Expanding our Notion of What Counts as Appropriate Material for Reading (and Writing)
Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D.
Department of Teaching, Leadership, and Curriculum Studies
Reading and Writing Center
Kent State University
402 White Hall
Kent, OH 44242
Contemporary reading and writing instruction tends to be dominated by narrative and expository texts (Daniels, 1990; Reutzel, Larson, & Sabey, 1995; Shanahan, 1990). Our lives are stories and we find great satisfaction and insight in reading the stories of others. Moreover, we live in a time when enormous amounts of information and new knowledge are added to the human experience; reading and using this growing information is an important aspect of many people’s lives.
However, while narrative and informational text take on primary roles in the school literacy curriculum, the uses of other text forms have declined. For example, during visits to schools I find less use of poetry, song, oratory, scripts, jokes, riddles, and other text forms than in my past school experiences. These text forms were staples that made my schooling enjoyable and memorable. Thus, in this essay I make a case for expanding the central corpus of current school literacy material beyond narrative and expository texts. Further, I argue that these other text forms offer learning experiences not easily acquired with texts that currently dominate literacy instruction.
My awakening about the use of other forms of language texts came through my career involvement in reading fluency, which I have come to believe not only means reading with automatic word recognition, but also with appropriate expression (prosody) so the text sounds like real language. Fluent speakers are those who bring their voices to the meaningful messages they deliver. Volume, emphasis, tone, phrasing, dramatic pause, and speed (slow as well as fast) have the potential to add significantly to one’s interpretation and appreciation of texts.
Texts that lend themselves to reading with expression are written with voice. In fact, voice in writing is the flip side of prosody in reading. In such texts, readers should “hear” the author’s voice while engaging with the material, and they need to appropriately recreate the author’s voice in their reading.
All text forms have potential for being written with voice. However, some text forms are more likely to manifest the sense of voice than others. Informational text, for example, is less likely to be written with voice than other text forms. Further, Informational text is often written in third person, which limits a sense of author voice. The goal of informational text is to convey information to a reader, not to translate the aesthetics of an author’s voice.
Ironically, despite the limitation of voice in such texts, informational passages tend to be the dominant form of reading in most commercially developed reading fluency programs. The reasoning behind the use of informational texts comes from the need of students to acquire new knowledge at every opportunity. Unfortunately, through the use of informational texts for nurturing reading fluency, students’ opportunities to read with voice (and prosody) becomes severely limited. Indeed, the employment of informational text in fluency instruction programs, with the specified and primary goal of the fluency activity to read the informational passage at an ever faster pace, has led to corruption of the whole notion of fluency – one that will, in my opinion, eventually result in fluency being demoted once again to secondary or tertiary status among the components of effective reading instruction.
On the other hand, narrative material usually carries strong voice characteristics and is a good choice for fluency instruction. Narratives, however, are sometimes lengthy and thus do not always lend themselves to repeated readings, a central instructional activity in fluency development. Thus, brief passages pulled from lengthier narratives can be used quite effectively for fluency instruction.
Besides informational texts and narratives, however, lies a full range of texts that manifest strong voice and are usually brief enough to allow for repeated readings and developing fluency. Among these other texts are scripts (e.g., readers theater), dialogues, monologues, poetry, rhymes, song lyrics, jokes and riddles, speeches, letters, diaries, and journal entries. A growing body of research has demonstrated the positive effects on reading fluency and overall reading achievement from the use of these voiced texts for fluency instruction (Martinez, Roser, & Strecker, 1999; Griffith & Rasinski, 2004; Rasinski & Stevenson, 2005; Biggs, Homan, Dedrick, & Rasinski, in press).
As I have become more involved in the use of these alternative text types for fluency instruction, it has become apparent to me that these texts offer advantages that go far beyond the opportunities for simply developing reading fluency. Perhaps the most obvious advantage is that the uses of these voiced texts provide a much richer array of reading materials that teachers can use in their literacy curriculum. Uses of these texts mean greater variety in language, format or structure, length, and topic. Further, greater variety means that teachers have more opportunities to accommodate the wide interests in reading and writing that are present in their classrooms. For example, some students are more drawn to poetry, song, or scripts than they are to narrative or informational text. The uses of these various text types allow teachers to tap the interests of these students.
Voiced texts allow for deeper explorations of language and how meaning is made and communicated in other written forms. These voiced text forms, such as speeches and songs, provide opportunities to explore and appreciate the richness of the language and ways in which writers use written language to express meaning. Word choice, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, imagery, metaphor, simile, word play, emphasis, and, of course, voice and prosody, are just some of the ways in which writers of voiced texts express meaning. Moreover, they do so in texts that are often compact and at the same time packed with exemplary elements of writing style.
