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Review of  Handbook of Children's Literacy

Reviewer: Liang Chen
Book Title: Handbook of Children's Literacy
Book Author: Terezinha Nunes Peter Bryant
Publisher: Kluwer
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 15.1228

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Date: Sat, 10 Apr 2004 20:08:46 -0500
From: Liang Chen
Subject: Handbook of Children's Literacy

Nunes, Terezinha and Peter Bryant, eds. (2004) Handbook of
Children's Literacy, Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Liang Chen, University of Louisiana at Lafayette.


The purpose of the Handbook of Children's Literacy is to 'make it
clear that children's literacy is a phenomenon that must be investigated
from a variety of perspectives, with diverse methods and in order to
answer different questions'. This commitment is partly reflected in
the 35 papers, which are arranged into five sections. The book will
be of interest to researchers, educators, and clinicians who are
concerned with 'the multifaceted nature of children's literacy' (p.


Section A consists of 6 papers, and a brief introduction from the
editors Terezinha Nunes and Peter Bryant.

LILIANA TOLCHINSKY discusses 'Childhood Conceptions of
Literacy' through an examination of children's reactions to
questions about what individual letters signify, and claims that
children see letters as representing syllables rather than phonemes.

REBECCA TREIMAN examines the relationship between 'Phonology
and Reading', and claims that phonemic reasons underlie
children's omissions of vowels in their early writing (e.g., wrx for

LILIAN SPRENGER-CHAROLLES, in the paper titled 'Linguistic
Processes in Reading and Spelling: The Case of Alphabetic
Writing Systems: English, French, German and Spanish', points
out that it takes children learning to read these language different
amount of time to isolate phonemes and work out their relationship
to the alphabetic letters, probably due to different levels of
regularity of letter-sound correspondence.

GORDON D. A. BROWN & NICK CHATER explore the relevance of
'Connectionist Models in Children's Reading'. They suggest that
beginning readers and older more expert children take different
strategies that are 'optimal for the particular situation that they are
in' (p.9).

PETER BRYANT & TEREZINHA NUNES review literature on the
relationship between 'Morphology and Spelling'. They argue that
English must be treated as a 'morph-phonic script' rather than a
'capricious orthography', because the regularities in sound-letter
correspondences in English at the level of morphology. They point
out that while morphology plays an important role in learning to
read, it is not clear why this should be so.

URSULA PRETZLIK & LILY CHAN offers a review of researches into
'Children's Self-Perception as Readers'. Individual children put
different efforts into learning to read, and much of this variation is
determined by social and emotional factors. In particular, their own
assessment of their reading abilities determine how much time they
will spend on reading, which in turn determines how well they will
learn to read.


In addition to the introduction by Alison F. Garton and Chris Pratt,
this section consists of five papers that deal with production and
comprehension of extended passages.

J. V. OAKHILL & K. CAIN provide an overview of research into
'The Development of Comprehension Skills'. They discuss various
components of reading comprehension and children's reading
development, including word identification, vocabulary and
syntax, inference-making, knowledge of text structure,
comprehension monitoring. They also highlight the importance of
reading experience and motivation for growth of reading and gains
in comprehension.

MICHEL FAYOL is concerned with 'Text and Cognition'. Based on
a review of the research into performance, knowledge and
processes involved in the use of narratives by adults and their
acquisition by children, they distinguish three dimensions of
narrative processing: conceptual, rhetorical, and linguistic. While
the conceptual dimension concerns 'the mental representation of
situations and events as well as their temporal or causal relations'
(p. 184), the rhetorical dimension relates to the textual organization
of narrative (e.g., narrative schema). Linguistic dimension, on the
other hand, concerns the marking of event sequences through
lexical and syntactic devices (e.g., the use of tense and aspect
markers to distinguish between foreground actions and the
background information.). According to Fayol, each of the three
dimensions is subject to specific difficulties during the
development of narrative comprehension and production, and
therefore '[E]ach can also be the object of preventive or corrective
action' (p. 192).

