This article is part of a series drawn from work in the Handbook of Reading Research: Volume III (Kamil, Mosenthal, Pearson, & Barr, 2000). In the coming months, Reading Online will publish additional chapter summaries from the book, prepared by the chapter authors.

Early Childhood and Elementary Literature-Based Instruction: Current Perspectives and Special Issues

Linda B. Gambrell
Lesley Mandel Morrow
Christina Pennington


To support young children in developing literacy, high-quality literature, including narrative and expository works, are the core materials used during literature-based instruction (Scharer, 1992). This type of instruction, which has gained increased emphasis in reading research and practice, provides authentic learning experiences and activities by using literature to teach and foster literacy. This article, drawn from a chapter published originally in The Handbook of Reading Research: Volume III (Morrow & Gambrell, 2000), reviews pertinent research about literature-based instruction and its importance in early literacy development. It is divided into three major sections: Literature-Based Instruction: A Rationale; Current Perspectives and Special Issues in Literature-Based Instruction; and Literature-Based Instruction in the Classroom.

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A Rationale | Current Perspectives and Issues | Literature-Based Instruction in the Classroom | Concluding Remarks | References



Literature-Based Instruction: A Rationale

Definitions of literature-based instruction emphasize the use of high-quality literary works as the core instructional materials used to support literacy development (Harris & Hodges, 1995; Huck, 1977; Scharer, 1992). A guiding principle of the literature-based perspective is that literacy acquisition occurs in a book-rich context where there is an abundance of purposeful communication and meaning is socially constructed (Cullinan, 1987). Literary works in such contexts include a wide range of materials: picture books, big books, predictable books, folk tales, fables, myths, fantasy, science fiction, poetry, contemporary realistic fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction informational books, and biographies (Lehman, Freeman, & Allen, 1994; Routman, 1988).

Authorities including Cullinan (1987), Galda, Cullinan, and Strickland (1993), and Tompkins and McGee (1993) agree on the distinguishing characteristics of literature-based instruction in preschool, kindergarten, and first-grade classrooms:

Theoretical Framework

While there are several theoretical orientations that support literature-based reading instruction, it is perhaps most closely associated with reader response theory. Reader response theory explains how readers interpret literature (McGee, 1992). Theorists in this area posit that literature is not an object to be studied, nor does any literary work have a single correct interpretation (Iser, 1978); rather, meaning in the text is constructed by readers’ own interpretations of their experiences while they are reading (Rosenblatt, 1978). Meaning, therefore, is a two-way process that resides in the transaction that occurs between the reader and the text, where the reader constructs a personal envisionment guided by the text. The reader uses prior experiences to select images and feelings that will enable him or her to shape the text, while at the same time the text shapes the reader by creating new experiences (McGee; Rosenblatt, 1978, 1991).

Rosenblatt (1978, 1991) identified two stances readers might take while reading a text, depending on their purposes for reading: aesthetic and efferent. When readers take an aesthetic stance in reading a story, poem, or play, their attention shifts inward and centers on what is being created during the actual reading: personal feelings, ideas, and attitudes. When taking an efferent stance in reading, readers’ attention narrows in order to build up the meanings and ideas to be retained. Rosenblatt posits that it is the reader, rather than the text, that dictates the stance that is taken -- any text can be read either way -- and that when reading any one text, readers shift along a continuum from the aesthetic to the efferent stance.

Many researchers working in the area of early literacy development find Rosenblatt’s reader response theory both relevant and important in providing a foundation for literature-based instruction (e.g., Eeds & Wells, 1989; Galda, 1990; McGee, 1992). Recent research has explored literature-based instruction and children’s responses to literature, literacy motivation, and literacy development. These studies provide insights about new ways teachers and researchers are conceptualizing literacy development in literature-based classrooms (Allington, Guice, Michelson, Baker, & Li, 1996; McGee).

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Current Perspectives and Special Issues in Literature-Based Instruction

Today’s classrooms reflect overwhelming diversity. Educators are faced with the challenges of teaching second-language learners and students with special needs as well as the “typical” student. Integrating the use of technology and meeting the core curricular content standards are issues that must be addressed also. This section explores current perspectives related to these issues and discusses the roles they play in literature-based instruction.

Literature and Second-Language Acquisition

Rapidly changing demographics, influenced by economics and immigration, are reflected in classrooms, where students may speak any of the world’s languages as a first language, be fluent in more than one language, speak dialects of the mainstream language, and possess a varied range of reading levels (Richard-Amato & Snow, 1992). As a result, it is important to examine how literature-based instruction relates to second-language (L2) learning.

