In “Culturally Relevant Books: Culturally Responsive Teaching in Bilingual Classrooms”, Alma D. Rodriguez from the University of Texas at Brownsville quantitatively studied Latino children’s perceptions of cultural relevancy and rated responses to culturally relevant texts. Participants completed 8-item Likert-type questionnaires, and then Rodriguez analyzed the rubric against a cultural-relevancy scale. Notably, not only were the majority of students able to identify culturally relevant texts, the great majority identified personally with experiences or characters, and 95% expressed motivation to read more books that were culturally relevant.
Keywords: culturally relevant books, culturally responsive teaching
Background of the Study
In this study, Rodriguez posited that Latino children who engaged with culturally responsive texts would see a “positive influence [on] their academic achievement” (Rodriguez, 2014, p. 3). She notes that the importance of engaging Latino youth, the largest minority population within the United States, in schools has been well-documented. This population has higher drop-out rates than any other ethnic group within the United States, and Rodriguez notes that prior researchers have linked this with the traditional nature of schooling that causes a “loss of cultural identity” (Rodriguez, 2014, p. 3). Further, Latinos encompass the largest group of English language learners (ELLs) in the United States, and Freeman and Freeman (2007) suggest that the best approach is to “provide meaningful literacy instruction while tapping on students’ first languages and cultures.” When students are self-motivated to read, it positively impacts language acquisition, improving “reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary in both the first and second languages” (Rodriguez, 2014, p. 4). Rodriguez developed a research framework to answer the question of how Latino children perceive and respond to culturally relevant books.
A group of pre-service bilingual and ESL teachers purposefully selected students they knew for this study in order to ensure that books selected were indeed culturally relevant. The teachers utilized 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. This group comprised 22 children ages 4-11, 15 female and 7 males, all of whom lived in south Texas along the Mexican border.
The pre-service teachers read a book to a participating student, and then the student completed an 8-item Likert-type questionnaire developed by A. Ebe and answered 4 open-ended questions. The rubric allowed the students to rate the cultural relevancy of setting, theme, plot, language, events, and characters in the book, as well as note how frequently they felt they read culturally relevant books. For the open-ended questions, the students were asked what they liked best about the book, to discuss a similar experience they had had to the character, to describe how the characters were like them, and if or why they would like to read more books similar to the one they had read with the pre-service teacher.
The pre-service teachers’ professor analyzed the data by constructing an overall score that summed seven of the eight questions. The question regarding the frequency with which the children read cultural texts was omitted, as it did not relate to the books being utilized for the study. Rubric scores ranged from 4 (most relevant) to 1 (not relevant), with 28 being the highest possible score. A score of 20 or higher was considered to indicate that a text was culturally relevant. Each individual aspect of the book was considered culturally relevant if it scored 3 or 4. Once individual rubrics were analyzed, the professor calculated the percentage of participants who scored each item as culturally relevant. The open-ended questions were systematically analyzed through a process in which they were read three times: for completeness, for data segmentation by question, and then thematically to identify repeated ideas. Resulting themes were organized by a block and file system as well as conceptual mapping. The responses were then re-read “to identify confirming evidence supporting the themes or disconfirming evidence” (Rodriguez, 2014, p. 8).
The rubrics indicated that 77% of participants found their book to be culturally relevant, with 91% of participants having experienced something like what happened in the story and 95% of participants relating directly to the characters. Regarding themes from the open-ended questions, students discussed connection to ethnicity and language, as well as cultural practices. When asked if they would like to read more culturally relevant books, 95% of participants answered in the affirmative, citing “reality and culture” among their justifications.
The findings suggest that students are more interested in learning if their classroom experience values their culture. Further, students connected deeply to cultural practices within the reading, allowing them to focus on higher-order reading comprehension skills, such as theme. Students shared personal connections to events that transpired within the narratives.
Critique of the Study
A strength of this study is its apparent ability to successfully measure student motivation and engagement around goal orientations. Schunk (2016) defines these as “learners’ reasons for engaging in academic tasks” relational to “conceptions of ability, social and self-comparisons, and achievement behaviors” (pp. 372-373). Students clearly responded positively through active comparisons to both individual experiences and culturally relevant themes, as well as in their expressed desire to continue reading similar books.
Although this study suggests promise in regards to using culturally responsive texts to motivate students, it would have been bolstered by the use of a control. For example, reading two books to the student (one identified as culturally relevant, and one identified as generic but of high-interest) would ensure that the data collected was most meaningful. It is also questionable whether students in the studied age-range were able to accurately complete a numerical rubric and whether they fully understood the terminology utilized on such a document. A more accurate measure might have included a reading comprehension exercise that could measure academic engagement with the books in question.
My own interest lies in how culturally-responsive texts lead to increased student engagement in a high school classroom. This study is promising in that it asserts that students are willing to read texts which relate to them, but some aspects are not able to be replicated. For instance, although a high school teacher can consider cultural relevancy in teaching, it is unlikely to be as effective as the personal selections made by the pre-service teachers within this study. The study noted that the children openly discussed similar events which happened in their lives, a connection which might have been enhanced by the personal knowledge of the pre-service teachers; it seems unlikely that such a highly individualized technique could be generalized to a standard high school population. The children in the study were also read the books aloud; in high school, if a student is not motivated to begin the reading, they might not ever realize the book’s relevance to them. It is important to explore whether any increased engagement stemming from culturally relevant texts extends beyond a willingness to read. Can educators using culturally relevant texts expect an impact on class discussion participation or positive attitude across the learning spectrum?
Freeman, D. & Freeman, Y. (2007). English language learners: The essential guide. NewYork: Scholastic.
Rodriguez, A. D. (2014). Culturally Relevant Books: Culturally Responsive Teaching inBilingual Classrooms. Retrieved September 23, 2017, from https://www2.nau.edu/nabej-p/ojs/index.php/njrp/article/view/30
Schunk, D. H. (2016). Learning theories: An educational perspective – With access (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.