WILLIAM E. TUNMER & JAMES W. CHAPMAN reviews evidence in
support of three views on 'The Use of Context in Learning to
Read', and conclude that both context and word identification
skills are necessary for children to making progress in learning to
read. In particular, they suggest that context can help children in
their development of word decoding skills. They conclude their
review with the hypothesis that 'skilled readers are better than less-
skilled readers in using context to identify unfamiliar words in text
because of their superior phonological recoding and/or
grammatical sensitivity skills, but they rely less on context than
less-skilled readers to read the words of text because of their
superior context free word recognition skills' (p. 211).

ALISON F. GARTON & CHRIS PRATT focus on usefulness of
'Reading Stories' in children's reading development. Reading
stories to children can provide both social and educational benefits
to, and in fact serves as a basis for success in, their success in later
reading development. Through reading stories and being read
stories, children come to know more about the language of books,
to have a concept of a story, to know that printed words have
meaning, and above all, to know that reading stories can be fun.

concerned with the relationship between 'Computers and Writing'.
They review research into the impact of technology (e.g., word
processors) on writing processes and writing development, and
indirectly on text understanding. They find that technology per se
does not influence children's writing, but the learning environment
it created may support and stimulate writing activities that enable
children to monitor their own writing, to be reflective and aware of
the activity.


The 11 papers in this section cover various approaches (e.g.,
psychological, linguistic, neurological, genetic, pedagogical, and
sociological) to various aspects of literacy problems (e.g.,
definitions, occurrence, variability, causes, prediction and
intervention). CARSTEN ELBRO's paper 'Reading and Spelling
Difficulties' serves as an introduction to the other 10 papers.

SÉVERINE CASALIS considers the controversy over 'The Concept of
Dyslexia'. Reading difficulties don't constitute a unitary
phenomenon, but rather run along a continuum. Children with
word decoding deficits should be treated differently from children
with comprehension difficulties.

NICKY BRUNSWICK covers the neurological bases of dyslexia in
'Developmental Dyslexia: Evidence from Brain Research'. The
paper reviews neuroimaging studies of developmental dyslexia
using techniques such as EEG (electroencephalography), ERPs
(Event-Related Potentials), MEG (magnetoencephalography),
PET(positron Emission Tomography), and fMRI (functional
Magnetic Resonance Imaging). Such studies reveal abnormalities
(structural and functional) within the temporal and temporal-
parietal regions (particularly within the left hemisphere) in
developmental dyslexics. The explanations for the
neurophysiological and neuroanatomical differences between
developmental dyslexics and normal readers are also evaluated.

JIM STEVENSON addresses the nature versus nurture question in
dyslexia in his chapter 'Epidemiology: Genetic and Social
Influences on Reading Ability'. Specifically, he is interested in the
fact that dyslexia runs in families, and that boys seem to be more
likely than girl to experience reading and writing difficulties. He
argues that reading disability represents 'one of the major areas
where complex cognitive skills can be analyzed in terms of the
genes contributing to functional variation' (p. 293). While '[T]here
is no such thing as "the RD (reading disability) gene" but
identifying those genes that do play a role, insight into genetic
variation and brain function will start to emerge' (p. 307).

KATE CAIN & JANE OAKHILL present an overview of research into
the multifaceted nature of 'Reading Comprehension Difficulties'
and their cognitive correlates. They highlight poor readers'
difficulties at the word-, sentence-, and discourse-level, particularly
their failure to relate and integrate current text with previous read
text and with background knowledge. The studies they have
reviewed seem to suggest the crucial contribution of early
exposure to print to later reading success.

of studies on 'Early Identification' and one on 'Early Intervention'.
As is the case for other speech and language disorder, early
identification and early intervention are crucial. As with most other
papers, their primary interest is identifying readers with word
decoding deficits. Intervention studies they reviewed therefore also
center around phonological awareness, letter knowledge, and other
rudimentary reading skills.

'Individual Differences in Dyslexia' from several perspectives:
single case research, models of normal reading development,
comparisons with acquired dyslexias, and connectionist models of
reading and spelling behaviors.

JULIE E. DOCKRELL & GEOFF LINDSAY focus on 'Specific Speech
and Language Difficulties and Literacy', and present an overview
on the varying consequences of various specific language
impairments on reading. Rather than focus on phonological factors,
they suggest that we need consider semantic, syntactic, and
metalinguistic abilities and attention in literacy development.

