The Software Picture Book: The Complexities of Teaching Informational Text to Elementary School Children

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In 2003, the International Reading Association released a report on how preservice teachers are trained to teach literacy in elementary schools. The report explained that preservice teachers who are exposed to a variety of approaches in literacy instruction will provide similar effective experiences to their students. In an effort to support this position, our teacher education program tries to expose preservice teachers to numerous and varied approaches to teaching literacy. In addition, these preservice teachers are exposed to a variety of appropriate instructional software in their training. In order to facilitate the use of technology, most classes are scheduled in computer labs. This immediate access to computers gives preservice teachers the opportunity to use instructional software to help design, create and implement lessons that might someday be used in their classrooms.

The Software Application Methods Enrichment (S.A.M.E.) Project described below is an effort to combine the use of technology with literacy instruction.

Overview of the S.A.M.E. Project

Participants in the project were preservice teachers enrolled in a methods course in literacy instruction for childhood education (grades K-5). The course outline included the following topics:

  • Ongoing assessment and evaluation
  • Phonemic awareness
  • Picture books and emergent literacy
  • Systematic phonics instruction
  • High-frequency words
  • Word study
  • Shared reading and writing
  • Comprehension strategies
  • Strategy lessons
  • Informational Texts
  • Literary elements
  • Technology in literacy instruction
  • Home-school connection

The topics identified above are crucial in the training for preservice childhood educators (Calkins 2001 and Cunningham 2000). Although on the surface they appear to be unrelated, they are not: each one deals with language development (Gunning 2003). The S.A.M.E. Project was explained to the class and they decided that we should create picture books because they help primary-grade children develop language skills.Cullinan and Galda (1998) explain that picture books combine words and illustrations to tell a story or convey information. Furthermore, they describe how illustrations support the meaning conveyed in the text and help inexperienced readers develop and understand the simple text found in picture books.

The class only met once a week for three hours, with the last six classes devoted to the completion of the picture books. While the first part of the class dealt with the craft of writing a picture book and learning HyperStudio 4.0, during the last part of the class participants worked in groups to design and create their own picture books. Class time was structured using the workshop process identified by Calkins (2001). It consisted of the following elements:

  • A teaching component called a mini-lesson that lasted from 8-10 minutes and was usually based on HyperStudio 4.0 or the craft of effective picture-book writing.
  • A workshop in which the participants worked on the project with assistance taking the form of small, flexible group instruction. The instructor carefully observed and noted both the successful and unsuccessful attempts to utilize HyperStudio. The resulting written observations always became a valuable source of ideas for mini-lesson topics.
  • A sharing section where groups could share their work, accomplishments and problems.

The workshop format also served another purpose: It enabled the participants to experience firsthand the structure and effectiveness of the workshop format in learning.

Reasons for Creating Informational Picture Books

Gunning (2003) explains that most children find reading fiction easier than reading nonfiction because it contains predictable literary elements. Furthermore, he suggests that since children read more fiction than informational text, they develop an understanding and familiarity with these literary elements that they seldom do with the literary elements found in most informational text.

Routman (2000) and Parkes (2003) conclude that continued limited exposure to informational text will cause problems for most primary-grade children because the majority of their upper grade instruction will be dominated by informational texts (e.g., social studies textbooks) Therefore, they believe that there should be the direct teaching of strategies to understand and interpret informational text. Based on this perceived need, the S.A.M.E. Project was designed to help train preservice teachers to become familiar with instructional techniques to effectively teach strategies to assist children with the complexities of informational text.

Literary Elements/Structures of Informational Texts

Participants utilized the Internet to complete a Webquest and identify the structures found in informational text. Google was the search engine used to locate the information. Search results produced the following list identified by both Gunning (2003) and Hoyt and Therriault (2003):

  • Enumeration-description
  • Time sequence
  • Explanation-process
  • Comparison-contrast
  • Problem-solution
  • Cause-effect

In order to become more familiar with these structures, participants worked in groups and completed the following activities:

  • A Scavenger Hunt in which participants skimmed available textbooks and identified the informational text structures that were present and would require explicit instruction. They then prepared PowerPoint presentations that outlined their findings. Examples of two slides appear below (both slides are compilations of the work of several groups in the class):
  • Informational Text Jeopardy in which groups prepared clues for either science or social studies content in the form of informational text with appropriate structures. The groups then presented the clues to each other in a simulation of the Jeopardy-game format found on daily television. Groups had to prepare a PowerPoint presentation for their clues. Please see the PowerPoint slide below for two examples of these slides (both slides were examples used to review the use of PowerPoint):

HyperStudio

We decided to utilize HyperStudio 4.0 as the software program for the S.A.M.E. Project. It was selected because it allows participants to complete the following picture book-related tasks:

  • Construct storyboards that allow users to plan and revise content.
  • Create a stack (for our purposes a picture book) with a number of individual cards (for our purposes pages of the picture book).
  • Draw and animate pictures for each card.
  • Insert and paste pictures from stored files.
  • Insert and animate objects from program files.
  • Utilize transitions between various cards.
  • Compose text with available fonts and colors.
  • Create text features that are characteristic of informational text (e.g., colored print, captions, diagrams and illustrations).
  • Revise and edit work.
  • Add or record sound(s) to enrich the text.
  • Present and share a completed work with others.

