A recent survey asked middle level and high school principals to choose the greatest challenge they face with their students’ literacy development. An overwhelming 63% of respondents cited students who were reading below grade level1. This response is not surprising. In 2019, only 34% of eighth grade students performed at or above the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) proficient level2.
In the same survey, participants were asked to think about the term equity in the context of their students’ literacy development. While this open-ended question provided a range of responses, three phrases repeated frequently in the answers: access, diversity, and achievement gap. These answers should also not surprise us. The same2019 NAEP results for eighth graders showed a significant achievement gap between students in high-poverty schools (average reading score of 249) and students in low-poverty schools (average reading score of 279).
Today’s principals and education leaders face the challenge of students reading below grade and know that lack of access can dramatically impact literacy development. They are also increasingly aware of the importance of honoring diversity and ensuring that all students feel seen and valued as they engage in their academic learning.
What can be done in schools to address inequities, embrace and value diversity, and improve literacy development for all students?
To start, we can build diverse content libraries in our schools and classrooms.
The events of 2020, including a pandemic and social justice protests, significantly disrupted learning—and normal life—for students throughout the country. The move to remote instruction in early spring revealed significant inequities in education, including uneven access to broadband and to devices for home learning. The civil unrest that then rocked the nation in the summer brought much-needed attention to the racial inequality that exists in our country. In a recent article in District Administration, Reading Plus Chief Content Officer Randi Bender stated, “Social justice protests this [past] year sparked a wave of reflection and change across our nation. In education, the movement revealed the need to intensify efforts to provide students with diversity and inclusivity in books and reading programs.”3
In her 1990 essay, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,”4 Rudine Sims Bishop addressed the lack of multicultural literature available and shared the idea of books as “mirrors,” where students have the opportunity to see themselves and their lives reflected in the selections they read; as “windows,” where they gain an understanding and appreciation of experiences different from their own; and as “sliding glass doors,” where children step through to become a part of the world created by the author.
“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,” said Bishop. “Our classrooms need to be places where all the children from all the cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find their windows.”
In other words, content matters. Students deserve texts worth reading, and they benefit from a diverse content library that represents the wide range of their emotional and academic needs and interests. Content that respects and reflects the experiences and cultures of all students, with special care for students whose backgrounds have historically been underrepresented, helps students understand that they do indeed matter—to their teachers, classmates, school, community, and country.
How then can content diversity impact literacy development?
When students read texts about people who look like they do and share their beliefs, customs, and history, they can be inspired. When students read these texts, they feel visible, appreciated, and respected. And these feelings can motivate them to read more, which can then help them acquire the skills and confidence needed to find reading success. In a Reading Plus study5 of more than 140,000 students, researchers found that students who reported higher levels of interest and confidence in their reading abilities also achieved significantly higher levels of reading growth. The 2012 Reading Rockets article, “Teacher Practices that Impact Reading Motivation,”6 reinforces the importance of relevant content for students: “Teachers who include texts and references to the specific cultures represented in the classroom are more likely to engage students … This helps to bring some of their own personal background knowledge to the reading activity, thereby increasing comprehension. With repeated experiences of relevance in the classroom, students increase their interest, and their reasons for reading increasingly become enjoyment …” In other words, when we provide students with texts that tug at their hearts, open their minds, or touch their souls, we are fueling interest, which fuels engagement, which fuels learning.
Let’s take a moment to think back to the significant literacy challenge faced by many principals: students reading below grade level. Efforts to provide diverse and inclusive content to students can help mitigate this challenge. With content that motivates them to read more, students are more likely to improve their reading proficiency, which can close that gap for below-grade-level readers. Providing content that reminds all students that they do indeed matter ultimately grows more confident, lifelong readers and learners.
1. Reading Plus. “Middle and High School Principal Survey,” April 2021.
2. National Center for Education Statistics. The Condition of Education: Reading Performance.
3. Bender, Randi. “5 Steps to Ensure Students See Themselves in Instructional Content.” DistrictAdministration, 12 January 2021.
4. Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Perspectives: Choosing and Using Book for the Classoom, vol. 6, no. 3, Summer 1990.
5. Reading Plus. “Reading Motivation and Reading Success: A Two-Way Street.”
6. McRae, Andrea, and John T. Guthrie. “ Teacher Practices that Impact Reading Motivation.” Reading Rockets.