Should we use narrative texts to teach science, math, and social studies?

  • narrative text content area reading disciplinary literacy
  • 05 December, 2020

Teacher question:

In graduate school, we are being taught that we should use “hybrid texts” to teach content subjects. As a middle school math teacher, I think this is a horrible idea given our scant resources. Where do you stand on the use of hybrid text?

Shanahan response:

I share your concerns. I think hybrid text or mixed-genre text is an instructional idea that misses the point and leaves kids ill prepared for the future.

Hybrid text is an expository text that includes narrative elements. A widely known example would be the Magic School Bus books. Those books present various social studies or science information in the context of a story.

The basic idea is to make content learning easier by presenting the information in a more friendly way. Kids are more familiar with stories than science texts, and there are lots of reasons to believe that stories are easier to understand – so embedding science content in a story should improve learning and, perhaps, would provide a more enjoyable experience (Bintz & Ciecierski, 2017).

At least, that’s the theory.

Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I don’t think that kind of evidence clinches the case for either side in this argument.

For example, in one study, fifth graders were found to have greater confidence with and comprehension of the content presented in narrative portions of a text versus the expository sections (Hung, 2015). Similarly, a study of middle school science found that students learned and remembered more information from texts that had embedded the key science information in the context of discovery stories (Arya & Maul, 2012).

On the other hand, a study of third and fourth graders found no differences in the ease of reading, comprehension, recall, or text preference among students presented with narrative and expository text (Cervetti, Bravo, Hiebert, Pearson, & Jaynes, 2009).

Where does that leave us?

Sometimes the use of narrative to present content information can facilitate learning.   

Knowledge matters, of course, and anything that makes learning a bit easier is a good thing in my book. However, what might be slightly beneficial in the short run, may be damaging overall. There are many reasons why the use of narrative text and hybrid text to teach math, social studies, and science is not such a great idea.

One of the things that we want students to learn is how to read expository text – particularly the kinds of texts that will allow them to take on science, history, and mathematics. Research has identified several key differences in the reading of such texts and the reading of stories.

Narrative and expository texts have different purposes, structures, levels of difficulty, attractiveness to readers, dependence on prior knowledge, vocabulary, processing requirements, and so on (e.g., Best, Floyd & McNamara, 2008). Students need to learn to negotiate these varied demands.

These differences are the reason why studies show that students can be confused by the use of narrative for expository purposes (Zwaan, 1994). Students may focus on how the children in the story are going to get back from their field trip to outer space rather than on trying to distinguish comets from asteroids. If you are reading a story, it’s the characters and their intentions that matter (Ryuta & Eriko, 2006) – not the random science or social studies facts that may be salted into the story. Good readers align their reading purposes with the genre they are reading. Hybrid texts tend to confuse this issue -- adding an additional processing tier for good readers (“this isn’t really a story, so I need to ignore the story elements here”) while confusing less sophisticated readers (“I worked hard at understanding that story and the teacher didn’t ask me any questions that were relevant to what I read”).

Another problem with this approach is that it misleads students into not studying hard enough. Readers estimate how well they understand a text and increase or reduce effort accordingly. If I think the text is easy, I reduce my effort. Studies show that students are misled by the narrative characteristics of these texts, reducing their effort because they misjudge how well they are doing (Golke, Hagen, & Wittwer, 2019).

My advice? If you want to teach students to read math text, don’t seek a storybook that embeds mathematical facts or operations into a provocative narrative.

Students will learn to read math by reading authentic math text with guidance and instruction from someone who knows how to read such text.

Reading some other kind of text might make it easier, but that won’t help students to prepare for a life of reading the kinds of texts necessary to succeed in STEM fields. And, that is especially important for girls and minorities who tend to end up excluded from these opportunities.   

Learners benefit from clear models. Hybrids just confuse the matter.


Arya, D. J., & Maul, A. (2012). The role of the scientific discovery narrative in middle school science education: An experimental study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 1022-1032. doi:

Best, R.M., Floyd, R.G., & McNamara, D.S. (2008). Differentiated competencies contributing to children’s comprehension of narratives and expository texts. Reading Psychology, 29, 137-164.

Bintz, W. P., & Ciecierski, L. M. (2017). Hybrid text: An engaging genre to teach content area material across the curriculum. Reading Teacher, 71(1), 61-69. doi:

Cervetti, G. N., Bravo, M. A., Hiebert, E. H., Pearson, P. D., & Jaynes, C. A. (2009). Text genre and science content: Ease of reading, comprehension, and reader preference. Reading Psychology, 30(6), 487-511. doi:

Golke, S., Hagen, R., & Wittwer, J. (2019). Lost in narrative? the effect of informative narratives on text comprehension and metacomprehension accuracy. Learning and Instruction, 60, 1-19. doi:

Hung, Y. (2015). Taiwanese grade-five students reading a chinese science text of mixed sub-genres: A miscue analysis study. Journal of Curriculum and Teaching, 4(1), 30-41. Retrieved from

Ryuta, I., & Eriko, K. (2006). How do situation models differ in narrative and expository text? A comparison based on five situational dimensions. Japanese Journal of Educational Psychology, 54(4), 464-475. doi:

Zwaan, R. A. (1994). Effect of genre expectations on text comprehension. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20(4), 920-933. doi:


See what others have to say about this topic.

