Beyond Story Time: Enhancing Children’s Literacy

By Benjamin Sonnenberg

What did you read as a kid? Do you remember the eccentric Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus? How about National Geographic, replete with vibrant pictures of bubbling volcanoes? For Mariam Dreher (ΦBK, University of California-Riverside, 1970), these types of texts, and their successful integration into school curriculum, are an essential part of learning. Dreher has spent her career promoting reading strategies that focus on informational texts in order to enhance children’s literacy and comprehension, all while recognizing the need to diversify the types of books used in the classroom. 

A professor of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership in the College of Education at the University of Maryland, Dreher has served on the editorial boards for five education journals and periodicals, has co-authored numerous books and journal articles, and was a Fulbright Scholar Specialist at the University of Oulu in Finland, where she studied ways to diversify classroom reading materials to better enhance child literacy. Throughout her research, Dreher has found that the material children often read is fiction. Following the institution of Common Core standards, however, informational texts are now being spotlighted. Dreher, together with her colleague Sharon Kletzien, has written extensively on how to promote informational texts. “Most of what older children and adults read and write is informational text,” Dreher explained. “So it makes sense to give young children the chance to learn about more than stories in school.”

Kristi Santi at the University of Houston and Deborah Reed at the University of Iowa have likewise devoted extensive time and research to understand the role diverse texts play in improving reading comprehension. In Improving Reading Comprehension of Middle and High School Students, Santi and Reed argue: “Understanding multiple genres and text structures comes only from purposeful instruction using a variety of texts.” In their efforts to promote informational texts, Santi and Reed affirm Dreher’s findings that many teachers are less comfortable with such texts than with purely fictional stories. 

What can be done to remedy this? Dreher and her colleagues have concluded that several strategies may ease the burden placed on teachers who wish to integrate informational texts into their lesson plans. She believes that, in addition to making a broad range of subjects available to students, teachers should expand classroom libraries and provide for their easy access to children. Dreher maintains that the classroom library could serve as an excellent introduction to informational texts for students, especially when visiting a school’s main library may seem daunting. She is also a proponent of technology usage, writing in Teaching Informational Text in K-3 Classrooms that proper internet access, perhaps even internet literacy, can help expose students to a wealth of texts that they otherwise may lack access to. 

While informational texts are important, Dreher explained, they must not come at the expense of stories, and vice versa. “Children need the opportunity to read and be instructed about both stories and informational text,” she said. Diversifying the texts available to students, while preparing our teachers to use them in their lesson plans, can enhance literacy, reading comprehension, and the overall learning experience. Common Core’s emphasis on informational texts is well placed, but it should not obviate the need for stories. “English teachers shouldn’t think we can’t teach Shakespeare,” she said. Indeed, as with many things, a balance is needed to give students the literacy skills necessary to succeed in higher education and beyond. 

When Dreher isn’t conducting research, writing, or teaching classes at UMD, she remains active in the ΦBK community. She is thankful for the connections with other ΦBK members her affiliation has given her and often has the opportunity to review the transcripts of potential ΦBK members. She also enjoys meeting many new people in the ΦBK induction ceremonies she attends at the University.

Benjamin Sonnenberg is a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, double majoring in history and education. The University of Maryland is home to the Gamma of Maryland Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.