SUSANNA MILLAR reviews studies of 'Reading by Touch in Blind
Children and Adults'. While the focus is on Braille (characters
based on a six point matrix), two other systems "Moon"
(simplified capital letters) and "optacon" (vibrotactile stimulation
of the fingertip) are also discussed. Such studies help use to
understand 'how touch functions, and how the perceptual and
orthographic basis of a tactual reading system relates to the
language which it is intended to convey' (p. 437), and indeed how
it is acquired.

JÉSUS ALEGRIA reviews several issues involved in 'Deafness and
Reading' such as determinants of reading ability in deaf persons
(i.e., individual differences in language knowledge and reading
comprehension), phonology and reading in deaf persons, and
reading mechanisms in the deft. They argues that while deaf
children can compensate their inability at the linguistic level and
their weakness in general world knowledge by using sign
language, they cannot reach high literacy levels due to their lack of
oral language phonology basis. As he put it, 'oral language
phonology seems to be necessary conditions for reaching higher
literacy levels' both for hearing persons and deaf persons (p. 460).


There are six chapters in this section. ANNE-MARIE CHARTIER
offers an overview of this section through her 'Introduction:
Teaching Literacy: What Practices, When and Why'.

DANIEL A. WAGNER focuses on 'Literacy in Time and Space:
Issues, Concepts and Definitions'. A review of the literature on
both children's literacy and adult literacy suggests that we should
conceptualize literacy as having both a life span dimension (i.e.,
across an individual's life time from childhood to adult) and a life
space dimension (i.e., literacy practices across diverse parts of the
globe). A more literate world depends on a synergy of a life-span
and life-space approach to literacy.

ANNE-MARIE CHARTIER presents a selective review of methods of
teaching reading from the 16 to the 19 century in her chapter
'Teaching Reading: A Historical Approach'. She observes that
'teaching methods depend on what reading actually involved at the
time considered' (p. 512).

DAVID R. OLSON addresses 'The Cognitive Consequences of
Literacy', i.e., the impact of literacy on cognition. He argues that
written language is essentially different from oral language, and
'writing systems are culturally evolved notational systems which
provide categories in terms of which we come to think about our
speech'. Consequently, we need to distinguish the communication
function of literacy from its representational or cognitive function.

JANE HURRY reviews the debate over the phonics versus whole
language approach to literacy through 'Comparative Studies of
Instructional Methods'. It is shown that both the content and
method of literacy instruction are important if learners are to
benefit from learning to read.

MADELON SAADA-ROBERT discusses issues surrounding 'Early
Emergent Literacy', including home environment, socio-economic
and cultural predictors, quality of shared reading, the influence of
genres of books, and preschool literacy development. A research
paradigm 'combining experimental, ethnological, and
psychogenetic methods within an ecological context' (p. 594) is
recommended for the situated study of emergent literacy.

JOSÉ MORAIS & RÉGINE KOLINSKY deals with 'The Linguistic
Consequences of Literacy', and examines the impact of literacy on
linguistic and metalinguistic abilities. While a critical review of the
literature suggests differential influences of literacy on lexical,
morphological, phonological, syntax and semantic components of
language, the authors emphasize the importance of more rigorous
research methodologies.


There are seven papers in this section in addition to a brief
introduction by Terezinha Nunes. Most issues covered in Section
A show themselves in this section, but this time from a cross-
linguistic perspective.

SYLVIA DEFIOR, in his paper 'Phonological Awareness and
Learning to Read: A Cross-Linguistic Perspective', reviews studies
on the relationship between phonological awareness and learning
to read, and finds that different types of orthography, different
degrees of orthographic transparency with respect to phonology,
and characteristics of oral language all influence the development
of conscious phonological representations.

'Morphology, Reading and Spelling: Looking Across Languages',
considers the role of morphology and morphological aware in
reading and spelling in different languages. Research is reviewed
that shows transfer of morphological awareness in literacy across

LINDA SIEGEL reviews research on the relationship between
'Bilingualism and Reading', which reveals that learning two
languages does not interfere with learning to read and positive
transfer of reading and spelling skills can occur between two

MIRIAM BINDMAN reveals transfer of morphosyntactic awareness
in children with experience to two unrelated languages and scripts
by investigating 'Grammatical Awareness Across Languages and
the Role of Social Context: Evidence from English and Hebrew'. It
is suggested that the specific social and cultural practices be
considered along with the relationships across different languages
and orthographies.

