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11 Mar 2014

What Differences in Narrative and Informational Texts Mean for the Learning and Instruction of Vocabulary

Elfrieda H. Hiebert & Gina N. Cervetti

Book Chapter

Hiebert, E.H., & Cervetti, G.N. (2012). What Differences in Narrative and Informational Texts Mean for the Learning and Instruction of Vocabulary.  In J. Baumann and E. Kame’enui (Eds.), Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (2nd Ed.).  (pp.322-344). New York, NY:  Guilford Press.


We begin with four statements about influences on vocabulary instruction in schools. First, vocabulary is central to the comprehension of text (Davis, 1942; Thorndike, 1973). Second, the vocabularies of students when they enter school vary substantially (Hart & Risley, 1995). Third, the number of words in English is huge (Leech, Rayson, & Wilson, 2001). And, fourth, the amount of time in schools is limited (Fisher, Berliner, Filby, Marliave, Cahen, & Dishaw, 1980). All of these features combine to create a challenging situation for educators who aim to select vocabulary strategically in order to lessen the gap between the haves and the have-nots (Nagy & Hiebert, 2010).  

Unfortunately, it appears that the choices made in schools regarding vocabulary are often not strategic. In elementary schools, large blocks of time are devoted to reading/language arts instruction where, despite claims of increased access to informational texts, a narrative stance has continued to direct the selection of vocabulary and the form of vocabulary instruction (Norris, Phillips, Smith, Baker, & Weber, 2008). Whether the text is an informational or narrative one, teachers’ guides of core reading programs recommend instruction of a handful of words. Typically, these words are treated in a similar manner—each is defined, discussed, and read in the context of a sentence from the text. Usually, the words are unrelated to one another but have been selected because of their perceived importance to the story content.  

Such a perspective fails to recognize the differences in the vocabularies of narrative and informational texts. Typically, the registers of oral and written language are recognized as unique but these differences pale relative to differences in the features of narrative and informational genres. Through multidimensional analyses of spoken and written language samples, Biber (1988) concluded that particular types of speech and writing are more or less similar with respect to different dimensions. For example, a presentation or discussion at a meeting of a scientific society, while oral in nature, will vary considerably from a conversation between two friends over dinner. The vocabulary of a novel that includes substantial amounts of dialogue may have more in common with the dinner conversation than with a scientific report.  

In this chapter, we examine the differences between the target vocabularies of an English/language arts (ELA) program that is dominated by narrative texts and a science program with informational texts. Our goal in this chapter is to accomplish three purposes: (a) review what is known about the differences in the vocabularies of unique words in informational and narrative texts, (b) examine these differences in an analysis of the words from an ELA and science program, and (c) present suggestions as to what differences in the vocabulary of different text types mean for instruction.