In addition, reading comprehension can be taught in greater depth using these other text forms. For example, the exploration of textual images and the interpretation and creation of metaphor and simile are sophisticated comprehension and thinking skills that are found in state reading curriculums. And yet, imagery and metaphor can be difficult to teach because they are not often found in school textbooks. However, authors of poems, songs, speeches, and scripts often create images and metaphors in relatively compact texts that afford many opportunities for analysis and classroom discussion.
For instance, Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain, my Captain…,” or Emily Dickenson’s “There is no frigate like a book …,” or Langston Hughes, “Well son, I’ll tell ya, life for me ain’t been no crystal stair…” are metaphors or similes often easily accessible for students to comprehend, discuss, and to use as springboards to create imaginative texts of their own. Recently, for instance, I observed fifth-graders read Hughes’ “Mother to Son” in which the author uses climbing a flight of stairs as a metaphor for life. After having made a graphic “T chart” to facilitate comparisons between life and climbing a flight of stairs, the teacher had students name other typical events in life. The Super Bowl, cooking supper, and making a cross-country trip were volunteered. The teacher then asked students to arrange themselves into small groups and discuss how such events could be used as a metaphor for life. Finally, after brief discussions in which analyses were made, the teacher asked students to write, rehearse, and perform their own metaphorical poems in the style of Langston Hughes.
Response to reading is another way to deepen one’s experience in and comprehension of what is read. Louise Rosenblatt (1978) noted that there are two types of responses to text: efferent (academically oriented responses) and aesthetic (artistic) responses. Both forms of response are important and both should be nurtured in the classroom. In reality, however, with increased attention given to information acquisition, efferent responses seem to increasingly dominate the classroom scene.
Voiced texts, because they carry the voice of actual human beings, tend to lead toward aesthetic responses themselves more than informational texts. I think all of us can remember listening to a song, a poem, a speech, or a play that moved us to tears, sent a chill down our spines, or initiated a response that was felt as much from our hearts as it was from our heads. Allowing students to respond to texts in such aesthetic ways is important; it allows students to make connections to themselves and others – the feelings, fears, and fantasies that humans possess – and not simply making a textual experience a means for adding information to one’s mind. In sum: “There’s something about reciting rhythmical words aloud. It’s almost biological… It has the ability to comfort and enliven human beings” (Pinsky as cited by Keillor, 2004).
Not only do voiced texts have the power to touch the heart, they have the ability to unite hearts and minds. I often ask teachers and students why we have patriotic songs and poems and frequently hear grand speeches made by politicians and others on national holidays? One answer, of course, is to inspire. Another answer is to unite. Voiced words have an ability to pull together people who share sentiments expressed in texts.
That sense of unity is not only important for the citizens of a country, it is also important for students in school. Students need to learn that they are part of a larger whole, such as members of schools, communities, and their country. Songs and other voiced and rhythmical texts can nurture that unity. This is another reason that legitimizes and underscores the need for placing such texts in classrooms. The rituals behind the Preamble to the Constitution, singing a patriotic song, or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance help bind students to a larger community in service and support.
Voiced texts have the ability to recognize and celebrate differences between us – our cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Cultures often mark themselves through song, poetry, script, and rhetoric. These texts can be used, then, for recognizing and celebrating the various cultures that reside in our classrooms.
For example, being of Polish descent I vividly recall my parents teaching my siblings and me songs that reached back into their childhood while growing up with immigrant parents and my family’s ethnic and cultural roots. When we sang “Sto lat, sto lat….” we were not simply wishing one another happy birthday, we were touching base with who we are and where we came from. These texts are part of my personal and cultural identity, of which I take pride.
Further, I am able to share with my students the Polish folk songs that I grew up with and know. I teach them about my background and what I know about these songs and texts, and then, I ask my students to do the same for me and for their classmates. Students of Irish, Italian, German, Jewish, African, Hispanic, Chinese, Japanese, Iranian, and other backgrounds and cultures can find similar texts by talking with their parents or grandparents and can bring these texts into class to share and teach. As a group, we learn, practice, perform, and, perhaps most importantly, celebrate the cultures and backgrounds that students bring with them to the classroom.
Voiced texts are, by definition, written in such way that a reader can internally (or externally through oral reading) hear the voice of the author while reading. Arguably, this is one of the most difficult elements of proficient writing to teach students.
As in reading, however, the types of writing that tends to dominate school curriculum are narrative and various forms of exposition or informational writing (e.g. term papers). While not denying that these forms are important and need to be emphasized, other forms of writing, such as voiced texts, should also be taught and nurtured.
