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Revisiting Book Chat: Developing new understandings through critical reflection.


In the early 1990s, I was involved in developing a model for guiding upper primary students in their discussion of children's literature, Book Chat: A book club model for the classroom (Clements & Godinho, 1994). Since the model's initiation, there have been significant changes in how we understand literacy and literacy practices. This is evidenced by the current emphasis on the socio-cultural construction of texts and the understanding that people can make different interpretations of texts. These changes have led me to reflect on my own beliefs about literacy practice and the implications they have for the Book Chat model. Although this model has proved popular with the schools who are using it, in the light of recent developments in literary theory it seems timely to reconsider some of Book Chat's underlying principles.

In this article I focus on two aspects of change in literacy practices: the selection of texts for literature programs and the influence of critical literacy theory on the way we question children about what they read. It is not my intention to provide a comprehensive critique of the model. Data which are currently being collected from selected schools will be used for this purpose at a later date. My discussions about the two aspects of change are followed by some reflections about what implications these changes may have for the Book Chat model. My approach is based on Baird's (1992: p. 39) notion that reflection, `a conscious, thoughtful, purpose-related process', is essential to improve the rationality and justice of teaching practices. I begin by explaining the model's pedagogical frames and giving a brief description of the model in action. Some definitions of children's literature precede my discussion on the selection of texts and critical literacy.

The pedagogical frames supporting the model

The multiple pedagogical frames that informed the Book Chat model were underpinned by the theories of Meek (1991), Chambers (1994), Dalton (1985), Kaplan (1974) and Gardner (1983). Central to the model's conceptual framework was Chambers' assumption that children do not know what they think about a book until they have had the opportunity to speak about it. The model's emphasis on subject-related, process-oriented, doing-centred and open-ended learning principles was based on the assumption that these principles, which Kaplan advocates for gifted students, are relevant for all children. The model sought to include Gardner's (1983) seven intelligences (verbal/linguistic, musical/rhythmic, logical / mathematic, visual/spatial, body / kinaesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal) in its thematic activities. This inclusion is based on the belief that children have different and preferred learning styles. The overall focus on working cooperatively in small group situations was underpinned by Dalton's (1985) assumption that children's learning is enhanced through constructive interaction with their peers. Book discussions emphasised the traditional elements of narrative fiction: setting, plot, characterisation, point of view (McVitty, 1981; Saxby, 1997). The model began all book discussions with Chambers' (1994) open-ended discussion leads:

Tell me about what you liked most about the book.

Tell me about anything you disliked.

Tell me about anything that puzzled you.

Tell me about anything that made a pattern.

These leads were based on the notion that children need to respond to a book emotionally before being asked more specific questions about the text. The discussion questions on the books were framed by Bloom's (1956) taxonomy of cognitive processes, a system of classifying thinking into six types (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation) which provides the framework for structuring questions about the books. The premise was that children reflect more deeply about their reading if they are asked open-ended and higher order thinking questions.

Text selection was informed by the literature guidelines in The English Language Framework P-10 (Ministry of Education, 1988: p. 28) which were current at the time the model was initiated. These guidelines stated that the books teachers select need to `reflect the lives, values and experiences of both boys and girls and students from various social and cultural backgrounds'. The model's emphasis on quality literature was based on McVitty's assumption that this entails: `writing of talent and integrity; well-constructed plots; characters who are well rounded, believable and not stereotypes; and themes which have lasting qualities of truth and relevance' (1981: p. 5).

An overview of the model in action


Using our knowledge of the success and popularity of adult book clubs, my colleague, Dee Clements, and I designed a book club for children. We adapted the Council of Adult Education format that involves a small group of people agreeing to read a book and share their responses, with one group member taking responsibility for leading the discussion. As with book clubs for adult readers, we wanted children to discover the enjoyment derived from sharing their ideas about a book. However, we also had a hidden agenda -- meeting the literacy needs of our students and the state curriculum guidelines. The responsibility of leading the discussion we allocated to adults who were trusted and experienced readers, those whom Aidan Chambers (1994) refers to as `enabling adults'. We found that parent volunteers could be used for this role, with the in-servicing that is essential for discussion leaders, be they parents or teachers. Parents, especially, need to feel supported and know that any difficulties that arise will be addressed promptly.

