Culturally-Relevant Texts and Student Motivation


Student motivation is one of the main challenges faced in the classroom, and the lack of motivation can be detrimental to the achievement of core learning goals, especially for reluctant learners. Designing curriculum around culturally-relevant texts can increase the personal and situational interest of learners, as predicted by a constructivist theory of education that takes into account the socio-cultural, personal, and historical context of cognition and learning. The existing literature contains examples showing an improved desire to learn that leads to increased motivation, achievement and skill acquisition for a variety of demographic groups, with support for student self-efficacy and agency helping to drive gains.

Keywords: motivation, culturally-relevant

Student motivation is one of the prime challenges in secondary English classrooms, and the need to create student interest and build intrinsic motivation is even more pressing for some students.  Reluctant learners must be “both challenged and supported if they are to develop the self-efficacy they need to take risks and succeed” (DiCintio, 1999). It can be difficult to create the necessary environment of challenge and support if students are not interested in the curriculum, which could present a challenge for teachers using a traditional set of secondary English classroom texts. In traditional curriculum models, there is very little student exposure to texts written by diverse authors.  

A comprehensive study conducted by Arthur Applebee examined curriculum and instruction in literature studies across the United States and found that educators are somewhat isolated from criticism and pedagogy that deal with texts not classically taught in schools. Indeed, the majority of texts read in classrooms are written by American or British authors (Applebee, 1993).  By incorporating immersive texts from different countries through a comparative literature lens, a greater range of students would encounter texts they find culturally relevant, both from a content perspective and from a stylistic and linguistic standpoint. For example, students are better able to connect with a text featuring characters that reflect their own race, especially if the students are given the lead in verbal discussion of the text (Carlson, 2016).  Of course, a text which is culturally relevant for some students may be somewhat foreign for other students; however, this does not necessarily imply a negative impact on student interest, as authentic immersion into a foreign culture can also be engaging (Lee, 2015).

Although teachers overwhelmingly cite a need for increased usage of multicultural literature and learning, many schools are hesitant to adopt this approach because of concerns regarding time constraints for covering state standards and adherence to strict pacing guides (Sanders, 2009).  However, if culturally responsive texts offer a path to improved learning efficiency, then the necessary standards could still be covered or incorporated into lesson plans relating to a culturally responsive text. Schunk (2016) notes that “interest in learning relates positively to cognitive processing and achievement” (p. 378), which implies that any increase in student engagement that results from a successful implementation of culturally responsive texts could in turn result in higher student achievement.  A three-week study of second-graders who had experienced repeated literacy failures replaced a traditional basic skills intervention with an intervention based on culturally-responsive instruction, and produced increased student motivation and engagement, as well as stronger reading comprehension (Williams, 2015). Culturally-responsive material also has beneficial effects on parental involvement and engagement with the education process, and the discussion of the material provides an opportunity for teachers to bond with families (Hammer & Sawyer, 2016a, Hammer & Sawyer, 2016b).

For younger children, at least, culturally-relevant texts seem to have a positive effect on student, and even parent engagement. When designing a culturally relevant curriculum, the existing theoretical and applied literature is in agreement on the primacy of fomenting student self-efficacy and engagement by granting a high degree of agency to students. That is, students should make decisions about what topics would be culturally relevant, although this is not to discount the importance of teacher enthusiasm and the classroom structure supporting a successful implementation of culturally-relevant literature.

The effect of culturally responsive texts on student engagement is best explained by a constructivist framework, which “contend[s] that individuals form, or construct, much of what they learn or understand” (Schunk, 2016, p. 296).  Culturally relevant texts are a student-centered approach in that they focus on students’ construction of their identities and understanding of the world. When students use culturally relevant texts, they are able to more effectively utilize their experience and culture in their learning, which contributes to student engagement by making the learning process more relatable and efficient for the student. Social constructivist models also describe learning as occurring through the cultural transmission of language and other tools, increasing the importance of this cultural transmission being relevant to students. The constructivist framework and existing literature suggests that the cultural relevance of curriculum could be an important factor in student learning, and my research is especially focused on its importance for student motivation, leading to the question: How do teachers who utilize culturally-relevant texts in a high school classroom describe the level of student engagement?

Learning Theory Association

Constructivism is not a theory so much as an epistemology, or philosophical viewpoint, that explains learning from a student-centered perspective and is influenced by Piaget and Vygotsky’s research in human development.  Learners construct a cognitive understanding of the world. Constructivism describes learning as a more complex process than the mere stimulus-response process of behaviorism, and constructivism differs from classic information processing theories in that it focuses not on skill acquisition and transferral to memory, but on the learner’s construction of knowledge from physical and social context. There are three important differences between constructivism and classic information processing theories that make constructivism the best theory of learning for explaining the importance of culturally- relevant texts (Schunk, 2016).

