Building bridges and breaking boundaries: Exploring African American male literacy

“Where there is a will, there is a way.” –Tupac

For those who may not know, Tupac Amaru Shakur was a major proponent of literacy. However, many young African American males do not share Tupac’s passion for reading and writing. A recent report explains that much of the discourse regarding literacy and African American male youth focuses on raising test scores and closing the purported achievement gap but contends that literacy plays a much larger role. Specifically, literacy “is connected to intellectual growth, agency, voice, identity, resiliency, resolve and a positive life trajectory.”

Dr. Sandra Hughes-Hassell

Dr. Sandra Hughes-Hassell, a professor in the School of Information and Library Science at UNC-Chapel Hill, coordinates UNC’s school library media program. In June 2012, Dr. Hughes-Hassell organized the Building a Bridge to Literacy summit at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, NC. The summit focused on three areas: Research (what is known about the literacy development and needs of African-American male youth and additional gaps that need to be filled); Programs & Services (what programs and services work to support the literacy needs of African-American male youth and what gaps exist); and Resources (what resources are needed to enable school and public libraries to effectively address the literacy needs of African-American male youth). Students from North Carolina Central University’s Centennial Scholars Program, UNC-Charlotte, and one high school student joined literacy and library experts from around the country in an effort to call local communities and libraries to action.

So… what can teachers do to promote literacy?

Summit participants suggest the following action items:

  1. Create and sustain a dialogue between African American male students and their teachers. Be open to their honest evaluations.
  2. Train Black male students to be part of the dia­logue: involve them in advocacy, social action, and educational reform efforts.
  3. Write publishers to demand culturally relevant texts featuring diverse characters, and have your students write as well.
  4. Emphasize writing as an essential element of literacy. Have your students write often, and share your own writing with them.
  5. Do your own action research within your school or classroom. Publish the results to let the educa­tion community know what is working and not working.
  6. Involve parents in the literacy education of their children. Educate them about their role and give them the tools to advocate for change.

For more information on literacy and African American male youth, visit the Building a Bridge to Literacy website.

Researcher bio

Dr. Hughes-Hassell’s research focuses on the information needs and behaviors of urban teenagers. She also researches multicultural literature and its role in the literacy development of children of color and library services and programs for underserved populations. She is currently co-leading a series of professional development workshops for public school librarians in Durham, NC focusing on Alfred Tatum’s book Reading for Their Lives and is the Co-Principal Investigator on a research project funded by an ALA Diversity Grant.


Reading acts: An Inquiry into reading and teaching

Researcher bio

Brandon Sams is a Ph.D. candidate in the Culture, Curriculum, and Change program at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Education. Prior to beginning his studies at UNC, Chapel Hill, Mr. Sams taught high school English. His research interests include curriculum studies, English education, and composition pedagogy. Mr. Sams’ dissertation committee was comprised of Dr. Madeleine Grumet, professor of education and former dean at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Education; professor of communication studies in the UNC Chapel Hill Department of Communication Studies; Dr. Lynda Stone, professor of philosophy of education at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Education; Dr. James Trier, associate professor at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Education; Dr. Della Polluck, professor of performance and cultural studies in the UNC Chapel Hill Department of Communication Studies; and Dr. Christopher Osmond, assistant professor at the Appalachian State University College of Education. Mr. Sams is currently scheduled to defend his dissertation in May 2012.


Brandon Sams (0:11)
Hi, my name is Brandon Sams. I’m a fifth year Ph.D. student in the Culture, Curriculum, and Change program at UNC, Chapel Hill. I’m currently finishing my dissertation, still writing through it. The title currently is Reading acts: An Inquiry into reading and teaching.

It struck me that we know a lot about critical reading and esthetic reading and efferent reading, but I didn’t, I wasn’t reading a lot in the literature about pedagogical reading experience or how teachers experience reading a text to teach it. As far as method goes, how were we to gather data; how were we to keep track of our reading experience as we imagined the students and as we imagined pedagogy.

I made a commonplace book out of my copy of Gantos. So if you’ll notice, in Gantos’ original book the margins are not very big and it doesn’t have a lot of room to breath or record my data. I was a little uneasy about this, but I destroyed my copy of Gantos. I cut it up with an xacto knife, and I copied each individual page on to larger eight by eleven cottony paper so it would retain the feel of a novel. So I have a whole stack of Gantos copied on to larger paper.

So as you can see, the large margins were able to contain our reading experience and what we were thinking about while planning to teach. I’m not sure if you can see it on the paper, but the black marks are our reading experience before we met the students and the blue marks record our experience after we met the students. That was one way we were able to see the tension between the students we imagined and students that actually took the class.

