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Culturally Responsive Teaching

7 Diverse Texts to Bolster Reading Lessons

Books that reflect the rich diversity of this country can teach upper elementary students important lessons about both identity and literacy.

August 13, 2021
Collage of diverse book covers
iStock / Edutopia

“She’s wearing her hair like mine!”

As soon as I heard those words, I knew we had a winner. Right away, this student felt drawn in by the character on the cover. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know what the book was about or that she didn’t usually like reading. She felt connected to the book, and that was what truly mattered.

This book gave my student an opportunity to see part of herself. She began thinking about what other ways this character could be like her. As she listened to the story, she found even more connections. All along the way, she identified the character’s traits and feelings, a skill that she had been having a difficult time with.

Many of us upper elementary teachers have tried-and-true books that we gravitate toward when teaching problem and solution or drawing conclusions. Whatever the skill may be, teachers can usually pull out old faithful to introduce the concept to students. I encourage you to give those old texts a rest. There are tons of great culturally inclusive texts being published every year that need to be read and discussed in our classrooms. These texts do more than just allow students to make character connections and develop comprehension skills. They cultivate identity development and provide for critical conversations around everyday issues.

Below you will find a short list of some of these texts and the comprehension skills they support.

7 Diverse Texts That Support Literacy Skills

1. Theme. The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family, by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali: For Faizah’s older sister, Asiya, it’s the first day of school and the first day of hijab, the day she will begin wearing a headscarf. Though Faizah is troubled by the remarks of others, Asiya remains strong and proud of who she is, helping Faizah to learn an important lesson. As the main character begins to understand what’s important, your students will too, creating a place to discuss the story’s theme.

2. Figurative language. Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, by Joanna Ho: This beautifully written story follows a young Asian girl who realizes her eyes do not look like those of her friends. But she is able to make connections with the women in her family. The comparisons give great examples of similes and metaphors for students to unpack.

3. Problem and solution. Sulwe, by Lupita Nyong’o: Young Sulwe does not understand why her skin is not as light as that of others in her family, and she begins to think her complexion makes her less attractive. She tries to lighten her skin, but nothing works. Sulwe must discover what makes her truly beautiful. This book lends itself to problem and solution, as students must find the heart of the problem.

4. Character feelings. Your Name Is a Song, by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: Kora-Jalimuso comes home from school upset because everyone “choked” on her name. Her mother helps her realize that her name is beautifully unique and teaches her how to share it. This book provides a great example of how a character’s feelings can change throughout the story.

5. Sequencing/cause and effect. Areli Is a Dreamer, by Areli Morales: This is the powerful true story of Areli Morales, a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Areli learns to live without her parents in Mexico as a child but then transitions to being an immigrant in New York. As the settings change, students can practice keeping track of events and determining their causes.

6. Author’s purpose. Black Is a Rainbow Color, by Angela Joy: In this lyrical story, a young girl explores parts of her Blackness. She realizes that although black is not a color in the rainbow, being Black is much more powerful. Students can examine the author’s purpose for writing the text and for specific references that were included.

7. Visualizing with sensory words. Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, by Kevin Noble Maillard: Centered on a staple in the Native American home, this book, written in verse, highlights important parts of Indigenous culture. It includes descriptive language for students to do their own visualizing and make connections to their senses.

Selecting Your Own Texts

There is no end to the books that could be included in this list. Here are a few tips to help you continue adding more.

  • Know your students: One of the most notable features of inclusive texts is that they allow students to see parts of themselves. In order for you to select the best books, you have to know your students. Find out about their families and cultures. Find texts that will help them continue to develop in their identity.
  • Consider skills, but don’t center them: Because we teach in a standards-run society, it can be challenging to decenter the comprehension skill. Authors don’t write books with comprehension skills in mind, so we should not try to select books based on skills. Pull books with rich content and with topics that your students will connect to. Read and then consider the skills. It’s not always going to be a perfect fit, but if you spend time in the text, something will stand out to you.
  • Lastly, think deeply about the text: In her book Cultivating Genius, Gholdy Muhammad tells us that we must ask ourselves, what will this text help my students to accomplish? Ultimately, we want to use books as a springboard to dive into deeper issues. Think carefully about how you might lead your students into a conversation about immigration after reading Areli Is a Dreamer, for example, or consider the discussion around the character’s feelings about her skin color in Black Is a Rainbow Color.

Culturally inclusive texts are meant to be catalysts for student learning in all aspects. They are so much more than just a means to teach comprehension skills.

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  • Literacy
  • Student Engagement
  • English Language Arts
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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