Tania May 01, 2021 11:32 AM

As a STEM teacher myself I often wonder how to best use hybrid text. My conclusion is that we should stop asking ourselves “Which text is most suitable in the STEM classroom?” and rather wonder: “How do I use this text to engage students?”
The text selection is but one decision that should fit the teacher and students needs. The difference lies in how we utilize the different narratives. We can begin by using stories to pull the students in; yet keep the focus on the science. We want to ask the students “How did the characters know how to solve his problem?” and “How did the characters prove their hypothesis?” At that point we could use heavy content text when we are trying for the student to make sense of the information and use it to help the characters solve issues. Next, we could describe the characters thinking process as a way to show the scientific method as a problem-solving strategy with questions like: “What did the characters do when their experiments failed?”, “How did the other characters in the story help him?” or “Why did they have to try their experiment so many times?”. We can finally ask the students what they would do if they found themselves in a similar situation. All of these questions excite student’s curiosity and help them understand the value of the science itself. Rather than simply letting them be passive listeners on a story they can use the knowledge to solve problems, the very essence of Science itself.

Timothy Shanahan May 01, 2021 02:38 PM

I really disagree with that approach. There is enough to learn in science and in how to read science to take the time to read stories is just not sound practice. Engagement in science is what you want. Anyone can get kids to be engaged in something else. The reason teachers need to commit to engagement is to get kids deeply invested in what is being taught -- the approach you describe if it were to get kids engaged they would not be engaged in the subject under study.

good luck.


Rebecca Gifford May 26, 2021 05:42 PM

Please do not forget that some of what is couched as "science" is actually a narrative story. Take Evolution. It is treated as truth, yet it is still only a story with little evidence (Very few "proven" fossils as in-betweens, from hundreds of thousands of fossils dug up since hypothesis). Stories are already embedded into science and history and are treated as factual when they can hardly be proven. Students need to understand this clearly. Story and facts are more blended than most people want to admit.

Mark Pennington Dec 05, 2020 07:37 PM

Hmmm... Isn't all history a blend of narrative and expository text? Yes, it messes with our text structure lessons, but it's certainly hybrid.

Karen Sandelin Dec 05, 2020 11:19 PM

We need both. Stories make learning relevant, relatable and interesting. Presented well they can also show the importance of rigour.

David Coker Dec 06, 2020 12:43 AM

I think some of you are missing the point. There can be a mix of narratives and expository, but making all subjects, like equations into a story with characters, add a level of complexity and white noise which could harm some students. A larger problem is colleges have lots of expository texts. Students need time to master then.

Daniel Willingham dissuaded me from overly focusing on relevant and interesting. Making such demands means many students tune out, as personal relevance is a black hole. Use caution in being neat, fun, and interesting. Sometimes one also detracts from the main point. Think of great commercials, yet no one knows what the product was.

I think deviating from routines and explicit instruction are detrimental for most students. Still, using a storyboard sometimes is needed.

Tim Shanahan Dec 06, 2020 02:57 AM

There certainly is narrative history but historians view that as a special form of argument. Readers need to translate it to argument to get it (a very different game than interpreting a literary story).


Farida Dec 06, 2020 08:01 AM

I think the pros of using hybrid text far outweigh the cons. I agree with some of the cons you have highlighted here. All in all, balance is key, some hybrid is important to make learning fun.

Julie S Dec 06, 2020 01:27 PM

I agree that kids need to understand how to read all sorts of text. Would it help, no matter what the text, the teacher would explicitly state why the text was chosen and what the child is expected to get from it? Then the student knows if they should focus on the narrative element or the factual element? Then, something I as an adult am realizing, understanding the difference between nodding along with a text as you comprehend it, versus really knowing the material. The latter takes a different level of work on a student’s part—what is worth knowing, then, getting it from short term to long term memory. That will require work with the knowledge beyond reading and rereading. Students need to be taught this part of studying too, but I think it’s assumed they either know how, or will absorb the knowledge through exposure.

Lyzette Dec 07, 2020 04:34 AM

What about having students show their knowledge of social science by writing a narrative text, I.e. a day in the life of a Roman slave, or the life of a water droplet? Students are showing their new knowledge in a familiar way.

Trina D Spencer Dec 07, 2020 01:52 PM

Thank you Tim, and David. I like your points very much. I was just trying to explain them to a friend the other day so this was so timely. However, I want to ask a follow up the risks apply to assessment as well? Do you think hybrid texts can be effectively used for progress monitoring? And what about for listening comprehension versus reading comprehension, does the risk change?

Timothy Shanahan Dec 08, 2020 12:16 AM

Trina --

I understand some of the arguments here for using narrative to support learning in content areas (understand them, but don't agree given the evidence). But when it comes to assessment, you don't want to evaluate performance on the basis of what are weird genres. Best to use characteristic text not exceptional text -- in terms of genre, language, etc.


Timothy Shanahan Dec 08, 2020 12:18 AM


You can do that, but I'm trying to figure out what you are preparing kids for? Who does that kind of writing? Where would that fit in higher education or in life?



Carol Trovall Dec 09, 2020 10:21 PM

I agree that purpose is central to the argument.

I believe that we should encourage students to read stories (narrative texts) that include science, math and SS for pleasure to help them discover that the STEM disciplines can be fun. My daughter learned to love science from Ms. Frizzle, but she didn't learn science content that way.

When the goal of the reading is to learn content, we should use a text structure that matches the content from early on, partly so that the students learn the content in depth and partly so they learn how to learn content from increasingly complex text structures. If we are not teaching students how to make meaning from a variety of text structures, their comprehension will lag behind when they are faced with an unfamiliar text structure. If we rely too heavily on narrative text structures in the early grades, students will find non-narrative structures inaccessible just as the content is becoming more difficult.

Michelle Deckard Jan 16, 2021 10:37 PM

I believe that there are different purposes for expository versus narrative text which teach a information for a subject area. I believe both should be used for different purposes.

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Should we use narrative texts to teach science, math, and social studies?


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