Focus on Literacy

Danling Fu and Marylou M Matoush
Oxford University Press 2014

Focus on LiteracyFocus on Literacy is part of the excellent Oxford Key Concepts for the Language Classroom series, which is designed to provide a link between research and practice for second language teachers. The approach the series takes encourages teachers to adopt a professional stance, which is based on research and evidence. The focus of this book is the development of biliterate skills in second language learners within the context of a globalised transnational world, in which learners need to develop and maintain ‘transnational identities’ while reconciling this with their local sense of self, which is embedded in their local language and literacy practices. It therefore represents a significant paradigm shift from the idea of second language learning and literacy development as a de-contextualised, classroom-only activity. While primarily aimed at teachers of learners aged 5 to 18, this book would be of interest to anyone interested in second language literacy development and would be of particular use to anyone undertaking further study in this area, as well as anyone on a teacher training course in which second language literacy development plays a key role.

Central to the understanding that this work brings to the topic is the definition it gives of literacy within a second language context. The authors note that traditional views of literacy, which refer merely to basic reading and writing skills, can lead to an instructional approach that has limited outcomes and is no longer relevant to the needs of learners within the context of the 21st century and the globalised, transnational world that the learners now find themselves in. The literacy skills required within such a context require the need for communicative competence involving social and cultural knowledge being applied in a variety of settings. In addition to the cultural aspects of literacy, the ability to be literate across different forms of media in addition to the printed word, referred to as ‘multiliteracies’ and the need for a pedagogy which addresses this is another aspect dealt with by the authors.

A key idea in the book revolves around the use of the concept of ‘language-as-thinking’ as an empowering tool for learning. This involves the active engagement of the learners in what they read and the use of authentic tasks while reading. Central to this is the idea that the learners’ thinking processes are developing as they are gaining literacy skills, and the context from which they have derived them are valued. This is contrasted with modes of practice which devalue the learners’ own language, cultural knowledge and experience, as well as other types of surface-level instruction which they demonstrate to be less effective in literacy acquisition than meaning-based language activities. It is also seen as more empowering for the learners. The challenge for the language teacher attempting to develop literacy skills for their learners in the context described is something which the authors acknowledge and dealing with this is therefore a central concern of the book. Teachers who read the book are given the opportunity to compare their own ideas about literacy instruction and these are compared with the findings in the research. Furthermore, specific examples of the instructional techniques used by language teachers are used to illustrate the aforementioned concepts in a classroom setting.

The book is divided into five sections, which focus on the themes of communicative competence, empowering L2 literacy learners, literacy development for young L2 learners, literacy development for L2 adolescent learners as well as an overview chapter on what we now know about second language literacy instruction. In addition to this, the book also contains a useful glossary of key terms. Each chapter contains a combination of activities, research background and key studies as well as classroom snapshots to contextualise and illustrate the ideas. The approach the book takes encourages the reader to become actively involved with the material, which not only enables the greater retention of knowledge, but also allows readers to engage with the ideas in order to consolidate, question and re-evaluate their own pre-existing knowledge of the topic as well as actively consider the ideas. In this way, it is written in a way which demonstrates to teachers how to encourage active literacy development among their own students, providing a useful amount of loop input for teacher development.

Primary and Secondary contexts are each dealt with separately. In the section on literacy development for young learners, research and specific instructional techniques relating to pre-kindergarten to sixth-grade L2 learners are given. The techniques suggested are designed to enable the learners to express themselves as readers and writers in an active way. These techniques are further developed in the following section on teaching L2 adolescent learners. The challenge of teaching learners new to the language at this stage is also explored, as well as some suggested instructional techniques. As in the previous section, in addition to suggested approaches, classroom snapshots illustrating good practice are contrasted with snapshots showing less effective techniques.

The great strength of this book, and indeed the series that it is a part of, is the fact that it allows the teacher to see how a research-based approach can actually be used in their classroom. The activities and snapshots take the reader on a journey which allow them to reflect on their own practice in relation to the central ideas and themes the book focuses on. Both primary and secondary teachers alike will find useful approaches which they will be able to apply in class. In addition, anyone with an interest in L2 literacy development will also find this book of interest.


Elizabeth Hollis-Watts has been working in EFL as a teacher, teacher trainer and manager for the past 12 years in Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the UK. She is currently working in London.