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

Creating Literacy Instruction for All Students in Grades 4 to 8
Thomas G. Gunning
Allyn and Bacon, Boston, MA, USA (2004) Paperback
ISBN: 0205356842
Pp. xviii - 526 Cost: $75.20
Reviewed by Lawrence Jun Zhang
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University 1 Nanyang Walk, Singapore 637616, Republic of Singapore


Creating Literacy Instruction for All Students in Grades 4 to 8 is a sequel to a widely adopted parent text for elementary education by the same author, Creating Literacy Instruction for All Students in Grades Pre-K to 4. It is a welcome addition to the already well-developed field of literacy instruction.

The whole book is organized to reflect the order of the growth of literacy and is divided into 12 chapters, followed by two appendixes. Chapter 1, “The Nature of Literacy and Today’s Students,” introduces readers to the basic theoretical concepts and/or philosophy relating to literacy education. Issues such as readers’ role in the reading process, controversial issues surrounding literacy instruction, and the importance of literacy models in instruction are explained with a clear objective of situating the approaches adopted in the book to an appropriate level so that readers find it easy to follow the text flow.

In Chapter 2, “Evaluation,” the author highlights issues in literacy assessment instead of following the convention usually seen in books of this kind. As a close follow-up on Chapter 1, this chapter gives substantial information about the Standards Movement in America, followed by an easy-to-understand explanation of such notions as “norm-referenced tests,” “criterion-referenced tests,” and other modes of assessment such as retelling, think-aloud protocols, observation, anecdotal, questionnaires and interviews. Self-evaluation and portfolios and other available assessment tools are also introduced and explained.

Chapter 3, “Teaching Phonics, High-Frequency Words, and Syllabic Analysis”, heralds the start of literacy strategies that teachers may find highly useful. Ways of teaching phonics to older students, using word analysis references and integrated approaches are all presented with very specific classroom procedures. In anticipation of large numbers of students learning English as a major second language in America, issues in this connection are also discussed in a section on “Teaching Phonics to English Language Learners,” which, to me, expands its scope to meet the needs of a larger readership. Fluency-building activities are also introduced and discussed, especially vis-à-vis the debate over the effects of repeated reading vs. wide/extensive reading on students’ reading improvement.

Chapter 4, “Building Vocabulary,” focuses on practical classroom procedures based on seven principles of developing vocabulary: building experiential background, relating vocabulary to background, building relationships, developing depths of meaning, presenting several exposures, creating an interest in words, and teaching students how to learn new words. The chapter presents at least 15 specific techniques for teaching vocabulary. Two techniques to be mentioned here, “graphic organizers” and “discovering sesquipedalian words (long words),” are just cases in point. In the latter case, Gunning says that teachers can make a difference by offering help to students in analyzing word parts (p. 135). For example, sesquipedalian can be analyzed in such a way that the meaning of “foot and a half” or long words can be easily brought out. This is because sesquipedalian comprises two main parts: sesqui (one and one-half) and ped (foot). Teachers who are keen to have in their own teaching strategies repertoire something more wide-ranging may find this chapter particularly useful.

Chapter 5, “Comprehension: Theory and Strategies,” and Chapter 6, “Comprehension: Text Structures and Teaching Procedures,” look at literacy instruction at a higher level; that is, text comprehension instruction becomes the foreground. With a very quick update on some important social and psychological theories relevant to literacy instruction, e.g., constructivism, schema theory, situation models, the role of attention, and the role of student interest, Chapter 5 presents comprehension strategies such as scaffolding, monitoring and reciprocal teaching very effectively. Chapter 6 builds upon what precedes it. Text structure or the genre of a particular type of text is recommended as a very important pedagogical support in teachers’ effort to enhance students’ comprehension. Two major aspects: (a) Narrative texts and the related story schema, and (b) organizational patterns of exposition, are highlighted. Of greater interest to readers might be the author’s further elaboration of the role of questions in comprehension instruction and the importance of critical reading, the latter of which is, more often than not, neglected in the traditional literacy classrooms.

In Chapters 7, 8, and 9, Gunning addresses issues related to the teaching of reading and writing in the content areas as well as the role of literature in literacy classrooms. Aspects involving using content-area textbooks, instructional techniques and a host of other reading and study strategies are supplied with examples. Clearly classified approaches to teaching reading that have been adopted in the classroom and are presented in the chapters range from the basal approach, the literature-based book approach, individualized reading-writing workshops, to the language-experience approach, all of which, to me, are more closely related to the way extensive reading is encouraged to be conducted in ESL and EFL curricula. On top of introducing these approaches, Gunning also critiques the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.

