The Role of Literature in Language Arts Teaching and Learning: Developing Literary Understanding

A child reading in Brookline Booksmith, an independent bookstore in Boston, Massachusetts.
A child reading in Brookline Booksmith, an independent bookstore in Boston, Massachusetts.

Notes from my ED-LTCY 346 class this semester, Fall 2014 at Boise State University.

Children’s literature is the foundation for a rich and effective language arts program. Children’s literature motivates readers, provides them with invaluable language experience and offers them opportunities to learn about themselves and the world. Effective teachers create classroom libraries that support their whole curriculum.

With a firm  understanding of  a child’s abilities, needs, and interests, future teachers are better prepared to engage individual children and help them develop literary skills. This is the best way for  teachers to foster a lifelong love of reading.

This discussion describes the benefits of a literature-based language arts program, how to build a literature collection, structuring the language arts program by reading aloud, guided reading, independent reading, shared reading and literacy study. As children explore literature through studying the author’s craft, studying a particular author or exploring themes, they continue to have powerful language experiences that help them develop as readers, writers and critical thinkers.

Reading, talking, writing, and drawing about books are the ways in which students learn about literature. Earlier, we presented ideas about looking closely at an author’s works, exploring themes found in literature, and studying the art of writing as examples of ways in which teachers help students learn about literature. Here we add to those ideas by introducing genre study, to which we will return to when we discuss writing across the genres.

 Why is it important to help students understand how literature works? Learning about literature is like learning about mathematics, or any other curriculum area. Literature is an art form worthy of study. Understanding how literature works allows readers full access to the “family of stories” (Family of Stories Anthology of Children’s Literature; Moss and Stott, 1986). This, in turn, makes them more effective readers and writers, able to recognize and appreciate techniques, structures, and artistic representations they encounter in print. At the same time,learning how literature works helps students become more skilled readers and writers. Knowing how a text works enhances both fluency and comprehension, and knowing options for expressing oneself  in print increases one’s options as a writer.
Understanding genre distinctions and conventions, for example, helps student to realize the breadth of reading material available to them, to learn to recognize the hallmarks of excellence,and to understand how genre conventions both support and constrain writers.

The major content-based genres of children’s literature are: poetry, folklore, fantasy, science fiction, contemporary realistic fiction, historical fiction, biography, and nonfiction. Wthin these eight genres, many other distinctions can be made. Mysteries, for example, are a “subgenre” that contain the conventions of a mystery story, but they may be fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, or historical fiction as well. The same is true for other subgenres such as animal stories, romances, sports stories,and adventure stories. Picture books, a genre based on format in which illustrations have an equal or greater importance in the conveying of meaning as does the text, also appear within all of the eight major genres. Thus, you can approach genre in many different ways, depending on the decisions you make about what you students are interested in, what they already know, and what they need to know.

According to Barbara E. Travers and John F. Travers in Childrens Literature: A Developmental Perspective:

From preschool through high school, young people read whatever genre excites them, and it’s not unusual to find a middle school student devouring the information embedded in Steve Jenkins’ Hottest Coldest Highest Deepest. Even though it’s a picture book, it’s filled with curious facts that children of this age are anxious to explore. An intermediate school child may be fascinated listening to the traditional tale Sundiata as retold by David Wisniewski. Initially, he may be attracted to the book because it is about a lion king, but then he is motivated to continue listening because of the dramatic manner in which Wisniewski presents Sundiata’s strength in overcoming adversity and his courage in facing the enemy. Introducing children to all genres widens their interests and increases their knowledge.


“The secret of selecting the appropriate book for a child is not only the knowledge that teachers, librarians, and parents have about children’s literature, but also what they know about the developmental level of each child they are serving,” Travers and Travers say.

What is the child like? Is she in the middle years, active, curious, and com-petitive? Is he just learning to walk and talk, and is fascinated by sounds and colors? Is the child a dreamer who likes to create her own stories or spend hours building with blocks? What is the child’s cultural background? Has the child had any major traumatic experiences? The secret to leading a child to the right book is not only knowing the books but also knowing the child. Only then can goodness-of- fit be achieved.  In our work, goodness-of-fit refers to the match between a child’s developmental level and appropriate literature and is based on the concept originally developed by the child psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas ( 1987, 1999). It’s a term we use throughout this text. Consequently, the traditional genres ( categories) of children’s literature become more meaningful when viewed through a developmental lens. We believe that understanding development provides teachers, librarians, and parents with a necessary depth of knowledge for selecting appropriate books for children. We also believe that grasping the range and application of develop-mental data provides insights into the problems and triumphs of the children depicted in the literature. In this way, teachers can assist young readers, as well as those in middle and high school, in understanding experiences that they have had or may later encounter in their own lives.

