Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 3

Do Caterpillars Eat Cake?

Some informational picture books mix fact with fantasy. Here's how teachers can help young readers keep the information straight.

Over the last decade, there's been considerable interest in using informational picture books to both strengthen language arts and support instruction in content areas like social studies and science (Roser & Keehn, 2002)—an approach now formalized in the Common Core State Standards. From a language arts point of view, using appropriate informational texts broadens children's literacy experiences, builds sophisticated vocabulary, and increases familiarity with textual conventions (Hall, Sabey, & McClellan, 2005). From a content-area perspective, such texts can facilitate discussions on discipline-specific topics, support student investigations, and teach students about phenomena and events they can't directly experience (Ford, 2006).
These benefits are not automatic, however. They depend on the quality and appropriateness of the books used.
With an ever-growing number of informational children's books, how can teachers choose texts that are relevant to their curriculum and their students—and use the books appropriately to meet their instructional goals? Considering three criteria can help.

Criterion 1: The Book Genre Continuum

An important step in evaluating a text's appropriateness for instruction is knowing where it falls on a continuum that ranges from pure fiction and fantasy on one end to informational and nonfiction texts on the other. Figure 1 shows this continuum using children's books about dinosaurs.


At one end of the continuum are fictional storybooks—such as Lisa Wheeler's Dino-Baseball (Carolrhoda Books, 2010)—which include fanciful elements (dinosaurs as players in a baseball game) within a predictable plot intended to entertain the reader. At the opposite end are informational books—such as Angela Wilkes's The Big Book of Dinosaurs (DK Publishing, 1994)—which provide factual knowledge about the topic (dinosaur types, characteristics, and habits) and include structures such as description, comparisons, classification, cause-and-effect relationships, and if/then statements (Duke & Kays, 1998).
In between the extremes are hybrid, dual-purpose books, which weave story elements and information into a narrative format (Donovan & Smolkin, 2001). Arguments that storied texts are instrumental to comprehension (Leal, 1994) have fueled the popularity of these texts for content-area instruction. Many such texts are included in the annual National Science Teachers Association's Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12 (2013) and the National Council for the Social Studies' Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People (2013).
Some dual-purpose books include a mixture of fact and fantasy. For example, Martin Schwabacher's The Magic School Bus Flies with the Dinosaurs (Scholastic, 2005) places science facts within a fantastical scenario in which students and their teacher are transported back in time to learn about dinosaurs.
Unlike texts that blend fantasy with science facts, other dual-purpose books—such as Aliki's My Visit to the Dinosaurs (HarperCollins, 1985)—are based on a realistic narrative (a child visits the museum with his family to learn about dinosaurs) that provides factual information as the story unfolds. Here, science facts are embedded in a plausible story that children can easily follow and identify with.

Criterion 2: Quality and Accuracy of Content

Is the Difference Between Fact and Fiction Clear?

Beliefs that children learn best when facts are embedded in storied forms are countered by evidence that, after listening to hybrid texts, children create knowledge that blends facts with realistic but inaccurate information (for example, whales live in ponds, caterpillars eat cake) (Brabham, Boyd, & Edgington, 2010; Mayer, 1995).
Because young children have neither the background knowledge nor the cognitive skills to evaluate the accuracy of a text's information, teachers play an important role. By including a variety of text genres on a topic, teachers create opportunities for children to discuss, evaluate, and reason about factual and fictional content.
For instance, teachers can pair Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Philomel, 1986) with both dual-purpose and purely informational children's books about the life cycle of the butterfly. An excellent companion is the award-winning, dual-purpose text From Caterpillar to Butterfly (Heiligman, 1996). This book provides factual information about the butterfly's life cycle within a narrative plot about how a group of school children learn about metamorphosis as they watch the growth of a caterpillar that comes to their classroom in a jar. Other excellent companions are purely informational texts, such as Angela Royston's Life Cycle of a Butterfly (Heinemann, 2009); Louise Spilbury's Butterfly (Heinemann, 2005); and Gail Gibbon's Monarch Butterfly (Holiday House, 1989); as well as more general books about life cycles, such as Nisha Da Silva's Life Cycles of Animals (National Geographic School Publishing, 2001), or about insects, such as Robin Bernard's Insects (National Geographic Society, 2000).

Is the Information Accurate?

