Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Literacy Tools in the Classroom: Teaching Through Critical Inquiry, Grades 5-12

reviewed by Ting Yuan - October 05, 2010

coverTitle: Literacy Tools in the Classroom: Teaching Through Critical Inquiry, Grades 5-12
Author(s): Richard Beach, Gerald Campano, Brian Edmiston, and Melissa Borgmann
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807750565, Pages: 176, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

At a time when educators and researchers are facing “puzzling scarcity” of literacy research that might guide instructional practice to address the salient change from a print-centered literacy approach to the one centered in digital media (Reinking, 2010), the authors of Literacy tools in the classroom: Teaching through critical inquiry, grades 5-12, Richard Beach, Gerald Campano, Brian Edmiston, and Melissa Borgmann, demonstrate how various literacy tools (e.g., narrative, spoken-word poetry, drama, digital communication, and digital storytelling) can be used across classroom curriculum, through critical inquiry, to cater to students’ differentiated learning. This book is written for both researchers and classroom practitioners. It is divided into ten chapters, with the first section (Chapters 1-3) elaborating the conceptual framework of this volume, highlighting how students and teachers make use of literacy tools to achieve transformative purposes, and the second section (Chapters 4-10) describing in depth related theoretical underpinnings with concrete examples and resources about how literacy tools are taught in classroom literacy curricula.

The authors understand the term literacy tools as “the shore” instead of “the raft,” referring to “means to create emancipatory pedagogical projects” (p. 9) that can be “any artifact, idea, or process that people use when they read and write or otherwise use language to make meaning” (p. 14). Meanwhile, the term texts is defined as “extending beyond print to include digital, visual, audio, and performed texts” (p. 14) as reflected by the fluid nature of literacy related to socio-cultural contexts. Given that students’ individual literacy experiences are denied in the scripted school curricula under a remedial and deficit approach, the authors offer this volume to discuss the use of literacy tools to create literacy learning environments that consider the potentials of all students, the diverse 21st-century learners.

Chapter 1 builds up the conceptual understanding of the enlarged visions of literacy tools with respect to the purposes of critical inquiry, constructing spaces, enacting identities, and establishing agency. By introducing two stories about Frederick Douglass, a historical figure, and Maribel, a contemporary young Quechua woman, the authors demonstrate how they use narratives as a tool for social changes, fighting against racism and empowering themselves and their subsequent generations.

Students’ engagement in critical inquiry and the creation of spaces is the focus of Chapter 2. As for critical inquiry, the authors introduce how tools such as Critical Response Protocol question asking may foster students’ critical inquiry by inviting them to develop open-ended generative questions through collaborative activities such as performance, reflection, analysis, dramatization, debate, and digital presentation. Furthermore, literacy tools such as poetry writing about students’ culture heritages, families, and communities may foster the creation of spaces. The authors embrace Soja’s (1996) thirdspace theory: from tensions between the firstspace—the physical, material site, and the secondspace—intellectually conceptualized space, the thirdspace emerges, which leads to students’ engagement in critical inquiry activities.

Chapter 3 explores the purposes of using conventional as well as digital literacy tools to enact identity and establish agency. The authors describe how tools such as dramatic performances may help students dramatize their life moments and identity and develop their alternative selves in the daily life. Furthermore, teachers are suggested to utilize tools such as mobile technologies and social networking sites to extend classroom spaces and help students embrace differences, bring out their voices, and take actions for change.

The power of using narrative in literacy curriculum is depicted in Chapter 4. The authors convey from students’ experiences how narrative writing can be used to understand students’ diverse cultural traditions and bring out the hidden curriculum overshadowed by regular school curriculum. The authors further suggest the need to incorporate popular culture into classroom curriculum through using tools such as fan fiction writing, digital storytelling, and documentaries to encourage students to narrativize their experiences.

Chapter 5 highlights dramatic inquiry as a literacy “tool of tools” (p. 71) through examples from three elementary classrooms, presenting how teachers and students use those tools in a collaborative, playful, and critical way for imagining and extending spaces for inquiry, fostering students’ agency, as well as developing multiple perspectives in literacy curricula.

Spoken-word poetry performance, as presented in Chapter 6, is another powerful literacy tool for students to voice their experiences. The authors give vivid examples of spoken-word poetry performances by students in Teens Rock the Mic and how they used this tool as performance artists and activist in such alternative educational space in defining themselves and bringing affirmative changes to their respective communities.

Chapter 7 is about using digital technologies (e.g., blogging, social networking, video discussion, digital comics writing, and digital storytelling) as literacy tools for students to have an extended period of time for informal and free learning, engage in collaborative arguments, and become agents for change. In addition, students gain access to four aspects of digital literacies: 1) composing multimodal digital texts through the orchestration of various modes such as print, audio, image, and video; 2) exploring intertextual connections by forging links between topics in their lives and cultural traditions, historical voices, or popular cultures, as well as making media representation choices; 3) social learning through connecting to and networking with others through digital communication tools; and 4) collaborative composing at spaces represented by a participatory culture with digital media.

Chapter 8 examines the use of informal reflective writing tools, including freewriting and notetaking, as well as digital mind mapping tools, for students to organize their ideas and reflect on their experiences.

Chapter 9 centers on students’ critical response to and composition of image and video texts. Students are guided to examine multiple design elements, critically inquire into the multimodal, symbolic, and social meanings of images and videos, and further acquire an understanding of how these literacy tools can help reflect, shape, and portray critical issues in the contemporary social and cultural contexts.  

In the last chapter, the authors make an argument about the idea of change-based assessment which is defined as “evaluating students not only on the intrinsic aspects of their work…but also on the degree to which their literacy tools use results in change related to fulfilling any of the four purposes [of critical inquiry, spaces, identities, and agency]” (p. 143). The assessment is also viewed as part of students’ and teachers’ collaborative inquiry, featured with a process of continuous feedback from teachers and peers as well as self-reflections by students.

This volume echoes and goes beyond Lankshear and Knobel’s (2007) view on the use of digital technologies as a “new ethos” for creating integrative learning experiences for composition and communication rather than “technical stuff” for problem solving or enhancing conventional classroom literacy practices. By recognizing the “parallel” value of digital literacy tools compared to their non-technological counterparts in this volume, the authors understand this “toolkit” not only as the “shore” of emancipatory projects of change but also as transformative tools that provide students with the opportunities of being curriculum participants, enactors and assessors through collaborative critical inquiry.

To sum up, I applaud the authors who bring together the “wisdom” of innovative classroom practices in this volume, which further pushes forward the much needed conversations about re-conceptualizing the roles literacy tools, including digital literacies, can play in school curricula, as well as denotes a powerful move in addressing the challenge of teaching and learning literacies in the 21st century.


Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2007). Sampling “the new” in new literacies. In M. Knobel & C. Lankshear (Eds.), A new literacies sampler (pp. 1-24). New York: Peter Lang.

Reinking, D. (2010). An outward, inward, and school-ward overview of interactive communication technologies across the literacy landscape. In Dominic Wyse, Richard Andrews, and James Hoffman (eds.). The Routledge international handbook of English, language and literacy teaching. London, UK: Routledge.

Soja, E. (1996). Thridspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other real-and-imagined places. Cambridge, MA: Balckwell.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 05, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16189, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:13:32 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Ting Yuan
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    TING YUAN is a doctoral student in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. She's interested in young children's digital texts creation and the integration of digital technologies into classroom literacy curriculum.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue