Literacy, Literature,and Learning for Life

by J. David Cooper

Table of Contents

As we enter Ms. Morley's fourth grade class, we can immediately tell that they are studying about the environment. There is an exciting display of magazines and books, including such favorites as The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest (Cherry, 1990) and Just a Dream (Van Allsburg, 1990). Posters about protecting the Earth are everywhere. A large bulletin board headed WAYS TO IMPROVE OUR ENVIRONMENT has magazine photos and drawings with captions that students have been bringing for display. Some students are having a discussion about the book The Great Yellowstone Fire (Vogel & Goldner, 1990); one student is showing photographs and articles his dad had collected about the fire. Others are reading an article from 3*2*1 Contact entitled "Act Now: The Earth Patrol Guide to Preserve and Protect;" these students are writing a skit to show how boys and girls can help to protect the environment. Still other students are working on the computer constructing graphs about endangered animals in the environment.

Ms. Morley explains that she and her students use many different resources and pieces of literature as they develop their themes. She notes that her goal is to work together with her students to help them learn to communicate as they are going to have to do in real life.

You might ask, "What is so special or different about this fourth grade class?" Ms. Morley's class shows what many teachers around the country are doing. They are:

  1. Focusing on a broader concept of literacy.
  2. Using a combination of quality literature, both fiction and nonfiction, and other "real world" resources as a part of instruction.
  3. Providing learning experiences which include a variety of types of activities that allow them to meet the needs of all the students in their classrooms.

In this paper we will examine why these things are taking place and look at why these classrooms are better for our students.


For many years, literacy has simply been viewed as the ability of individuals to read and write (Smith, 1965). However, research during the past two decades has helped us to learn a great deal about literacy, what it is, and how it is used both in and out of school.

Shirley Brice Heath (1983) in her classic study of literacy found that literacy involves much more than reading books and writing papers, the activities most emphasized in schools. She found that children and young adults often use literacy for such reasons as solving problems -- they read signs or advertisements; for social activities -- writing letters, bumper stickers, posters; for gaining news and information -- reading newspapers and magazines; for remembering things -- messages to self and others; and so forth.

Guthrie and Greaney (1991) looked at the research focusing on the literacy acts of adults as compared to those of children. They found that adults spend time reading for leisure, for their occupation, and for participation in their communities. Adult literacy acts include reading fiction and nonfiction as well as reading such things as tables, memos, charts, magazines, and posters. However, when Guthrie and Greaney looked at school-based literacy activities, they found that more time was devoted to the teaching of reading skills, as opposed to actually reading.

Another source of information about literacy comes from looking at what potential employers expect of individuals as they come out of school and seek jobs. Much of the research in this area has shown that the literacy expectations of employers are very different from what schools have typically provided (Heath, 1980). For nearly twenty years, surveys of potential employers have shown that they want individuals who can do much more than read and write (Research for Better Schools, 1978); they want individuals who can listen, learn on their own, and analyze situations to identify and solve problems.

More recently, the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS, 1991) undertook a study to advise the Secretary of Labor about the level of skills needed to enter employment. The results of this study were very clear and simple:

Good jobs will increasingly depend on people who can put knowledge to work. What we found was disturbing: more than half our young people leave school without the knowledge or foundation required to find and hold a good job. (SCANS, 1991, p. xv)

The SCANS Report (1991) identified five basic competencies and a three-part foundation that everyone must have for success in the workplace regardless of the job held. These are summarized in Table 1. It is the responsibility of schools to prepare students for the workplace. However, the SCANS Report (1991) found that less than half of all young adults could read, write, use math, listen, or speak effectively enough to move from school to the workplace; the report notes that most schools do not even address listening and speaking.

Literacy must also be considered in relation to the world of technology. We hear about the Information Superhighway, a tool of communication that makes it possible to have almost instant communications in all aspects of our lives. Thornburg (1992) maintained that in our society we have ended the Information Age and are moving into the Communication Age. He notes that many schools, however, have just begun to move into the Information Age by adding new technologies while society as a whole has moved well beyond this point to focusing more broadly on the use of technology for high-speed communication. Therefore, literacy must also be viewed as communicating through technology. Many teachers are well aware that their students come to school knowing a great deal about computers, CD-ROM, and other aspects of technology.