Roser, Hoffman, and Farest (1990) investigated the effect of literature-based instruction on second-language learners in kindergarten to Grade 2 in a Texas school district just over the Texas-Mexico border. Language to Literacy (LtL), a program intended to develop children’s literacy skills in much the same way oral language is developed, was created to infuse literature and related instructional strategies into a traditional language arts setting. Research was conducted in six elementary schools and, over the course of 18 months, 78 teachers and 2,500 students participated in the study.

Implementation of the program involved

The project staff developed 70 literature units and a teaching guide that rotated among teachers in the study. Literacy centers were set up in the classrooms, allowing space for reading and writing activities.

Teachers’ reports of their students’ progress, along with accounts of students’ fluency in reading and writing and their academic achievement on the California Test of Basic Skills, were collected and analyzed. After the LtL program was in place, statistically significant growth in scores on the state-mandated test of basic skills was noted in five of the six schools in the study. The results indicate that a literature-based program can be implemented successfully in elementary schools that serve primarily limited English-speaking students from economically disadvantaged homes.

Although studies of the effects of literature-based instruction on second-language learning in early childhood are few, certain assumptions can be made and should be considered for future research. The communicative view of language development emphasizes meaningful interaction among language users (Krashen & Terrell, 1983). Thus, the classroom should be designed to facilitate many types of activities and student-centered interactions (Richard-Amato & Snow, 1992). The characteristics of a literature-based instructional program provide L2 learners with a classroom atmosphere conducive to the acquisition of communicative competence.

Limited English proficient (LEP) students require ample opportunities to hear and use English in various purposeful, authentic contexts that encourage and facilitate communication, social interaction, and risk-taking in a low-anxiety environment. Read-alouds by the teacher or peers, book talks, story retellings, literature circles, book buddies, author studies, and other reading response projects allow LEP students opportunities to listen, speak, and write in the target language in a meaningful setting. These literature-based activities also provide L2 learners with opportunities for social interaction with native English speakers, which are necessary to promote language acquisition.

Literature-Based Instruction and Technology

The CD-ROMs, software, Internet connections, and other technological tools now available in many early childhood classrooms offer teachers and students a variety of new resources for using literature in instruction. Wepner and Ray (in press) believe instructional technology has potential for early literacy learning resulting from the extensive research and development that is integral to software production. Kinzer and Leu (1997) participated in producing software designed to promote literacy through the use of multimedia and literature. The Young Children’s Literacy Project integrated full-motion color video, sound, and Internet access with reading, writing, and oral language. The video-based CD-ROM anchor story provided a common link to a shared experience among the teacher and students. As its basis, the project used the notion of the mental modeling that occurs during the comprehension process (McNamara, Miller, & Bransford, 1991). The multimedia, which included the anchor video, online story sequencing, and book-making activities, supplied the framework for understanding stories. The goal was to have children understand the power, use, and importance of literacy.

Children viewed a video story and then sequenced and retold the tale. Their retellings were used to write, illustrate, and add music to their own versions of the story. When their books were published, the students placed them in the classroom and on the computer. Use of a World Wide Web homepage linked students and teachers around the world to ongoing literacy activities. The Internet and the collaborative facets built into The Young Children’s Literacy Project software optimized classroom implementation of authors’ circles, book-study groups, and collaborative learning. Creators of The Young Children’s Literacy Project continue to study the effects of multimedia technology on young children’s reading and writing in the classroom.

Although there seems to be a surge of investigation into technology’s usefulness in the classroom, studies of its role in literacy development, and particularly in literature-based instruction, are limited. As posited in Leu, Karchmer, and Leu (1999, online document), “In literacy research...it has become difficult, if not impossible, to develop a consistent body of published research within traditional forums before the technology on which a study is based is replaced by an even newer technology.” However, Wepner and Ray (in press) contend that technology provides teachers and students with enormous possibilities to use literature-based instructional programs and related activities to communicate, motivate, and sustain learning and foster literacy.

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Literature-Based Instruction in the Classroom

Although there are few empirical studies that directly compare literature-based reading instruction with alternative models, several do evaluate the use of literature in reading programs. In this section, various studies exploring the connection between literature-based instruction with standards in education and the effects of literature-based instruction on young children’s literacy development are reviewed. The role of storybook reading, literature-based reading instruction and early literacy development, expository text, and motivation to read are explored.

Storybook Reading With Young Children

Reading to young children has always been the most common practice for implementing literature-based instruction in preschool and primary classrooms. Anecdotes and observations drawn from case studies of children who have been read to frequently have described behaviors associated with early literacy development (see, e.g., Baghban, 1984; Sulzby, 1985; Teale, 1987). These cases demonstrate that young children who have been read to frequently know how to handle books and can identify the front of a book, the print to be read, and the appropriate direction for reading the print.

