________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 2. . . .September 10, 2010.


Whatever Happened to Language Arts?...It’s Alive and Well and Part of Successful Literacy Classrooms Everywhere.

David Booth.
Markham, ON: Pembroke, 2009.
176 pp., pbk., $24.95.
ISBN 978-1-55138-245-6.

Subject Headings:
Language arts (Elementary).
Literacy programs-Language arts (Secondary).

Professional: Grades 2-6.

Review by Betty Klassen.





Not long ago, I spent an evening helping two parents struggle with their definition of reading as it applies to their ten-year-old son. They told me he doesn’t read, just after the boy had shown me his new collection of Yukio facts, a 210-page paperback book which by all bookstore definitions was a book. The parents really meant to say, “He doesn’t read fiction, novels in particular.” But, of course, he does read them – in school. He may even be choosing the novels he is required to read. His father admitted to not reading novels at this time in his leisure life. And if video games had been invented during my childhood, would I have chosen the animal stories of Sir Charles G. D. Roberts? A literacy life is complicated, and often not dominated by one mode; together with school as allies, parents can expand the types of texts their children meet – and not devalue any of them. Novels can live alongside blogs and profiles and reviews and game cards.

David Booth, author of many previous books for teachers, parents and children, and Professor Emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (University of Toronto) has written this book based on the experiences and observations of his lengthy career. As he states in the Preface, “I have gathered together my assorted writings from over the last forty years or so to reflect on how we have been teaching Language Arts.” (p. 9) Booth’s reflections are located in the centre of the ten chapters, each divided into three sections: Today’s Classroom, The Rearview Mirror and Future Directions.

     Today’s Classroom sections are written by a variety of educators to showcase effective contemporary practices in a range of grades from 2 to 12. Practicing teachers discuss their use of Web 2.0 tools, such as blogs, wikis and customized web pages, expanding the variety of texts used to include graphic novels, comics, animated websites, and video clips; a teacher-librarian passes along seven suggestions for how to make reading “cool;” two administrators discuss how they use assessment to promote a caring school environment and to develop differentiated learning; and Shelley Stagg Peterson reflects on six stages of growth or professional development in her own career as an educator, author and professor.

     The Rearview Mirror sections are written by David Booth as a reflection on theory and practice at the start of his career and the evolution to current practices that broaden the definition of literacy, expand the range of texts, organize a literacy program, facilitate student writing, blend drama and story, use the internet for inquiry, value student voices as learning tools, gather assessment information and ways to maintain teachers’ lifelong professional growth. Booth also provides a brief analysis and response to the practice described in the accompanying Today Classroom section in each chapter.

     The third section of each chapter – Future Directions – presents readers with a range of information: Booth’s top 10 list of good literacy teaching ideas, a challenge to confront our assumptions and go beyond our comfort zones, a lengthy list of questions to “actively consider,” embracing new technologies to engage students in writing, ways to integrate role playing into the curriculum, seven phases of an inquiry learning model, questions and suggestions for creating opportunities to lead students to “talk to learn,” and how to connect to the global education world.

     Whatever Happened to Language Arts? provides practicing teachers with ideas to add to their current practice and challenges them to reflect on and evaluate their practice. Chapter 5, Has Anyone Seen My Pencil? includes two “features” written by classroom teachers to illustrate how they engage their students in writing. In the first one, Poetic Heartbeat outlines steps taken to “awaken” the poet in students before engaging them in writing their own poetry. Examples of the grade 4 and 5 students’ poetry are highlighted. The second feature describes how English Language Learners were motivated to write by the prospect of publishing their illustrated book on Terry Fox. Not all featured examples are this detailed and this practical. Most of them require significant background knowledge on the part of the teacher or further research to lead to a change in practice, therefore making this book of more value to practicing teachers than beginning teachers.

     A Foreword written by one of Booth’s students from 1965 pays tribute to him and the power of drama in education. The Afterward: Beginning to Teach, written by a new teacher, expresses excitement and passion as she simultaneously embarks on her teaching career and graduate school.

     A detailed three page index is helpful to find and revisit topics or items of information, but it includes no listing of various authors mentioned within the text. What is missing from the book is a Reference section. The Preface includes a box to acknowledge 14 excerpts included in the book, but throughout the left-sided margins of the book and within the text, many other books are referred to in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are discussed within the text on the page, and sometimes they are not referred to at all. One can just assume they would make good further reading. Numerous children’s books are referred to as examples within descriptions of teaching. A complete list of books referred to, divided into a Reference list, a Recommended Resource list and a Children’s Literature list would be helpful for readers wishing to continue their learning and wishing to locate these resources.


Betty Klassen teaches in the Middle Years Program at the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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