 The authors believe:
that combining developmental knowledge with genres is the key to organizing children’s literature as we enter the twenty- first century. By recog-nizing the characteristics of a specific genre ( biography or historical fiction, for ex-ample), we detect the major elements that make one book different from another. Often teachers and librarians urge children to select different genres to develop a specific theme. While studying Boston and its role in the American Revolution in social studies, children might read Jean Fritz’s biography And Then What Hap-pened, Paul Revere?; and historical fiction such as Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, about Paul Revere’s apprentice; or Ann Rinaldi’s The Fifth of March, an exciting story of the Boston Massacre. Poetry, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, could be read aloud, while the picture book Boston Then and Now, about fifty- nine historic sites photographed by Peter Vanderwarker, and the informational book Boston: The Way It Was, by Lorie Conway, are avail-able for students to complete their research.

As I mentioned, I have done extensive research with my mother, who adds:

In a truly balanced literacy program, how you teach is as important as what you teach. That’s one of the conclusions my network of teachers, administrators, and curriculum supervisors has reached.Like most educators today, we’ve been changing our practices to reflect new knowledge about learning and teaching. Our students are reading more, writing more, and learning through themes. Yet we share a mixed bag of excitement and uneasiness — excitement about the learning taking place in our classrooms every day, and uneasiness about the public perception that schools are not as good as they used to be, especially when it comes to teaching reading. We wonder: How can we maintain the good practices of the past without ignoring current evidence about how children learn? Have we gone too far in one direction? What we’re searching for, then, is balance, and in that search, concerns common to all teachers have surfaced. In this article, I focus on some of them — and how we have found middle ground.

Teaching Basic Skills

“Teaching phonics with literature seems so hit or miss. What about a correct sequence of skills?”

Apply the thinking behind good textbooks to trade books. It’s true that some sound-letter patterns are more consistent than others and, therefore, are better to teach early. For example, we know consonants are more consistent than vowels. We also know that certain consonants (such as j, m, r, and v) are more consistent than others. Most teachers and developers of core programs start with those more reliable sound-letter patterns, and you can do the same using literature. As a result, you move students from easy to hard, from the known to the unknown.

“I’d like to teach phonics using trade books, but I worry about abusing the literature.”

Include some literature that naturally lends itself to language study — specifically, stories that contain repetitious language or language patterns, such as Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Start by sharing the literature for its content and overall language qualities, with the intention of going back to look at some aspect of the words more carefully. You might ask, “Have you noticed that there are a number of words in this story that begin the same way? Let’s take a look.” After a while the children will initiate the process independently. Consider other types of whole texts as well, such as brief notes, shopping lists, and even traffic signs. These offer opportunites to anchor phonics in something real.

“Many parents want grammar taught ‘the old-fashioned way.’ What can I tell them?”

Use a whole-part-whole approach. Studies indicate that teaching grammar in isolation has little effect on students’ oral and written language. Start by immersing students in real examples of whatever it is you want to teach. Talk about those passages, guiding students toward recognizing the aspects of language under study. Notice, for example, how the poet uses adjectival phrases to create pictures, or how the novelist conveys action through verbs. Introduce grammar terms and rules during the discussion. Also, encourage students to relate terms and rules to their own writing.

“My administrators want me to return to traditional spelling lists.”

Develop lists inspired by other components of your language arts program. For example, you might select a particular aspect of language to study, such as vowel generalization, inflectional endings, root words, or word families, and choose examples for spelling lists. Words connected to a thematic unit are another option, but choose ones that are appropriate and useful. You can also use misspelled words from the children’s writing. After all, teachers who look for patterns in errors across the work of individuals and groups, and respond with beneficial instruction, are more likely to make an impact on children’s spelling development.

Read the full article: Balanced Literacy Practical strategies to help you build a truly balanced classroom literacy program, by Dorothy Strickland.



1. How can you help a child become an avid reader?

2. Give three reasons why literature is the best material for learning to read.

3. Where can teachers get help in choosing books for use in their classrooms?

 4. What determines the books teachers select for their classrooms?

5. Explain why it is important for students to have the opportunity to share what they have read.

6. Include the importance to both the person who is sharing and the one(s) who is listening.



The benefits of literature-based language arts curriculum Building a literature collection
  1. Selecting children’s books
  2. Evaluating children’s books
  3. Evaluating stories
  4. Evaluating picture books
  5. Evaluating nonfiction
  6. Organizing the classroom library

Structuring the language arts program

  1. Reading aloud
  2. Selecting books for reading aloud
  3. Scheduling and conducting read-aloud sessions
  4. Guided reading
  5. Independent reading
  6. Shared reading
  7. Whole class shared reading
  8. Small group shared reading
  9. Literary study
  10. Studying the art of writing
  11. Studying an author
  12. Exploring themes


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