Several studies using experimental designs have investigated the effects of storybook reading as a regular classroom practice on children’s achievement in various aspects of literacy development. In these investigations, the children in the experimental classrooms who were read to daily over long periods of time scored significantly better on measures of vocabulary, comprehension, and decoding ability than did children in the control groups who were not read to by an adult (Bus, van Ijzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995; Dickinson & Smith, 1994; Feitelson, Goldstein, Iraqi, & Share, 1993; Robbins & Ehri, 1994; Senechal, Thomas, & Monker, 1995).

Experimental investigations in school settings have tried to identify specific elements of storybook reading that enhance literacy skills. Each of the studies has involved children in some type of active participation before, during, or after storybook reading. Qualitative studies, through observations and interviews, have documented how children and parents interact and participate together in reading in the home environment (Teale, 1987). Other research has focused on the influence of the teacher when reading to a whole class.

In experimental studies in which children participated with their teacher and peers in some part of the storybook reading experience, students’ comprehension and sense of story structure improved in comparison to children in the control groups. The treatments involved activities implemented

These activities enabled children to relate various parts of a story to one another and to integrate information across the entire story (Morrow, 1985; Pellegrini & Galda, 1982).

Although the studies cited in this section highlight the positive effects of storybook reading, Meyer, Wardrop, Stahl, and Linn (1994) suggest that reading stories is not a magical activity for literacy development; it is the quality of the interaction that occurs during reading that results in positive effects, rather than just the storybook reading itself. They report that storybook reading sessions in classrooms are often not of sufficient quality to engage students fully and to maximize literacy growth. Reading stories as an act in itself does not necessarily promote literacy; attitudes and interaction enhance the potential of the read-aloud event for promoting literacy development.

The primary goal of the read-aloud event is the construction of meaning from the interactive process between adult and child (Vygotsky, 1978). During story reading, the adult helps the child understand the text by interpreting the written language based on experiences, background, and beliefs (Altwerger, Diehl-Faxon, & Dockstader-Anderson, 1985). Teale (1984) describes the interaction as being interpsychological first -- that is, negotiated between adult and child together -- and intrapsychological next, when the child internalizes the interactions and can function independently.

Studies focusing on teachers’ interactive behaviors when reading to whole classes have documented the impact of reading style on children’s comprehension of stories (Green & Harker, 1982; Peterman, Dunning, & Mason, 1985). A series of investigations were carried out in classrooms to determine children’s comprehension of stories in whole-group, small-group, and one-to-one settings (Morrow, 1987, 1988; Morrow & Smith, 1990). The interactions that occurred within these different settings were also studied. On a test of comprehension, children who heard stories in small groups performed significantly better than did children who heard stories read one to one; these children, in turn, performed significantly better than did children who heard stories read to the whole class. In addition, children who heard stories read in a small-group or one-to-one setting generated significantly more comments and questions than did children in the whole-class setting. Thus, reading to children in small groups offers as much interaction as one-to-one readings, and it appears to lead to greater comprehension than either whole-class or one-to-one readings.

Children’s responses to read-aloud experiences, both in questions and in comments, are a critical aspect of the interactive process. When questions are asked and then answered, children receive immediate feedback, which may aid their literacy development (Yaden, 1985). Holdaway’s (1979) model for literacy instruction advocates that children have the opportunity to regulate their own learning by questioning adults in literacy situations. Comments young children make during story-reading events help us gain insight into the way they attempt to construct meaning and make sense of text.

Children often request that favorite stories be read aloud repeatedly, a practice that has attracted the attention of many scholars. Researchers have questioned whether lasting cognitive and affective benefits result from repeated readings of the same story. Roser and Martinez (1985) and Yaden (1985) suggest that children’s comments and questions increase and become more interpretive and evaluative when they have listened to repeated readings of the same story. Children also elaborate more often and interpret issues in the story following repeated readings. Sulzby (1985) reports that the familiarity that comes with repeated readings enables children to reenact stories or attempt to read them on their own. Repeated readings seem to be an important component in reading stories; the familiarity gained through the experience provides children with background information that enables them to deal with the text on various levels.

Reading aloud to children has long been advocated as a vital experience in literacy development both at home and in school. Clearly, storybook reading to young children plays an important role in literature-based instruction.

