How identity-affirming texts empower literacy education

Every day, educators work tirelessly to not only help students develop literacy skills, but to impart perhaps the most important gift reading gives us: the opportunity to recognize ourselves and our experiences in what we read, and to feel connected to a story larger than ourselves. This connection is incredibly important yet incredibly difficult work, especially when students’ lives differ from the dominant cultural narrative often presented in mainstream texts and media. In those cases, finding texts that truly connect with all students can involve a fight for equity that pushes back against deeply entrenched notions of what is, and is not, a worthwhile text for teaching and assessing literacy skills.

Along with these shifts in classroom literacy practices, assessment methodologies need to adapt to reflect how literacy is taught, so that students know that the importance of their lived experience doesn’t end as soon as testing begins. At NWEA, research scientist Dr. Meg Guerreiro and Lauren Bardwell, senior manager for Content Advocacy and Design, are involved in ongoing work to make literacy assessment more equitable. Below, they provide perspective and tips for helping us reach all students with identity-affirming texts in the classroom.

What are identity-affirming passages?

Identity-affirming texts and passages are those that give all students the opportunity to see themselves reflected in what they’re reading. By introducing students to texts that portray characters and real-life people from diverse cultures and languages, varied family structures, a range of abilities and disabilities, and different gender identities, educators deepen the teaching of literacy by connecting it directly to students’ own lives and the lives of their peers.

[F]inding texts that truly connect with all students can involve a fight for equity that pushes back against deeply entrenched notions of what is, and is not, a worthwhile text for teaching and assessing literacy skills.

By its nature, the inclusion of identity-affirming texts in schools is a constantly evolving practice; which texts are most reflective of students will depend on who those students are. Getting to know students as individuals continues to be the most important way to connect them with identity-affirming texts. A broader understanding of how student demographics have changed over the last 50 years can provide more context.

Why are identity-affirming passages so critical?

When students read texts that reflect their own identities and experiences, literacy engagement grows. This is true in both background experience and interests and, more importantly, in identify-affirming texts. More than 30 years ago, a study by Donna R. Recht and Lauren Leslie showed—through a reading experiment that involved interpreting baseball plays—that students’ background knowledge could have  a huge impact on their reading comprehension. These links have the potential to increase engagement, performance, student agency, and connection to community while also dismantling stereotypes and bridging cultural divides.

Culturally responsive and identity-affirming texts have the potential to engender positive self-conception and self-worth while improving a student’s overall academic engagement and success. However, students at greatest risk of not encountering identity texts in school are often the same students who may already face educational inequity: emergent bilinguals, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and students who are part of historically marginalized groups. These students may face generational disparities in access to educational opportunities and a lack of representation and/or inaccurate representation of cultural narratives. Encountering affirming, accurately representational readings can disrupt the prevailing narratives often presented while also generating a profound impact on students’ self-worth and literacy connections, as well as academic and non-academic outcomes.

The concept of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors explores why identity-affirming texts are beneficial to all students in a class, including those who might already find their experiences portrayed in dominant narratives. “Mirrors” are texts that reflect students’ lived experience. For those who may not have encountered families, cultures, identities, or abilities like theirs in literature, mirror texts do more than aid in engagement. These readings send students a strong message that their own stories are valid and should be included in mainstream culture.

Getting to know students as individuals continues to be the most important way to connect them with identity-affirming texts.

“Windows” are readings that offer students a look at lives that are different from their own, thus providing valuable perspective. And “sliding glass doors” offer students a chance to change their own behavior or perspectives around other people and experiences based on what they’ve learned through reading. Literature that allows students to put themselves in someone else’s shoes is a powerful tool for developing empathy.

How can assessment practices adopt identity-affirming texts?

As educators work to keep diverse, identity-affirming books in the curriculum and in the hands of students, there’s still work to be done to ensure that assessment methodologies reflect and affirm the differing backgrounds of students. As a 2017 paper from the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment put it, for too long there’s been “an assumption at play within the field of assessment that while there are multiple ways for students to learn, students need to demonstrate learning in specific ways for it to count.” Just as classroom readings continue to adapt to engage students more effectively, assessment methodologies should adapt to ensure that students are given the chance to demonstrate proficiency in the most accurate and effective way.

