Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Wait, that’s Not Broccoli. It’s Chocolate Cake! Part 1


Right now, the children’s literature community is enamored with narrative nonfiction—books that tell true stories. It receives more starred reviews and wins far more awards than expository nonfiction.

That's because most of the people who choose jobs related to children’s literature—editors, book reviewers, librarians, literacy educators, awards committee members—value and connect strongly with stories and storytelling. And it’s natural for them to assume that young readers feel the same way, especially when we hear things like “humans are hardwired to love story.”

But today, I’m going to disrupt your thinking.

For years, I’ve been questioning the idea that everyone loves stories. Based on my own experience as a reader and conversations I’ve had with children and educators, what I see is that some children are, indeed, naturally drawn to narratives. But others are more excited about ideas and information and would rather read expository nonfiction. Still others enjoy both expository and narrative texts.
 
My observations have led me to hypothesize that there’s what I call a narrative-analytical thinking continuum. The general population spans the continuum, but the children’s literature community is clumped at the narrative end.

I’m concerned that young analytical thinkers are currently being underserved because gatekeepers don’t appreciate the kind of books that these children enjoy. Simply put, what the children’s literature community calls broccoli, many kids call chocolate cake.

By last spring, I felt so strongly about this issue that I decided to take a sabbatical from writing and conduct a study of elementary students’ reading preferences. Because I had no idea how to structure or conduct a study, I dove into the academic literature. And that’s when my mind was blown.

The research already exists, and it’s powerful. Why don’t more people know about it?

Here are two examples:

Correia, Marlene Ponte. “Fiction vs Informational Texts: Which Will Kindergartners Choose?”Young Children, 2011, p. 100-104.

A K teacher who initially believed her students prefered fiction tracked their library checkouts for 19 weeks and found that the children chose more nonfiction than fiction titles 14 out of 19 weeks. One week they checked out an equal number of fiction and nonfiction books. Each week, more boys than girl chose nonfiction.

Mohr, Kathleen A. J. “Children’s Choices for Recreational Reading: A Three-Part Investigation of Selection Preferences, Rationales, and Processes.” Journal of Literacy Research, 2006, p. 81-104.

190 first graders were invited to choose one of nine high-quality, well-illustrated picture books to keep forever. The books included five fiction titles and four nonfiction titles—one expository nonfiction, one picture book biography, one nonfiction poetry, and one hybrid nonfiction. The children viewed the books one at a time (so they weren’t influenced by their friends’ choices). Students could take as long as they wanted to make a decision and were encouraged to look closely at the books as part of the decision-making process.

What were the results? 84% of students chose a nonfiction book. 46% chose the expository nonfiction title, while only 3% chose the picture book biography. More boys (96%) than girls (69%) chose nonfiction titles.

What was the mega-popular expository nonfiction title?


I encourage you to get the full articles and read them. I’ll be sharing more research next week.

 

60 comments:

  1. Fascinating! As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, I appreciate learning more on this topic.

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  2. Bookmarking this one, Melissa.

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    1. Thanks, Jill. I hope you'll come back and keep reading the rest of the series.

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  3. Great post! I see this with my own children. We have shelves full of freaky facts, strange science and interesting biographies!

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    1. Children are so curious about the world and how it works. Let's fuel their passion.

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  4. SO true re: what children choose! When I do school visits, librarians often tell me that kids come in asking for nonfiction and informational books - how are bridges built,how something works, why an animals has certain characteristics, what was a famous person like as a child. They don't ask for fairy tales and fiction, as much as books answering their questions about the world.

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    1. Kids have so many interests. For some topics, narratives work well. But in other cases, an expository writing style is the best choice.

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  5. This is fascinating info and something I've been thinking about and discussing lately with other nonfiction writers. I'll be following!

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    1. Thanks, Tanya. Please do keep reading and I'd be delighted if you helped to spread the word.

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  6. Thank you, Melissa. I'm looking forward to reading more.

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    1. I'm excited to keep sharing these studies.

