Academic Exchange Quarterly     Summer   2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 9, Issue 2

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Genres and Library Skills: A Topical Approach


Susan E. Russell,  University of Oklahoma


Russell is currently Assistant Professor of Bibliography and was previously School Library Media Specialist at Little Axe Elementary.



Children must be introduced to a variety of genres and writing styles to help develop their own interest in reading and writing.  They must also develop skills in using the library and selecting appropriate materials.  Through the use of topical units, the school library media specialist is able to introduce, in an interesting yet informative manner, the variety of materials that are available to students and how a particular topic can be depicted across a variety of genres.



As part of the library media program in the elementary school, children must be introduced to a variety of genres and writing styles to help develop their own interest in reading and writing.  To teach literature to children, the library media specialist must provide guidance in how to enjoy, interpret, and evaluate the different writings they encounter (Huck, Kiefer, Hepler, and Hickman, 2004, p. 5-13).  According to Dr. George Kamberelis (1999), a researcher in educational anthropology, if children are exposed to various genres they will gain “a much greater general awareness of these genres, their shapes, their meaning potentials, and their functions than children who do not” (p. 453).  An interesting topic can easily be used as a focal point to help children explore different genres by organizing literature into “units of study” that teachers can use to “enrich the read-aloud experience, heighten student interest, and increase the likelihood of independent reading” in previously reluctant readers (Moss, 1995, p.124).  By combining both researchers’ ideas, a teacher can juxtapose nonfiction books with books from other genres that share a specific topic in order to connect the various genres used to help “children explore the relationships between different literary forms” (Moss, p. 124).


In their work on teaching genre and content literacy, Fountas and Pinnell (2001) outlined specific goals for looking at various kinds of written texts and determining what we want our students to understand about them.  Among these objectives are developing an appreciation for and an understanding of a wide range of fiction and nonfiction texts while broadening students’ world experience and increasing their knowledge.  Students must also develop library skills like becoming critical of what they read, learning how to select texts for themselves, and learning to read differently for different purposes (for example, reading fiction from cover to cover but skimming nonfiction texts to find the desired information).


Through the use of topical units, the library media specialist is able to introduce, in an interesting yet informative manner, the variety of materials that are available to students and how a particular topic is depicted across a variety of genres.  It also provides an excellent opportunity for a basic introduction to how a library is organized through a call number system.  Once students understand this concept, they have acquired knowledge that can be applied within any library setting to assist them in locating materials.  There are many topics that appeal to students which can be easily organized into a topical study.  The following example demonstrates the use of an animal to explore various genres and where they can be found in the library media center.



When selecting an animal as the topic, the armadillo seemed appropriate for my students.  However, this same process could be developed and used for any animal in order to make the unit more meaningful to the particular group of students involved.  Although the armadillo is indigenous to our area, children view it with a certain amount of fascination.  Ample books are available on armadillos that illustrate a variety of genres and writing styles.  The “Amazing Armadillo” unit was presented to first graders in the library media center over a four-week period as part of their weekly library visit.


When introducing the unit, I began by giving different clues and the children took turns trying to guess which animal we would be learning about.  Every group of students was able to guess it was the armadillo!  Non-fiction books were defined as true books where we can learn facts and see accurate pictures about a subject.  I then read aloud Digging Armadillos, by Judith Jango-Cohen, a short non-fiction book that uses simple text and beautiful color photographs to explain the nine-banded armadillo, the only variety that lives in the United States.  Next, I showed two other non-fiction books, The Armadillo by Jane Elliott and The Armadillo by Seliesa Pembleton, to the group.  By turning to specific pages with interesting photographs and reading brief segments or captions from these books, I demonstrated to students that it is not necessary to read an entire non-fiction book for research purposes.


We then did some simple things to visually illustrate some of the facts we had obtained about armadillos.  Twenty students were asked to stand up to represent the twenty different kinds of armadillos.  One student came up and located the habitat region on a world map.  Another student was asked to come up and hold a 6-inch string stretched out to represent the smallest variety, the pink fairy armadillo.  Two more students were asked to come up and hold a 5-foot length of string stretched out to represent the largest variety, the giant armadillo.  One more student was asked to come up and hold a 2-1/2 foot length of string stretched out to represent the nine-banded armadillo common to our area. 