KRISHNA KUMAR highlights the relationship between 'Literacy,
Socialization and the Social Order' through an analysis of school
instruction in India. Bilingual education is argued to impact not
only children's reading potential, but above all their socialization
through literacy.

ALEJANDRA PELLICER reports a study investigating 'Segmentation
in the Writing of Mayan Language Statements by Indigenous
Children with Primary Schooling'. Mayan Children instructed in
Spanish as a second language were asked to write a list of
sentences spoken in Maya which is their mother tongue.
Segmentation principles learned from Spanish instruction were
found to transfer in writing Maya, with a consideration of its

DIANA BURMAN & URSULA PRETZLIK investigates 'Paths to
Literacy for Deaf British Sign Language (BSL) Users'. However,
their study is actually more limited to test the hypothesis that
teaching of grammatical and morphological rules enhances Deaf
children's spelling development and text writing. The outcome is
evaluated in terms of the accuracy of spelling, and therefore it is
not clear how significant such intervention may be in terms of
general reading comprehension.


Most contributions to this handbook view literacy as a linguistic
and representational ability. Even though literacy is occasionally
conceptualized as a generative ability, the ability is limited to
identification and production of words. The narrow
conceptualization of literacy is not what we would expect if we
consider the volume as 'a rare opportunity to consider literacy in
breadth and depth by consulting a single collection' (backcover).

In this volume, reading comprehension is usually separated from
word recognition (decoding), and in fact the focus of the handbook
is literacy as word decoding. It's therefore no wonder that dyslexia
is defined as 'a specific problem with the acquisition of word
decoding abilities' (Carsten Elbro, p. 253). Carsten Elbro also
refers to dyslexia as 'a problem with the acquisition of the basic
alphabetic principle of the writing system' (Carsten Elbro, p. 250).
Though he doesn't make it clear what he means by 'the alphabetic
principle', one can't help wondering what that principle is in the
written system of languages like Chinese. Or if such a principle
doesn't operate in Chinese, are Chinese children are more fortunate
so as to avoid the infliction of dyslexia?

After phonological awareness, morphological and syntactic
awareness are also posited as a theoretical construct in reading
research. One wonders whether semantic awareness or pragmatic
awareness will be the next object of inquiry. Or how many
awarenessES do we need in order to learn to read? It is worth
pointing out in this regard that while 'it is clear that skilled readers
can be identified as having certain characteristics and certain skills,
but whether these are a cause or a consequence of reading still has
to be determined' (Garton & Pratt, p. 152.). J. V. Oakhill and K.
Cain make it more explicit when they say '[W]hereas clear
correlational links have between shown between comprehension
skills and other variables, most of the available data do not permit
conclusions about the likely direction of the link between a
particular skill or ability and reading development, so in most
cases there no direct evidence that the link is causal' (p. 175).
Unfortunately, this insight is not always shared by the contributors
to this volume.

The Handbook of Children's Literacy contains a wide range of
perspectives on literacy, and reviews of literature in each
perspective may become handy for any newcomer into the field.
However, in order to have a more complete picture of children's
literacy, it might be best read as a supplement to the Handbook of
Early Childhood Literacy edited by Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, and
Jackie Marsh and published by Saga Publications in the year of
2003 (
The publication of these two handbooks may indicate to certain
extent the lack of correspondence between researchers in
childhood literacy. While the Handbook of Children's Literacy
represents a bottom-up and skills-building approach to literacy, the
Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy presents a more holistic
and therefore top-down approach where the focus is on literacy as
a socially situated phenomenon and on how children learn to
construct meaning.

I will end the review with a call from J. V. Oakhill and K. Cain for
more 'longitudinal studies of reading development and for studies
of interactions between children's comprehension skills and
strategies' (p. 176).

Liang Chen is a doctoral student of Applied Language and Speech
Sciences in the Department of Communicative Disorders at
University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His current research includes
theoretical semiotics, language disorders, language assessment,
and qualitative methods. Other interests include syntactic theory
and Chinese linguistics.