CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 13 . . . . December 1, 2017
For professional teachers, the complex processes involved in teaching require strong commitments to lifelong learning and that often involves turning to more knowledgeable others—seasoned, master teachers whose own commitment to learning make them cherished mentors—to whom we turn for guidance, support and joyful encouragement. David Booth is that kind of a teacher. In Literacy 101, Booth, experienced teacher of teachers and respected researcher, shares professional knowledge that he has been developing and refining since launching his teaching career in a Grade five classroom in 1958.
Along with an instructive introduction, the information in the book is set out in seven detailed chapters that are supported by a conclusion, a bibliography and an index. Each chapter begins with a carefully framed question and a related subset of questions for which Booth provides answers based on his lived teaching practices and experiences—extensive research with classroom teachers across Canada, conversations with child learners as well as knowledge gleaned from the plethora of professional literature he reads. Chapter One, for instance, is entitled: "Why is 'literacy' such a popular term in teaching today?" and includes a subset of questions such as: What are the new literacies?; Can I teach comprehension or is it just a memory test?; Why do some students not understand a text while others "get it"?; Are there differences between "literature" and "literacy"; Can picture books be used with older students?; and my favorite, How can I make better use of the school library? These questions resonated with me and will with other teachers because we have asked them repeatedly in our professional lives. Also, an appealing feature of Chapter One and every chapter is Booth's storytelling: he shares many personal anecdotes from his varied teaching experiences. Together, they make for a compelling read because their authenticity and insightfulness.
Chapter Two—"How do I actually teach students to read?"—will attract much attention because even the most proficient teachers remain curious and are interested in knowing what a senior scholar/teacher has to say about this topic so as to "enrich and extend" their own knowledge and skills and, for the sheer pleasure of learning from a trusted colleague. In this chapter, Booth identifies and addresses the specific needs of the early, emergent, developing, fluent and independent reader as is consonant with current theories about literacy development. Also, readers will appreciate the discussion about phonics, sight words, and the numerous reading strategies that are included.
Having addressed important code-breaking and comprehension strategies in Chapter Two, Booth turns to students' response to text in Chapter Three where he asks: "Should students always respond to text?" He offers the following cogent advice: "by incorporating a variety of response activities, we can move students into different, divergent, critical, and deeper levels of thinking, feeling, and learning" (p. 38). With such advice, this scholar underscores the importance of allowing and encouraging student responses so that the voice of every reader in the nation's classrooms can be heard or "represented on issues of social justice, gender, faith, and culture" (p. 39). Noteworthy as well in this chapter is the focus on storytelling, and poems for choral reading that enable teachers to affirm the diverse identities found in contemporary classrooms.
Similar to the previous one, Chapter Four is filled with a wide array of tips and strategies, but here the author's focus is answering this question: "How can I organize an effective reading program?" The importance of this chapter cannot be overstated. It zooms in on reading and writing workshops, grouping students, student self-assessment of group work, guided reading, "reluctant" readers and suggestions about conceptualizing and working with "parents as educational partners". Booth suggests that such partnerships are essential in order to foster literacy development in a manner that does not overburden parents and complicate students' home lives.
In Chapter Five, readers' attention is directed specifically toward writing. Booth poses such important questions as: Should writing instruction happen for example in science? (definitely yes!); What happens in a writing workshop?; What should students write about?; and How should teachers help in a writing conference? In addition, Booth explores topics of helping students write "informed" opinions and the incorporation of drama through the use of scripts and writing in role. With regard to the last two items, the author states, "I can't stress too much how profoundly role play and drama can support writing activities, from reflective notebooks and letters to interviews and proclamations" (p. 94).Without a doubt, a strength of the fifth chapter is the exhortation to integrate arts-based practices, such as role play, tableaux, ritual, and playmaking, in order to support students' writing development.
