Access to diverse books positively impacts children as readers and as people. Having access to diverse texts helps children expand their vocabularies, deepens their understanding of language, provides opportunities for problem-solving, provides critical affirming experiences to students’ lives, and presents opportunities for students to learn about people with different lived experiences.
Students of all races, genders, religions, languages, abilities, interests, and beliefs should have opportunities to have affirmative literary experiences, where they see themselves reflected in the books they’re reading. These opportunities still do not exist today for many children.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center publishes research on books depicting characters from diverse backgrounds. The research showed that books included very low representation of primary characters for many backgrounds and experiences. According to this data, many students are more likely to encounter a book with a primary character who is an animal or other nonhuman character (29.2 percent of total books) than a book including a primary character who is Black/African (11.9 percent of total books), Asian/Asian American (8.7 percent of total books), Latinx (5.3 percent of total books), a person with a disability (3.4 percent of total books), or LGBTQIAP (3.1 percent of total books).
Students need access to texts that reflect experiences diverse in race, ethnicity, gender, and language. Such access increases motivation, which is likely to have a positive impact on reading comprehension.
Scholar Rudine Bishop Sims astutely notes, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”
When children are able to access books that pique their curiosity through diverse texts, it also leads to volume of reading, builds students to read more complex texts on the same or similar topics, and introduces new vocabulary—all markers of improving reading comprehension.
As an English and reading teacher, I sometimes struggled to provide texts that affirmed my students’ lives and communities. My last district was conservative-leaning, and I was often weighing political tension against my own highly knowledgeable, expert, teacher judgment. However, since I built relationships with parents and earned their trust, I was able to teach a variety of books in my middle school including “Monster” by Walter Dean Myers and “The Afterlife” by Gary Soto.
Below are five strategies I either used or support to bolster diverse texts in the classroom that educators can implement.
1. The Reading Minute. Though developed for middle and high school students, elementary teachers can use Kelly Gallagher’s technique too. Choose an interesting book, but not one that students would typically gravitate to. Find a cliffhanger and read the passage for one minute but stop right before the reader finds out what happens. Students will sit on the edge of their seats to know what happens next. Then, watch the book fly off the shelf. Books I could not teach made great candidates for The Reading Minute.
2. Start a book garden and have students tend it. Plant the seed by suggesting one or two books by topic (e.g., family, challenges, or immigration). On a shared list, invite students to plant their own seeds, other related titles, or podcasts, and watch the book garden grow.
3. Build relationships with students’ families. Parents trust educators they know. During school events, host a “text forum,” and invite parents to a discussion. Listen to concerns and share the titles you teach, want to teach, and why. A conversation with parents will likely be more fruitful and encouraging than online debates and contentious school board meetings.
4. Ask students to write testimonials after reading a challenged book—what they learned, how they think, and why they think other students should read the text. Make these testimonials public, either virtually or in your classroom.
5. Contact legislators when state policy bans books. Coordinate with teachers, parents, libraries, and local efforts, like ACLU chapters, to oppose book bans.
Texts featuring a range of characters affirm students’ own experiences and understandings of who they are and expose them to people different from them, building bridges to understanding, empathy, and compassion. Educators are in positions to invite students to be full participants in the society they will one day lead, one populated and defined by richness in race, ethnicity, gender, and thought. Books are critical for preparing students to be part of a multicultural, diverse, pluralistic society.
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