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Literacy Theory as Practice: Connecting Theory and Instruction in K-12 Classrooms

reviewed by James Nageldinger - March 10, 2016

coverTitle: Literacy Theory as Practice: Connecting Theory and Instruction in K-12 Classrooms
Author(s): Lara J. Handsfield
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807757063, Pages: 240, Year: 2015
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In Literacy Theory as Practice: Connecting Theory and Instruction in K–12 Classrooms, Lara J. Handsfield suggests that theories in the educational community are often “akin to museum artifacts—on display and decontextualized from the everyday practices and phenomena from which they were derived” (p. 1). Just as the Hopi vases and Greek Amphoras on display were made to be used, theories also have a purpose beyond contemplation. They are intended to be practiced and reworked to fit the needs of students in everyday classrooms. The book’s purpose is to “Introduce readers to an array of salient, influential, and potentially influential theories and illuminate and invite connections between these theories and classroom practices” (p. 1), a goal that Handsfield decidedly achieves.

The first half of the book is a comprehensive overview of theories explaining and informing literacy instruction. The second half takes us into the trenches of classroom instruction and exposes readers to real life teaching vignettes. Handsfield puts us in situ where we look at instructional episodes as observers through newly acquired lenses. Handsfield identifies theories at play in each classroom setting, invites readers to make a case for others, and notes that classroom complexities often result in a blurring of lines between instructional strategies, curricular models, theories, and epistemologies.

Any book with the word theory in its title needs to be filled with citations, but these tend to be less important to teachers than professors. In our current accountability driven educational landscape, classroom literacy teachers must justify their means. Moran McDermott once remarked, “A ‘good’ paper in curriculum theory usually includes citations from scholars whose language is sometimes so impenetrable it requires a mental chainsaw” (2010, p. 132) and academics expect no less. Teachers are more likely to want to know how it will help them in the classroom. A school board inquisition notwithstanding, it is doubtful that a teacher will have to know who influenced Gough or who published research on transactional strategies for bilingual readers and translating in the 1960s and 1970s (Orellana, Reynolds, Dorner, & Meza, 2003). However, inquiring teachers or scholars who want to know this minutia will undoubtedly find what they are looking for in Literacy Theory as Practice.

Handsfield fortunately wears both teacher and academic hats with equal aplomb. Teachers reading this book will find solace given that Handsfield has managed to make theory engaging, accessible, and applicable. While the book is well researched, Handsfield’s prose is fluent and clear and thankfully doesn’t fall into the trap of McDermott’s aforementioned scholars.  

The book is divided into two parts. Part One delineates theories with a table outlining each chapter along with the corresponding curricular model and key references. Part Two displays the successful integration of theory and practice or praxis through vignettes. Teachers and scholars will find themselves in familiar terrain and acquire new tools for understanding. Throughout her explications of vignettes, Handsfield provides helpful insets describing where to find descriptions of theoretical framework being discussed.

Reading scholars and teachers alike should find this book a welcome addition to the field. While Lenses on Reading: An Introduction to Theories and Models (Tracey & Morrow, 2011) has a more convenient layout for explaining theoretical frameworks, Handsfield’s experience as a classroom teacher combined with her scholarship makes the second part of her book uniquely appealing. Anyone with questions on what sociolinguistic theory looks like in action need only consult one of the vignettes in the practical second half. Reading Literacy Theory as Practice feels like having the privilege of looking through a glass wall into an active classroom with a theoretician who explains how the teacher is consciously enacting a particular theoretical framework.

One small impediment to thoroughly enjoying this book hinges on the theoretical models discussed tending to have long names. While the use of an acronym for a given model’s introduction is expected, the accumulation of new theories and their acronyms over the course of the book may require frequent reference to the Subject Index.

In the final chapter, Handsfield poetically refers to the term praxis as “that dialogic dance between practice and theory” (p. 190). As Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar notes in the forward this is not a particularly new idea; John Dewey stressed the importance of teachers being equally at home with theory and practice. What is different is the way Handsfield takes us to the dance. She allows us to participate in that interplay as both practitioners and theoreticians. This is exemplified in the penultimate sentence of the book, when she encourages teachers and scholars alike to understand that “theoretically rich teaching and inquiry live in everyday moments in classrooms, in teacher’s lounges, in summer reading groups, in the interactions between students and teachers, and in the daily reflections and the moment-by-moment pedagogical activity that comprises engaged teaching” (p. 198). If this book does nothing else for readers, it will at least serve as a resource for informed reflective teaching, which is arguably the most important aspect of teacher education.


McDermott, M. (2010). Outlaw arts-based educational research. Journal of Curriculum & Pedagogy, 7(1), 6–14.

Orellana, M. F., Reynolds, J., Dorner, L., & Meza, M. (2003). In other words: Translating or “para-phrasing” as a family literacy practice in immigrant households. Reading Research Quarterly, 38(1), 12–34.

Tracey, D., & Morrow, L. (2011). Lenses on reading: An introduction to theories and models (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guildford.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 10, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19572, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 9:54:15 PM

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About the Author
  • James Nageldinger
    Elmira College
    E-mail Author
    JAMES NAGELDINGER, PhD, is an assistant professor of Teacher Education at Elmira College. His research focuses on the relationship between the prosodic aspect of oral reading fluency and silent reading comprehension. In recent presentations he has proposed the use award winning picture books with patterned and predictable text concerned with critical literacy as venues for fluency development. His current work focuses on disrupting current fluency assessment procedures and creating reading norms beyond the 8th grade. Dr. Nageldinger’s publications include a recent book, several book chapters and numerous peer-reviewed journal articles. His has presented his work nationally and internationally.
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