Given what we have learned about literacy, the mismatch between adult literacy and school literacy, the literacy requirements identified by potential employers, and the advent of the Information Superhighway, we can see that there is a discrepancy between what adults must actually face in the world and what schools do under the heading of literacy. Schools need to broaden their concept of literacy. Literacy must be viewed as the ability of individuals to communicate effectively in the real world. This must involve teaching the abilities to listen, read, write, speak, and view things, with thinking being an integral part of each of these processes, while at the same time preparing students for the "Communication Age." School literacy activities must take on more of a "real world" perspective. Literacy should be viewed as the ability of individuals to respond to the practical tasks of everyday life as Harris and associates noted many years ago (1970). Obviously, these tasks are changing as we move into the next century.


Broadening the concept of literacy means that schools must broaden the type and scope of activities that they provide under the heading of literacy learning. School-based literacy activities need to reflect and prepare students for "real world" literacy in much more effective ways.

During the past decade or more, many schools have started to use themes as a basic way for organizing instruction (Fredericks, Meinbach, & Rothlein, 1993). To build on the need to have more of a "real world" literacy focus, schools need to broaden their concept of theme and the materials that constitute themes.

Typically, themes of study have focused on literature in the traditional sense, including narrative and expository texts, with a heavy emphasis on stories. However, a "real world" literacy perspective calls for themes that are much broader in scope and content (Walmsley & Walp, 1990). These themes need to be built around a combination of high-quality literature in the traditional sense and high-quality "real world" resources, including such things as posters, letters, magazines, maps, brochures, charts, journals, computer resources, and so forth. In essence, broadening our concept of literacy leads us to broaden our concept of literature to include all possible things that individuals might need to learn to read and respond to in life.


"Real world" themes are those that combine a variety of resources and activities to allow students to have many different types of authentic literacy learning experiences (Cooper, 1993). Authentic literacy learning experiences are those that individuals would naturally have in real life. For example, you might go to a museum to see an exhibit about ancient Egypt. A booklet on mummies is available. As a follow-up to the visit, you might read the booklet and write to the sources listed for more information. "Real world" themes will allow for these same types of experiences to take place as a part of school learning. These themes have the following important characteristics:

  1. A clear focus around one or more meaningful, key concepts.
  2. A balance of high-quality, authentic narrative and expository texts as appropriate to the theme.
  3. A balance of authentic "real world" resources.
  4. A variety of authentic learning experiences involving both discovery and direct instruction.

1. Clear Focus

"Real world" themes that are effective in supporting literacy learning must have a clear, meaningful focus (Lipson, Valencia, Wixson, & Peters, 1993). This means that the theme must be developed around one or two key concepts. For example, a theme on the community might focus on the key concept of cooperation.

The focus of the theme helps students build connections and relationships that are critical to developing their abilities to construct meaning (Lipson, Valencia, Wixson & Peters, 1993; Fredericks, Meinbach, & Rothlein, 1993). Furthermore, a clearly focused theme makes it easier for the teacher to create authentic learning experiences and develop appropriate assessment techniques (Lipson, 1994; see also Valencia's paper on assessment). Too often, themes are trivial, focusing on things which have no real value in helping students learn (Routman, 1991).

2. Quality Authentic Literature

Authentic literature refers to those texts which are in the original language of the author (Routman, 1991; Walmsley & Walp, 1990). They are not rewritten to conform to a readability formula or written from a controlled vocabulary list.

The power of authentic literature to excite and motivate students to learn has been clearly demonstrated (Cullinan, 1992). Charlotte Huck said, "We don't achieve literacy and then give children literature; we achieve literacy through literature" (1989, p. 258).

The quality literature used in "real world" themes must include a balance of narrative and expository texts (Cullinan, 1992). Stories constitute only one part of what makes up the whole picture of quality literature (Norton, 1991). Stories like Tony's Bread (dePaola, 1989), and Wayside School is Falling Down (Sachar, 1989) are wonderful books that excite and motivate children and young adults to read and write. However, expository or informational books are also an important part of the quality literature that students need to experience (Greenlaw & McIntosh, 1987). Informational books like What Lives in a Shell? (Zoehfeld, 1994), The Great Yellowstone Fire (Vogel & Goldner, 1990), and Wolves (Simon, 1993) give children and young adults an important perspective on the world and also motivate them to read and write.

