CM Magazine: Literacy Out Loud.
________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 24. . . .February 23, 2018


Literacy Out Loud: Creating Vibrant Classrooms Where "Talk" is the Springboard for All Learning.

Terry Anne Campbell & Michelle E. McMartin.
Markham, ON: Pembroke, 2017.
128 pp., trade pbk. & eBook, $24.95 (pbk.), $21.95 (eBook).
ISBN 978-1-55138-323-1 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55138-924-0 (eBook).

Subject Headings:
Oral communication.
Reading (Elementary).
Language arts (Elementary).


Review by Barbara McNeil.

*** /4



Many teachers have second thoughts about encouraging talk in their classrooms.

Some still see a quiet, orderly classroom as the ideal goal of good teacher management.
At the same time, most recognize the importance of healthy conversation and discussion as part of learning in a social-setting. How can we balance our accountability as teachers with willingness to relinquish control and let our students talk? How can we manage talk so that it doesn’t grow too loud, get too out of hand, or drift off-topic? How can we channel the energy of the loud talkers so that they do not dominate every discussion? At the other extreme, how can we ensure that the quiet members of our community have a voice and are listened to? Furthermore, how can we help to shape classroom talk in ways that foster deeper thinking and promote better communication skills? These are perennial teaching questions, whether we teach young children or adults.

Literacy Out Loud addresses these questions with specific strategies, most notably Community Circle, which both authors have used successfully (p. 11)


The value of talk is compounding in Canadian classrooms as teachers and others expand their understanding of multiple ways of knowing and being in the world, and, in particular, growing recognition of the importance of storytelling and oracy for Indigenous and other peoples in the Canadian context. Literacy Out Loud: Creating Vibrant Classrooms Where “Talk” is the Springboard For All Learning makes its timely appearance. It is a book that centers spoken language not signed ones and, as stated in the introduction, this is a place “where oral language strategies take centre stage” (p. 5).

      The rationale for the book is clearly outlined in the Introduction where the authors make a good case for “promoting listening and speaking activities as part of our everyday literacy practices in … classrooms (p. 7) where social learning is underlined. Three good reasons are provided to explain why oral language matters in today’s classrooms, and brain research is cited to offer a biological and, in general, a scientific justification for advocating greater listening and speaking as is research on the “[e]motional connections that talk make possible. As well, oral language is likened to a compass to assist young children to navigate new situations and tasks…and offer four specific classroom talk strategies (p. 8) that are elaborated later in the book.

      Chapter One, “Using Oral Language to Create Community”, shows how children’s literature and cultural practices can be used to provoke oral and written texts and the joyful socializing and community building it promotes. Community Circles that employs Talking sticks or stones are highlighted as a way for promoting “discussion equity” as learners respond to written texts, learn rules of social engagement, moral teachings, build community through story sharing and responding to fictional texts that are relevant to them (e.g., use of Marianthe’s Story: Painted words, Spoken Memories (Aliki, 1998) to discuss the experience of being new in a school). Thus, the essence of the chapter is: oral language—talk is effective---in building caring and respectful relationships and communities in and beyond the school via Community Circles.

      Chapter Two, “Creating a ‘Talk’ Classroom”, begins by examining some reasons why teachers may be skeptical and hesitant about implementing talk pedagogy (e.g., mistrust, control considerations, noise issue and assessment factor), and the chapter offers reasonable counterpoints and suggestions. “Real Discussions” (p. 22) are encouraged, a “Good Talk” Model is presented along with strategies for cultivating it (through the use of sentence frames based on systemic functional linguistics/grammar) and the use of role-plays is advanced (p. 24). Also presented are ways of “Inspiring and Supporting Student Talk”, promoting “respectful talk” and student-friendly “Guidelines for Good Talk”. In addition, the authors underline the importance of “Assessing Talk” and recommend “pedagogical documentation” as a complementary form of assessment for it. Pedagogical documentation entails “listening attentively to student discussions and learning stories”, reflecting on them, and by “keeping good records” of the communication, as well as providing “feedback and coaching” in ways that “make sense to students” (p. 28). The writers encourage use of informal and formal observations and record keeping using video or audiotaping, and “by making ongoing anecdotal notes”. To conclude the chapter, Campbell and McMartin employ Cambourne’s (2000/20001) model of learning that includes “key conditions for learning how to talk and for becoming literate” and share what some students have to say about the importance of talk (pp. 28-29). On the whole, this is an uneven chapter; the information is thin rather than thick.