First, classic information processing theories hold that cognition occurs in the mind, while constructivism contends that thinking occurs as an interaction with other people and situations; that is, the process of individuals constructing their thoughts and learning is highly influenced by the context of their experiences and current situation.  Culturally-relevant texts link the new subject matter and skills to be acquired to students’ lived experiences and culture, thus allowing the students to better comprehend the material, which motivates them to engage in the discussion and analysis of the texts that drives higher-level thinking processes and promotes the practice of target skills. Social constructivism goes even further and emphasizes the importance of social interaction in learning,  raising the stakes for motivating reluctant learners to participate in the verbal class discussions which Carlson (2016) found to be an important vehicle for increased student motivation.

Second, constructivism questions the assumption that cognitive processes are relatively uniform across people and situations, instead recognizing that some situations and interactions can better support higher-level thought processes.  Today’s classrooms are increasingly diverse, with educators being called to differentiate instruction to meet a variety of learner needs. Modern information processing theories suggest that connecting information to a student’s prior knowledge increases understanding, as the transfer of information and skills occurs when these new schema are linked to content already existing in long-term memory (Bruning et al., 2011).  However, learners must believe that these new schema are useful, and it is difficult for many students to engage with texts that they do not find relevant to their lives, or characters that do not reflect their own personal identities. Culturally-relevant texts ensure that learners encounter these opportunities and motivate them to engage in student-centered activities that allow deep thinking and understanding.

Third, classic information processing theory describes thinking as using skills and knowledge gained in formal instructional settings, while constructivism emphasizes abilities generalized from experience and innate skill.  Since, in a constructivist framework, cognitive processes are forged by lived experiences, processes that require thinking, such as learning new information or skills needed to achieve standards of learning, will function most smoothly and efficiently when made relevant to the experiences that form the basis of each individual’s cognition. Social cognitive theory further suggests that student motivation would be enhanced by texts that are relevant to a student’s self-concept, which is formed by the same factors that create cognition in a constructivist framework (Schunk, p. 369).

A core premise of constructivism is situated cognition, the idea that cognitive processes, including thinking and learning, are “situated in physical and social contexts,” which is to say that these processes “do not reside solely in one’s mind” (Schunk, p. 300).  Similarly to learning, motivation is not produced by entirely internal processes, nor is it solely dependent on environmental factors, as predicted by classical views and reinforcement theories, respectively. Instead, motivation “depends on cognitive activity in interaction with socio-cultural and instructional factors” (Schunk, p. 301), a process that is best approached via the more complex epistemology of constructivism.

Although constructivism is not as precisely defined as some classical theories, there is no shortage of concrete suggestions for best practices in the existing literature around culturally relevant curriculum.  For designing a secondary English classroom around culturally-responsive literature, there are several requirements for a successfully implemented curriculum: educators must fully believe in the curriculum and wholly integrate it into the class design; the texts would need to be utilized to teach students critical thinking skills; students should read a variety of fiction and nonfiction texts; and teachers should be aware of issues potentially raised by discussing multicultural topics (Sanders, 2009).  The full integration of culturally-relevant texts into curriculum, not as a secondary subject but as the chief focus, is supported by the idea of situated cognition, as a full integration of culturally-relevant material would use the materials for a wide range of classroom activities. This would create connections for students with the knowledge that they need to learn, thus improving student motivation for engaging in higher-level thought processes and acquiring any new skills needed to approach the culturally- relevant material.

Although culturally-relevant material seems to offer clear theoretical benefits, this leaves open the question of what exactly qualifies as a culturally-relevant text.  An example of extremely well-selected texts can be found in Rodriguez (2014). A group of pre-service bilingual and ESL teachers purposefully selected 22 students they knew in order to ensure that books selected were indeed culturally relevant, utilizing a Cultural Relevance Rubric that considered each student’s ethnicity, age, and gender in order to find books with matching character traits, settings, and themes.  Unsurprisingly, this bespoke process resulted in the students reporting strong connections with the material in the books and increased enthusiasm for reading. Baker (2015) also observed increased student engagement when the teacher strategically identified a diverse classroom’s culture and then critically analyzed and selected material that reflected this culture.

Of course, it would be very difficult for teachers to tailor a perfectly individualized culturally-relevant curriculum for each individual student, especially for class-wide discussion activities.  This suggests that the most successful strategies will involve a high level of student agency, a common theme in the existing literature on culturally relevant texts and student motivation. Cole et al (2016) followed two students in a majority-minority school and found that the students’ decisions on whether to engage in classroom activities apparently depended on the cultural-relevancy of the conversations and classroom learning, underscoring the need for culturally-relevant materials. Further, these two students’ cultural identities seemed to shift from class to class, which shows the importance of granting students the agency that allows them to construct an individualized, culturally-relevant curriculum themselves.

A high level of student agency is common among recommendations for best practices in both the applied and theoretical existing literature.  Baker (2015) noted that student engagement was supported by a critical analyzation of the content that encouraged students to be agents of social change. Carlson (2016) echoes the need for students to be given the opportunity to take a lead in discussion of the text and that students must be given the space to become agents for social writing; if students make connections but are not able to verbally engage, the classroom does not see the rewards of student motivation.  In addition to agency in classroom tasks, culturally relevant texts can also promote general student self-efficacy. Orosco & Abdulrahim (2017) observed student achievement gains for a teacher who explained that an approach based on culturally-relevant texts allowed for identity affirmation “because [these students] often experienced the devaluation of their cultural, linguistic, and racial identity in American schooling” (p. 35).  In a constructivist framework, this kind of identity affirmation would have a positive effect on student learning and motivation.