After the project was over, my collaborator and I had several conversations about what we learning about reading and teaching from this project. As you may be able to tell, there was a strong autobiographical impulse behind the project and an action research element. Not only did I want to answer certain questions about reading experience, I wanted to figure out how to read and teach texts better.

What can teachers take away from the project? I think one thing would be the benefits of keeping a commonplace book. In some ways, it’s a very ordinary experience. It turns a literary text into a kind of scrapbook: a place where the history of reading and teaching can gather together. I imagine it would be beneficial for a teacher who plans on teaching a text multiple times to turn that text into a commonplace book. It can be a nice and interesting archive to record your teaching and reading experience and to be reflective about your teaching practice.

In our experience teaching this book, we would carry our commonplace books to class every day. That’s something that really was attractive to the students, so we ended up creating assessments that involved commonplace book practices. Several of the students, like us, for lack of a better word, destroyed their copy of Gantos to turn it into something different, something they could make their own.

The notion of commonplacing involves writing in your book. That helps to break down the wall between the student and the ostensibly sacred text. It can be a way of encouraging students to take up a critical, inventive, and even creative posture towards texts and towards reading.

I guess the biggest take away message is that readers can also be makers and creators of things. If you view yourself as a creator and maker, that has some unexpected benefits.

Multicultural texts for transitional readers

Over 50% of African American, Hispanic, and American Indian fourth graders are scoring below basic reading level. In comparison, just over 20% of white and Asian American fourth graders are scoring below basic reading level. Closing this reading gap has been of national concern for some time. There are many factors that contribute to this gap — including a lack of multicultural texts for young readers. Dr. Sandra Hughes-Hassell, professor at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, recently conducted a study with Heather Barkley, Dixon Road Elementary School media coordinator, and Elizabeth Koehler, Darlington School librarian, on the multicultural presence in transitional texts.

Transitional readers & texts

Transitional readers are children who can recognize many words, including more difficult and content-related words; integrate meaning, syntax, and phonics consistently; employ many strategies to figure out new words; read independent-level text with fluency, expression, and proper phrasing; and summarize texts they’ve read. At this point these readers are becoming more comfortable with longer and more complex texts while growing more aware of story and text structures. Transitional readers need books that will foster and scaffold their reading development.

Books for transitional readers are called many different things: early chapter books, first chapter books, transitional books. Publishers may also have their own terms for these books; for instance, Random House calls them “Stepping Stones” and Harcourt calls them “Green Light Readers.” Regardless of what they are called, these books scaffold the readers’ needs in many ways, often by including features such as brief paragraphs, short sentences with line breaks at the end of each sentence, chapters that can be read in a single sitting, a table of contents that lists each chapter title, challenging and unusual vocabulary, and illustrations that enhance the text.

Multicultural literature, motivation, & achievement

Motivation has been proven to be a key factor that determines reading success. Research has suggested that children prefer to engage with literature that reflects their own experiences. When children of color encounter characters that look like them and have stories that mirror their own experiences and culture, they are more likely see how reading can play a role in their lives and are more motivated to read. Additionally, to become proficient readers, children must be able to make connections with what they read. In efforts to make meaning of what they read, children draw on experiences from their own lives. If the culture they are reading about is different than their own, they may not interpret the intended meaning. For instance, what one culture may view as verbal play, another may interpret as hostile or aggressive dialogue. Having the opportunity to see their own culture reflected in their reading can help motivate and increase the reading achievement of all children.

Critical race theory

Critical race theory (CRT) is a way of studying the effects of race in a wide variety of fields. In order to combat the inequities caused by racism, CRT explicitly addresses race. A basic premise of CRT is that racism is so embedded in our everyday lives that it seems normal to most Americans. An essential element of CRT is counter-storytelling: the telling of stories that question and challenge the premises or myths held by society, particularly those held by the majority. The ultimate goal of CRT is to create change that will bring about equity and social justice for all.

Research findings

Dr. Hughes-Hassell and her research partners used a CRT lens to examine transitional books. They were interested in finding what percentage of books recommended for transitional readers feature people of color, which individual groups of color are represented, to what extent those groups are represented, and the race or ethnicity of the authors of these books.

