Using children’s literature to teach reading

iStock_000016876858XSmallResearch has shown that the teaching of reading with ‘real’ books has been significantly more successful than with the traditional basal reader programs and, yet, at the beginning of this decade, 90% of all elementary teachers still used basal reader series as their primary method of teaching reading.

Two early research studies using children’s literature to teach reading (Cohen 1968, Chomsky 1978) involved students who had failed to develop adequate reading skills from basal reading programs. Children in the Cohen study were read aloud fifty picture books while Chomsky asked the children to listen to tape recorded stories as they followed along in the book. Students in both studies showed significant gains in reading achievement as well as an improvement in their attitude toward reading.

Whole-language and use of literature

The “whole language” movement of the 1980’s has renewed interest in the teaching of reading through the use of children’s literature. Advocates of the “whole language” approach suggest that reading can be learned in much the same way as speech – by continual exposure to written language in a rich, meaningful context. Recent studies support this claim.

In a Utah study involving 1,149 students in 50 second grade classrooms, Eldredge and Butterfield (1986) compared a variety of experimental reading methods with traditional basal reading instruction.

Results favored the literature approach in combination with a series of decoding lessons (the decoding lessons took no more than 15 minutes per day). The researchers concluded that the “use of children’s literature to teach children to read had a positive effect upon students’ achievement and attitude toward reading – much greater than the traditional methods used.”

In New Zealand, the Department of Education used a developmental literature program with first graders. The experiment was so successful that a nationwide in-service program was instituted. This reading program has now been adopted throughout New Zealand. The Ohio Reading Recovery program, an American version of the New Zealand program, identified beginning readers who were ‘at-risk’ for failure. After 15-20 weeks in the program (30-40 hours of instruction), 90% of the children in the lowest 20% of the class had been brought up to the average or were above average and did not need remediation again.

Useful for students who speak limited English

A literature-based reading program was also used with students in New York City who spoke limited English (Larrick 1987). In this group, 92% were from non-English speaking families, 96% of the families were below the poverty line and 80% of the children had spoken no English until they entered school.

The “Open Sesame Program”, as it was called, was initially tested on 225 kindergarten students. The children had no basal readers or worksheets. Instead, they were immersed in children’s literature using the “language experience” approach to writing. Skills were taught only as the children asked for help in the context of the story they were reading.

At the end of kindergarten, all 225 children could read their own dictated stories and many could also read picture books. By the end of 1st grade, this test group had grown to 350 students, 60% of whom were on or above grade level. In this group, only 3 failed to pass the district’s first grade comprehension skills test and these three had been in the U.S. for less than 6 months. This program is currently being implemented throughout the elementary grades.

The most recent research studies have focused on using literature programs with average students. Ray Reutzel, a Professor at Brigham Young University, taught reading to 63 first graders using a class library of 2000 ‘real’ books. He taught skills in context and used no basal readers or worksheets. The state’s goal is to have first graders pass the Utah Benchmark Skills Test at the 80th percentile in May. Reutzel’s children passed at the 93rd percentile in January. In March, they were given the Stanford Achievement Test and the group reading score was at the 99th percentile. Only 4 of the 63 students scored below grade level.

Elements of literature-based reading instruction

Proponents of literature-based reading believe that basal readers undermine the quality of written language by attempting to control the difficulty level of the vocabulary. Basal readers not only lack style and interesting stories, they lack the predictability that children experience with natural language.

Good readers read in order to get meaning from the words, whereas poor readers often see reading simply as an exercise that converts symbols into sounds. ‘Real’ books emphasize the functional purpose of written language.

Most ‘real’ books used in literature reading programs are, compared to basal readers, above grade level in vocabulary. In one study of a second grade literature program, 91% of the books were at the third grade level or above. 62% were at the fourth grade level. Despite this fact, children in this study made superior academic progress compared to children in a control group which used basal readers.

Instruction using ‘real’ books varies depending on the age and achievement level of the students. With beginning readers, variations on the neurological impress method are used. Children can (1) listen to tape recordings as they follow along in the book, (2) be read to from large print books, (3) read with a more able partner, or (4) write and read their own stories.

Advocates believe that the more words that pass before the child’s eyes, the better reader he is likely to become. Children are free to choose any book they find interesting and are allowed to read their favorite books as many times as they wish. It is important that teachers present all books with enthusiasm and read aloud to the class frequently. Skills are taught in context as children ask questions during reading. A few programs have structured decoding lessons taught as a supplement to the reading of ‘real’ books.

The success of literature based reading instruction is well documented among regular students, ‘at-risk’ students and academically retarded students. Real books appear to motivate students and enrich their knowledge of language in a way that basal readers do not.

“Using ‘Real’ Books: Research Findings on Literature Based Reading Instruction” The Reading Teacher March 1989, pp. 470; “The Effect of Literature on Vocabulary and Reading Achievement” Elementary English Volume 45 February 1968; “When You Still Can’t Read in Third Grade: After Decoding What?” In What Research Has To Say About Reading Instruction edited by S. Jay Samuels Newark, DE: International Reading Association 1978; “Alternatives to Traditional Reading Instruction” The Reading Teacher Volume 40 October 1986 pp. 32-37; “Reading Intervention for High-Risk First-Graders” Educational Leadership Volume 44 March 1987 pp. 32-37; “Illiteracy Starts Too Soon” Phi Delta Kappan Volume 69 November 1987 pp. 184-189; “A Professor Returns to the Classroom: Implementing Whole Language.” Unpublished manuscript by Ray Reutzel and Parker Fawson Brigham Young University Provo Utah 1988.

Published in ERN May/June 1989 Volume 2 Number 3

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