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  7. Keep cranking out that research, Melissa! Nice post!

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    1. Thanks, Nancy. There's plenty more on the way.

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  8. You pegged my son for sure. Even my daughters lean toward expository NF.

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    1. Many kids seem to love expository nonfiction. Let's spread the word.

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  9. Love this, Melissa! I am a huge fan (as a writer and a reader) of expository nf, though I love little chunks of narrative within the overall survey or expository form. Thanks for sharing this :>)

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    1. I agree, Laura. There are so many different kinds of readers. Some love fiction and narrative nonfiction. Others prefer expository nonfiction. and still others love a mix of the two--just like you.

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  10. I'll never forget my son's love of the picture book we had about how the postal system worked. We read that book until it fell apart. And the David Macaulay books. Oh, my! Plus, I should add that when I volunteer in our school library, the expository NF category wins the day for the K-2. Give them animals, gross bodily functions, planes, trains, automobiles, ancient weapons, WWI and WWII— etc...and they are quite pleased. But then I see a gradual trend toward story after 3rd grade, but some kids don't like to make that switch. We should have books to appeal to them all. I'm thinking that editors may be trying to appeal to both these days, by using narrative to tell the story and then filling back matter with juicy nuggets of information "that disrupted or sidetracked the narrative but were too good to leave out." Nice post, Melissa.

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    1. Great observations, Jilanne. As I share more studies, you'll see that the report exactly what you're suggesting.

      The move toward narrative seems to crop up around the same time as the famous fourth grade slump. Is there a connection? Do Ss feel coerced into reading fiction because there is currently so much emphasis on them in school? There are so many questions around writing style preferences and how that related to encouraging young readers and writers.

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  11. This is GREAT! I love all the investigatory work you do and will rewrite my non-fiction. Mine doesn't have enough 'umph' to it. Also, I struggle with the writing part, but the pictures grow like film reels out of my mind. Hopefully, I can find the right approach to my next non-fiction attempt and you really help with all the insights you give. Thank you so much.

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    1. It sounds like you need a hook, a strong connection, virginal. This post might help: http://celebratescience.blogspot.com/2017/05/behind-books-concept-and-connection.html

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  12. This is amazing. Thank you for the studies. They are very interesting and enlightening.

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    1. Thanks so much. I hope you'll come back for more.

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  13. Oh, this is good stuff, Melissa, but I am on the losing team---I write biographies! Better make mine irresistible.

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    1. Thanks, Sherri. We all win when children have access to books they love. I'm certainly not saying we don't need good narrative nonfiction and fiction. We definitely do!

      I'd just like to even the playing field for Ss who are underserved now. Let's turn reluctant readers into enthusiastic readers.

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  14. Thanks for sharing the results of these interesting studies. I doubt if they repeated the same study (the 2nd one) with different kids and a different selection of books, if they could duplicate the results. I'd love to know why the kids chose the books they did. What was it that appealed to them or did not appeal to them.

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    1. While the results might not be exactly the same, I suspect (based on results of other studies I'll be sharing over the next few weeks) that they would be quite similar. In other words, most students would choose the expository title and only a few would choose the PB biography. Fewer would choose fiction than nonfiction.

      This was a very extensive study that included interviews with all 190 children. They were asked for the rationale behind their decisions, and that info was grouped into categories. If you read the study, you will find solid answers to your question.

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  15. I have a hard time "selling" nonfiction to my daughter. Maybe I need try that book experiment with her and see what it leads to.

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    1. She may be at the narrative end of the spectrum, and that's okay. I'd suggest trying narrative nonfiction, like a PB bio of someone who had interests similar to her own. also, she might find it easier to connect with a hybrid book, such as Giant Squid by Candace Fleming or How to Be an Elephant by Katherine Roy.

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  16. Yes! This is why I use a variety of books in my book clubs - everything from National Geographic nonfiction easy readers to narrative nonfiction to comics.

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  17. Terrific info Melissa. Very interesting indeed.
    Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks, Jo. I'm so glad you found it helpful.