I feel that the best way to learn to write narrative and informational text is to examine the best forms of these texts available to students and encourage them to emulate those forms in their own writing. An important part of the analyses of such texts is through repeated readings, so that students can deeply examine text forms and structures.
Students should, however, also be given opportunities and encouragement to write the voiced texts that are the subject of this essay -- poetry, song lyrics, scripts, speeches and the like. When we ask students to examine such texts, we are asking them to inspect the sense of voice embedded in them by authors. At the same time, when we ask students to write in the style of Langston Hughes or Martin Luther King, we are asking them to write with a voice similar to one that the original author used. For instance, Elizabeth, a fourth grade student, reported that when she writes she tries to “hear the voice in her head” and put that voice on paper. It is likely that Elizabeth learned to write with voice by first learning to read with voice because writing is a more difficult task. And it is likely she learned to read with voice through readings of texts that were rich in author voice.
In our reading and writing program for struggling readers at Kent State we invite and encourage students to write their own versions of voiced and rhythmical texts that they practice and perform. These can be as simple as a playful version of Yankee Doodle written by Harry, a student in our summer reading clinic:
Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a tired duck.
Although it tried, the duck couldn’t fly.
So now he rides in a fire truck.
Or, they can be as sophisticated as writing their own metaphorical version of Whitman’s Oh Captain, My Captain. An additional point is worth mentioning when it comes to writing. One of the most challenging aspects of writing to master is voice – writing in such a way that a reader can see the face and hear the voice of the author, a style of writing that makes texts readable, personable, and engaging.
Finally, I’d like to mention a consequence of practicing and performing voiced texts that I have observed repeatedly with students who engage in repeated and assisted reading of rhythmical texts meant to be performed – confidence. Most of the students I work with are struggling readers – students who have little confidence in their own ability to read. Moreover, this lack of confidence bleeds into other curricular areas and into other aspects of their lives. These students begin to believe that they do not have the ability to accomplish what needs to be accomplished in and out of school.
In reading, this lack of confidence often presents in not only slow and halting reading, but also in what I refer to as “mumble” reading, in which students curl their bodies inward, put their hands in their pockets, cross their legs or sway or lean against a wall if standing, and fail to make eye contact with whomever may be listening to their reading. Moreover, once this lack of confidence begins to manifest itself in students, it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in which students meet with less and less success in their academic endeavors.
Repeated and assisted practice, especially when that practice is aimed at a performance for an audience can be a remedy for lack of reading confidence. Indeed, when students can take justifiable pride in a reading performers it can be a wonderful solution to the loss of confidence that comes from repeated episodes of public disfluent reading, such as oral round robin reading, which remains an unfortunate staple in many of today’s classrooms.
Through repeated and assisted reading, less fluent and struggling readers learn that they can read as well as their more fluent classmates, they just need to practice a bit more. And, when these readers perform for an audience, even an audience of one, they can receive affirmation of their efforts and praise. As one young reader who engaged in a reader’s theater curriculum during a rehearsal stated, “I never thought I could be a star, but I was the best reader today!” (Martinez, Roser, & Strecker, 1999).
Literacy is more than the ability to read and enjoy a story; it is more than gaining meaning through informational passages. Literacy involves reading aloud as well as reading silently, literacy involves appreciating language for its own sake, reading serves other purposes -- to delight, to unify, to differentiate, to touch the hearts of those who read. These purposes are legitimate ones for reading and writing and have a legitimate place in the school curriculum. The texts highlighted in this essay lend themselves well to these other purposes. These texts, too, have a legitimate and necessary place in the school literacy curriculum. It is time that we, as literacy professionals, allow these other text forms to take their rightful place in what we ask children to read in school and home.
Griffith, L. W., & Rasinski, T. V. (2004). A focus on fluency: How one teacher incorporated fluency with her reading curriculum. The Reading Teacher, 58, 126- 137.
Keillor, G. (2004, October, 18). The Writer’s Almanac. Retrieved April 22, 2007, from http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/programs/2004/10/18/index.html
Martinez, M., Roser, N., & Strecker, S. (1999). “I never thought I could be a star”: A Readers Theatre ticket to reading fluency. The Reading Teacher, 52, 326-334.
Rasinski, T., & Stevenson, B. (2005). The Effects of Fast Start Reading, A Fluency Based Home Involvement Reading Program, On the Reading Achievement of Beginning Readers. Reading Psychology: An International Quarterly, 26, 109-125.
Rosenblatt, L. (1978). The reader, the text, and the poem: The transactional theory of literary work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.