Children are linguistic geniuses. By the time most kids enter school, they have already learned at least one home language with all its many intricate complexities including thousands of words. As children become readers, the opportunity to experience the rich, alluring language of literature can set them on the path to becoming joyful, lifelong readers. In this literacy journey, the key is providing young readers with opportunities to read text that inspires and engages them—right from the very beginning—to think and feel deeply about the text on the page, to make connections between the print and their own lives, and to imagine lives beyond their own. In other words, all children deserve access to the joy and many pleasures of authentic text.
What do we mean by authentic text? Authentic text is real, living language written to engage readers and draw them in; it may entertain, inform, or persuade. It invites active reading, robust problem-solving, and deep analysis because it comprises conceptually rich, compelling ideas and language from life. Early literacy expert Lesley Morrow defines authentic texts as, “A stretch of real language produced by a real speaker or writer for a real audience and designed to convey a real message of some sort.” Unlike contrived text, authentic text is never written or assembled for the purpose of teaching reading or delivering a set of skills.
An important distinction between authentic and contrived text is how readers engage with it and children learn from it. When it comes to literacy instruction, both authentic and contrived text can be used to teach reading strategies and skills. But while contrived text requires the teacher to mediate between the text and the reader to ensure learning, authentic text can instruct on its own because of its rich content and language.
Furthermore, authentic text provides natural scaffolding for the reader—the structure and patterns of real language support comprehension. Authentic text helps students understand how language works in the real world, and invites them to take part in that world by moving in, out, and through the world of ideas and living language.
Children need time every day to read authentic books: real books featuring funny, scary, enchanting stories by authors children can find in the bookstore or library. And children need books that they can sink their teeth into and discuss and debate with their peers. Early literacy instruction that incorporates authentic text supports young readers’ ability to learn language and vocabulary, and ignites their love for authors, illustrators, topics, and genres.
While interactive read-alouds and independent reading enable our students to lose themselves in the pleasure and glory of literature, children also benefit immeasurably from small group instruction with authentic text. Years ago, British educator Margaret Meek pointed out that what “readers read makes all the difference to their view of reading.” All the more reason to invite students to read text that engages their imaginations, stirs their emotions, expands their knowledge, and encourages them to ask new questions about the world.
Reading makes us smart. Indeed, the biggest differentiator between those who succeed in school and those who don’t is independent reading. An analysis of 99 studies that focused on the leisure-time reading of authentic text by students from preschool to grade 12 and college students found that print exposure created an upward spiral of literacy confidence and competency. Students who practiced voluminous reading got a boost in oral language sophistication, reading comprehension, and technical reading and writing skills. For each year of independent reading, students’ skills improved, bolstering their overall achievement (Mol & Bus, 2011).
The enriching effects of authentic books are especially important for those youngsters who are challenged by reading. As Steph Harvey and Annie Ward write, “Striving readers, who are often reluctant to read at all, deserve and need engaging text rich with meaning to lead them into the world of language” (Harvey & Ward, 2017).
Our students deserve to feast on the robust language and complex linguistic structures of authentic text while solving crimes with Dog Man (Dav Pilkey), delighting in words with the Word Collector (Peter Reynolds), and dancing in the rain with Tessie (Come on, Rain! by Karen Hesse). Let’s make sure that all children love reading so much that they define themselves as readers—both at school and at home—assuring that they will want to develop and refine remarkable, rewarding, and long-lasting reading lives of their own.
Harvey, S. & Ward, A. (2017). From Striving to Thriving: How to Grow Confident, Capable Readers. New York: Scholastic.
Mol, S. & Bus, S. (2011). To Read or Not to Read: A Meta-Analysis of Print Exposure from Infancy to Early Adulthood. Psychological Bulletin. American Psychological Association. Vol. 137, No. 2, 267–296.
Meek, M. (1988). How Texts Teach What Readers Learn. London: Thimble Press.
Morrow, K. (1977). “Authentic Texts and ESP.” In Holden, S. (ed.). English for Specific Purposes. Modern English Publications.