The inclusion of the text features in the picture books identified above served several purposes. First, it would help familiarize participants with the text features of informational texts. Next, it would enable participants to create picture books that were typical of the genre. Finally, it provided a useful tool for participants to explore the power of HyperStudio 4.0.

Illustrations and Topics

According to Cullinan and Galda (1998), picture books contain six different styles of art:

  1. Representational art
  2. Surrealistic art
  3. Impressionistic art
  4. Folk art
  5. Naive art
  6. Cartoon art

Participants again used a Webquest to identify these art styles. After this, participants completed additional searches to identify popular authors and illustrators of picture books. The information gathered allowed participants the opportunity to investigate how authors and illustrators use art to support the meaning found in text.

Each group then selected a topic following a review of curriculum and standards for childhood education. Some of the topics selected were as follows:

  • Seasons
  • Colors
  • Shapes
  • Alphabet study
  • Bears
  • Dinosaurs
  • Insects
  • Communities

After their topics were selected, groups selected both the structures for writing text and the appropriate art styles. Groups then created a table to report their choices for their respective picture books. The completed tables were a form of authentic assessment and a meaningful use of technology (e.g., creating a table, merging cells and using appropriate fonts). A sample of a table submitted appears below:

Mini-Lessons on HyperStudio

Mini-lessons were used to teach the various functions of HyperStudio 4.0. The functions emphasized were as follows:

  • Creating a storyboard
  • Opening a new stack
  • Creating a card
  • Inserting objects
  • Cutting and pasting
  • Drawing illustrations
  • Animating using buttons
  • Animating illustrations
  • Animating objects
  • Writing text with appropriate font size and color
  • Editing text
  • Adding transitions between cards
  • Editing and revising
  • Adding backgrounds
  • Linking individual cards
  • Adding sound
  • Saving work and locating it

Each option identified above was demonstrated using the instructor's computer and a projected image visible for the entire class. Participants shared multiple copies of the HyperStudio Manuals (Fleck 1999 and Isbister 1999) for reference as they worked on their picture books. The instructor circulated and offered assistance as needed.

To facilitate the continual assessment and evaluation of the work, each group had to submit a “reflection sheet” at the conclusion of each session. The reflection sheet had to be created by each group using appropriate Microsoft 2000 options. The reflection sheet utilized had to follow the following format:

Presentations

Participants completed their picture books after six weeks of work. A great deal of the work was completed during class time; however, most participants required additional time outside of class. Computer labs were available for this purpose, and the time was logged and reported back to the instructor using a simple form found in all labs. The work completed was stored temporarily on desktops and copied to rewritable CDs, because the files were too large to permit the use of floppy disks. In addition, the use of CDs facilitated the need to produce multiple copies so that individual students could include them in their student portfolios.

Since there were six groups of four students, a lottery was held to determine the order of presentations. The presentations took place during two separate classes, with three groups presenting their picture book for a 20 minute time period. Groups presented their picture books using the instructor's computer with the image projected onto a large screen on the wall. Each member of the group presented their own contribution to the picture book and would stop when the next group member's work appeared. The transition between individual group members took place almost seamlessly. Even quiet, reticent group members presented their work with purpose and a sense of satisfaction.

Each group's work was assessed and evaluated using multiple measures. First, a rubric was used by the instructor for each group's work. The rubric was found in the original course outline and discussed in class. It was meant to serve as a guideline for groups as they prepared their individual picture books. The following chart shows the rubric that was utilized:

The second source for assessment and evaluation was a whole class discussion and reflection after each presentation. The instructor posed the following questions and recorded responses using a laptop:

  • What were the text structures found in the picture book?
  • What were the text features used in the picture book?
  • What styles of art were used in the picture book?
  • Was the information presented in an effective, meaningful way?
  • How did the group make effective and creative use of HyperStudio in their picture book?
  • What was your general overall opinion of the picture book?

The third source of information came from an electronic survey e-mailed to students and returned within a 24-hour time period. The following three questions were posed:

  1. What did you learn about informational text from the S.A.M.E. Project?
  2. How will the S.A.M.E. Project help you teach your students about informational texts?
  3. What is your opinion of the HyperStudio program used to help make informational picture books?