      In Chapter Three, “Learning Out Loud: Talk Strategies for Students”, ways of making thinking audible and visible are discussed and made richly comprehensible through the use of students’ verbal and visual texts. Some of the strategies are “Sketch to Stretch plus”, a response activity that links “drawing, talking, reading, and writing” and positions students to “express personal connections symbolically and orally” (p. 32) in small as well large group settings. Campbell and McMartin illustrate the application of the strategy using the book, The Crow’s Tale (Howarth, 2015) beginning with the Read-Aloud and followed by a series of activities before, during, and after reading response activities (student sketches/drawings and their oral responses—Partner Chats). Given the multiple diversities in Canadian classrooms and the painful legacies of racialization, readers need to know that Literacy Out Loud contains student responses to The Crow’s Tale such as the following:

It doesn’t matter if people think you are ugly; it matters if you are beautiful inside. (p. 34)

See, this is Crow after it came back. But it’s not black in my drawing ‘cause I’m drawing how it looks on the inside. I think it doesn’t matter what you look like; it’s how your attitude is. And the crow still had beauty inside him, but it was just under all of the black burnt stuff. (p. 35)

My picture shows before and after the crow went to the sun. He gave the ultimate sacrifice of his beauty for everybody else. His most beautiful rainbow feathers, all burnt and black because he brought back the burning branch. What he did was selfless. He sacrificed his beauty. But he was still beautiful on the inside. It’s like if I went into a fire and came back with all black, and my hair all rough and crispy and burnt. (p. 35)
      Here, attention is drawn to the above student responses because of their explicit and implicit construction of blackness as negative, undesirable, ugly—not beautiful, thus implying that blackness is so undesirable that it is best to focus on what is inside—internal, non-physical characteristics. The responses of the learners are indicative of how the story positioned the students and show how the discourses they have inherited about blackness in racialized societies subconsciously work on them. Given this observation, it is prudent for teachers to consider how such a story and the discourses generated might position and impact students who are Black and/or have brown skin. Therefore, teachers are encouraged to use high levels of criticality and sensitivity when choosing the texts to use with”“Sketch and Stretch plus”, as discussed by Campbell and McMartin. Given racialization and racism, readers of The Crow’s Tale need to question why the authors of the book chose to include such responses and why they were included without words of caution. Learners are sociohistorical, raced, classed and gendered beings, and are rarely indifferent to the way the colour of their skin is represented in books—any book—even one that might predate the Middle passage.

      In addition to “Stretch to Sketch plus”, other familiar yet worthwhile talk generating strategies presented in Chapter Three are: Working with wordless books and partner ones such as Say Something and Inside-Outside Circle as well as small group discussion strategies like Carousel and Place Mat (pp. 38-43). Along with the preceding, whole-group discussion and sharing strategies such as Eeds (1990) Grand Conversations and student led book talks are described.

      “Playing with Language Out Loud” is centered in Chapter Four where language creativity is explored with flair and success. It includes good ideas about using chants, poems, raps, and rhymes to promote oral communication, clear instructions for creating multimodal poetry, and ideas for using children’s literature to spark thought and talk about words (e.g., collecting and categorizing words) and suggestion for exploring puns and idioms.

