Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Behind the Books: Questioning the Power of Story

When I published this post last February, I hoped some people would read it. I hoped some people would comment. I expected many people to disagree with my idea that story isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But you know what? No one did.

Here’s what happened. To date, the post has had more than 31,000 hits. Lots of people did comment. 39 commented directly on my blog. Many other folks sent me email, talked to me at conferences, or responded on Twitter or Facebook.

Clearly the post hit a nerve. Maybe some people had been questioning the power of story for a long time.

Recently school librarian and AASL organizer Mary Ann Schuer (@ MaryAnnSchuer) brought my attention to a new study that makes this bold claim: “Stories are about 22 times more memorable than facts alone.”

Of course, that quote ended up in a bazillion articles. After all it seems to reinforce what so many people already believe to be true.

But here’s what I found when I scrutinized the study. The subjects were 209 seventh and eighth grade students, and according to the researchers, Arya & Maul, the two texts used in the study were “developed to be as similar as possible in terms of syntactic complexity, vocabulary, accuracy, and other measures, and vary only in whether the information was presented in a typical expository fashion or in terms of a personal story.

Seems solid, right? Well, I read the passages and let me tell you that the expository sample was some of the driest, most boring writing I’ve read in a long time.

Of course student comprehension and memory of the information was low. Bad writing leads to bad learning outcomes. No surprise there. I would challenge Arya & Maul to repeat their study with a truly engaging expository text, such as one pulled from a highly-acclaimed trade nonfiction title. I suspect that their results would be quite different, but let the science speak for itself.

Study cited: Arya, D. J. & Maul, A. (2012). The role of the scientific discovery narrative in middle school science education: An experimental study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 1022-1032.


  1. Melissa, I have a datapoint for you. I recently served as a volunteer librarian at my child's school for first and second grade. I would estimate that about 95% of the children chose encyclopedic or informational nonfiction (no story). Favorite books included fossils, dinosaurs, spiders, sharks and even magnetism. Very few selected stories fiction picture books or chapter books. I'm going to continue to observe as we do library over the next few weeks. I'll let you know what I see.

  2. Thanks, Kirsten. That very interesting data. Boy do I wish someone would do a comprehensive study on this topic.

  3. You make some excellent points about looking at how the comparisons are made.

    About a library study, I visited a public library this morning where the children's fiction books were in a bright lovely room on the first floor right near the entrance. Guess where the children's nonfiction books were? They were on the second floor where it was dark and austere, mixed in with the adult nonfiction. If you did a study of children's use of nonfiction at that particular library, I bet you would find that children almost never read nonfiction.

  4. That's a good point, Roberta. At many libraries, nonfiction is tucked away in out of the way places. My hope is that Common core might encourage libraries to make their nonfiction collections more up to date and more accessible. Nonfiction for kids has changed a lot in the last 15 or so years, but not everyone knows that--yet.

  5. It is also important to think about the informational texts that are offered to second graders versus the types that might be offered to a 7th and 8th grader. Informational picture books published for our younger readers are often filled with vibrant photographs, thought provoking layouts and formats. Most of them are not laid out like a typical science textbook. The format of the texts for the 7th and 8th graders would most likely be filled with much more densely packed expository passages written with a very academic format. My main point is that it is easy to understand why young children would be drawn to the informational texts and there are many factors to consider when making a comparison of elementary informational texts versus intermediate ones.It would really depend on the texts and how they are laid out and how the information is presented.

  6. Hi Erica,

    You say, "The format of the texts for the 7th and 8th graders would most likely be filled with much more densely packed expository passages written with a very academic format." I do not agree with this statement. Today's nonfiction trade books at all levels feature engaging text and dynamic formats. They are lightyears away from the stodgy, academic samples given to the middle graders who participated in this study.