Literature-Based Instruction and Early Literacy Development

Studies indicate that there is a strong relationship between the use of literature in the classroom and the development of oral and written language. Children exposed to books early and often become aware that printed words have sounds, and they recognize that print carries meaning. For example, Reutzel, Oda, and Moore (1989) report the positive effects of literature-based programs on the print awareness and word-reading acquisition of kindergarten students. Researchers have demonstrated that both decoding and comprehension are enhanced from frequent pleasurable experiences with literature (Clay, 1976). In addition, some studies have found that students in a literature-based program were more strategic readers than those in a skills-based program (Dahl & Freppon, 1995).

Two quasi-experimental studies investigated the effects of a combination instructional approach consisting of equal time devoted to basals and to children’s literature, as compared to control groups that used basals only. In a study conducted by Morrow (1992), second-grade classrooms were randomly assigned to one of three groups:

  1. A literature-based reading and writing program that included literacy centers, teacher-directed literacy activities, and independent reading and writing periods
  2. An identical group to the one described above, except for the addition of a component in which parents supported the literacy activities at home
  3. A control group that used a basal-only program

The results of the study revealed that the performance of students in the two literature treatment conditions was statistically superior to that of students in the control group on measures of story retelling, story rewriting, and writing original stories.

Baumann and Ivey (1997) conducted a year-long qualitative case study to explore what second-grade students learned about reading, writing, and literature in a program of strategy instruction integrated within a literature-based classroom environment. A content analysis of the data resources -- including individual student and parent interviews, videotapes of regular classroom literacy activities, artifacts of students’ reading and writing, assessments of students’ literacy learning, and the teacher’s daily plan book -- revealed that students grew in overall reading performance and came to view reading as a natural component of the school experience. The students demonstrated high levels of engagement with books; developed skill in word identification, fluency, and comprehension; and grew in written-composition abilities. This qualitative study provides support for the efficacy of teaching students reading and language arts strategies within a literature-based framework.

Overall, although few studies compare literature-based instruction with skills-based instruction or other instructional models, investigations of the use of literature in reading programs have demonstrated positive effects on students’ literacy development.

The Role of Expository Text

According to Wells (1986), knowledge of the components of both narrative and expository text is part of being fully literate. A number of scholars have challenged the predominance of narrative text in early childhood classrooms (Kamil & Lane, 1997; Moss, Leone, & Dipillo, 1997; Newkirk, 1989; Pappas, 1991). These scholars argue for increased exposure and use of expository text in primary-grade classrooms.

Research has documented that even young children are familiar with the structure of narrative text (Egan, 1993; Moffett, 1968; Stein & Glenn, 1979; Whaley, 1981). On the other hand, evidence suggests that many children lack an understanding of expository text structure (McGee, 1982; Taylor, 1980). Some scholars have suggested that the problem lies in children’s lack of experience with expository text (Caswell & Duke, 1998; Kamil & Lane, 1997, Pappas, 1991), and a recent study by Duke (1998) provides empirical confirmation of the scarcity of informational text in the early grades.

While there are a number of possible explanations for the lack of access to expository text in the primary grades, one of the most frequently cited is that these texts are too difficult for young children. However, a number of recent studies suggest that young children profit from exposure to expository text. Pappas (1993) conducted a study that explored kindergarten children’s understanding of informational text. On several occasions the children were asked to “read” an informational text that had just been read aloud to them. The children increasingly employed linguistic features of information-book language, providing evidence of their tacit understanding of expository text structure. In a study of first-graders’ interactions with oral and written expository texts, Hicks (1995) found that the children were able to respond to and learn from these texts in sophisticated ways. Donovan (1996) explored first-graders responses to narrative and expository texts and found that they were able to identify and distinguish between the two types of text in terms of a number of features.

Duke and Kays (1998) examined what young children know and can learn about expository text. The results of this study documented that, four months into the school year, the children’s pretend readings of unfamiliar wordless expository text contained far greater use of key features of expository book language as compared to pretend readings at the beginning of the year. According to these researchers, “inattention to expository texts in early childhood settings cannot be justified on the basis that children are unable to interact productively with these texts” (p. 314).

The findings of these studies suggest that young children can learn about and from expository text and that exposure to expository text results in fast-developing knowledge of expository text structure and book language. In addition, it appears that inclusion of such texts in literature-based instruction may be well advised.

Motivation to Read

An important component of any literacy program is promoting positive attitudes toward reading to instill in children a lifelong reading habit. Early investigations on promoting interest in books and the use of literature in the classroom were mainly anecdotal and indicated that literature-based programs may enhance students’ enthusiasm and foster positive attitudes toward books. Some researchers found that when classrooms are filled with trade books and teachers encourage free reading, there is an improvement in children’s reading achievement, gains in vocabulary and comprehension, increased reading, and better attitudes toward reading (Elley & Mangubhai, 1983; Fielding, Wilson, & Anderson, 1989). Morrow and Weinstein (1982, 1986) found that literature use increased dramatically when teachers incorporated enjoyable literature activities into the daily program, when library centers were created in the classrooms, and when recreational reading periods were scheduled on a regular basis.