There are many criteria for selecting quality literature (Norton, 1991; Goodman & Goodman, 1991). It must always be remembered that selecting literature for students involves a value judgment on the part of the teacher and/or anyone who makes the selection. Literature for "real world" themes should include narrative and expository texts which meet the following criteria (Cooper, 1993):

3. Authentic "Real World" Resources

"Real world" themes should also include a variety of "real world" resources such as magazines, newspapers, CD-ROMs, charts, posters, brochures, and maps. In addition to making it possible for school learning experiences to focus on literacy that is more like what is needed in the real world, these resources do a number of other things:

All "real world" resources used in themes must also be developmentally appropriate, have student appeal, and be culturally and socially authentic.

4. Authentic Learning Experiences

It has been well established that students learn concepts, skills, and strategies best when they are developed in real environments (SCANS, 1991; Wells, 1986). Therefore, it is important to develop authentic learning experiences that involve both discovery and direct instruction. Authentic learning experiences would include many opportunities for students to solve problems, read and write, as opposed to mark, circle, and underline. For example, in a theme on understanding ancient mysteries, students might develop a book about mummies and what can be learned from them. The teacher might provide a minilesson on how to present information graphically in order to improve students' abilities to develop their books.

Learning experiences that capitalize on the Communication Age are also important. Having students use various types of technology to enhance their learning will help prepare them for the next century (A.S.C.D., 1994). Teachers can also gain ongoing information to help their students by being connected with other teachers through the Internet and other on-line services.


"Real world" themes offer many advantages in the literacy-centered classroom. These include:

By using a balance of quality narrative texts, expository texts, and real world resources, student motivation is high because learning becomes so meaningful. When learning is more meaningful for students, they learn more effectively and learn more because what they are learning is functional and useful (Lipson, 1994).

Learning and being able to construct meaning through reading and writing involve building connections between new knowledge and old knowledge (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). Having "real world" themes allows for better integration of all the language arts across the curriculum. The connections become much easier for learners to make. By having themes that include narrative texts, expository texts, and "real world" resources, learners are able to develop literacy as they would use it in real life. Learners experience many more types of writing; therefore, it makes it easier for the teacher to teach writing as it will actually be used in life. Students will come to see the many different types of literature and "real world" resources as models which will serve as springboards to their writing. "Real world" themes also allow many more opportunities to develop strong cross-curricular connections. Themes that focus only on one genre or type of literature do not allow this to happen as readily as more diversified "real world" themes.

"Real world" themes allow for school learning experiences to more nearly reflect the world where students will ultimately have to function. Students studying a theme like Earth Patrol, a theme about the environment, will have many opportunities to read, write, listen, and solve problems about their environment. At the same time they will learn many valuable skills and strategies such as writing letters, comparing, speaking persuasively, and so forth.

"Real world" themes allow for many more places where students can use various reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and thinking skills and strategies. Since literacy skills are learned in part through their use (Walmsley & Walp, 1990), "real world" themes will lead to many more authentic ways for students to learn and use these skills and strategies. By having a balance of resources including narrative texts, expository texts, "real world" resources, and computer resources, teachers will have many more places to teach skills and strategies interactively through minilessons and/or more fully focused lessons.


As we work to prepare our students for the twenty-first century, we must be certain that we are helping them learn the strategies and skills that will let them function effectively in the Communication Age and all aspects of their lives. Since we have a better understanding of literacy and literacy learning, we can clearly see the need to broaden our thinking about literacy, which will lead to broadening our thinking about themes and school literacy activities.

"Real world" themes that include narrative texts, expository texts, and "real world" resources will allow for many more opportunities for students to learn to read, write, listen, speak, think, and view in meaningful situations. These themes will provide many more opportunities for teachers to teach the strategies and skills needed by effective literacy users. By having "real world" learning experiences in school, students will more effectively develop the strategies, skills, and abilities needed for becoming more critical, effective communicators in all aspects of their lives.


Children's Books

Carle, E. (1983). The Very Hungry Caterpillar. New York: Philomel Books.

Cherry, L. (1990). The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Choi, S. N. (1993). Halmoni and the Picnic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

dePaola, T. (1989). Tony's Bread. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Gipson, F. (1956). Old Yeller. New York: Harper & Row.

Konigsburg, E. L. (1989). From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Lauber, P. (1973). Cowboys and Cattle Ranching: Yesterday and Today. New York: Crowell.

