Originally developed by the NCTE Standing Committee Against Censorship
Approved by the NCTE Executive Committee, July 2013, revised July 2018
Unfettered student access to high-quality literature through curricula, independent choice reading, and “full authentic texts rather than adaptations” (NCTE, 2006, ¶7) is a central tenet in English education, and to that end, NCTE has developed policies that strongly discourage censoring practices in schools at all grade levels. Letter ratings, content warnings, and all forms of “red-flagging”—whether in classroom, school, or community libraries, or inserted via mandate into course syllabi—constitute blatant forms of censorship. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a red flag is a near-universal signal of danger (Red Flag, 2018). The term, in its widely used verb form, to red-flag something, is an expression noting that some person or institution has marked something as a danger, real or imagined. Thus, red-flagging a book marks it as somehow dangerous.
In fact, the practice of red-flagging is what is dangerous. It reduces complex literary works to a few isolated features. Red-flagging and rating books for controversial content undermines the process of book selection based on educational criteria and significantly reduces students’ access to a range of available, high-quality literature. Because an “intransigent minority” (Taleb, 2018, p. 69) objects vocally and persistently to isolated features of a particular book instead of viewing its merit as a whole, school and community personnel sometimes succumb to political and/or personal pressure and incorporate red-flagging practices. Sadly, in order to avoid book controversies, some school districts have undertaken the practice of red-flagging books that have been challenged in other schools by using letter ratings and/or content warnings, while stopping short of actual book-banning. Instead, the practice leads parents, teachers, and entire school districts down a slippery slope toward censorship.
Nature of the Problem
Gatekeeping and labeling. First, it is important to note that “most challenges (formal attempts to remove or restrict access to library materials and services) go unreported” (ALA, 2018, ¶1). Second, the practice of gatekeeping results in books never hitting the open shelves for fear of being banned or challenged. This is essentially a predetermination that a book is not suitable for consumption by the consumer. Books may be consigned to a protected shelf where students need special permission to check them out. And, books may be removed temporarily when other local area schools are experiencing a challenge. The third common practice is the labeling of books. Whether the labels designate reading levels, lexiles, or problematic content, the bottom line is that labeling accomplishes two negative outcomes: it narrows students’ ability to choose books based on interest, and it infringes on students’ privacy since the labels can be seen by others.
Statement of purpose. The purpose of this position statement on red-flagging is twofold. First, it upholds NCTE’s assertions that students’ and teachers’ unimpeded access to quality literature has to be assured. Second, it emphasizes how red-flagging books can severely limit choice of quality reading materials for students and educators alike. Since choice is key in the support and development of readers of all ages (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000; Ivey & Johnston, 2013), censoriously curtailing those choices can be detrimental to students (Wigfield, Gladstone, & Turci, 2016) and can impede teachers’ professional efforts to promote lifelong reading and learning.
Recommendations for Teachers
Dialogue between parents and educators. NCTE appreciates that it is important to inform parents and guardians about the educational value of, and reasoning behind, the use and selection of classroom books and other reading materials. Indeed, parent-teacher partnerships can strengthen education outcomes for children and youth (Anderson & Minke, 2010). Through the sharing of rationales for books—by districts, schools, and teachers with parents—a dialogue between educators and families can be opened regarding materials used in the classroom. Such a dialogue can foster trust, cooperation, and a more complete understanding of how texts are used to meet educational goals. Such a process also encourages the opportunity for student and parental choice while honoring the expertise of teachers. However, when even one parent or community member seeks to curtail access by labeling or removing a book for a student other than his or her own, that person is, in effect, attempting to censor.
Usurping the prerogatives of educators and families alike, red-flagging privileges the concerns of a few individuals over a majority of parents and over the professional judgment of teachers and librarians who review and select the books for their students. Red-flagging or rating books by emphasizing only the “mature” content in particular books, or by creating a list of previously banned or challenged books, will encourage two negative outcomes. First, it will embolden those seeking to stimulate continuing controversy; and second, it will have a paradoxical effect on students by inciting student reading choices for prurient reasons while at the same time discouraging students’ reading of works of literary merit.
Such ratings narrow the curriculum to only books that are deemed “safe” and deny students access to a wide variety of reading material. Moreover, how one person defines “safe” is likely to be different from another. What content is problematic? The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom website offers an annual infographic (ALA, 2016) depicting the top ten challenged books and their reasons, which included among the top reasons books that were “sexually explicit,” used “offensive language,” or incorporated LGBT content.
