Tell us, six-year-olds, what's the author's purpose?

I continue guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs, with three more posts to come.

Last night I watched a video of a Reader’s Workshop (Balanced Literacy) lesson for first graders. The objective of the lesson was to “determine the author’s purpose” (a strategy that they were apparently learning in anticipation of second grade). The teacher presented two basic purposes for writing a book: “to entertain the reader” and “to teach the reader.” She taught the children hand signals that corresponded with each purpose, gave them some practice with examples, and then sent them to their independent reading, where they were supposed to practice the strategy and give the appropriate hand signal.

The following comments do not reflect at all on the quality of the teaching. The teacher was giving a fine Reader’s Workshop lesson, by Balanced Literacy standards. She was well prepared, spirited, and very clear, with good command of BL procedures. The problem lies not with her teaching, but with the premises behind the lesson. (I am not going into decoding here–this lesson doesn’t even touch on it.)

First of all, Balanced Literacy lessons usually revolve around a strategy. This limits the instruction, as the literature is subordinated to the strategy. In this case, the teacher read short passages from books in order to determine the author’s purpose. The only reason she read these passages was to illustrate and practice the strategy. The stories themselves hardly mattered.

Second, the strategy itself is of questionable value. Is it really important for first graders to “determine the author’s purpose”? Shouldn’t they be allowed to enjoy a story, to experience it in their minds, to believe even the magical tales? This is an error not only of Balanced Literacy, but of many state standards, which have kindergarteners and first graders distinguish fact from fiction. Why must young children sort out fiction from nonfiction? Why must they even worry about what the author is trying to do?

Finally, the categories “to entertain” and “to teach” are misleading. There is much crossover between the two; many fictional stories teach or suggest something about human nature, while informative texts can be highly entertaining. Beyond that, fiction’s purpose is not only to “entertain.” Like art, fiction can also jolt us, move us, challenge us, unnerve us, make us think. To put it in the category of “entertainment” is to limit our conception of it.

So, what passes here for “higher-order” thinking is in fact simplistic. Many books go beyond their purported purposes, some have many purposes at once, and some have none of the purposes that are commonly ascribed to them.

Granted, authors do write for reasons and purposes, and it is important to understand them as well as we can. But children are likelier to learn this if they have room for the imagination—if they are not pressed, at ages five and six, to sort books into real and unreal, serious and fun. When the time comes for sorting, they will grasp the principles yet see beyond them, and some books will belong to no pile.