How to find culturally appropriate reading materials for English Learners
By Carol Johnson, PhD, National Education Officer; Doris Chávez-Linville, Director of English Learner Innovations; & Laura Healy, Library Media Specialist
As educators, it’s our responsibility to ensure that every student has access to engaging, relevant texts.
However, with today’s changing student demographics, finding culturally appropriate texts can be a real challenge—especially when it comes to meeting the unique needs of English Learner (EL) students. In addition to coming from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds, EL students are often at very different points on the pathway to English proficiency.
How can we best ensure that our school and classroom libraries offer culturally appropriate reading materials for all students, including our EL students?
What are culturally appropriate reading materials?
Geneva Gay, professor of education at the University of Washington-Seattle, uses the term culturally responsive teaching to describe the use of “cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and more effective for them.”1
Similarly, culturally appropriate reading materials—also referred to as culturally relevant reading materials—reflect or incorporate our students’ identities, cultures, mindsets, and personal experiences.
What makes finding culturally appropriate materials particularly challenging is the fact that texts that may be culturally appropriate for one student may not be culturally appropriate for another student. Consider this anecdote from Doris Linville:
“When I came to the United States about 25 years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a college that focused on embracing different backgrounds. Funnily, most of my professors viewed me as ‘Hispanic’—and that, to them, meant ‘Oh! I know someone from Cuba, you should meet each other.’ However, while I do speak Spanish, I was coming from Mexico. The only things I knew about Cuba was the name ‘Castro’ and one dish my grandma cooked once called ‘tostones.’
“Not all Latino/a or Hispanic students share the same background or experiences simply because they share the same mother tongue (especially when they may speak very different dialects of that language). The same can be said for a student coming from an Asian background or a Middle Eastern country: They have the experience of coming from a different part of the world, but their cultures are quite different from the stereotypes that are too often perpetuated in American media.”
“Diversity” refers to more than just our students’ native language or place of origin. It also encompasses religious background, race, gender, ancestry, ability, socioeconomic status, family structure, and, in some cases, even legal status. For this reason, we need to consider all our students, as well as their families, when selecting reading materials.
Why are culturally appropriate reading materials important?
We want our students to be engaged as they read and, ideally, to become lifelong readers. Providing them with culturally appropriate reading materials is a powerful way to engage and motivate student readers—and can also contribute to overall reading growth and achievement.
In fact, the research is clear: Students who read culturally relevant books read better and read more. This is likely the result of several factors:
Engagement and motivation. English Learner students, much like their non-EL peers, take comfort in the familiar. When we provide content that is both authentic and engaging, learners of diverse backgrounds can see their culture, experiences, and identities represented and respected. They can also take pride in seeing their heritage and culture taught in the classroom. This feeling then develops EL students’ self-esteem and self-efficacy, while encouraging all students to have greater understanding of and respect for the unique experiences and contributions of different cultures.
Vocabulary coverage. Unlike their non-EL peers, who grew up listening to English vocabulary long before they could put those words to paper, EL students often face a double challenge when reading in English. Not only do they have to learn English phonics in order to decode the words on the page, but they also have to learn the meaning of each word—and, in some cases, the meaning itself may be foreign to them. Consider the words gumdrop and lox, which are both fully decodable but may have no meaning to a child who has never encountered these Western foods before.
“Just how much unknown stuff can a text have in it before a reader will declare mental overload! and call it quits?” asks cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.2 The answer is surprisingly little. While estimates vary, the consensus is that we must already know 95% or more of the words in a text before we will be able to read and comprehend it. As Willingham concludes, “We have pretty low tolerance for reading unknown words.”
Culturally relevant texts help ease this burden because they often feature vocabulary terms whose meanings are already familiar to EL students. For an EL student from northern China, vocabulary like gumdrop and lox may be unfamiliar, but foods such as baozi and zhaliang may need little to no explanation.
Background knowledge. Much like vocabulary, texts that discuss familiar topics are easier to understand than texts that discuss unfamiliar ones. When students read about an unfamiliar scenario, they may have to work hard simply to understand what is going on—and they may miss key details or information. Conversely, when students read about a familiar topic or situation, they may not just have an easier time understanding the text—they may be able to connect it back to previous knowledge, enriching their overall understanding of the subject.
