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.


  1. Great post, Diana. I thank you for helping to expose how this reading strategies mania is wrecking education. NCLB has spawned this mania by making schools’ fates hinge on reading tests. And the whole nation is in the thrall of a stupid notion of how to prepare for reading tests: teaching reading strategies. As E.D. Hirsch and others are starting to expose, this is not the way to make better readers, and it’s definitely not the way to create well-educated human beings. It’s really sad and infuriating to me as a teacher. I feel I’m being forced to commit malpractice.

  2. Thanks for this post. I’m constantly struck, as I try to meet all the standards I’m supposed to teach for reading, with the fact that not once does my state want children to reach the end of grade 7 reading for pleasure. The standards are all about finding purpose and audience and multicultural perspectives, and not once about (as one of my 10 year old students put it yesterday) losing yourself in a story so you feel like you’re really there.

    Now I feel like a rebel for teaching a love of reading 🙂 Thank goodness my test results stand up, so I won’t be caught out.

  3. Great stuff, Diana. The real limitation of Reader’s Workshop is that it’s based on a model that is demonstrably false: that reading is a skill. As your example shows, when you insist on teaching comprehension strategies that can be applied to any book, the interaction becomes forced and superficial.

    Some months ago I wrote a piece about this at the Core Knowledge Blog, comparing reading strategies to South Pacific “cargo cults” after WWII. Reading strategies operate the same way. We teach children to mimic the behaviors and the habits of mind that are reflexive to able readers, but deny them the deep, rich education that makes those behaviors and habits work.

    If I could change one thing and one thing only about education, it would be to get elementary schools to abandon the pointless orthodoxy of reading strategies. Thank you, Diana, for continuing to point out what a poor substitute this is for actually teaching children something of value.

  4. Determine the author’s purpose? Maybe they could just tell us what they read first. That skill alone can take years to do well.

    It’s the cart before the horse again, and it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

  5. Ummmm… author’s purpose? Didn’t they forget one option – to make money?

  6. Well, of course they’re drilling that. It is a State Standard! Probably soon to become a National Standard!

    Careful what you ask for.

  7. Sadly, this is what I’m supposed to teach my ninth graders. Reader’s purpose is tested in multiple questions on the state exam. Also sadly, these first graders are more engaged and have more answers than my high schoolers.

  8. As an elementary teacher of two decades, I can state categorically that lessons like this will kill children’s love of learning at a very early age. Very sad.

  9. Diana Senechal says:

    Excellent comments. I think we have to insist on a greater distinction between curriculum and standards. If the standards become our default curriculum, then the lessons will revolve around “determining the author’s purpose” and other such skills and strategies. Balanced Literacy structures lessons around skills and strategies, but there are other ways to address the skills and much more.

    For instance, if the curriculum puts literature at the center, then a lesson can be about a book itself. The discussion of the book will involve many of the skills listed in the standards, without reducing the lesson to a simplistic or generic presentation of those skills. Yes, certain lessons do have to focus on specific skills, but others will involve many skills at once, often without even naming them.

    So while our state standards leave much to be desired, they should not limit classroom instruction. It is largely for political reasons that they focus on skills–but those skills come to life only in the context of specific subjects and books. Standards can be guides, but they should not hold us back or make lessons dreary. I don’t mean lessons must be “fun”–the teacher’s purpose is not to entertain–but there’s no need for unillumined drear.

  10. Yes, that’s ideal, Diana, I unequivocally agree. But imagine you’re working in an urban school on the 4th year of not meeting AYP and you’ve been told that your building will be targeted for intervention next year if you don’t measure up on those selected response questions. What do you think your principal is going to mandate you do?

    As an item writer for my state exam, I know that the questions I wrote do not line up in a very clear way with what I teach. I teach literature and critical writing for the most part; yet, the test mostly centers on simple informational texts and the writing prompts are fairly horrid. One of the things tested is following multi-step directions. I wrote scads of these items. When was the last time you taught a novel that came with multi-step directions? I assume the kids are doing that sort of thing in their science classes with ease at this point, but if they don’t perform on the test, is it the science department at issue? So, I design a few “skills” lessons to make sure my kids can read a diagram, know the purpose of photo captions (not a lot of photos in poems, either), and can identify the difference between persuade, inform, and entertain… and no, “this article is so boring it is killing me” is not one of the selected responses.

  11. If the text were read to the kids, they couldn’t tell you what the “author’s point of view” was. If you asked me what “my point of view” is in writing this comment, I couldn’t tell you.

    Only a text that is ideologically-motivated has a “point of view.”

    The instruction may teach the kids to “invent explanations” and this may indirectly help them to select the keyed responses in multiple-choice tests alleged to be “reading tests.” Although most kids won’t learn anything from the instruction.

    Meanwhile the kids are not being taught how to handle the Alphabetic Code and the other linguistic conventions involved in responding to text as they would were the communication spoken.

    It’s a double whammy for the kids. They’re not being taught to read and they are not being taught the background information required for understanding–whether that understanding is communicated using either spoken or written language.

  12. Uh, no. Dick, unfortunately, if that’s your understanding of literary point of view, you are not smarter than a 5th grader. An item that tests that standard might go as thus:

    1. In this excerpt from Thoreau’s “Where I Lived and What I Lived for,” the mostly likely reason he chose to write in the first person point of view is… ABCD…etc.

    (I bring up Thoreau only because he’d be nodding away with Voltaire above.)

  13. Ya know, you’re right. If I was ever taught the technical meaning of the concept as it pertains to “literature,” I’d forgotten it. With a bit of googling, I learned the concept, but I’m not any better off. I could read before, and I can’t write any better with the added information.

    The concept is of very limited utility in composing a text and is of all-but no relevance in reading a text, let alone having nothing to do with learning how to read.

    Moreover the sample test question doesn’t test understanding of the concept. It defines the concept in the stem, with foils constructed to snare kids.

    The flawed test hits the kids with a third whammy.

  14. Lorraine Skeen says:

    Again, Diane Ravitch understands education with more depth and breath than those in charge of education.

  15. Sharon R. says:

    I remember as a kid feeling like the whole point of English class was to kill all my pleasure in reading. I read *constantly* in those days, but hated all my assigned reading (“The Red Pony” in 7th grade, “Bartleby the Scrivener” in 8th – which I love now, at 40+ and having worked in an office) and the bane of my existence, “Study Guides” (answer meticulous questions for every paragraph of the book, like eye color of the Red Badge of Courage character, in complete sentences). And yet, and yet… Now I have a 7 yr old and a 5 yr old, and I find myself teaching them how to tell fact from fiction, how to tell if the writer is trying to teach or to entertain. My 5 yr old, in particular, is just more credulous than his brother was — if you tell him about Santa Claus, he believes in Santa, if you tell him about dinosaurs, he believes in dinosaurs, if you tell him about Power Rangers, he believes in those. So he gets to learn reading strategies, so he won’t grow up to send money to Nigerian email scammers or American pyramid scheme scammers. Sigh! 🙂


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