Using Systems Tools to Develop Intra and Inter-Textual Awareness in Young Readers

For many parents and their young children there are few times of the day as special as the last few minutes before bed when parent and child are snuggled together reading a story.  A few stories become favorites as evidenced by their tattered pages and memorized words and phrases. For the parent, these readings can be tiresome as the child begs for their repetition night after night.  For the child these words bring comfort and pleasure.  They form the fundamental building blocks of their literacy development, lasting well into adulthood.

In homes where children have the benefit of this bedtime ritual and other opportunities to hear stories read aloud, they are developing intra-textual awareness, i.e. a deep sense of how stories are written, the predictable patterns, the structure of the text.  When these children enter school they believe that the purpose of reading is to make meaning; they believe that when they read a piece of unfamiliar text, it should make sense; they can anticipate what is coming, confirming their predictions as they read. 

Unfortunately, far too many children enter formal schooling without these rich, early literacy experiences.  Hart and Risley write about what they describe as the 30 million-word gap.  They paint a picture of children who have not only missed out on being read to, but who have had so little conversation that they have heard as many as 30 million fewer words than their peers.

Children from both of these groups can be found in almost every kindergarten class in the world.  The kindergarten teacher is responsible to advance students from both groups in literacy skills so that they attain proficiency in reading and writing.  The Behavior Over Time Graph (BOTG) has proven to be an effective tool to help develop intra- and inter-textual awareness in children. While there is no substitute for preschool years filled with language, conversation and story, this systems thinking tool can be effective in supporting young children to develop fundamental literacy skills.

BOTGs provide a visual representation of a story.  They create a picture of the structure of the story.  Many familiar children’s books have the same pattern, based on a character’s repeated attempts to solve a problem or achieve a goal, followed by the resolution or happy ending.  blog-textual-pic1For example, in “The Little Red Hen” the hen asks her friends to help at each step of baking bread, only to be refused by her animal friends.  In the end, however, when it comes time to eat the bread, they are happy to help.  In the folk tale “Abiyoyo,” the villagers are constantly annoyed with the young boy and his father.  That is until they successfully rid the town of Abiyoyo, the monster that has plagued them forever.  That common pattern, sad, sad, sad, happy, is illustrated on the BOTG pictured here.

When skillfully used by primary teachers, the BOTG offers a visual representation of the story not found in retellings, innovations and other graphic organizers.  As young children are exposed to multiple stories with similar structure, they can visually see the similarities and thus have one more tool in developing the intra- and inter-textual awareness.  Inter-textual awareness is the ability to recognize stories that have similar patterns. 

Repetition of pattern as illustrated by a BOTG is great for helping young readers develop a sense of story.  In addition, the BOTG can also represent more complex story structures.  blog-textual-pic2As students increase their familiarity with the graphs they will become aware of the patterns and similarities, sometimes even naming the line.  For example, students in one preschool class call this oscillating pattern the crown story.  In this example, a student looking at the graph of the crown story, Goggles, by Jack Ezra Keats, determined from the “points” that every time Peter took action he felt less afraid of the bigger boys that were chasing him.

Using BOTGs helps students with delayed language development acquire a deep sense of intra and inter-textual awareness; in addition, it is an effective literacy strategy for all young readers.  We have strong evidence that use of BOTGs in the primary grades improves a student’s ability to retell a story.  Identifying and sequencing the key events over time, determining the important events and understanding how those events cause things to happen in the story all contribute to more skillful retellings. Using BOTGs in literacy instruction increases engagement, causing readers to be more active in the reading process.  Again, this is recognized as a quality of strong readers, but using the tools of systems thinking encourages these active reading behaviors in all students.

Much of the current focus on education is on closing gaps.  Use of BOTGs in the primary grades offers teachers a specific tool to help young learners become strong readers.  Accelerating reading achievement is certainly one important step in closing a gap, while at the same time being mindful that the ultimate goal of literacy instruction is to support reading as a process of constructing meaning.