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It’s Not Just Informational Text That Supports Knowledge Acquisition: The Critical Role of Narrative Text in the Common Core State Standards

Posted by Elfrieda H. Hiebert on 12 September 2012

Elfrieda H. Hiebert
TextProject & University of California, Santa Cruz

Acquiring knowledge is the raison d’etre of the Common Core. In the digital-global world, the “haves” are the ones who have knowledge and know how to acquire more knowledge. When you know something, you can build on this knowledge and in this way knowledge grows. Knowledge begets knowledge. The “have nots” are the ones who depend on others to filter their knowledge through talk radio, television shows, and conversation.

Reading is a critical component in knowledge acquisition since much of knowledge is recorded in texts. True, there are now video clips of momentous world events and there are numerous films and videos of almost any topic. But, at least with noteworthy films, all began as scripts and, to identify video clips, information is needed to locate them—information in the form of texts.

When it comes to content area texts, the nature of knowledge is clear. If a book is about horses or tree kangaroos, we expect to learn about these species. If we are using these books for instruction, we have extensive guidance from content-area specialists who have described the underlying ideas and the connections between ideas. We can learn about the world in more complex ways as a result of these content-area maps and curriculum guides.

But when it comes to narrative texts, we are often rudderless. We teach narrative from the standpoint of personal connections. When students read Birchbark House (Erdich, 2002), we emphasize students’ responses to how Omakayas felt when her baby brother died. When reading M.C. Higgins the Great (Hamilton, 1974/2006) we ask students about MC’s plans to get his family off the mountain. We do not ask students why the protagonists in these stories had the problems that they did.

We have not had content-oriented ELA curriculum equivalent to the curriculum of content areas. Evidence for this observation comes from a comparison of key vocabulary in Marzano’s (2004) inventory of terms from numerous standards documents in Table 1. The ELA vocabulary represents terms used to teach reading and writing, not the content of what is read or written. It is rare, for example, to read a story about a verb or capitalization. The words that would be expected to appear in stories—oppressive heat, anxiety, despair, embarrassment—all critical concepts to stories such as M.C. Higgins the Great and The Birchbark Tree—do not appear in the vocabulary within ELA standards documents.

Table 1
Vocabulary in Content Areas and ELA Standards (Marzano, 2004)
Content Area Sample Words
Civics abuse of power, campaign, elected representative, geographical representation, individual liberty, Labor Day, national origin, patriotism, school board, Uncle Sam, welfare
English Language Arts abbreviation, capitalization, e-mail, genre, illustration, learning log, paragraph, reading strategy, table, verb
Geography billboards, discovery, fall line, harbor, Japan, land clearing, national capital, Pacific rim, rain forest, technology, vegetation region
Mathematics addend, capacity, equation, gram, improbability, mass, obtuse angle, quotient, sample, unit conversion
Science bedrock, Earth's axis, gases, inherited characteristic, magnetic attraction, ocean currents, recycle, technology, water capacity

The content might not be stated explicitly within ELA standards documents but within genre of ELA programs, content is present and vibrant. Good literature addresses the themes of language, philosophy, psychology, history, and the arts. The underlying message is always there. Sometimes, those messages are not recognized in instruction when the surface level meaning is the focus. When Omakayas’s grief at losing her baby brother is likened to students’ contemporary contexts, the historical context of the story is lost. Omakayas’s situation reflected a larger societal change, as Europeans challenged the indigenous culture. M.C.’s coming of age is an important part of M.C. Higgins the Great but, similar to Omakayas’s situation, M.C.’s life is strongly influenced by cultural and historical events. Literature allows for examination of the influences of culture and history on individuals, not simply on our personal responses to texts. Guiding students in understanding how culture and history influences individual development and agency is part of the bigger picture.

I am not going to suggest that every single story has an underlying meaning that is profound and worthy of discussion. You could spend considerable time attempting to understand why Dan the flying man was flying in the predictable text, Dan the flying man (Cowley, 1990). But for most narratives—and definitely those of substance—simply asking students to express what characters are feeling or to find the main idea trivializes the text. The Common Core is about addressing the underlying knowledge in these texts.

Illustration how a text is treated within a Common Core classroom: Symphony of Whales

Let me illustrate how the multiple levels of meaning within a text can be the focus of knowledge acquisition with a text offered as part of a third-grade program in a Common Core edition of a core reading program: Symphony of Whales (Schuch, 2002). The synopsis of the story is given in Table 2.

Table 2
Synopsis of Symphony of Whales

The story centers around a young girl named Glashka in a village in the far north. The old ones in the village say that Glashka has a gift, which is to hear the song of the whale—Narna.

Glashka hears the song of Narna in a dream just before setting out on a trip to the next village. On the trip, the sled dogs pick up some eerie sounds that they follow. They find a bay full of a thousand beluga whales that are trapped because the ice has come earlier than usual. Glashka’s father says that there is no help—that when the last of the water freezes over, the whales will die.