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  18. Very interesting studies, Melissa. I'm not surprised. When I taught K-2nd, I was constantly buying NF for my class, and the kids were fascinated by the information I'd share with them about our monthly units of study (science or social study topics). Does the preference hold as kids get older or do lots of them develop the bug for fantasy, sci-fi, etc.? I remember devouring mysteries when I was in middle school.

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    1. That's a really good question, Evelyn. I could only find one study that tries to answer it. I'll post about it in a couple of weeks. But, clearly, there need to be more research in this area. The other question is how is this idea related to the 4th grade reading slump.

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    2. It's sort of along the lines of my dissertation study (from many years ago!). At that point there was a big push to make math all related to real life. I thought it was more important to make it fun and interesting. I gave 1st year algebra students a choice between word problems with real-life settings and pretend/fantasy/sci-fi settings. More of them chose the latter. That's partly why I was wondering how things were playing out with the older kids in your research.

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    3. That's an interesting idea. My personal response is that the real world is fun and interesting.

      Perhaps your math problems with pretend/fantasy/sci-fi settings were somehow more playful, and therefore more enjoyable for the students. There are always so many nuances to consider with these kinds of things, aren't there?

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    4. I totally agree. And I wasn't trying to say it shouldn't ever be 'real life,' just that whatever it is, it should be fun and interesting. And unfortunately, back in those days a lot of the real life math was neither.

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    5. The good news is that today's nonfiction features stunning art and photos, dynamic design, and engaging writing.

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  19. Great post. You broaden my horizons. Keep it up!

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  20. Thank you for this, Melissa. As I child, I loved stories, most especially horse stories, but what I loved even more was learning about horse history, stable management, their anatomy and diseases. You get the idea. When it came to all things equine, I was an autodidact. Young readers must have rich, complicated, challenging nonfiction to complement the more narrative elements of their reading life.

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    1. I couldn't agree more. Thanks for sharing, Hayley.

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  21. Another factor is bookstores prefer to stock narrative nonfiction, "reference books", NF quiz and activity books, NF picture books, and now graphic NF, rather than expository NF, as they fly off the shelves faster: These are what parents and grandparents think all children want. Also, the marketing supply chain often means bookstores cannot buy direct from educational publishers, and wholesalers do not stock children's expository NF as they do not fly off the shelves. So parents, children and some librarians, do not get the opportunity to see and buy the books they crave for. That's why you often hear parents (and a good number of teachers) say, "What we need are books on volcanoes, hurricanes, magnetism, photosynthesis etc." Those books are definitely out there, and in great numbers, but there are hard to find.

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    1. You make some interesting points, Lionel, but I think we are defining "expository nonfiction" differently. It sounds like your comments are focused exclusively on series books produced by educational publishers.

      What I'm primarily focused on is high-quality trade books with an expository writing style. I encourage you to follow my Monday posts throughout the year for examples of these books. Each week a highly-regarded educator will be sharing his/her 5 favorites.

      Expository nonfiction is style of writing and it comes in many different forms, including reference books, quiz and activity books, picture books, and graphic nonfiction. U.S. elementary students are now being taught to distinguish the two styles of nonfiction writing, and are learning the verbiage to describe the characteristics of nonfiction that they enjoy reading. This is an exciting change.

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  22. Thanks for flying the NF flag high, Melissa! I look forward to reading more of your research. One niggle about your chart: You describe narrative nf as "for entertainment" and expository as "to inform." I submit that both forms inform and entertain!

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    1. Good spotting, Gretchen. The image is an anchor chart that a teacher created for her classroom, so it shows how she is teaching her class to distinguish between narrative vs. expository. I agree with you. The best nonfiction--both expository and narrative--delights as well as informs. You are the second person to comment negatively on the visual, so perhaps I should change it. Thanks for your input.

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  23. So interesting, Melissa! I was an animal lover as a kid--still am, so anything to do with wildlife/nature drew me in & still does. Looking forward to hearing more about your research.

