Lack of informational texts in first grade

iStock_000022973452XSmallA recent study measuring the use of nonfiction materials with first-graders reveals that very little informational text is available in these classrooms. This is particularly true for schools in low-income areas. Nell K. Duke, Michigan State University, recently studied 20 first-grade classrooms selected from very low- and very high-income school districts in the Boston area. Duke’s interest in the use of nonfiction stems from concerns over low science achievement and the apparent slump in fourth-grade achievement linked to increasing use of textbooks at this grade level. She suggests this poor achievement may be due to lack of experience with factual reading material. Duke also sees the lack of informational material in the early grades as a missed opportunity to make more children want to learn to read. She believes that informational texts can capitalize on children’s curiosity and interests and engage children who may not be motivated by storybooks.

As Duke gathered data about the use of informational texts in these primary classrooms, one of her goals was to compare the reading environments and experiences offered to students in low- and high-income areas. Researchers selected twenty school districts that were either very low or very high in their levels of parent education, poverty and per-capita income. Ten classes from the socioeconomically highest level districts and 10 from the lowest were studied. While the schools were relatively homogeneous in terms of educational background and income level, they varied widely in terms of race and ethnicity. This sample, therefore, should not be used to compare schools on that basis.

Conceptual Framework and Method

This study was built upon the belief that informational texts are distinctly different from fictional texts in important ways, and that students learn how to read and write a genre through experience with that particular genre. Informational text is characterized by factual content, technical vocabulary, classification and definitions, comparative/contrastive, problem/solution, cause/effect text structures and graphic elements such as diagrams, indices and maps.

Extensive experience with storybooks, while beneficial, will not prepare children to read and write informational text. Although there is not empirical research concerning how much experience children need with informational texts before they can read and write it well, Duke states that less experience with such texts in school may be at least partly responsible for students’ lack of achievement in technical areas.

Duke visited each classroom for four full days during the school year. On each visit, she collected data about the varieties of printed material visible in the
classroom and available in the class library, and all class activities that involved print in any way. She computed the percentage of informational text in each. She described the amount of exposure to informational texts given to students in their first-grade year and what kinds of experiences they were offered.

Data Collected

On average, Duke spent just over 23 hours in each classroom, of which 10.66 hours, on average, was spent with written language. An analysis reveals that very little of this time was spent with informational texts. Averaged across all classrooms, less than 15 minutes of the more than 10 hours of time spent on written language involved the use of informational texts. The scarcity of informational text was particularly acute in classrooms in low-socioeconomic schools.

Informational texts were also scarce in classroom libraries. On average, nonfiction books or magazines made up less than 10 percent of the collection. Indeed, even when a topic of study such as spring, teeth or the senses, was highlighted in lessons, there were few or no informational texts displayed or shelved in the class. Easy-to-read informational books were especially rare. Again, this scarcity was pronounced in low-income schools. Classes in high-income districts had a mean of 12.7 percent nonfiction, while low-income districts had only slightly more than half that. In addition, the classes in low-income schools were 20 percent larger on average and therefore had even fewer books per student. High-income classrooms tended to add more books to their libraries during the year. Duke notes that there was a lot of variation from classroom to classroom – from a low of less than 1 percent informational materials to a high of 25 percent.

Perhaps more important than the number or percentage of informational materials available in the classroom is the extent to which they are actually used in classroom activities. During whole-class written language time, the amount of time spent with informational texts averaged 3.6 minutes per day. Moreover, seven of the 20 classrooms studied spent no time at all with informational text on any of the four days that they were observed. Another seven classes spent less than five minutes per day, and the remaining six spent an average of no more than 10 minutes per day with informational texts. The most common activity involving informational texts was the teacher reading aloud.

Comments and Conclusions

Clearly, there were fewer informational texts in the low-income districts’ classrooms. Half of the low-income classes spent no time at all with informational text in the four full days observed, as compared with 20 percent of the high-income classes. Results of this study provided empirical confirmation of the scarcity of informational texts in the early grades. Duke believes this is a cause for concern because of the missed opportunity to prepare students for the informational reading and writing they will encounter in later grades. She also sees it as a missed opportunity to use such texts to spur more students’ interest in reading. Children in low-income districts are offered many fewer opportunities to develop skill with informational texts.

Duke cautions that this study is based on a limited geographical area.  Also, no detailed analysis of informational text use in small-group and individual work times was carried out. However, Duke draws several tentative conclusions from this study. Texts are rare in first-grade classrooms. Even content-area instruction does not necessarily provide experience with factual texts. Duke concludes from this data that continued low levels of achievement in informational reading and writing should not be attributed solely to the difficulty of these forms of text.  Rather, there is evidence that students perform poorly with informational texts at least in part because they haven’t had enough experience with them.

The observed socioeconomic differences in students’ access to informational text call for further research into the achievement gap that becomes apparent in fourth grade when more textbook reading and writing is required.

Duke calls for more research to determine if greater experience with information texts in the early years of school improves children’s fluency with these texts in the upper grades. Also, studies should be conducted to ascertain how much informational-text experience is needed to prepare students adequately for the demands of later schooling.

“3.6 Minutes Per Day: The Scarcity of Informational Texts in the First Grade” Reading Research Quarterly Volume 35, Number 2, June 2000 Pp. 202-224.

Published in ERN September 2000 Volume 13 Number 6.

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