An important characteristic of effective texts is clearly recognizable, accessible, and up-to-date topic knowledge (National Science Teachers Association, 2013). Unfortunately, even books that claim to be purely informational sometimes lack explanatory information, use incorrect terminology, or don't address discipline-specific processes (Norris et al., 2008; Schroeder, McKeough, Graham, Stock, & Bisanz, 2009). Moreover, science trade books appropriate for the early grades often portray science as a collection of unchangeable facts that shouldn't be questioned.
However, facts alone are insufficient for students to develop understandings about the nature and practice of science and its role in society. Learning facts needs to be accompanied with an understanding that current information is always subject to revision through ongoing processes of questioning and investigating and that sometimes new discoveries lead to major revisions in knowledge. This is portrayed in Donna Pitino's Amazing Scientists (Abrams, 2007), where we learn that Galileo's improvements to telescopes provided evidence that the sun does not revolve around the Earth, as was believed at the time, and that as a result of this discovery, instead of being celebrated, Galileo was arrested and punished.

Are Concepts Oversimplified?

Oversimplifying concepts is another frequent shortcoming in informational texts for young children (Norris et al., 2008). Consider the statement "plants need food," accompanied by a picture of a plant with its roots shown underground. There's nothing incorrect here. However, the simple picture and accompanying text may encourage the common misconception that plants absorb food from the soil. When teachers are aware of the potential for misconceptions, they're in a better position to address what children already know and to introduce new concepts—for example, the idea that plants use the sun's energy to absorb nutrients, water, and carbon dioxide to produce food.

Criterion 3: Quality of Illustrations

Are They Realistic?

Photographs or high-quality drawings of people, animals, and events—for example, relative sizes and realistic colors and environments—improve comprehension, compared with cartoon figures or caricatures. Illustrations that portray specific processes or facts described in the text help readers represent the information mentally and make better inferences (Tare, Chiong, Ganea, & DeLoache, 2010). Realism also facilitates children's transfer of information from the text to new situations. The more realistic the book's pictures, the greater the transfer is (Richert & Smith, 2011).

Are They Equitable?

Recent studies of images in children's informational science books have shown that there are few images of women scientists and even fewer of racially diverse individuals (Ford, 2006; Neutze, 2008). Eighty-eight percent of the people shown in the Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students in K–12 collections from 1973 to 2005 are white (Neutze, 2008). The scientists depicted are usually white males (Ford, 2006); and individuals with disabilities are rarely included (Brenna, 2008). This omission reinforces stereotypes that individuals of diverse races or with special needs cannot be scientists.
On the positive side, images of science settings and methods, such as observing and gathering data, are now more diverse. This is a move away from past images that showed science as a solitary laboratory activity (Neutze, 2008). However, other aspects of science continue to be depicted narrowly. It's usually shown to be a step-by-step activity conducted by scientists who appear emotionless. Images rarely show scientists' curiosity, excitement, uncertainty, regret, or skepticism (Ford, 2006).

The Teacher's Role

Choose Books for Their Big Ideas

Instruction in specific content areas, including the books students read in these areas, should represent the foundational ideas in each discipline (Brophy & Alleman, 2009). Therefore, children might read an informational book about spiders because they're learning about how different animals' body structures and functions are related to their diet and habitat—not because they're learning about the letter S.
That's not to say that teachers shouldn't make connections with content in other areas of the curriculum. They should: "Oh, everyone, look at this! S is our letter of the week, and the word spider starts with S." Our point is that teachers should choose informational books for content-area instruction in ways that support students who are learning central aspects of that content area.

Have Students Focus on the Science

Teachers need to ensure that when students read a book about a science concept, the discussion focuses on that aspect of science and incorporates scientific language. Discussants might use such terminology as habitat or prediction or reveal the focus on evidence by asking, "How do you know?" This approach contrasts with the predominant practice of having students share personal stories about their experiences, which may relate to some part of the book but don't refer to the scientific information (Norris et al., 2008).
For example, if students are reading Donna Marie (Pitino) Merritt's Playground Science (Abrams, 2006), a valuable classroom discussion about a teeter-totter being a lever could touch on other everyday objects that are levers (such as a shovel or a wrench) and talk about force, a central idea in physical science. However, if the discussion mainly focuses on the playground equipment children like to play on most, the teacher loses the opportunity to support science content.