The Book Chat model groups children according to their reading developmental level. This grouping is based on the assumption that it allows teachers to support and encourage less confident readers and to challenge and extend more advanced readers. Group sizes are kept small, preferably about eight students, to allow for the active participation of all members. Placements are flexible and are determined by teacher observation of the students' reading development, standardised reading tests, and consideration of group dynamics.

The selection of books relates to the school's integrated curriculum units. A theme is then chosen for the book club, for example, Australian history, rural Australia, Indigenous Australians, multicultural society. Books are then carefully matched to the reading level of the students in each group. An appointed coordinator oversees the selection of books and the implementation of the model. The coordinator's responsibilities include: finalising student groups and matching these with discussion leaders; organising the dates for meetings; preparing and circulating the timetable for the term; and in-servicing and mentoring the discussion leaders.

Prior to the commencement of a theme, the teachers write a set of open-ended discussion questions for the text selected for each group. They also plan the introductory activity and thematic activity which are common to all groups. The time allocated for the study of a text may vary, but the model suggests a five-week time frame. Supplementary books are recommended for the different reading levels to extend children's reading around the theme. The following weekly breakdown is a suggested time frame for the club:

Week 1: Distribution of books. Independent reading in class time and at home.

Week 2: Independent reading continued and first small group discussions.

Week 3: Group discussions.

Week 4: Activity sessions.

Week 5: Activity presentations and evaluations.

In the final week all groups make a presentation of the thematic activity, which allows them to share their reading experiences. At the completion of each presentation, the students report on their own learning through their participation in the book club unit. Friendly critics, selected prior to the presentation, provide some constructive feedback, and the wider audience may question the group about their response to the text. The process of self-evaluation is encouraged at the small group level with students reflecting on their learning experiences in their journals.

Discussion leaders evaluate each child's involvement in the theme on the assessment sheets provided. Facilitators may choose between an anecdotal and a checklist format, which are passed on to class teachers for record-keeping purposes. An evaluation meeting is held at the end of each theme so that all team members may share their experiences, discuss strengths and weaknesses of the unit, and suggest improvements to the model's implementation. This process of collaborative action research (Baird, 1992) encourages the team to make refinements to their book club implementation.

Defining literature and children's literature

The starting point for my reflections about current literacy practices is to rethink my definition of literature. Book Chat does not attempt to define literature, but uses McVitty's (1981) statement about what constitutes quality children's literature (referred to on p. 236) to express its understanding of the term. There has been considerable change in the way literature is perceived, which is evidenced in some more recent attempts to define it. However, from some diverse definitions presented below, literature remains a contested term. The following definition from A Statement on English for Australian Schools (Curriculum Corporation, 1994: p. 6) affirms this point.

Literature is fundamental to the English curriculum, although opinions differ on what distinguishes literature from other texts. Typically, literature involves the use of language and the imagination to represent, recreate, shape and explore human experience.

Saxby, an authority on children's literature, also refers to literature's role in shaping people's experiences, stating that `it is not only born of experience but it gives meaning and relevance to that idea, and is then passed on to extend the imaginative vicarious experience of the reader' (1997: p. 17). Conversely, Meek (1991) avoids making definitive statements about literature; instead, she refers to the dynamic nature of literature and the inclusiveness of the term. Meek believes that people create their own definitions of literature and infers there can be multiple literatures, just as others claim there can be multiple literacies (Luke, 1994). While acknowledging that each of these definitions has some merit, I find Luke's claim that `literature is a representation of values, perspectives and beliefs of and about cultures' (1994: p. 18) more relevant to current literacy developments, as is Taxel's (1989) contention that `children's literature socialises children into specific cultural allegiances, values, beliefs, [and] world views' (1989: p. 207). Their ideas are supported by the guidelines for developing students' knowledge of literature in A Statement on English for Australian Schools (Curriculum Corporation, 1994: p. 7). Luke's and Taxel's assertions offer useful reminders of the socio-cultural nature of literature, which are overlooked by the definitions quoted above and by the Book Chat model itself.