Doug Lemov and his colleagues explain it this way: “In reading, the more you know, the more you learn. Educators often refer to this as the Matthew Effect, in reference to the biblical line about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. In reading, [this] means that when you know a little about a topic going in, the text adds more knowledge and detail to your framework—easily and naturally deepening your understanding and building connections to existing knowledge while still leaving you [with] enough processing capacity to be able to reflect on the nature of the ideas in the text.”3
Comprehension and reading achievement. Both vocabulary and background knowledge contribute to a student’s literal comprehension. While literal comprehension is not the end goal of reading instruction and reading practice, high literal comprehension is the foundation students need in order to build higher-order thinking skills. In contrast, low literal comprehension indicates that a student may be struggling with more fundamental skills—such as decoding, vocabulary, or background knowledge—and deeper comprehension cannot take place.
Research has shown that students who read with higher literal comprehension also achieve greater literacy gains. Since culturally relevant texts can facilitate EL students’ literal comprehension, they may also help boost EL students’ overall reading achievement.
How to choose culturally appropriate reading materials
Creating a collection of culturally relevant texts requires a clear strategy for analyzing available materials and identifying those that are the best fit for your students. As Doris’s anecdote illustrated, not all Spanish-language books will be relevant to every Spanish-speaking student, just as not all books about Chinese New Year will be appropriate for students coming from an Asian country.
Educators are increasingly using rubrics to identify books that will enrich their collections. Whether you choose to use a rubric or another process to evaluate reading material for cultural appropriateness, we suggest you consider the following factors:
Copyright date: How recently was the text written? Is it an older text that might contain inaccurate portrayals of other cultures? Could the story take place in the present? Will students see their current reality reflected in the text?
Author’s background: Does the author have first-hand experience of the topic, or are they an expert in the field? Are there details about the author’s life that will be relevant to students’ understanding of and interest in the text?
Stereotypes: Does the text accurately reflect the experiences of students and their family members—or of someone they might know from a different culture? Does it feature complex, multi-faceted characters or simple, one-dimensional characters?
Overall message: Does the text promote diversity, tolerance, or acceptance? Does the story reflect and/or respect students’ personal or cultural values? What are the narrative’s key take-aways?
Invisibility: Is the text missing key viewpoints or entire groups of people? What students do not see in a text can send a message about who matters and who does not.
Language: Does the text use a positive tone? A condescending tone? If specialized vocabulary terms appear, does the text provide enough context for students to be able to determine the words’ meaning?
Another factor to consider is the format of the reading materials. Schools are increasingly incorporating digital texts alongside their print collections. In an important sense, digital texts can help us “even the playing field” for EL students.
With a digital reading platform, you can not only provide students with material that’s culturally relevant, but you can also guide students to material at the right reading level in English—not too difficult to cause frustration, but also not too easy to induce boredom. Many digital libraries even include interactive tools, such as built-in dictionaries and audio, to further support language acquisition for EL students. Plus, digital platforms can provide anytime, anywhere, any-device access to texts, providing enormous libraries that EL students can access at home as well as at school.
The growing need for culturally appropriate reading materials
It’s no surprise that today’s K–12 classrooms are more diverse than ever. The number of emerging bilingual children rose to roughly 12 million in 2016, an increase of 1.2 million over the prior 10 years. Roughly one in five school-age children do not speak English at home, and the number of children who speak one language at home and another in school is growing.
As culturally responsive educators working with these diverse learners, it’s critical for us to incorporate aspects of their cultures and backgrounds into the curriculum through lessons and texts related to geography, literature, world cultures, the arts, and other content areas. This is especially true for our EL students: As they move toward mastery of the English language, they need the strong support of relevant texts and effective teachers to keep up their forward momentum.
The mix of cultures and life experiences that makes each of us unique clearly needs to be reflected in our students’ reading materials. Engaging students in rich, diverse reading experiences is absolutely critical to their success, not only in school but as global citizens in our 21st-century society.
Looking for more strategies to engage your EL students in literacy? Download your free checklist today.
1 Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
2 Willingham, D. (2017). The reading mind: A cognitive approach to understanding how the mind reads. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
3 Lemov, D., Hernandez, J., & Kim, J. (2016). Teach like a champion 2.0 field guide: A practical resource to make the 62 techniques your own. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.