Empirical research by Morrow (1992) and Morrow and Weinstein (1982, 1986) suggests specific activities in recreational reading programs in preschool through third-grade classrooms that increase children’s interest in literature. The results of these studies indicate that daily reading to children is a practice of utmost importance. Storytelling by teachers and use of storytelling props, such as felt boards, puppets, and taped stories, all were found to be valuable in creating interest in books. (When props were used to tell stories, the actual storybooks were available for the children to use afterward.) Discussions that focus on interpretive and critical issues within the stories also serve to heighten interest in books. In addition, using literature related to content area topics correlates positively with children’s increased use of literature, as does regular time set aside specifically for voluntary reading.

More recent findings concerning the effects of literature-based instruction on children’s attitudes toward reading have been mixed. Some studies have found no difference between basal reading instruction and literature-based instruction on measures of children’s attitudes (McKenna, Kear, & Ellsworth, 1995; McKenna, Stratton, Grindler, & Jenkins, 1995). No studies were found that demonstrate that basal reading instruction improved attitude toward reading more than literature-based instruction. However, several studies using a range of quantitative and qualitative methodologies have revealed that literature-based programs positively affect children’s attitudes toward reading (Goatley, Brock, & Raphael, 1995; Goatley & Raphael, 1992) and frequency of reading (Dahl & Freppon, 1995; Stewart, Paradis, Ross, & Lewis, 1996). Gambrell, Palmer, and Coding (1993) found that children want to read more often when they are able to choose what they will read, have the opportunity to interact with others to discuss what they have read, and feel successful about reading.

Clearly, the inclusion of literature-based instruction in early children’s literacy programs is a common thread throughout these documents. The materials examined support the use of literature for joy and creation of habit and fluency in early childhood programs. The next step is to conduct studies to determine whether developmentally appropriate practices (DAPs) and standards, with their emphasis on literature-based instruction, have enhanced children’s interest in books, joy of reading, and reading achievement. Research indicates that literature-based instruction can have a positive effect on attitudes toward reading. However, there is much that is yet to be explored with respect to the effects of instructional materials and approaches on literacy motivation.

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Concluding Remarks

As evidenced in the research reviewed, reading instruction at the early childhood level has shifted dramatically during the past 15 years to an increased emphasis on literature-based instruction. Although some researchers question the appropriateness of using quality children’s literature to teach reading, an increasing number of studies provide data that support literature-based instruction.

If literature-based programs are to be implemented, there are some clear implications for practice. Professional development opportunities are necessary for developing the knowledge of literature required for effective practice. Teachers’ knowledge of quality children’s literature is basic to the success of a literature-based program. Also, early childhood classrooms should be equipped with libraries that have an abundance of print-rich materials of all genres and types. With these practices in place, and with continued research in the area, literature-based instruction appears to hold promise for early literacy development.

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About the Authors

photo of Linda Gambrell Linda Gambrell’s current interests are in the areas of reading comprehension strategy instruction, literacy motivation, and the role of discussion in teaching and learning. She is a professor and director of the School of Education at Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, USA. Previously she was associate dean for research in the College of Education at the University of Maryland, where she taught graduate and undergraduate reading and language courses. She began her career as an elementary classroom teacher and reading specialist in Prince George’s County, Maryland. She has coauthored books on reading instruction and written numerous journal articles. Contact her by e-mail at Lgamb@clemson.edu.
photo of Lesley Mandel Morrow Lesley Mandel Morrow is a professor at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, where she chairs the Department of Learning and Teaching. Her research focuses on early literacy development. She is widely published in professional journals, including The Reading Teacher and Reading Research Quarterly, and has authored numerous books and book chapters. Her most recent publication is the fourth edition of her Literacy Development in the Early Years (Allyn & Bacon, 2001). She is vice-president of the International Reading Association and has received IRA’s Outstanding Teacher Educator in Reading Award as well as Rutgers University awards for research, teaching, and service.
photo of Christina Pennington Christina Pennington is a doctoral candidate and graduate assistant in the School of Education at Clemson University. Her current interest is the use of adolescent literature in the classroom.

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Citation: Gambrell, L.B., Morrow, L.M., & Pennington, C. (2002, February). Early childhood and elementary literature-based instruction: Current perspectives and special issues. Reading Online, 5(6). Available: http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=handbook/gambrell/index.html




Reading Online, www.readingonline.org
Posted February 2002
© 2002 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232