      Chapter Five brings attention to “Optimizing the Impact of Read-Alouds” for their talk potential and proposes taking learners on a “reading ride”. The journey begins with five criteria for selecting high-quality literature that seem generic and do not address what to look for in books for children from non-dominant groups—whatever their diversities. On another note, the authors encourage the use of provocative and controversial texts (e.g., texts that may have been challenged, sometimes by parents or school authorities, p. 60), problem-based, and evocative ones (those with the ability to evoke stories and themes through visuals/images) and reasons for doing so. And as in previous chapters, a variety of before, during, and after reading strategies are presented and is a strength. Above all though, the pride of the chapter are the excellent pieces of literature that are used to illustrate use of the strategies and tips mentioned.

      Readers are likely to find usefulness in Chapter 6, “Using Drama to Enhance Oral Communication", because of the lively ideas about the value of drama, the Speaking and Listening Anchor Chart for Presentations, selection of Everyday Drama activities, suggestions for exploring the drama potential of nursery rhymes, Interviewing in Role, Question-and-Answer Dialogues, and Tableaux with a Twist activities. Handy, too, is the story poem about the Three Billy Goats Gruff and the practical document for assessing Choral Speaking and Dramatization.

      A wealth of irresistible storytelling ideas are presented in Chapter Seven, “Speaking from the Heart: Storytelling”. Insightfully, the authors begin by underlining the universality of storytelling and its openness to all, and then proceed with nuanced discourse on the Cultural Consideration in Story Selection where, among the fine suggestions, readers are asked to “bear in mind that the cultural origins of the stories are relevant” (p. 89). Furthermore, readers are reminded to consider the “issue of cultural appropriation” especially when “telling unpublished stories from another person’s culture and when engaging in follow-up activities, such as making dream catchers…” (p. 90). In addition, there are handy subsections on “Showing Respect”, “Benefits of Engaging in Storytelling” and “Getting Started in Storytelling”—which exhort us to “invite student participation by highlighting personal storytelling through activities such as community sharing circles at the start of each day” (p. 92). Overall, this chapter sizzles with many joyful and practical action points related to storytelling in classroom! Not to be missed are the sections on “Storytelling as Performance,”, “Terry’s 10 Steps for Storytellers”, a list of “Tales for Telling and Retelling”, and a “Storytelling Assessment Checklist” (pp. 98-102).

      Chapter Eight, entitled “Using Talk Circles for Readers Theatre”, packs a nice punch! Theoretically grounded, the information on Readers Theatre and how it can be enhanced through talk circles where students engage in “collaborative discussions and rehearsals, which are optimized by the circle formation” is top-notch. Such formations privilege talk and allow performers to benefit from and give feedback during rehearsals, thereby privileging listening as well, whilst contributing to improved performances of readers theatre scripts (p. 103). Discussed as well, are the values and benefits of readers theatre, how to get started, adapting for kindergarteners, 10 solid steps to successful productions, success criteria, scripting, independent readers theatre, suggested resources, and a dandy, ready-to-use script! Altogether, this makes for a capital chapter!

      The final chapter, Nine, “Coming Full Circle”, pulls together content from previous chapters that collectively stress the value of talk out loud classrooms and culminates by sharing seven kinds of reasons for such an approach, observations from the authors’ teacher collaborator Michelle, who, as she did throughout the book, attests to the transformative power of classrooms that centre oral language—talk-based pedagogies.

      Literacy Out Loud is a serviceable book filled with many practical ideas for centering oracy—listening and speaking not only as effective pathways to literacy, but also for the development of much needed oral communication skills for self-actualization (cognitive, emotional, linguistic, social and physical), and participation in society. Additionally, there is some content that could benefit from greater criticality and sensitivity. Also, the book ignores the needs of students who are in every school—the deaf and hard-of-hearing. This is a pity. The attention paid to the multiple diversities in Canadian classrooms was attenuated.

      On the whole though, Literacy Out Loud got better with each chapter, with 6, 7, and 8 being strongest. For the most part, the information and ideas shared were contextualized, nuanced, and informed by relevant theoretical frameworks. A lovely bonus is the literature recommended in most chapters—worthwhile.


Dr. Barbara McNeil teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Regina, SK.

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