Lowry, L. (1989). Number the Stars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Mora, P. (1994) Listen to the Desert/Oye al desierto. New York: Clarion Books.

Reeves, N. (1992). Into the Mummy's Tomb. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Rochelle, B. (1994). When Jo Louis Won the Title. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Sachar, L. (1989). Wayside School is Falling Down. New York: Lothrop,Lee & Shepard Books.

Simon, S. (1993). Wolves. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Soto, G. (1993). Too Many Tamales. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Trivizas, E. (1993). The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Van Allsburg, C. (1990). Just a Dream. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Vogel, C. G. (1990). The Great Yellowstone Fire. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Zoehfeld, K. W. (1994). What Lives in a Shell? New York: HarperCollins.

Professional References

A.S.C.D. (1994). The Online Classroom. Update, 36(10), 1.

Anderson, R. C., & Pearson, P. D. (1984). "A Schema-Theoretic View of Basic Processes in Reading Comprehension." In P. D. Pearson (ed.), Handbook of Reading Research, pp. 255-91. New York: Longman.

Au, K. H. (1993). Literacy Instruction in Multicultural Settings. Orlando: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.

Bridge, C., Winograd, P. N., & Haley, D. (1983). "Using Predictable Materials vs. Preprimers to Teach Beginning Sight Words." The Reading Teacher, 36(9), 884-891.

Cooper, J. D. (1993). Literacy: Helping Children Construct Meaning (2nd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Cullinan, B. E. (1992). "Leading with Literature." In B. E. Cullinan (ed.), Invitation to Read: More Children's Literature in the Reading Program (pp. x-xxii). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Fredericks, A., Meinbach, A., & Rothlein, L. (1993). Thematic Units. New York: HarperCollins.

Goodman, K., & Goodman, Y. (1991). "Consumer Beware! Selecting Materials for Whole Language Readers." In K. S. Goodman, L. B. Bird, & Y. M. Goodman (eds.), The Whole Language Catalog (p. 119). American School Publishers.

Greenlaw, J., & McIntosh, M. E. (1987). "Science Fiction and Fantasy Worth Teaching to Teens." In B. E. Cullinan (ed.), Children's Literature in the Reading Program (pp. 111-120). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Guthrie, J. T., & Greaney, V. (1991). "Literacy Acts." In P. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson, (eds.), Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 2 (pp. 68-96). New York: Longman.

Harris, L., & Associates. (1970). Survival Literacy Study. New York: Louis Harris and Associates, Inc.

Heath, S. B. (1980). "The Functions and Uses of Literacy." Journal of Communication, 30(1), 123-133.

Heath. S. B. (1983). Ways With Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Huck, C. S. (1989). "No Wider Than the Heart is Wide." In J. Hickman & B. E. Cullinan (eds.), Children's Literature in the Classroom: Weaving Charlotte's Web (pp. 252-262). Needham Heights, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc.

Lipson, M., Valencia, S. W., Wixson, K., & Peters, C. W. (1993). "Integration and Thematic Teaching: Integration to Improve Teaching and Learning." Language Arts, 70(4), 252-263.

Lipson, M. Y. (1994). "Teaching With Themes." A speech delivered at the California Reading Association, November 4, 1994, Long Beach, CA.

Norton, D. E. (1991). "Evaluating and Selecting Literature for Children." In D. E. Norton (ed.), Through the Eyes of a Child --An Introduction to Children's Literature, 3rd ed (pp. 83-126). New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.

Norton, D. E. (1991). Through the Eyes of a Child--An Introduction to Children's Literature, 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.

Research for Better Schools, Inc. (1978). Employer Attitudes Toward the Preparation of Youth for Work. Philadelphia: Research for Better Schools.

Routman, R. (1991). Invitations. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills--SCANS. (1991). What Work Requires of Schools. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor.

Smith, N. B. (1965). American Reading Instruction. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Thornburg, D. (1992). Edutrends. San Carlos, CA: Starsong Publications.

Walmsley, S. A. & Walp, T. P. (1990). "Integrating Literature and Composing into the Language Arts Curriculum: Philosophy and Practice." Elementary School Journal, 90(3), 251-274.

Wells, G. (1986). The Meaning Makers: Children Learning Language and Using Language to Learn. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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