`Children's literature' is also a contested term because its boundaries are often blurred (Hollindale, 1992; Saxby, 1997). Consequently, Hollindale questions the need to make children's literature a separate classification, given the difficulty of distinguishing what constitutes literature for children. The Children's Book Council of Australia (hereafter referred to as CBCA) has experienced this dilemma. In 1987, the CBCA separated its awards into the Older Reader and Younger Reader Awards. This was an attempt to address the increasing number of books that focussed on social issues such as drugs, sex, youth suicide and homelessness, and were therefore deemed inappropriate for younger children. However, CBCA newsletters reveal that the categories continue to be a contentious and contested issue, which is not surprising when Hollindale's (1997: p. 48) assertion, that `childness is a changing, culturally determined concept, not a static one', is considered. Likewise, as Meek (1991) and Luke (1994) suggest, literature is a dynamic, culturally determined concept, which therefore becomes problematic when efforts made to construct definitive statements about what is and what is not children's literature. In light of changing perceptions of literature, I believe the Book Chat model needs to revisit its focus on the traditional literacy elements of setting, plot, characterisation, point of view and the exploration of issues (McVitty, 1981) which currently underpin the model's literature paradigm. The model's definition of literature also needs to underscore the social construction of texts and the openness of texts to different interpretations of meaning (Curriculum Corporation, 1994; Gilbert, 1994; Luke, 1994; Macken & Rothery, 1991; Taxel, 1989). These ideas will be discussed in more detail later in the article.

Reflections on guidelines for the selection of literature texts

The texts that teachers choose to use with students will very much depend on how they define or articulate their understandings of literature. Taxel (1989) and Luke (1994) assert that teachers exercise considerable power through their selection of texts. By determining what counts as valid reading, they are in a position to choose the cultural messages they wish to transmit. In the following section I examine current curriculum guidelines about text selection. I then explore the use of popular fiction as a valid form of literature study, and discuss the selective tradition that teaches apply when choosing literature texts for students. I conclude with some reflections on how these literacy developments have changed my thinking about the text selection guidelines in the Book Chat model.

A Statement on English for Australian Schools (Curriculum Corporation, 1994: p. 6) posits that `Literature can be based on actuality or fantasy and includes written, spoken and visual texts'. As previously mentioned, opinions differ on what distinguishes literature from other texts. However, A Statement on English for Australian Schools (Curriculum Corporation, 1994: p. 6) has a very inclusive range of literature texts. In addition to the more traditional ones such as novels, poetry and short stories, it includes students' own speaking and writing, feature films, newspaper journalism and non-fiction such as biographies and filmed documentaries. This more expansive range of texts may be partly attributed to the genre-based focus for literacy teaching in the 1990s. According to Christie (1990: p. 3), the rationale for explicitly teaching written and spoken genres is that:

to learn to recognise and create the various genres found in one's culture is to learn to exercise choices -- choices in building and ordering different kinds of meaning and hence, potentially, choices in directing the course of one's life.

This means that the teaching of genres requires teachers to use a much broader range of texts in their classrooms, because these are needed for modelling purposes and to allow children opportunities to explore different text types (Derewianka, 1990). This broadening of the concept of literature has, therefore, expanded teachers' understanding of what constitutes literature and challenged the dominance of narrative fiction in literature programs and indeed in the Book Chat model.

A further change in literacy practice is the importance that the text strand in A Statement on English for Australian Schools (Curriculum Corporation, 1994) places on teachers drawing on literature from three categories: classic texts, contemporary texts and popular texts. It is argued that this is essential if teachers are to achieve a balanced literature program. Classic literature is defined as those works recognised over time as excellent examples of their type; contemporary literature is described as recent texts considered significant works; and popular literature is defined as `those texts whose main aim is to entertain rather than educate and which do not explore issues and ideas in a complex way' (1994: p. 8). The reason for including texts from the three categories relates to the emphasis that the text strand places on the sociocultural construction of texts, because selecting texts from the three categories provides students with a broader perspective on language and literature.

