In order to establish how the effective teaching of non-fiction texts can be implemented, I need to verify their importance in the context of the primary school. Meek (1996), argues that: “In a literate society crammed with print, many school leavers have unused competences, and a particular kind of powerlessness, because they have not been encouraged to see that they can produce consequential information from their own ideas and experience.” P.13
The use of non-fiction texts in schools is important so that children can develop their ideas and stimulate learning. These texts offer children the chance to experience a variety of genres, not just narrative that is often associated with fiction texts. Children need to become literate in every genre of text, in order to be literate in their society. With this competence comes a sense of empowerment. As Meek (1996) writes: “It is an increase in our confidence that we have sorted something out.” P.13
It can help children to develop opinions and appreciate a range of viewpoints, and go on to enrich reading and writing. The more children read, the more they will improve and offering access to non-fiction texts will develop reading competence in a number of different genres. Aside from the educational benefits that these texts have to offer comes the need for them for enjoyment. Books have long been categorised into two sections, namely fiction and non-fiction and there is perhaps the assumption that children will always opt for fiction as opposed to non-fiction. Meek (1996) attacks both of these claims, stating that categorisation is not important for young readers:
“Children do not need to distinguish between categories of fiction and non-fiction. They find facts in both.” P.24 She goes on to add: “Stories nest in every kind of text, especially in the running narrative in our heads where we explain things to ourselves.” P.25 With this in mind, it must be clear that when I talk about non-fiction I am not ruling out the genre of story. By non-fiction I mean any text that informs children about facts, even if that is by means of story telling, as quite often is the case with information books written for young children. I have outlined some reasons why I believe that the teaching of non-fiction texts is important. I will now go on to look at genre theory and the EXIT model, followed by the process I would use to approach the teaching of these texts in order to develop reading and writing skills. The stages I explain have been informed by my own experiences and reading around the subject.
There has been a lot of speculation surrounding genre theory and its use in the school. The theories derive from Australia by the work of a man called Michael Halliday. The question that the theory prompts me to ask is should we be teaching children to write or is it something they just learn to do? Genre theory can be defined as: “A theoretical explanation concerning the generation of texts to fulfill specific, social purposes, for particular audiences, and the consequent need to adhere to the appropriate forms.” Riley & Reedy, p.17
I have established that information books have an important place in the school, because they offer children access to a number of genres. In relation to the genre theory, these texts serve to help children progress in the reading and writing of these particular genres. But it is how this theory is being applied in the classroom that worries a lot of its critics. Barrs draws our attention to the view of teaching and learning by the linguists that work on genre:
“The children’s texts quoted in their books and papers are often viewed as failed adult texts, rather than transitional forms of writing.” P.11 This problem is occurring because the focus of their assessment is preoccupied with classifying the text into a set genre. If a piece of writing doesn’t appear to fit into a category, then it is a failed piece of writing. No attention is given to the ideas and meaning behind the writing, which could be argued by some to be of prime significance.
I feel it is important that children are encouraged to look at what Barrs calls the ‘big shapes’ in texts, and that is what genre theory sets out to emphasise. However, at the same time, the potential for its misuse must be considered. The significance of focusing attention onto the detail of genre needs to be balanced against the meaning that the learner is making through the information that they have gathered. In conclusion, Barrs writes that: “If we can broaden out the ‘genre debate’ and look at genre in a more exploratory and constructive way, we shall be able to consider how genre fits into children’s learning of written language, how children’s use of written genre develops, what the influences on this development are, and what this developing use of genres reveals about the relationship between language and learning.” P. 16
I have looked at the importance of letting children experience a range of different genres in order to enrich their reading and writing. The EXIT model (Extending Interactions with Text) devised by David Wray and Maureen Lewis in 1997 offers a means by which to organise interactions with texts into stages. Prior to the Exit Model, Wray (1997) described the information process by putting it into six stages – defining, locating, selecting, organising, evaluating and communicating. Meek (1996) attacks the process, writing: “Within it, the teacher’s view of learning and the learner’s view of knowing become of less importance than instructions about how the text is to be ‘tackled’.” P.19