As English language arts teachers, we
- appreciate the dialogue and communication with parents, administrators, and other stakeholders regarding the literary value of texts;
- utilize our professional judgment when selecting texts to be taught in the classroom;
- discourage formal “ratings” of a text, including those that deem books “safe” or “appropriate” for the reader without considering the literary and curricular value of the text;
- oppose identifying a book as “safe” or “unsafe” based on its content.
Book rationales are essential. NCTE encourages schools and teachers to systematically access, develop, and provide parents with rationales that explain the pedagogical purposes curricular reading materials serve. Written rationales are an important element to have in place, particularly when teaching commonly challenged books (see link, Frequently Challenged Books, 2013). Such rationales should not be selectively prepared, but should encompass all curricular choices. Without clearly written rationales, schools often rely on flawed and highly subjective collections of warnings, developed by outsiders, that, in fact, discourage wide reading of books. Such collections or lists that segregate books into artificially created categories based on previous challenges give educators and would-be readers a biased and misinformed perspective, serving only to cast those reading materials into a negative light, regardless of their literary worth, and stoke unnecessary alarm. Insidiously, such categorization defers to individuals and/or an intransigent minority (Taleb, 2018) who object to a book—often for spurious random, personal, or ideological reasons. Rather than reducing challenged books and reading materials to out-of-context passages or words, NCTE encourages educators to articulate the important themes and ideas that such books highlight and that have well served thousands who have read, taught, enjoyed, and benefited from them.
As English language arts teachers, we
- are prepared to discuss the pedagogical and curricular purposes served by the literature we teach;
- commit to teaching books that may challenge cultural or societal expectations;
- consider books as a whole, rather than passages taken out of context when identifying what we teach;
- engage with learners through literature, encouraging personal choice, decision-making, and critical thinking.
Rationales and other valuable resources can be found by visiting the offices and websites of the following organizations, in addition to NCTE. The American Library Association has established its Office of Intellectual Freedom with a myriad of resources available to educators and librarians for dealing with such challenges: http://www.ala.org/aboutala/offices/oif/. A brief, informative video from Banned Books Week/ALA can be found at https://youtu.be/yyd2kII-8D4.
Also dedicated to assisting educators in these situations are these groups:
The National Coalition Against Censorship: https://ncac.org/resources
NCTE’s Standing Committee Against Censorship:
American Library Association [ALA]. (2016). Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2016 [Infographic]. Office of Intellectual Freedom, Banned and Challenged Books. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/statistics
American Library Association [ALA]. (2018). State of American Libraries 2018. Issues and Trends. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/news/state-americas-libraries-report-2018/issues-trends
Anderson, K. J., & Minke, K. M. (2010). Parent involvement in education: Toward an understanding of parents’ decision-making. The Journal of Educational Research, 100(5), 311-323.
Banned Books Week. (2018, April 9). Top 10 most challenged books of 2017. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/yyd2kII-8D4
Frequently Challenged Books. (2013, March 26). American Library Association [webpage]. Document ID: 82134c30-c54c-447f-be34-bfbcb7d094e5. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks
Guthrie, J. T., & Wigfield, A. (2000). Engagement and motivation in reading. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research, Volume III (pp. 403-422). Malwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Ivey, G., & Johnston, P. H. (2013). Engagement with young adult literature: Outcomes and processes. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(3), 255-275.
NCTE. (2006). Resolution on the Essential Roles and Value of Literature in the Curriculum [Position Statement]. Retrieved from http://www2.ncte.org/statement/valueofliterature/
Red Flag. (2018). Definition of “red flag”. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/red%20flag
Taleb, N. N. (2018). Skin in the game: Hidden asymmetries of daily life. New York, NY: Random House.
Wigfield, A., Gladstone, J. R., & Turci, L. (2016). Beyond cognition: Reading motivation and reading comprehension. Child Development Perspectives, 10(3), 190-195.
This document was revised by an NCTE working committee comprising the following:
Gretchen Oltman, Chair, Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska
Annamary Consalvo, The University of Texas at Tyler
Teri Lesesne, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas
Jocelyn A. Chadwick, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Massachusetts
This position statement may be printed, copied, and disseminated without permission from NCTE.