Project Findings

Learned. Preservice teachers reported that they were not aware of the complexity that informational text might present for students. In fact, many were not familiar with the structures present in informational text. They pointed out that such instruction was missing in their own elementary school experience. They agreed with Gunning (2003) that direct instruction in the identification and comprehending the structures of informational text is necessary. Participants also concurred with Calkins (2001) when they concluded that learning the craft involved in writing informational text and producing examples of one must be an essential part of a balanced literacy program.

Help Teaching. Participants concluded that active learning and direct application of a new skill/strategy is an essential condition for real learning to take place. They identified the computer and appropriate software as one of the tools to help achieve this purpose. Therefore, they would make instruction in the use of appropriate software part of their instructional program.

HyperStudio. Overall, participants found HyperStudio 4.0 to be a useful tool. It allowed for creativity and facilitated creating illustrations for their picture books. They also utilized and liked the animating application of the program. Many animated their drawings and imported pictures to help explain and demonstrate important concepts. For example, one of the groups created a picture book about seasons, which showed birds and butterflies flying. See below for an example of this picture book:


The above card was created by Jennifer Colonna.

Another group created a picture book about weather. They animated both the snow and the snowman. An example of this work is below:


The above card was created by Elena Abbate, Alexzandra Richardson, Angela Portelos and Christine Mormile.

Another group concentrated on shapes. Their work example is below:


The above card was created by Annamarie Simione & Nicole Hosein.

HyperStudio's Weaknesses. The participants found animating their illustrations difficult and somewhat cumbersome. Setting time for the animation and the path for a desired movement caused a great of deal of time and numerous revisions. Formatting illustrations and moving them into a desired position was also difficult for participants. Finally, each group experienced problems saving completed work on 3.5” floppy disks because of the size of their files. Please note that CD burners will be available the next time we attempt a similar project.

Conclusion

Based on the completed work, observations, surveys, grades and the climate of the classroom during the project, I believe the project was successful. The workshop process, the multiple measures of performance, the project-based use of picture books, and the utilization of technology offered the preservice teachers the variety of approaches in literacy instruction that was referred to at the beginning of the article.

Many of the S.A.M. E. Project participants have already started their own teaching careers. Through informal discussions, they related the need to develop and implement a literacy program that builds on the needs and interests of their students. They feel that this can only be possible when the instructional strategies and activities employed are varied and engaging. That was the message of the S.A.M.E. Project and the belief we want our preservice teachers to carry with them into their own classrooms.

References

Calkins, L. 2001. The Art of Teaching Reading. New York: Longman.

Cullinan, B., and L. Galda. 1998. Literature and the Child (5th ed). New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Cunningham, P. 2000. Phonics They Use: Words for Reading and Writing (3rd ed.). New York: Longman.

Gunning, T. 2003. Creating Literacy Instruction for All Children (4th ed.). New York: Pearson Education.

Fleck, T. 1999. HyperStudio: Simple Projects, Intermediate. California: Teacher Created Materials.

Hoffman, J., and C. Roller. 2003. “Teacher Prep Deemed Crucial: Results of IRA Commission Study Provide Compelling Evidence.” Reading Today 20 (6): 1, 3.

Hoyt, L., and T. Therriault. 2003. Exploring Informational Texts: From Theory to Practice Edited by L. Hoyt, M. Mooney and B. Parkes. Pages 52-58. New Hampshire: Heinemann.

Isbister, S. 1999. HyperStudio: Simple Projects, Primary. California: Teacher Created Materials.

Parkes, B. 2003. Exploring Informational Texts: From Theory to Practice. Edited by L. Hoyt, M. Mooney and B. Parkes. Pages 18-25. New Hampshire: Heinemann.

Perspection Inc. 1997. “Microsoft PowerPoint 97 At a Glance.” Washington: Microsoft Press.

Routman, R. 2000. Conversations: Strategies for Teaching, Learning and Evaluating. New Hampshire: Heinemann.

About the Author

Dr. Richard A.Giaquinto is a professor of education at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y. His scholarly work focuses on two separate distinct areas: educational psychology and literacy instruction. Giaquinto has spoken at many conferences about the need to utilize and supplement print instruction with visual literacy in the form of studying and analyzing film as a means to support the teaching of literary elements to students. He has also worked for the New York City Department of Education for 29 years, serving as a teacher, teacher trainer, administrator and supervisor. Giaquinto has a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from Brooklyn College, and two Ph.D.s from Fordham University. E-mail: rgiaquinto@stfranciscollege.edu

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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