What Does Brain Science Research Say Students Should be Reading?

New academic standards stress that children need to be exposed to different genres of text, in order to maximally benefit from instruction across diverse academic subjects like English and Science. Two of the most commonly used divisions between different types of text are narrative (stories/fiction) and expository (informational/nonfiction) text.

While narrative and expository are both important types of text to be able to read, expository text has an especially critical role in education. As children get older, it becomes essential for them to comprehend expository text with efficiency because this type of text is critical for learning new information. For example, as children move into middle and high school, the way they learn is largely through reading expository texts, such as content gleaned from science textbooks.

The question is, though, are all texts equal in terms of cognitive demands? Most researchers agree that no matter the type of text, children will need to employ word recognition and language processes in order to read efficiently. It is generally accepted that narrative text is easier to comprehend than expository text, which is consistent with research that proves this viewpoint. The manner in which narrative and expository texts are constructed is different. Narrative text generally has more verbs and simpler syntax, while expository text has more unfamiliar nouns.

The benefits of teaching informational text

Do these differences in the way text is constructed suggest that teachers need to differentially focus on narrative versus expository text? Or is reading instruction agnostic in terms of type of genre used? Recent research suggests that the type of text used during instruction does matter and not simply because one is easier than the other, but because different genres actually make different demands on the brain. For example, in our research we have found that while language and word recognition skills are universally important no matter what type of text is being read, expository texts have additional cognitive demands. More precisely, expository text places more demands on executive function or the brain's top down control and self-regulation "center." The involvement of executive function in expository text reading is also supported by brain research, which suggests that areas of the brain that support executive function are involved in working with other areas of the brain responsible for language and word recognition.

More specifically, a recent study showed that when readers were processing expository text, an area in the prefrontal cortex that is associated with working memory became more active and facilitated the link between two language areas in the brain. In other words, when the prefrontal cortex was more active, the correlation between two places in the left hemisphere of the brain increased. This suggests reading instruction that differentially focuses on expository text is important, especially in older grades when children have to be able to use this type of text, and presumably more areas of their brains that are involved in executive function to understand and learn new material.

As researchers delve more and more into the nuances between different types of genres, we are learning that the different cognitive demands of different types of texts may be an important consideration. This consideration is particularly for older struggling readers, who are at a stage where one of their primary modes of learning new information is through reading. More research is needed to fully reveal how differences between text types might influence teaching practices, especially since the implications of this research are that some students may struggle with one text type, but not the other. However, for now, teachers should be aware that these two types of text appear to have different cognitive demands which should be taken into account as they construct their lesson plans.