Address Insufficiencies in the Text

Young children view adults as reliable experts, and they believe the information adults share (Corriveau & Harris, 2009). This even holds true for college-age students, who think that information must be correct because they heard it from their teacher (Rice, 2002). For example, if a teacher introduces Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Philomel, 1986) while teaching young children about the metamorphosis of butterflies, students may think all the information in the book is factual, even if it isn't.
Therefore, it's important for the teacher to address insufficiencies in content. This doesn't mean that teachers can't use hybrid or fiction texts for instructional purposes but, rather, that they may need to supplement them with more targeted instruction. They may select a combination of purely fictional and purely informational texts on a topic to promote awareness of different genres and address misconceptions by engaging students in reasoning about the texts' accurate and inaccurate content.
Another way of addressing insufficiencies in a text is by extending information beyond what the text presents or laying the foundation for new concepts to build on later. For example, during a lesson on plant reproduction, the teacher might mention that there are both male and female plants. Although the students may not immediately understand that plants have genders, they now have an opportunity to begin creating a foundational concept—that "plants come in different types and that reproduction is somehow relevant" (Gelman, 2009, p. 119)—that can be elaborated on over time.

An Instructional Fit

When considering informational texts for younger students, teachers must always be guided by indicators of accuracy and quality. Informational books should also be a good instructional fit. Teachers might ask themselves the following questions: Do the books address big ideas that are part of the curriculum and students' typical experiences? Do they connect with previous lessons and with other texts in the curriculum? Do they present opportunities to address important knowledge that's not part of students' everyday experience—such as an oil spill's effect on the environment?
Finally, because quality is not "strictly … an inherent characteristic of a book, but … something that is defined through interaction with readers" (Teale, 2003, p. 126), trying a book out with students can help teachers determine the informational texts that are the most appropriate for their students and curriculum.

Brabham, E., Boyd, P., & Edgington, W. D. (2010). Sorting it out. Reading Research and Instruction, 39(4), 265–290.

Brenna, B. (2008). Breaking stereotypes with children's fiction. International Journal of Special Education, 23(1), 100–102.

Brophy, J., & Alleman, J. (2009). Meaningful social studies for elementary students. Teachers and Teaching Theory and Practice, 15(3), 357–376.

Corriveau, K., & Harris, P. (2009). Choosing your informant. Developmental Science, 12(3), 426–437.

Donovan, C. A., & Smolkin, L. B. (2001). Genre and other factors influencing teachers' book selections for science instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 36(4), 412–440.

Duke, N. K., & Kays, N. (1998). "Can I say 'once upon a time?'?" Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 13(2), 205–318.

Ford, D. J. (2006). Representations of science within children's trade books. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 43(2), 214–235.

Gelman, S. A. (2009). Learning from others. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 115–140.

Hall, K. M., Sabey, B. L., & McClellan, M. (2005). Expository text comprehension. Reading Psychology, 26(3), 211–234.

Leal, D. J. (1994). A comparison of third–grade children's listening comprehension of scientific information using an information book and an informational storybook. In C. K. Kinzer & D. J. Leu (Eds.), Multidimensional aspects of literacy research, theory, and practice (pp.137–145). Chicago, IL: Forty-third yearbook of the National Reading Conference.

Mayer, D. A. (1995). How can we best use literature in teaching? Science and Children, 32(6), 15–19, 43.

National Council for the Social Studies. (2013). Notable social studies trade books for young people. Silver Spring, MD: Author. Retrieved from www.socialstudies.org/notable

National Science Teachers Association. (2013). Outstanding science trade books for students K–12: 2013. Arlington, VA: Author. Retrieved from www.nsta.org/publications/ostb/ostb2013.aspx

Neutze, D. L. (2008). Picturing science. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Norris, S. P., Phillips, L. M., Smith, M. L., Guilbert, S. M., Stange, D. M., Baker, J. J., et al. (2008). Learning to read scientific text. Science Education, 92(5), 765–798.

Rice, D. C. (2002). Using trade books in teaching elementary science. The Reading Teacher, 55(6), 552–565.

Richert, R. A., & Smith, E. I. (2011). Preschoolers' quarantining of fantasy stories. Child Development, 82(4), 1106–1119.

Roser, N. I., & Keehn, S. (2002). Fostering thought, talk, and inquiry. The Reading Teacher, 55(5), 416–426.

Schroeder, M., McKeough, A., Graham, S., Stock, H., & Bisanz, G. (2009). The contribution of trade books to early science literacy. Research in Science Education, 39(2), 231–250.

Tare, M., Chiong, C., Ganea, P., & DeLoache, J. (2010). Less is more. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31(5), 395–400.

Teale, W. H. (2003). Reading aloud to young children as a classroom instructional activity. In A. van Kleeck, S. A. Stahl, & E. B. Bauer (Eds.), On reading books to children (pp. 114–139). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 114020.jpg
Tackling Informational Text
Go To Publication