Next, I held up a card with the Dewey decimal call number 599.3 printed on it and told students this was the call number or address for non-fiction books about armadillos.  I then pointed out the call number label on the spine of each of the non-fiction books and read the number aloud to show each matched my card.  A volunteer then took my card and went to find the shelf in the 500 section of the library media center where these books had come from.  Ahead of time I had taped an identical card to the shelf to insure success.  This physical action helps younger students begin to visualize how to locate specific books in the library media center as well as directs them to the location where they can look for more books on the topic presented.


We began the second session with a brief review of non-fiction books, defining how and when we use them.  Next, I held up a card with the Dewey decimal call number 811 printed on it and reminded students that the call number is like an address (it tells us where to find a book).  I asked the group what animal we were learning about, and upon hearing armadillo, I then asked if this is where armadillo books were found.  Of course someone reminded me that armadillo books are in the 500s and I confirmed this by holding up the call number card from the previous week.  A student volunteer was quickly dispatched with the 811 card to go and get the book I needed.  A matching card was taped to the correct shelf and a book displayed for the student to bring back to the group.  I then opened Beast Feast by Douglas Florian to a colorful armadillo illustration and read the poem aloud, inviting poetry into the exploration of armadillos.  Next, I read a poem from Ridicholas Nicholas by J. Patrick Lewis that also features an armadillo.  A quick check of the call number label on the spine showed this book also came from the 811 shelf.  We now saw that armadillo fact books are in 500s and armadillo poems are in 800s.


The session then shifted to prose fiction.  Many entertaining picture books are available that feature an armadillo as the main character, but two of my favorites to share are Armadillo Tattletale by Helen Ketteman and Armadillo Rodeo by Jan Brett.  After reading the stories to the group, a quick check of each book showed its call number to be a capital E and three letters.  Someone was able to easily point out where the picture book section was located, and once I had explained what the three letters meant, two brave volunteers were sent off with call number cards to find the spots where these two books usually resided.  As in the previous activities, a matching card had been placed at each spot beforehand to insure success.  A third volunteer took the 599.3 card and went to the proper location to remind us where to find non-fiction books, while another student took the 811 card to that location to remind us where the poems were located.  Students love to be the one picked to carry out this simple, but useful task.


The third session began with a definition of folktales.  Set in the Amazon jungle, The Beginning of the Armadilloes by Rudyard Kipling is an excellent choice for this genre.  Before reading the story, I like to prepare by having students help me locate South America on the world map and then locate the Amazon River on a map of South America.  At the conclusion of this particular story, students are usually anxious to voice a variety of opinions on the topic of armadillos.  We checked the call number label on this book and found that 398.2 was the location for folktales, and a volunteer was sent to identify this area for us.


The final session was more generalized in approach.  After telling students we would be reading two more fiction stories about armadillos, I showed them a call number card with 523.2 on it and told them it would provide a clue as to what the armadillo in the first story was curious about.  I showed students a second call number card with 976.4 on it and told them a book at this location would give us the setting for our second story.  When the volunteers arrived at the correct spots, they found a matching call number card with a displayed book to bring back to the group.  From these clues, we learned that the armadillo in Armadillo Ray by John Beifuss is curious about the moon, and books about planets are found in the 500s; The Armadillo from Amarillo by Lynne Cherry is set in Texas, and books about the United States are in the 900s.  After reading the stories, a reminder that the armadillo call number is 599.3 came in handy because we now had two books from the 500s on different topics.  At this point, 500s could be labeled as a large group of books about all different types of science information, including planets and animals.


At the conclusion of this unit, students had participated in an exploratory approach that introduced them to books from four genres, provided a basic introduction to how libraries are organized using call number systems, and increased their knowledge about an interesting animal. 



While this unit may seem rather isolated from the students’ classroom curriculum, it is designed to function as an activity that parallels what is being learned in the classroom and the types of materials students will need to locate when visiting the library media center.  By using topics similar to those being covered by the classroom teacher, students are introduced to different books and information to avoid duplication as well as insuring the materials that are needed in the classroom will not be tied up for use in the media center curriculum. 


This type of topical activity was incorporated into the school library media curriculum for kindergarten through grade three during a period of four consecutive school years.  Classroom teachers shared additional picture books with their students.  For older students, the classroom teachers usually assisted by reading a longer work aloud to their class over several days to complement what was being presented in the media center.  For instance, second grade teachers read The Little Riders by Margaretha Shemin to their students during a country-focused unit on The Netherlands. 