To determine which books they would focus on, the researchers used the Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Book List database, which contains more than 32,000 leveled books. These books range from level A, which is intended to support young children beginning to read, to level R, which is intended to support fluent readers. The books that can be identified as appropriate for transitional readers are those leveled J through M. The research group collected all of the titles in the leveled range, omitting picture books, nonfiction titles (excluding biographies), and books designed specifically for reading instruction. This left the researchers with a total of 556 titles.

Of the 556 books analyzed, 83.5% had at least one white main or secondary character while only 25.8% had at least one person of color as a main or secondary character. African American children were the people of color most frequently depicted, followed by Asian Americans. In the collection, there were more books featuring non-human characters as a main or secondary characters than there were books featuring an African American, Asian American, Hispanic, American Indian, or multiracial as a main or secondary character. There were no books that depicted characters from more than one race or ethnicity that did not contain a white character. Many of the titles that did depict multiple races were series books that depicted school groups. Finally, authors of color only accounted for 12 — that’s 2.2% — of the titles in the collection.

So what?

With just shy of 50% of the current student population being students of color, what the publishing industry is currently making available is not representative of our students. This creates a distinct disconnect between schools and our students’ home cultures. It is imperative that teachers and librarians work to bring more multicultural texts into the school and classrooms to help close the literacy gap that exists among our students.

Tips from Dr. Hughes-Hassell

It’s not just about the characters being the right color.
It’s important to remember that it is not just about the color of the characters. The characters need to be involved in believable situations in ways that are culturally appropriate and accurate. Otherwise, students will either identify the representation as inauthentic or feel further alienated in their own home culture.
Demand the books.
Above all else, publishing companies are businesses. If you want to see more multicultural books published, get in touch with your local book distributor and the publishing companies to let them know. The more a publishing company hears that their clients want multicultural books, the more likely they will be to print them. It is also important to be mindful of the book order forms you send home with your students. Do the books promoted on the order form reflect the diverse cultures in your community, school, or classroom?
Find the books.
It’s important to remember that the large publishing houses are not your only options. You will often be able to find a much better selection of multicultural texts through smaller, alternative presses. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center has compiled a list of small-press publishers and producers of multicultural materials that are owned and operated by people of color. This list is a great resource for locating a smaller press and finding the multicultural literature that is appropriate for your students.
Be proactive.
The first step is getting the books. Once you have the books, don’t just file them away on a shelf. Promote the books to your students. Use book talks or book trailers to let the students know about the books and to help develop their interest in the books. Don’t just be proactive with your students, be proactive with your colleagues and parents or guardians as well. When you find a good book, let your colleagues know about it. Let your students take their books home to share and, hopefully, read with their parents or guardians.

Researcher bio

Dr. Sandra Hughes-Hassell is a professor in the School of Information and Library Science and coordinator of the school library media program at UNC Chapel Hill. Her research interests include multicultural resources for children and young adults, delivery of information services to children and adolescents, information needs of underserved youth with a particular focus on urban teens, critical race theory in IS/LIS research, leadership roles of school library media specialists in education reform, and authentic integration of technology into the K-12 curriculum. Dr. Hughes-Hassell was recently awarded a grant from the federal Institute for Museum and Library Services to fund a summit on closing the literacy gap for young black males.

A full biography can be viewed on Dr. Hughes-Hassell’s website.

Dr. Hughes-Hassell has also compiled a list of transitional novels about African American children along with many other resources for teachers and librarians on her website.

Struggling in silence: A look at struggling adolescent readers

Have you ever been really shocked by a student’s performance on a test?

Jill always seemed to be on top of things. She asked good questions while we read through the chapter, and she used the new sticky-note method we talked about in class last week.

Or maybe you were not surprised at all.

Robert just isn’t ever engaged in what’s going on. He is super social with everyone when we aren’t doing work, but as soon as we start he seems to shut down. I told him to let me know if he was having trouble with the content and I could help him, but he never said anything. It’s pretty clear that he just doesn’t care.

Leigh Hall

These students may struggle with reading comprehension. Jill demonstrates the traits of a “good reader,” adopting practices she has been taught are good reading practices in order to be seen as a good student. Robert knows that he struggles with reading comprehension but doesn’t want to be seen by his peers as a poor reader, so instead he silences himself.

Dr. Leigh A. Hall, associate professor of literacy studies at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, conducts research on struggling adolescent readers. Her work emphasizes the importance of reader identity and provides insights that can help teachers work with their students.

Struggling reader identity

Reading identity refers to how a student, or any reader, sees their reading ability as well as what this ability means in different contexts. In the classroom, students know who the “good” readers are just as easily as they know who the “bad” readers are. Teachers often teach students what “good” reading skills look like: They include things like rereading confusing texts, looking up definitions of unknown words, and using comprehension strategies. These are all great strategies to improve comprehension; however, just as the ability to jump, shoot, and dribble doesn’t necessarily make a good basketball player, these strategies don’t necessarily make a “good” reader.

