National Writing Project

Book Review: Literature Is Back! Using the Best Books for Teaching Readers and Writers Across Genres

By: Lisa Light
Date: December 19, 2008

Summary: Lisa Light, co-director at Jacksonville State University Writing Project, describes Literature Is Back! as a lifeline to primary/intermediate and middle school teachers, with lists of books and practical research-supported ideas for using children's literature to teach key literacy skills and strategies.

 

Recently, as I watched the evening news, a story about the dangers of ocean riptides caught my attention. The reporter stood on a white, sandy beach where about a dozen swimmers, relishing the waves, appeared to ignore warnings of riptides, those silent and sneaky underwater demons that suck innocent and panicked victims out to sea.

For some reason, this scene reminded me of our current conditions in education: teachers and students, surfing the waves of learning together, struggling to remain afloat, while the lurking riptides of high stakes testing, federal and state mandates, and imposed research-based, scripted instructional programs continue to pull us farther away from the sight of the shoreline—our shared vision of true education.

How do we survive these educational riptides? Carol J. Fuhler and Maria P. Walther, authors of Literature Is Back! Using the Best Books for Teaching Readers and Writers Across Genres, throw teachers a lifeline. The authors, both teachers, offer lists of genre-specific books for primary/intermediate teachers and middle school language arts teachers and provide practical research-supported ideas for using children’s literature to teach key literacy skills and strategies.

Our days are often frantic with a milewide curriculum to teach along with many other mandates. So how do we make time to include children's literature in our instruction?

Children’s Literature and Literacy Instruction

Chapter one makes the case for why children’s literature, written primarily for readers from infancy to age fourteen, is valuable for literacy instruction. According to the authors, children’s literature is composed of a variety of genres containing key literary elements such as plot, conflict, characterization, setting, theme, and style—ingredients often associated with a “good book.”

The authors provide teaching ideas for these elements and suggest book titles that stress them. They also provide reproducible student materials that will assist book talks, as well as ideas for reading aloud. Chapter one ends, as do all the chapters, with a list of carefully selected websites for teachers and students to use while further exploring the chapter’s focus.

Chapters two through eight highlight the different genres specific to children’s literature: picture books, traditional literature, modern fantasy, contemporary realistic fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Each chapter is divided into two parts. Part one consists of background information about the genre, listings of suggested book titles, teaching ideas, and supporting research. Part two links literature and learning with detailed lesson plans featuring reading and writing connections. These plans can be used “as is” or modified to fit a particular grade level and set of state standards. Again, reproducible student materials and supporting websites are provided.

Teachers Who Refuse to Give Up

The last chapter helps to answer the question, “But how can I find the time?” Our days are often frantic with a milewide curriculum to teach along with many other mandates. So how do we make time to include children’s literature in our instruction?

The riptide analogy is relevant here.When engulfed by a riptide we should not fight the current; struggling in this way can only lead to exhaustion and even death. Instead, we should swim in a diagonal direction parallel to the shoreline, keeping the shore in constant vision until we are beyond the pull of the current.

Likewise, as effective teachers, we must remain committed and focused, never losing sight of the “shoreline,” that is, our students and their needs, as well as our curriculum standards. Focused in this way, we can put to work the authors’ suggestions for time management, reading and writing conferences, book talks, and other practical implementations.

Literature Is Back! is for teachers who refuse to give up, who still believe in the importance of using children’s literature, real literature and not scripted lessons and fabricated texts, to entice and motivate their students to value reading and writing.

As a middle school language arts teacher, NWP teacher-consultant, and National Board Certified teacher, I believe every teacher of primary through middle school grades should add this book to his or her repertoire of professional development resources. I urge you to do as these authors suggest, “Examine your beliefs.” Fortunately, we have resources such as Literature Is Back! that can help us blend great books and teaching ideas with our required curriculum standards as we move our students toward successful experiences in reading and writing.

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