At NWEA, Meg Guerreiro studies reading comprehension through an equity lens, working to create literacy assessments that accurately reflect not only the realities of reading instruction in the classroom, but also the realities of students’ lives and experiences. The goal of the work she and others are doing is to create literacy assessments that more effectively engage students by selecting purposeful content, using universally designed items, and leveraging student voice and experience. Her most recent project aims to develop a measure of reading comprehension that is accessible to all students, culturally sustaining in its text selections, and actively anti-racist in its approach. By creating better student engagement in the testing process, the aim is to deliver more accurate, actionable data for educators and better outcomes for students.

Another of Meg’s projects, a collaboration with members of Stephen Sireci’s team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, involves the development of culturally responsive assessment of reading comprehension. By integrating student agency into passage selection during literacy assessment, the goal is to give students more choice in the testing process, specifically regarding the types and content of text they see. Student agency increases motivation, which helps engage students more fully in the testing process—and gives educators a more accurate metric of student learning.

Additional ideas for incorporating identity-affirming texts

As assessment practices adapt to catch up with the work being done inside the classroom, we offer teachers and families some tips to keep helping students find themselves in the books and passages they read.

  • Conduct an occasional bookshelf equity audit, like the one shared by an educator in Edutopia. It can help uncover additional perspectives to cover in student reading, both in classroom libraries and home libraries.
  • Be on the lookout for texts that require a high degree of preexisting knowledge, or pose particular difficulties to students who are learning English or have a disability. Offering students a choice of several reading options can help them find a text that meets them where they are in their reading progress, while also increasing student agency.
  • Rethink approaches to learning science. Reading isn’t the only subject that has long been dominated by a hegemonic, often Eurocentric perspective. In social studies, the history of indigenous peoples tells an entirely different side of the history of colonization, and research has shown that teaching science through a sociohistorical, narrative lens can help students connect more with material.
  • Incorporate multilingual activities into reading so students can benefit from their lived experiences. Multimodal activities, such as those with a visual component, can give students an additional way to connect with and demonstrate comprehension of a text.
  • Take the time to listen. Seek to understand each child’s unique experiences to uncover any systemic barriers to their success. Work to overcome these barriers in both text selection and curricular connections.

Looking to the future

The work teachers do connecting literacy to students’ lives is ongoing, critically important, and often contentious—especially recently, as teachers have found themselves at the center of heated political debates on the appropriateness of certain texts. In October 2021, for example, Southlake, Texas, became national news when the school district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction told teachers to offer an opposing perspective if they taught students about the Holocaust. (TLDR: there’s no opposing perspective to mass genocide.)

Debate has also flared over whether to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in K–12 schools—eliding the fact that critical race theory is predominantly used by scholars as an interpretive framework—as a way of opposing many anti-racist and inclusive teachings. Imagine a student discovering that a book reflecting their family, culture, or life is seen as controversial. How much confidence, self-efficacy, and courage can we expect that student to have?

Despite these discouraging media representations, Lauren Bardwell notes that more and more culturally responsive texts and passages can be found in classrooms than ever before as states and school districts begin to include diverse representation—including different perspectives on culture, ethnicity, gender, and ability—in their instructional materials rubrics. As just one example, she points to the Mississippi Department of Education, which includes this as one of their priority indicators on its curriculum rubric: “Anchor texts provide a balanced and accurate portrayal of various demographic and personal characteristics, such as gender, race/ethnicity, identity, geographic location, cultural norms, socioeconomic status, and intellectual and physical abilities.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done. The breadth of diverse perspectives to be found in literature and in the classroom will, hopefully, keep growing. Examples like Mississippi are a positive acknowledgement that thoughtful, systemic inclusion of identity-affirming texts can begin to counteract how some students’ stories have been ignored for far too long.

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