The Reading Matrix
Vol. 5, No. 1, April 2005

Content Area Literacy Instruction for the Elementary Grades
Donna E. Alvermann; Jeanne Swafford; M. Kristiina Montero (2004)
Boston : Pearson
Pp.x+ 302
ISBN: 0-205-36619-8
Cost: $64.40
Reviewed by Joseph Guenther


It is about time that a textbook should come out addressing elementary school students’ need to learn to read to learn before the fifth and sixth grade levels. The authors’ primary theme is that one can’t separate learning to read from reading to learn. They contend that one always reads to find out something – reading does not happen in a vacuum – it requires a context, it demands interest on the part of the reader, and the content and the interest to learn it form the purpose for reading.

A second theme is that literacy opportunities permeate our entire world, that there are no boundaries between content areas corresponding to the artificial ones within the traditional school, and that it is the role of the teacher to weave these literacy opportunities outside the classroom into the content goals within the classroom. The teacher’s goal is to stimulate the students enough so that they will make inquiry on their own into the subjects they find interesting and not be bound by traditional formats and sources. The authors also keep coming back to the idea that it is these experiences that help the student shape his or her own understanding of the world around us.

The authors contend that literacy instruction should be woven into the content areas, not kept apart from them. Literacy instruction should be in harmony between the outside world and the classroom world. Learning opportunities such as trade books, newspaper and magazine articles, photographs and Internet sources abound to both stimulate interest in the subject as well as for applying content area learning skills such as using the context, finding text structure, summarizing and mapping the text. We must remember that what happens in the outside world permeates the four walls of the classroom and cannot be kept outside of it. Therefore it should be utilized for what it is: content to be learned and woven into whatever is going on in the classroom. No true barriers exist between subject areas and artificial ones should not be created for the convenience of the curriculum. Teachers need to provide students tools for a deeper understanding of intra-subject and inter-subject connections. Students need to be shown how to make these connections well before fifth and sixth grade, when students traditionally begin to work with expository texts.

The authors provide a touching example of a kindergartener, while studying the growth cycle of plants in the classroom through non-fiction, fiction and experiments, shows them her own pumpkin garden and explains it to them. As one author is taking digital photos of Tien Tien and her garden, the child asks if she can use the camera to take photos herself. Learning can be integrated between the classroom and the world, and in fact extended beyond the subject itself.

A third theme, related to the other two, is the Vygotskian idea of social constructivism, that students construct their view of the world based on their own society and their experience within that society, along with the vocabulary and associations that it carries. The authors emphasize that all communications be genuine and authentic, interesting, enjoyable, and functional (for the students’ own social purposes). The texts employed and encountered during this developmental process, whether they be rhymes, jokes, songs, stories, or informational texts and texts of popular culture, will all have a role in how students construct their understanding of the community and the world around them.

The chapter on teaching comprehension emphasizes a constructivist approach whereby background knowledge is linked to new information. The authors emphasize the importance of making connections, inquiring about new ideas, inspiring a desire to learn more about a topic and going beyond that topic. These connections deepen the understanding of a topic and give the reader the tools to better evaluate what s/he is reading. Teachers are encouraged to use fun text/real world experiences to make connections to heighten the readers’ understanding that reading is enjoyable. The authors provide a variety of classroom activities to encourage this kind of engagement. It is refreshing to note that in a later chapter the authors do not neglect the critical but often overlooked topic of teaching text structure and its relationship to reading comprehension.

The book offers an exhaustive overview of best practices in content area literacy instruction with the most up-to-date, research-based instructional strategies, as well as clear-cut ways of understanding the concepts underlying them and opportunities to reflect and expand upon these ideas.

The approaches to developing vocabulary reflect the authors’ tone and intent throughout the book: active learning, connection to personal experience, immersion in a vocabulary-rich environment; multiple sources and experiences with the same words; teaching vocabulary as concepts. To its credit, in this chapter as in many other chapters are recommendations for instructional adaptations to meet the special needs of diverse learners, second language learners, and struggling readers. One wishes that the authors had developed these ideas and conceived strategies to extend throughout the text.

It is in this chapter, however, that the authors make a very serious omission. As good as the chapter on teaching vocabulary is, it neglects perhaps the most critical issues surrounding word identification. It does not so much as mention phonics, sound-symbol relationships, phonemic awareness, syllabication, or recognizing irregular, high-frequency words. The authors need be chastised here. People in the reading world are beyond the ancient practice of handing out endless worksheets. Phonics, using the context, whole word recognition – all these can be taught in a whole language environment or in a language experience story just as easily as they can be taught in a basal reader. But they must be taught, not absorbed. We can thoroughly immerse our students in literature and literacy opportunities and still have them remain illiterate.

Perhaps the reason there is no discussion of the need to develop these skills is that they represent a case where we do not read to learn. We are simply learning to read, plain and simple. Children do not want to know that a cat named pat wants to sit on a mat. Learning irregular spellings, for example, is a chore, not content related.

The text concludes with a cookbook of activities to stimulate reading, inquiry, and thinking, from double-entry journals to reciprocal teaching. There is also an appendix of leveled informational books, an appendix of informational texts and children’s literature for teaching content, and a table that correlates English language arts standards and reading professional standards with chapter content.

This book can almost be described as a whole-language book in sheep’s clothing. The major premises that literacy opportunities are all around us, that the universe itself is a unitary content area, that reading via the various learning media around us helps us to construct our own understanding of the world, can hardly be denied. These are all whole language concepts. The text makes a good case for each, and provides ample opportunities and suggestions for applying these important ideas to our classroom practice. If it is whole language, however, it is not completely doctrinaire. The use of content textbooks and tradebooks is thoroughly addressed and interwoven into the authors’ major themes. However, the authors neglect an important thesis. Not all reading is reading to learn. Before we can read to learn, we must learn to read. This, the foundation of all literacy, is completely ignored.


Joseph W. Guenther teaches courses in content area reading, developmental reading, and learning and language disorders at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville. He has also taught in Malaysia and Vietnam. His main area of interest is study skills and content area reading. He studied at the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he earned his doctorate.