Using Culturally Responsive Texts to Engage Learners (Research Problem)


Reluctant learners in secondary English classrooms are disengaged from texts presented as part of the curriculum.  This manifests itself in a variety of negative ways, such as low achievement, lack of self-efficacy, or even withdrawal prior to graduation.  Designing curriculum around culturally-responsive texts might increase the personal and situational interests of learners, thereby fostering a desire to learn that leads to achievement, motivation, and increased skill acquisition.

Keywords: motivation, culturally-responsive, self-efficacy, achievement

The prevalence of reluctant learners in secondary English classrooms suggests the need to pique student interest and build intrinsic motivation.  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).  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 up-to-date literary criticism and pedagogy that deals 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, students would be exposed to diverse worldviews, both content-based and from a stylistic and linguistic standpoint.  It would enhance students’ understanding of themselves in relation to their communities and a larger world society.  Schunk (2016) notes that “interest in learning relates positively to cognitive processing and achievement” (p. 378).

A study by Francis Marion University found that a truly successful attempt at incorporating culturally-responsive literature must meet certain curriculum requirements: 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 same study showed that although teachers in all disciplines overwhelmingly cite the need for an increase in multicultural literature and learning within schools, from Spanish teachers who stress that students need to value other cultures to early childhood teachers who want to promote cultural awareness, 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).

Despite these challenges, steps already been taken to increase diversity of texts and retain learner engagement.  Irvine (1992) stresses that when the tools of instruction are incompatible with or marginalize student experience, “a disconnect with school is likely.”  This lack of connection might manifest itself as underachievement, lack of achievement, or dropping out of school completely.  As more schools recognize the need to boost achievement motivation, curriculum is beginning to include new literary voices, but these materials are often supplementary and removed from the core units, or approached in the traditional vein.

To succeed in connecting with reluctant learners through the incorporation of culturally-responsive texts, educators would need to skillfully connect the texts to primary goals and course expectations.  Moore-Hart, Diamond, and Knapp (2003) explain that students do not benefit from multicultural literature if it is not treated as an essential part of the curriculum because students are not encouraged to reflect on the important issues presented in the multicultural works.  Educators need to build both personal and situational interest in the topics presented in the works, as well as allow students to interact with those topics in ways that naturally meet the curriculum expectations.  For example, a debate surrounding racial issues might connect to real-world events that are important to the student while also allowing a teacher to assess important classroom standards: the use of persuasive techniques, oral communication skills, the ability to use evidence to support an argument, and so forth.  Schunk (2016) explains that “researchers have shown that both personal and situational interest relate positively to measures of learning such as attention, memory, comprehension, deeper cognitive processing, and achievement” (p. 387).


Applebee, A.N. (1993).  Literature in the Secondary School: Studies of Curriculum and Instruction in the United States.  National Council of Teachers of English.

DiCintio, M. J. and Gee, S. “Control Is the Key: Unlocking the Motivation of At-risk Students.” Psychology in the Schools (July 1999), 231-237.

Irvine, J. J. (1992).  Making teacher education culturally responsive.  In M. E. Dilworth (Ed.), Diversity in teacher education: New expectations (pp. 79-82). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Moore-Hart, M., Diamond, B., & Knapp, J. (2003).  The implementation of a multicultural literacy program in fourth-and fifth-grade classrooms.  In A. I. Willis, G. E. Garcia, R. Barrera, & V. J. Harris (eds.), Multicultural issues in literacy research and practice (pp. 223-262).  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sanders, M. (2009).  Multicultural Literature: Enhancing Students’ Understanding of Themselves, Their Communities, and the World.  Retrieved September 9, 2017, from

Schunk, D. H. (2016). Learning theories: An educational perspective – With access (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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