The Book Chat model overlooks popular fiction because of its emphasis on quality literature. Meek (1991) and Misson (1993) acknowledge that it is not uncommon for some teachers to overlook popular literature because there is a tendency not to accept its legitimacy. This may be partly attributed to the widespread use of CBCA short-listed books by librarians and teachers. The CBCA awards, considered to be Australia's most prestigious children's book awards, are based on aesthetic quality and literary merit. However, despite the CBCA not defining what constitutes literary merit, teachers appear to have implicit trust in its judgements and allow the CBCA to be arbiters of what their children read. Teachers may believe that by selecting CBCA award books they are presenting their students with the best models for their literacy development. Clearly the CBCA's evaluation of all the books published in a given year provides a worthwhile service for teachers. However, teachers need to be mindful that the CBCA eschews popular literature, focussing on quality contemporary literature when short-listing books for its awards. Teachers' reluctance to use popular literature may also be attributed to influential authorities on children's literature, such as Hanzl (1996), Hillel (1996) and Saxby (1997), who ardently promote the use of quality literature in schools. Saxby is vehemently opposed to the use of popular literature in schools. Van Putten (1998), when reviewing Saxby's recent publication, notes that he renounces its use in school literature programs or even as part of the school or class library collection. This attitude is clearly contrary to the English curriculum goals and directives (Curriculum Corporation, 1994).

Misson (1993) takes issue with Saxby's stance. He believes that to see popular literature `as irrelevant, let alone inimical, to education is to make education itself irrelevant to what is central in people's lives' (1993: p. 5). The centrality of popular literature in the lives of children is evidenced in the children-nominated book awards such as Young Australians' Best Book Awards (YABBA). The potential of popular literature to shape students' thinking is recognised by Christian-Smith (1993), who has used the romance genre with teenage girls to explore how texts shape their socio-cultural understandings. While Meek (1991) and Misson (1998) believe in using popular literature to explore value systems inherent in texts, they sagely remind teachers that this should never be done with the intention of destroying the pleasure that students gain from these books. Reading, like writing, serves different purposes. Teachers need to view popular literature in this context and acknowledge that for many children it is a valued part of their wider reading experience. And since curriculum directives clearly state children need exposure to a broad and balanced range of texts, to exclude popular literature denies its importance and relevance for children. If teachers elect to shun popular literature, they are clearly at risk of engaging in a selective tradition (Williams, 1977).

`A selective tradition' refers to the way in which teachers choose texts that transmit a particular version of knowledge about worldviews, culture and power that is usually representative of the dominant culture (Luke, 1994; Taxel, 1989). Luke cautions teachers that books which were valued in their childhood may not necessarily provide the keystone values for the next generation. The inevitability of social change means that the cultural values and attitudes inherent in these books may well be considered outdated by today's students. Meek (1991), conscious of teachers' adherence to a selective tradition, advises against being exclusive about literature and downgrading the more commercially oriented reading that people do. She contests the connotations of privilege and ownership that are sometimes associated with literature and argues that `literature is not old books, not a list of specially chosen great books which represent an unchanging heritage, conferring on the reader the distinction of showing taste and discrimination' (1991: p. 181).

A study by Jipson and Paley (1991) on what motivates teachers' selection of literature texts confirms the presence of a selective tradition and the influence of book awards. The three major categories identified by the study reflect the Book Chat model's selection criteria. These include: the appropriateness of the text within a larger instructional context; personal preference for the book based on the story, author, illustrations or award-winning status; and the recognition of gender, race, and ethnicity as important elements in the book selection process.

The previous discussion about text selection and changing literacy practices signals the need for some adaptations to the Book Chat model. While the importance of narrative fiction is indisputable in helping children structure meaning about the world in which they live, the model could broaden the range of texts it includes. In sum, my reflections on selecting texts for the Book Chat model indicate the following modifications:

* a decreased focus on the notion of quality literature;

* a more balanced selection of texts which draws on a range of literature categories; and

* a reminder to teachers of the inherent problems of a selective tradition.

Reflections on the model's questioning strategies

The more pronounced emphasis in the English Curriculum (Victorian Board of Studies, 1995) on the social construction of texts and my engagement with critical literacy theory, which underpins this approach, have led me to reconsider the questioning strategies that teachers use when discussing texts with children. I foreshadow my discussion of the contribution that critical literacy makes to current literacy practices with some reference to my earlier study (Godinho, 1996) that highlighted the need for a critical literacy approach to literature discussions. I then reflect on the adequacy of current Book Chat question strategies and suggest how other strategies could be included in the Book Chat model.