Glashka’s mother remembers that an ice breaker had rescued a Russian freighter trapped in the ice several years before. They use an emergency radio to put out a distress call, which is picked up by a Russian icebreaker that radios back that it will come but the trip may take several weeks. The villagers need to keep the whales alive until then. The villagers and people from surrounding villages work at chipping back the edges of the ice, giving the whales room to come up to breathe.

Glashka sings to the whales when she works and she gives some of the fish from her lunch to the whales. Other villagers notice her doing that and they begin to feed their stored fish to the whales too.

Finally the icebreaker comes and makes a path through the ice. When the path has been made, the icebreaker turns around with the aim of guiding the whales to the sea. But the whales don’t follow the boat.

The ship’s captain plays recordings of the sounds of whales but that doesn’t work. Then Glashka has another dream and hears other music along with the sound of Narna. The villagers radio the ship and the crew play other music including rock and roll. None of it works and Glashka radios the ship to ask for other music. Finally, a recording of classical music is played and the whales begin to follow the boat.

Level 1: On the surface level, this is a story of a girl’s special gift and her tenacity. In some lessons around this text, helpfulness is emphasized. How was Glashka helpful? Have you ever been helpful? How did Glashka’s gift help to save the whales? Have you ever been in a situation like Glashka? But within a Common Core classroom, students’ interpretation of the story—even that of third graders—does not have to stop with these personalized questions. There are additional levels of meaning.

Level 2: The author has used Glashka and her magical gift to make the story palatable for children. Even within the current form of the story, there is evidence that there were numerous advocates for the whales other than a single child (i.e., Glashka). Close reading, as advocated by the CCSS writers, gets students to examine the text closely to find evidence that the event was a community effort. Everyone was involved. Students can be supported in doing a close reading of the text to determine the role of different groups in saving the whales.

Level 3: There is another layer to the story that some might call a backstory—it communicates the author’s interest in the sounds of whales. What might explain the author’s choice to have a character like Glashka who hears the sounds of Narna? A close reading can be done about the author to answer the question, “why did the author focus on Glashka’s ability to hear the sounds of Narna?” In the description of the author that accompanies this selection, the text indicates that he had been interested in whale sounds for a long time. In fact, before writing the story, Mr. Schuch recorded a composition where he plays his violin accompanied by whale sounds. That recording can be found on the Internet but it never received the publicity that Mr. Schuch’s book received. This is, in fact, Mr. Schuch’s only book to date.

Level 4: The final level of the text lies in the real event that the author fictionalized. The real story of a tiny community working hard to save 3,000 beluga whales—not 1,000 as stated in the story—is one of the major successes of conservation of the 20th century. A close reading of the texts can encourage students to consider why the world’s news media wasn’t at the event. Why weren’t there helicopters and planes flying in with support for the rescue effort?

A book that can support students in reading “beyond the lines” is Humphrey the Lost Whale (Tokuda & Hall, 1992). Exactly a year after the Chukchis in Russia worked to free 3,000 beluga whales, much of the world followed the story of Humphrey, a humpback whale that moved through the Golden Gate in San Francisco Bay and then down the Sacramento River into its delta. Enormous rescue efforts were coordinated to rescue Humphrey, including the world’s most powerful amplification system from the U.S. Navy. Numerous agencies—fish, wildlife, and the U.S. Army’s 481st Transportation Company—collaborated to lure Humphrey back down the Sacramento River and beyond the Golden Gate into the Pacific Ocean.

Just a year before, a small indigenous group of people—the Chukchis—in an area larger than Texas (but where the population is 1/500 the size) managed to free 3,000 beluga whales. Why was Humphrey’s story publicized and the Chukchis’s low-tech successful evacuation of 3,000 beluga whales limited to a fictionalized story of a girl who had the ability to hear the sound of Narna?

As my description shows, I have become passionate about the story of the Chukchis and the icebreaker boat, the Moskva. I want to emphasize that, two weeks ago, when I looked for a selection for this presentation, it was a random selection from the Table of Contents of a core reading program.

It turns out that there is an enormous amount of information available to all of us today—and I learned what I learned about the Chukchis and their rescue of the beluga whales in about two hours of research on the internet. The world of information is available 24-7 on the internet. The Common Core is a mandate to open this world of knowledge to our students.


Cowley, J. (1990). Dan the flying man. Columbus, OH: Wright Group.

Erdich, L. (2002). The birchbark house. New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children.

Hamilton, V. (1974/2006). M.C. Higgins, the Great. New York, NY: Aladdin.

Marzano, R. (2004). Building academic vocabulary

Schuch, S. (2002). A symphony of whales. San Anselmo, CA: Sandpiper Press.

Tokuda, W. & Hall, R. (1992). Humphrey the lost whale. Torrance, CA: Heian Publishers.