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  24. Melissa:
    I'm not convinced that the difference if narrative non-fiction v. expository non-fiction. Rather, the choice seems to be between wonder and an emotional response and something else. I'm not sure what that would be because we are only seeing the choice the kids made. Certainly, choosing ANIMALS NOBODY LOVES is an emotional response. I'm not sure the distinction you're making here is the one that influenced the decision. Do you know the other titles presented?
    Darcy

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    1. I urge you to get the article and read it, Darcy. Yes, the article does list all the books.

      The children where interviewed extensively about the rationale behind their choices and that information is also included. The methodology of the study is sound.

      You may have trouble believing that children are preferring the writing style. Many narrative thinkers have trouble imagining that there is different way of thinking about reading and texts, and that's exactly the point I'm trying to make with this series of posts. Each week I will be presenting more and more evidence that some children prefer expository nonfiction, and if we want them to love reading, we need to offer a rich array of the kind of books that they enjoy most.

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    2. No, it's not that I'm having trouble believing it! It's just that my first impression of the book chosen, ANIMALS NOBODY LOVES, was emotional. Plus, it's a great cover. I just want information (ha!). I want to see the other covers and read what the kids said.
      Darcy

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    3. Melissa: After looking at the Mohr study, I think it doesn't prove that kids prefer informational text. First, the study was studying six different things. The nine books for selection included ethnic/multucultural choices, which I think didn't represent the fiction genre in the best way to make the distinction between fiction v. nonfiction. Second, I would question all of these books as a selection for first graders. A quick glance at the AR reading levels (because it's easy to access) revealed that their reading level ranged from 2.0 to 5.0. In other words, the study didn't control for reading level. Third, the preferred book, ANIMALS NOBODY LOVES, is a browsable text, rather than a text that must be read front to back. Of course, that's one of the appeals of informational text, but how does it affect the choices? And fourth, it totally discounts the covers as a decision making tool, which is often reported as a major decision point. Overall, I think this is a great study that indicates the possible preference of informational texts. However, I'd want more research before I concluded that info text is the most popular form of books. Also, this was a study with first graders, which are still consolidating their reading skills. I wonder how the choices would vary as the kids grow older. Darcy

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    4. Thanks for reading the study, Darcy. I agree. It doesn’t PROVE that kids prefer expository nonfiction. No single study can do that, and every study has its flaws. What I’m looking at over the next 5 weeks is a body of research that most people in the kidlit world are not aware of.

      Taken together, they provide strong evidence that some students prefer expository writing. In other words, humans are NOT hardwired to love story. I urge you to continue reading these posts. Based on these studies, I’m hoping to convince the children's literature community that it needs to reconsider its adulation for narrative nonfiction and lackluster response to expository titles. We need to give all students books they will fall in love with.

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    5. I'm glad there's more to come! We're just scratching the surface.
      Darcy

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  25. I have long suspected that there is a swath of young readers are being underserved. We need more picture book nonfiction! Maybe I should pull out that WIP I put away because the gatekeepers kept saying, "No thank you."

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  26. It's not only the kids that want more informational texts for STEM, it's the STEM education researchers and education policy makers as well. You can see their call for these texts in the Common Core (See Appendix B http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_B.pdf) and NGSS (Search on Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information). AAAS has also written about this issue in its leading publications. You're right that the gatekeepers in the education and trade publishing worlds are partial to story and poetry as literature. I believe it's because most of them have English literature backgrounds. I am also an English major so I understand where they are coming from. But children need and love to learn to read informational texts. I'd be happy to join a group interested in affecting change in this area. I've worked in STEM research for many years, but am new to children's book publishing. Lerner Publishing just published my first children's book.

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  27. There's also this article from the Guardian covering a research report on children learn moral stories better if humans are depicted. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/01/only-childrens-books-with-humans-have-moral-impact-study-finds?CMP=fb_gu

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  28. Interesting. I'm curious. How do you see this article as relevant to this discussion?

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