The significance of critical literacy became apparent to me through the findings of my Masters thesis, The portrayal of gender in the Children's Book Council of Australia Honour and Award Books, 1981-1993 (Godinho, 1996). These findings, based on the examination of 66 narrative fiction books, revealed a socially unrealistic and stereotypical depiction of female characters, and a notable paucity of female role models. The feminist position was lamentably ignored in all but a small minority of the books, despite 69 per cent of the authors being female. These insights indicated that students needed to comprehend how texts produce socio-cultural meanings through the construction of gender (Gilbert, 1994). The critical literacy approach advocated by educators such as Fairclough (1992), Freire and Macedo (1987), Giroux and McLaren (1994) offers a constructive way to address this gendered fiction. However, gender issues are not the only focus of critical literacy. It has a much wider agenda and seeks to address all forms of social injustice and discrimination.

Critical literacy is problematic to define because, like literature and literacy, it is a contested term and has a number of aliases. These include: social critical literacy, critical language awareness, critical social theory, critically aware literacy, and critical literacy awareness (Healy and Knobel, 1998). Giroux and McLaren (1994) believe it is impossible to find a unifying discourse but acknowledge that critical literacy is jointly informed by a critique of domination and a theory of liberation. Critical literacy is essentially concerned with the ways in which texts are constructed, and how the reader negotiates with texts to construct meaning. It problematises the text and the reading process because it shifts the focus from determining the meaning of the text to the notion that even the simplest text may have multiple meanings (Misson, 1994). As Hollingdale (1992) and Taxel (1989) assert, all texts are value laden and carry the author's ideological baggage. Hollindale believes primary teachers should guide their students to understand how the ideology of any given book is constructed so they are not left at the mercy of what they read. Students who learn how texts operate in order to shape their thinking `through a selective transmission of the knowledge, history and culture of certain groups or classes from the larger universe' (Taxel, 1989: p. 205) acquire a powerful learning tool.

Critical literacy informs most state English syllabuses and is notably evidenced in A Statement on English for Australian Schools which advises that:

* the ways in which people use language both reflect and shape the values, attitudes and assumptions of the socio-cultural group. This is particularly important in relation to gender, ethnicity and status as texts can shape our views on a whole range of identity issues.

* because people interpret texts in the light of their own sociocultural values and understandings, texts will have different meanings for different people.

(Curriculum Corporation, 1994: p. 11)

The Contextual Understanding Strand of the Victorian Curriculum and Standards Frameworks (Board of Studies, 1995), for example, directs upper primary students to consider why people's interpretation of a text may differ. Yet my experience suggests that Kamler's (1994) claim about the marginality of critical literacy in literacy teaching still holds. This may be attributed to a number of considerations. Firstly, the average age of teachers in Australian schools is around 46, and it can be assumed that gender awareness and critical literacy would not have been included in their initial training. Secondly, critical literacy is rarely the focus of literacy inservicing, with topics such as spelling or writing genres taking precedence. Thirdly, English curricula do not explicate the critical theory that underpins their outcome statements. Fourthly, critical literacy can involve engaging in controversial issues which some teachers and schools may find politically sensitive and potentially threatening to the status quo (Knobel & Healy, 1998).

The Book Chat questioning strategies include the tell me discussion leads proposed by Aidan Chambers (1994) and Bloom's (1956) taxonomy of cognitive processes. These strategies encourage higher order and open-ended questions to challenge children's thinking beyond their mere recall of the narrative details. Moreover, they are useful strategies for framing questions about the structural narrative elements. However, these strategies focus on a personal response to literature. They do not ask children to address how they are positioned in relation to the text and how the text positions them as readers, ideas which are fundamental to critical literacy. Although Bloom's taxonomy (1956) may be adaptable to critical literacy questioning, I believe critical literacy is important enough that it needs to be stated specifically, and to be included in Book Chat's questioning strategies. Some generic questions would be useful to support teachers who are unfamiliar with this approach. These questions would focus on the following concepts:

* the way that the reader's life experiences and socio-cultural values and beliefs influence the way a text is read;

* the values inherent in the text and the message that the author is trying to convey to the reader;

* the selective use of language to influence the reader of the text;

* the recognition of who has power and who is powerless in the text;

* the gaps in the text and whose point of view is silenced;

* the forms of discrimination, oppression or stereotyping which diminish a person's social status; and

* the notion that a reader may resist the text's stance and suggest an alternative position from which the text could be read.