Because Literacy 101 seeks to provide a manageable, yet comprehensive, overview of literacy instruction for the K-12 education sector, the author tackles topics that are foundational to effective classroom literacy practices. One of those is suggested by the title of Chapter 6: "How do I develop a literacy community?" Here, Booth reveals his savvy about literacy learning—namely that each student in a classroom needs to have a sense of belonging. This savvy educator explains to his audience that "[t]eachers can try to create a cooperative classroom culture of curiosity, inquiry, and discovery that can result in greater engagement." He also states that the "students in your class will each reveal divergent interests, abilities, cultures, and family background, but you can try to build a classroom community that encourages a cooperative and respectful atmosphere for all members" (p. 96). Few would disagree with such an entreaty because it is, and will be, among the most significant requirements for effective, responsive instruction as well as compassionate classroom management in today's and future classrooms. To help teachers create such classrooms, Chapter Six provide answers to queries such as: Are there times when the whole class should read a novel together?; How do I handle issues of culture, gender, and diversity in literacy?; How do I help ESL learners achieve success in my reading/writing programs?, and; How do I help students with special requirements in a regular classroom? (pp. 97-104). The answers provided are open-ended and flexible and are not presented as being the final, definitive, and only ones. They represent starting points—points of illumination for beginning, and more experienced teachers.
Chapter Seven deals with assessment and evaluation. It asks the questions many teachers ask: How can I use tests to teach?" It is to Booth's credit that he begins the chapter by characterizing/positioning teachers as "caring" sentient human beings who "want to develop assessment strategies and use evaluation to help our students recognize their strengths and recognize their weaknesses", thereby allowing them to "design useful instruction for supporting their literacy growth" (p. 105). Along with the preceding, a strength of this chapter is the important distinction made between "assessment (what we discover to direct our teaching) and evaluation (how we measure and report a student's proficiency" (p. 105). Contained in this chapter as well are excellent tips on how to help students monitor their own reading progress and a questionnaire that teachers can use to ascertain if they "have an effective literacy program" in their classrooms (pp. 108-109).
In the concluding section of the book, the author weaves everything together through the use of a "literacy unit based on the picture book Sleeping Boy (Cradddock & Gore, 1999) using the strategy of a written memoir as the response activity (e.g., first person storytelling). Aspects of the first, second and third lessons of the unit are included for the benefit of practitioners. Included as well are examples of students' written responses and Booth's "teaching thoughts on their responses." With reference to the latter, Booth states, "In their brief but heartfelt memoirs, you can observe how the first-person voice allows them to describe, recount, and comment on their perceptions of the story. The details of the story are clear in their brief retellings, and some personalize their memoirs with deep sadness or identify with the villagers who were victims of war" (p. 112). This is compelling testimony from a teacher-educator who knows much of which he speaks. Booth has worked alongside teachers and their students in literacy rich classrooms, and it behooves those who read the book to take heed of the knowledge he imparts.
Literacy 101 is a commendable book that offers thoughtful insights, reams of pedagogically sound, practical strategies and tips. To be lauded as well are Booth's accessible text and the authenticity of his personal voice and anecdotes. These are supported by many references to exceptional professional literature by such literacy teachers and scholars as Donald Graves (2003), Shelley Stagg Peterson (2011; 2008), Kelly Gallagher (2015), Lori Rog (2012, and Gail Tompkins (2003). Though there are some things to quibble about: (e.g., posing questions that are not answered directly, the use of binary constructions such as "strengths and weakness" that eschews the complexity of student achievements, questions that do not jive with the declared topic of the chapter, better transitions between sub-topics, and the need to incorporate more information by an even more diverse list of teachers, scholars and authors); the book is a worthwhile one for emerging and experienced teachers wishing to get a solid and comprehensive overview of literacy at this historical moment. Moreover, one of the outstanding features of the book is Booth's kind and persuasive tone. I terminated my reading of the book convinced that the author cares deeply for, and respects, pupils and teachers. Booth joyously supports and encourages the important literacy work they carry out in the country's classrooms. Thank you Mr. Booth!
Dr. Barbara McNeil is an Instructor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina of Regina in Regina, SK.