Reading-writing connections are examined in Chapter 10. Ways for helping students to think and read like a writer are suggested with the aim of helping them improve their writing. In addition to recommending the Key Traits Approach for assessing and improving writing, the author also discusses the advent of technology as an empowering tool that can be made available to teachers so that students can be given the help needed for improving their writing skills. Means such as desktop publishing and emailing are useful language activities that will stimulate student growth in writing skills. Of course, with the increasing popularity of chat-rooms on the Internet, teachers can also explore this hypertextual possibility.

Diversity in the classroom is an important issue in classrooms today. Therefore, Gunning alerts readers to students-at-risk and students with learning disabilities in Chapter 11. Chapter 12 concludes the book with some explorations of constructing and managing literacy programs. Students, teacher resources, and technology are all brought together to look beyond the classroom today. In particular, the conclusion of the book with a section on professional development ends the book well on a good note. The Checklist for an Effective Literacy Program (pp. 475-476) will help many teachers think about literacy activities within and outside the classroom.

The book should be a highly recommended textbook for learner-teachers, teachers in practice as well as anyone who is interested in literacy instruction either at home or in school. Written in easy-to-access language, it has very clear and specific goals. By virtue of its practical nature and the very inspiring chapters, it will arouse many teachers’ interest in exploring literacy education issues in earnest. The good visual quality boosted by the online support provided by the publisher enhances its worth in dollars and cents (see p. xvii for more information).

Just as the introduction on the back over of the book says, Creating Literacy Instruction for All Students in Grades 4 to 8 is the first book of its kind. After reading it through, I agree that it really is. One prominent feature of it is its clear and systematic marriage of theory with practice, without making it pedantic. It provides readers with detailed and step-by-step guidance for teaching all major aspects of reading and writing to students in grades 4 to 8. Specifically, it also provides lessons, a children’s reading list, student strategies, reinforcement activities and exemplary teaching. A highlight of the Special Features of the textbook on the inside front cover page makes readers immediately see what unique features the book boasts.

Although, basically, the text is prepared for English as a first or mother-tongue language (L1) setting, especially suitable for teachers working in North America, I find it also relevant to teaching English as an additional language (EAL), as defined in Europe, especially in the UK, or English as a second language (ESL), as defined in North America and in the international language teaching community. This is because the section “Help for Struggling Readers and Writers” also takes care of English language learners within regular classrooms. The marginal annotations on “Adapting Instruction for English Language Learners” gives additional suggestions. Although many of the ideas are a bit remote to English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) teachers, given the high readability of the book, I strongly recommend this text to both preservice and in-service teachers who are interested in teaching English language art in any education system — including, necessarily, EAL, ESL and EFL. Of course, this recommendation should be scrutinized on the basis of how some of the ideas can be adopted and/or adapted for use in the classroom with particular reference to the students teachers are faced with (see particularly p. 15, where students’ language proficiency is emphasized). In fact, the book recognizes the importance of language proficiency in several chapters where English language learners are concerned.

What strikes me as extremely impressive is the author’s listing of over 800 children’s books with details of their publishers (Appendix A, pp. 480-489). What is more laudable is the fact that these titles are further classified into different categories according to grade-levels. The minute details the author has heeded go to the extent that readers cannot help but commending him for his deliberations of indexing them with a dot if the book is regarded as an outstanding title. Fiction and non-fiction works are differentiated with an “N” to designate those that are non-fiction. This list will be a tremendous help to many busy teachers who are thinking of creating literacy programs but who lack sources or resources and expert knowledge of the available literature that they can make use of. I find Appendix B: Informal Assessment of Key Skills and Strategies a useful tool for lower-grades teachers who wish to measure students’ key skills, especially in diagnosing students’ oral-reading problems.

Taken as a whole, the textbook not only “offer[s] sample lessons for virtually every major literacy skill/strategy” (back book cover) as a response to the needs of today’s literacy instruction for the middle grades, it also presents numerous reinforcement suggestions that are definitely appropriate for the middle grades. With the theories underpinning the methods, readers can freely choose, adapt, and/or construct their own approaches as they create a balanced evidence-based program of literacy instruction.

One minor imperfection is that some illustrations or tables are not as visually appealing as they should be. I feel that, if some of them could be printed in color, this defect could be rectified. Despite this shortcoming, I anticipate huge successes in my reading methods course when I use this textbook given that it is mainly centered around learner-teachers, pre-service, in-service or any other categories of teachers who are interested in a thorough understanding of literacy instruction, especially practical strategies for teaching literacy at upper primary and lower secondary levels.


Lawrence Jun Zhang, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics and Teacher Education at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he teaches Language Studies, Psycholinguistics and Reading Methods. Besides working as the Coordinator of the Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE-English Language) Programme, he also supervises MA (Applied Linguistics) theses. His current research interest lies mainly in language teacher education, especially preservice reading teacher preparation. His work has appeared in journals such as Asia Pacific Journal of Language in Education, Asian Journal of English Language Teaching, International Journal of Educational Reform, Language Awareness and RELC Journal.