These concepts embrace Giroux and McLaren's (1994) emphasis on critical literacy as an opportunity to challenge social injustices and to promote socio-cultural change. They also embody Shor's (1992) focus on critical literacy's role of analysis and critique of texts which requires thinking beneath surface impressions to understand social contexts and consequences. Importantly, critical literacy invites students to read against the grain by refusing to accept the subject position that the text invites them to take up (Giroux & McLaren, 1994; Taxel, 1989). Giroux and McLaren advocate that students, empowered by these skills, need no longer be at the mercy of the text and can experience the emancipatory role of literacy. Freire and Macedo (1987) claim students are not fully literate until they become active questioners of what they read and subsequently of the world in which they live.

Although these ideas are complex, Kempe (1993) and O'Brien (1994) have shown that a critical literacy approach to literature can be readily adapted for primary students. The questions below, carefully framed by Kempe, introduce the notions of subjectivity, discourses, ideology and resistant reading which are identified with critical literacy. Yet they are quite appropriate for upper primary students.

* What are you thinking about or feeling as you read this book? How are these thoughts and feelings influenced by your background, your experiences and other texts that you have read?

* What is the text asking you to think or feel? Do you agree with the point of view offered by the text? Why or why not?

* What events or points of view have been left out of the text? Would you have left them out? Why or why not? Which other readings in your class do you feel least comfortable with? Why?

This very confined discussion of critical literacy does not do it justice in terms of its theoretical underpinnings. However, it does demonstrate the potential of critical literacy as a questioning strategy for the model and as an interpretive frame for students' reading. A critical literacy approach, which focusses on the notions of textuality and subjectivity, encourages students to become reflective readers who do not accept the text as the authority, but consider its underlying assumptions. Lankshear (1998: p. 113) makes a salient point when he asserts that reflecting critically does not necessitate taking a negative stance; it may equally be positive or affirming. He asserts that the purpose of reflecting critically is to make carefully considered judgements and evaluations. This addresses Book Chat's objective to develop students' ability to evaluate books and become discerning readers.


Since the model's initiation in 1992, there have been notable changes both to the English curriculum and my own literacy frames. An unstated assumption of the Book Chat model is that it is a dynamic structure. Educational discourses and theories are constantly evolving and the model needs to adapt to these developments. According to Schon (1983), change is only likely to occur when teachers reflect on and about their actions. Moreover, Richert (1992) suggests that `as teachers talk about their work and "name" their experiences, they learn about what they know and what they believe' (1992: p. 197). This reflection, focussing on the model's text selection and questioning strategies, has allowed me to develop some valuable insights for a more comprehensive review of the model and its implementation in selected schools.


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Sally Godinho has sixteen years experience as a primary teacher. In 1992 she developed a model for using literature texts with upper primary students, Book Chat: A book club model for the classroom (Clements & Godinho, 1994) which invites students to share and accept different responses to narrative fiction. Sally completed a Master of Education at the University of Melbourne in 1996. Her thesis examined the portrayal of gender in CBCA honour and award books. She is currently undertaking PhD research which focusses on the way teachers are adapting their pedagogy to accommodate some changes in the field of literacy education. Address: University of Melbourne, Faculty of Education, Parkville, Vic. 3052.

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Author:Godinho, Sally
Publication:Australian Journal of Language and Literacy
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Date:Oct 1, 1999
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"I don't like not knowing how the world works": examining preservice teachers' narrative reflections.
A social reconstructionist framework for reflection: the "problematizing" of teaching.
Leader paradoxes and critical ethnographies.
Using the performance assessment for California teachers to examine pre-service teachers' conceptions of teaching mathematics for understanding.

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