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Critically Listening to Elementary Read-Alouds

This blog is written by NCTE member, Melissa Summer Wells. 

Wells_headshotIn her often-cited work (you can read a reprint here), Bishop (1990) noted, “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” Reading and selecting literature to share with students, therefore, becomes a task far beyond simply selecting a good story: we are seeking windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors for ourselves and our students.

Sometimes, though, we overlook those windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors—especially if the selectors of this literature are accustomed to seeing themselves in literature without even realizing it. Gangi (2008) analyzed children’s literature textbooks, booklists, order forms, and award lists to document the over-representation of resources by and/or about white characters and culture. Furthermore, she highlighted the lack of multicultural literature represented in many common professional literacy textbooks, staples in many literacy coaches’ professional book collections.

As an elementary literacy coach, Gangi’s observation shook me. Without critical awareness, how can teachers—who historically come from predominantly mainstream backgrounds as overwhelmingly white, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian females—pay closer attention to whose voices are or are not reflected in the literature they share with students? I devised this simple chart to use with teachers to raise this critical awareness.

Read aloud chart

In addition, students themselves can help fill out this chart as they raise their own critical awareness of voices heard and silenced in books. Some teachers may find some topics, like race and sexuality, uncomfortable with younger learners, but I echo Aboud and Doyle’s (1996) belief that ignoring such topics is not sustainable: “On the one hand, educators do not want to foster prejudice [by ignoring it]. On the other, many people wonder how we can succeed in reducing prejudice if we do not talk about it” (p. 162).  Instead, find constructive ways to introduce these topics—such as using children’s literature that features non-mainstream cultures and families.

For me, it all comes down to this simple question: shouldn’t everyone be able to experience mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors in the literature we use at school?

Further Reading

Aboud, F. E., & Doyle, A. B. (1996). Does talk of race foster prejudice or tolerance in children? Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 28(3), 161–170.

Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(1), 9–11. Retrieved from https://www.psdschools.org/webfm/8559h

Gangi, J. M. (2008). The unbearable whiteness of literacy instruction: Realizing the implications of the proficient reader research. Multicultural Review, 17 (1), 30–35.

Melissa Summer Wells (@mswells01) is an elementary literacy coach by day and a doctoral student in Language & Literacy at the University of South Carolina by night. Her research interests include critical literacy (including critical digital literacies in early childhood settings) and bidirectional family learning communities.