According to Vygotsky’s highly influential  theory of education, the interaction of social, cultural-historical and individual factors drive human development (Schunk, 2016, p. 312).  Learning does not occur in isolation from its cultural-historical context, and curriculum and the classroom environment are parts of this context (Schunk, 2016, p. 318).  Thus, using culturally relevant texts can foment the learning process by improving student motivation and self-efficacy, as well as offering more links between a student’s existing personal, cultural-historical knowledge base and the new skills and information to be acquired.

Key Terms

For the purposes of this research, student engagement shall be defined as the attention, curiosity, interest, optimism and passion demonstrated by students when learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.  Student engagement is a reflection of motivation. This mirrors Newmann’s (1993) definition of academic engagement, or “the student’s psychological investment in and effort directed toward learning, understanding, or mastering the knowledge, skills, or crafts that academic work is intended to promote.”

Culturally-relevant texts shall be defined as books or other materials that allow students to relate to curriculum within their own cultural context.  This can include ethnicity of characters, setting, issues addressed, or the language and dialect used in the story, as outlined by Ebe (2010).

Gaps in the Research

Although the existing literature shows a clear connection has been made with culturally-relevant texts and increases in student engagement and motivation, the issue calls for further study.  Most findings explore the introduction of texts at the primary level. This is a time when learners are developing their classroom habits, and cultural connections are perhaps most relevant to their daily experiences.  It is worth exploring whether a similar study would yield the same results at the secondary level, and the interaction between cultural identity and self-identity could also differ in the teenage years compared to elementary students.

Further, some of the research with the strongest results was conducted using small sample sizes for which the educators used an intimate and idiosyncratic understanding of each participant’s culture to select culturally relevant texts (Rodriguez, 2014).  It is not realistic for a secondary teacher, who might teach close to 150 students each year, to fully understand the nuances of each student’s home life, so further study is needed on how less individualized culturally-responsive texts might affect motivation.  Researchers have suggested that it could be detrimental even to assume all Hispanic students have the same lived-experiences, and thus would engage with the same text based purely on ethnic relation. Alternatively, many suggestions regarding best practices have focused on granting students and families agency in selecting culturally-relevant texts, which potentially offers a solution to the impractically individualized texts of some case studies but needs further study regarding its effects on motivation.

Just as some implementations included great care in selecting appropriate texts, other studies finding strong effects for culturally-responsive texts have purposefully focused on the classrooms of teachers who have already demonstrated an ability to produce gains in student achievement (Orosco & Abdulrahim, 2017).  More study is needed on more generalized implementations in order to ensure that the positive effects on motivation ascribed to culturally- relevant texts are not simply a reflection of idiosyncratically high quality teaching.

Finally, many researchers have suggested guidelines for best practices in implementations of culturally relevant texts, including Bomer (2017), Carlson (2016), Cioè-Peña & Snell (2015), Garland & Bryan (2017), Lee (2015), Piazza et al (2015), Price & Steed (2016), Sanders (2009), and Wanless & Crawford ( 2016). Although many of these viewpoints are in broad agreement in their emphasis of fomenting student agency and encouraging classroom discussion, most of the papers listed above were published very recently.  In addition, many of the applied research studies in the existing literature focus on small groups of students. Thus, there is room in the literature for further applied work, especially on a larger, higher-powered quantitative scale that would help transform some of the suggested best practices into evidence-based best practices. Such an advance in the literature could also allay concerns about the space for culturally-relevant texts in a curriculum that must cover certain standards of learning.


Culturally-relevant texts present a possible avenue to resolving one of the prime challenges in secondary English classrooms, the need to build and support student motivation.  The existing literature contains examples of successful implementations of culturally-relevant texts, finding positive effects on student motivation or achievement. Most suggestions and conclusions regarding best practices focus on the primacy of fostering student agency, as the gains from culturally-relevant texts seem to rely upon students engaging in higher-order cognitive processes.  Thus, culturally relevant texts can improve learning for students who must be “both challenged and supported if they are to develop the self-efficacy they need to take risks and succeed” (DiCintio, 1999).

To gain a robust understanding of the correlation between the use of culturally-relevant texts and student motivation in a secondary classroom, it may eventually be necessary to conduct a multi-classroom study, in contrast to the single-classroom or small cohort nature of the existing literature, that examines an implementation that fully integrates the use of these texts into the curriculum framework.  This integration includes using the texts as an anchor for foundational skill development and learning standards, as these core concepts are often an area in which student engagement is most lacking. Even in modern classrooms that aspire to constructivist approaches, the instructional pedagogy used for core concepts can easily fall back into traditional techniques that are more aligned with an information processing approach.  The use and full integration of culturally-relevant texts in curriculum can improve student engagement and also encourage teachers to incorporate foundational skills into a culturally-relevant framework. This, in turn, allows students to construct understandings of the material that will prepare, motivate, and enable them to go on to the exploration of more advanced concepts and thought processes.


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