An Introduction to Culturally Relevant Reading Instruction

Students in class with their teacherThere has been much talk amongst literacy experts about the importance of using students’ backgrounds, knowledge and experiences to inform learning in the classroom and during reading instruction. The logic that schools and teachers should seek to create a bridge between students’ home and school lives makes so much sense, but in fact, the reality does not always live up to the ideal. Classroom attempts to closely match school culture with student culture to promote academic success are often put on the back burner because of the demands of district and state curricular requirements. Moreover, the relationship between culture and teaching and culture and learning has not always been understood or appreciated by teachers and school policy-makers to the extent that it should be, a fact borne out by this recent article in The Boston Globe. It is worthwhile then, to revisit the concept of “culturally relevant teaching,” a term first coined by Gloria Ladson-Billings, PhD in the early 90s.

Culturally-relevant teaching (synonymous concepts include “culturally appropriate,” “culturally congruent,” “culturally responsive,” or “culturally compatible” teaching) was described by Ladson-Billings as “kind of teaching that is designed not merely to fit the school culture to the students’ culture but also to use student culture as the basis for helping students understand themselves and others, structure social interactions, and conceptualize knowledge.”1 As a theory, it requires teachers to recognize that students’ backgrounds, cultures and knowledge are important strengths upon which to construct the schooling experience. Students’ knowledge and cultures are shaped by their sociocultural and sociolinguistic backgrounds, as well as the socioeconomic and political circumstances in which their lives take shape. Things like gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, language, religion, social class and generational group all shape students’ experiences in and out of school and as such, must all be taken into account in the classroom and during reading instruction.

Far from being just a theory, culturally relevant instruction, as Ladson-Billings saw it, is a detailed pedagogy prescribing specific methods of instruction, the basis of which are three key components or criteria.

1. All students must experience academic success

Open and equal access to quality learning opportunities has long been seen as the key to narrowing the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic achievement gaps. It is important to understand that culture has been a key factor in determining this access. It is incumbent upon teachers and schools to not only provide all students with the tools to achieve academic proficiency, but to also make each and every student feel comfortable regardless of  their ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious etc. background. Notwithstanding the social iniquities that exist in society, all students must develop the key skills needed to participate in a democratic society (literacy, numeracy, and technological, social and political abilities.) For this to happen, teachers must foster a desire for academic excellence amongst all students, setting high expectations for learning regardless of a student’s ethnicity, race, social class, gender or any another arbitrary factor.

2. Students and teachers must develop and/or maintain cultural competence

The second building block of culturally relevant instruction is a commitment to cultural competence. Culturally competent teachers are adept at utilizing students’ cultures as a vehicle for learning and provide students with a curriculum (or learning experiences) built on their prior knowledge. A key aspect of this entails actively encouraging students to maintain their cultural integrity in the classroom.

For example, students who speak second languages, or who do not have ‘standard’ English for their primary discourse, should not be discouraged from using their primary or home language in the classroom.

Students not only learn the invaluable skill of ‘code-switching,’ learning to express themselves comfortably in both ways, but also come to feel that their way of speaking is valued in the classroom. Indeed, at the heart of culturally competent teaching is the ability to make students feel that their experiences — the customs of their community, what they know, where they come from, how they speak — is valued by the teacher and indeed, by the American school system. The deliberate use of parents and family members as resources in the classroom is another way to achieve this, as is the inclusion and proper use of diverse literature that reflects the experiences of different types of students.

Teachers who focus on developing cultural competence learn to ‘speak the language’ of their students even while maintaining their own cultural integrity. This is not always easy, especially if teacher and students do not share the same cultural frames of reference. Thus, teachers must always be honing their capacity for cross-cultural functioning, including their capacity for cultural self-assessment, their consciousness of the “dynamics” present when different cultures interact, their appreciation of the value of diversity, and their ability to learn culturally situated patterns of behavior and effectively apply them in appropriate settings. In other words, teachers must be able to function effectively within multiple cultural contexts. ‘Cultural training’ workshops or programs for teachers may be necessary, but it is admissible to suppose that cultural competence can best be learned mutually alongside students in the context of respectful and culturally-sensitive daily interactions in the classroom. Ultimately, it is up to teachers, administrators and school policy makers to institutionalize cross-cultural knowledge by integrating it into every facet of a classroom, school, program or curriculum. In this way, the educational system in itself can become culturally competent

3. Students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order

Finally, culturally relevant instruction aims to help students to develop a broader sociopolitical consciousness through engaging in the world and with others critically. Students are encouraged to interrogate “the cultural norms, values, mores, and institutions that produce and maintain social iniquities.”2 This concept is closely related to that of “critical literacy” whereby learners adopt critical perspectives toward texts (songs, poems, novels, conversations, pictures, movies etc. are all considered texts,) questioning the power relations and knowledge represented therein. Critical literacy itself is a pedagogical approach which can be discussed at length, but suffice it to say that students are taught to read texts in an active, reflective manner and are encouraged to actively construct knowledge instead of passively accepting the information they read and the messages they absorb in the world. In culturally relevant reading instruction then, texts are used to stimulate dialogue about important societal issues and institutions significant to students’ lives, like family, government, equality, social justice, racism, poverty etc. Importantly, this pedagogy utilizes a wide range of (supplemental) texts in order to expose students to different perspectives and to demonstrate the ways in which different texts work to legitimize or delegitimize certain types of knowledge. As students develop this “critical consciousness,” they become empowered to change the oppressive structures that affect them in particular and to engage in citizenship.

To summarize, we can see how culturally relevant instruction is “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills and attitudes.”3 Over the next few months I will be writing a series of blogs detailing ways to apply the principles of culturally relevant pedagogy to reading instruction with emergent, struggling and proficient readers. So stay tuned for that!


1. LadsonBillings, B. (1992). Reading between the lines and beyond the pages: A culturally relevant approach to literacy teaching. Theory Into Practice, 31(4)

2. Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). “But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy.” Theory into practice 34:3, pp. 159-165. Quotations from pp. 162 and 163.

3. Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The Dreamkeepers: Successful teaching for African-American students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 17–18

About the Author

Summer Edward is a Ginkgo Prize-longlisted author and has written several books for young readers, amongst them The Wonder of the World Leaf, Renaissance Man: Geoffrey Holder’s Life in the Arts, and First Class: How Elizabeth Lange Built a School. Summer earned a Master of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Learn more at