies curriculum and that creativity can be found in reading class.
In many elementary reading classes, reading textbooks are no longer filled with fun and engaging fiction stories; instead, they are filled with nonfiction reading pieces that cover a variety of science and social studies topics. Beloved fairy tales like the “The Bremen-town Musicians” have been removed and replaced with more stagnant stories with titles like “Plants.” By incorporating these topics into reading textbooks, kids are no longer missing out on science and social studies. It’s a “two birds, one stone” mentality. At first mention, this seems like a brilliant idea and a good solution to a growing problem. As time has gone on, however, some educators are starting to wonder if this approach will have a negative effect on students’ success in reading.
The end goal in all elementary reading classrooms is for all kids to become readers. Our district has a goal that ALL of our students will be reading at or above grade level by the time they exit third grade. It sounds quite simple, really, but in reality learning to read is not an easy process for lots of kids. It takes a systematic approach that teaches a variety of skills that kids will eventually mesh together to become readers (that’s the quick and dirty description). One valuable piece of that puzzle is desire. Kids need to have a desire to read; it has to be attractive. According to an article in Reading Research Quarterly, “To become lifelong literacy learners, children must be motivated to engage in literacy activities. It is not sufficient only to possess the cognitive skills necessary.” And quite frankly, most kids are not going to be fired up to read a nonfiction book about Plants. Will there be the occasional student who loves to read nonfiction? Sure. But as a whole, fiction stories are more attractive and engaging. I like to compare it to going to the movie theater. If we took a class of third graders to the movies and had them choose between the Captain Underpants movie or a documentary about Life Science – which would they choose? I would say that Captain Underpants would win by a landslide! So that leads one to wonder if incorporating nonfiction texts into reading instruction is really going to be that beneficial. Unfortunately, we won’t know the answer to that question until we’ve tried it for a while. Time will tell if using nonfiction texts to teach reading will help or hinder students in their quest to become readers.
In the meantime, there are a few steps schools can take to ensure kids retain a zest for reading. The first step is accomplished in your school library. If kids are only reading nonfiction texts in the classroom, then your school library will need to be stocked full of fun fiction books and a librarian who knows how to “sell” them. The second step is in your individual classroom library. Kids will need access to a great variety of fun and engaging stories in case they finish their library book early. Lastly, you’ll need to find time to read fun, fiction stories aloud every day. Do you have five minutes before announcements begin? Grab a fun picture book and read it aloud! Have fun with the characters, do the voices, and let your kids see you having fun with a good book. All of these things can help your students remember that reading is supposed to be fun and enjoyable so the next time they have to read about plants during their reading block, they’ll hopefully be a little more motivated.
Rebekah Arvin, Leader, Library Media Specialist, Taylor Mill Elementary
Baker, L., & Wigfield, A. (1999). Dimensions of children’s motivation for reading and their relations to reading activity and reading achievement. Reading Research Quarterly, 34, 452-477.