During each unit, students loved the stories we shared, and circulation always increased all over the non-fiction section.  Prior to my arrival, development of research and material selection skills was not being taught until third grade.  By incorporating activities which introduce some basic research and material selection strategies, beginning as early as kindergarten, I observed over time that the students from these classes demonstrated much more ability in identifying and locating materials during later grades than those students who did not have the benefit of library skills development until later in their library media program.  The classroom teachers were very supportive and enthused about the addition of these types of lessons, and their feedback indicated that many of their students were demonstrating the ability to generalize the skills being addressed during these media center units and apply them to other areas of study.  I also received positive feedback from many of the parents saying that their child seemed much more aware of the variety of materials available in the media center and how to utilize them for both study and pleasure.


The example given above utilizes an animal, but there are many other topics, such as a country, an occupation, a sport, an author, or even a holiday, that can be adapted equally well into a topical focus that explores various genres while developing library skills.  By including several topically-focused units in the media center curriculum, the library media specialist can direct students toward materials from every area of the media center and from a variety of genres throughout the school year.  The main purpose of a literature program is to provide opportunities for children to experience and enjoy literature through listening, reading, and discussing, and the library media program can and should be an integral part of the elementary school curriculum (Huck et al., 2004, p. 600).  Using an approach that explores an interesting topic allows the library media specialist to incorporate a variety of genres and writing styles into the media program.  It can also provide opportunities for students to begin learning how to use the library and begin selecting appropriate materials to meet their needs.  Exploring the different genre forms can also help the reluctant reader find other types of reading material besides fiction.


In their work with older students in the area of multigenre writing, Grierson, Anson, and Baird (2002) found that multi-genre writing helped most of their students “grow as researchers, thinkers, and writers while they developed a fundamental understanding of the different purposes for which text can be used” (p. 59).  The quality of the foundation that is established in the primary grades will ultimately affect the success of students in these later endeavors.  In the words of George Kamberelis (1999), “It is thus important for young children to experience, explore, and interrogate many high-quality examples of many different kinds of texts during the early years of elementary school” (p. 453).


My personal observations and feedback from teachers and parents seem to support the theory that these types of lessons are beneficial in facilitating library skills development in younger students.  However, a more systematic evaluation of students’ understanding and use of the library system would be necessary in order to substantiate these observations.



The earlier a student learns fundamental library skills, the more prepared s/he will be for future projects and education in general.  In my experience, the best way to teach a younger child is by giving him/her a simple task that will indirectly lead him/her to learn a new concept.  A topical activity can be designed with an overall goal of examining the different genres and where they are located in the library.  Through this approach, the educator stimulates the student to learn new skills.  The student doesn’t do this because s/he has to; reaching the final goal, a basic knowledge of the research topic, is the student’s prize.  Giving a student a task that is based in the real world will help him/her to not only learn library skills but explore real-world problem-solving skills.


The most important part of a topical activity is finding a topic that interests your students.  The library media specialist must know his/her students well enough to choose a suitable topic for them.  If the media specialist is isolated from the students, s/he has no hope of choosing a topic that captures the students’ interests enough to stay with the project.  The most important lesson that can be learned from my experience as a media specialist is to truly know your audience.



Children’s Books

Beifuss, J.  (1995).  Armadillo Ray.  San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Brett, J.  (1995).  Armadillo rodeo.  New York: Putnam.

Cherry, L.  (1994).  The armadillo from Amarillo.  San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

Elliott, J.  (1994).  The armadillo.  Bothel, WA: Wright.

Florian, D.  (1994).  Beast feast.  San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

Jango-Cohen, J.  (1999).  Digging armadillos.  Minneapolis: Lerner Publications.

Ketteman, H.  (2000).  Armadillo tattletale.  New York: Scholastic.

Kipling, R.  (1983).  The beginning of the armadilloes.  New York: Bedrick.

Lewis, J. P.  (1995).  Ridicholas Nicholas: More animal poems.  New York: Dial Books.

Pembleton, S.  (1992).  The armadillo.  New York: Dillon Press.

Shemin, M.  (1963).  The little riders.  New York: Coward-McCann.



Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S.  (2001).  Guiding readers and writers grades 3-6: Teaching comprehension, genre, and content literacy.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Grierson, S. T., Anson, A., & Baird, J.  (2002).  Exploring the past through multigenre writing. Language Arts, 80, 51-59.

Huck, C. S., Kiefer, B. Z., Hepler, S., & Hickman, J.  (2004).  Children’s literature in the elementary school (8th ed.).  Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Kamberelis, G. (1999).  Genre development and learning: Children writing stories, science reports, and poems. Research in the Teaching of English, 33, 403-459.

Moss, B.  (1995).  Using children’s nonfiction trade books as read-alouds. Language Arts, 72, 122-126.