So while a student may be able to exhibit these skills and strategies, he or she may still be struggling with reading comprehension. Dr. Hall identifies struggling readers as students who are identified to be reading at least one year below their current grade level, do not have a learning disability, and are in need of additional reading comprehension support by classroom teachers.

Dr. Hall’s work on adolescents challenges research and theory suggesting that struggling readers typically avoid reading, are unmotivated to read and may not care about learning. Instead, Hall’s research suggests that struggling middle school readers like to read and would like to become better readers. She has found they tend to express continued interest and excitement in school despite their largely negative history with it.

Understanding students’ reading identities can give a teacher some insight to the decisions students make in their reading. It’s also important to understand that some students make decisions about reading in an attempt to influence how others do or do not identify them as readers. For instance, one of the struggling readers Dr. Hall studied made use of as many of the “good reader” skills as she could in efforts to show herself as a good reader and smart student to her parents. Other students Dr. Hall studied avoided engaging in activities they thought would result in others publicly identifying them as poor readers. As a result, they were often silent and appeared withdrawn. While it is easy to interpret this type of silence as a lack of motivation, some students use silence as a social and learning strategy.

The strategy of silence

It is often thought that students who struggle and sit quietly may not care about their education. However, Dr. Hall’s research suggests that struggling readers may use silence as a way to protect themselves, to promote a desired identity, or to learn material.

Two of the struggling readers Dr. Hall studied used silence as a way to protect themselves from being seen by their peers and teachers as poor readers. These students often worked alone and rarely spoke up during discussion about assigned readings. They also did not make use of reading comprehension strategies for fear that it could identify them as poor readers. While these students understood that their decision to remain silent could negatively influence their learning, they believed that not being publicly seen as a poor reader was more important.

Another struggling reader in Dr. Hall’s study did not identify herself as a struggling reader at all; she saw herself as a good reader. Instead of being concerned with what her classmates thought, she was focused on her parents seeing her as a good student and good reader. This student identified her grades, an A- average, as an indicator of her ability. She worked silently to get her work done at school so she could tell her parents that she didn’t have homework because she got it all done in school. She identified this as a way to demonstrate to her parents that she understands what she is learning.

Despite their silence, the students all said they paid attention and did their best to learn content from their peers and teachers. This learning came in the form of observations of peers during lab-type lessons or listening in during class discussions. They also stated that they wanted to learn more and become better readers, but found the potential of being labeled a poor reader too threatening. Ultimately, these students sacrificed their academic development in favor of social status.

So what?

The influence of reading identity, and the desire to promote or hide that identity, plays a very important role in adolescents’ literacy development. If a teacher can get to a place of understanding that identity, he or she may be able to better understand the actions of the student and be better equipped to help the student grow.

Tips from Dr. Hall

Try to avoid statements about “good” or “bad” readers.
Teachers have a huge influence in how students form their reading identities. Using these types of simplistic binaries ignores important nuances of reading. For instance, a student may be able to easily read and understand informational texts, but still struggle to interpret word problems in math. There are many different types of readers, not just “good” and “bad” readers.
Give students more adjectives than “good” or “bad” to identify themselves as readers.
Recently, Dr. Hall asked her students in a graduate class what types of readers they are. She told me that none of them reported being good or bad readers; instead they referred to themselves as immersive readers, hungry readers, and so on. Using this type of language with adolescent readers could help them develop more rounded reading identities.
Make your classroom a safe space for students to engage in learning and creating who they want to be.
If students are concerned with being seen as poor readers or poor students, they may engage in acts of silence that hinder their learning. A safe environment for students will help to break down defenses students may be employing to protect themselves in exchange for honest engagement and learning. It can take time to build the trust needed with adolescents to make changes and move forward.
Normalize the idea that everyone struggles with texts.
Students often believe that if they struggle to comprehend something they are reading it is because they are not a good reader. But the simple fact is that everyone struggles with some texts. Having students focus on and discuss points in the text that they found confusing can help normalize the idea that everyone struggles.
Provide time to read.
Adolescents often request more time to read in class; why not give it to them? Show your students that reading is important by making reading time a priority in your classroom. It can be in the form of free-choice readings or reading an assigned text. Try to find a way to balance both. Allowing free choice of texts within your discipline is a great way to encourage students to explore books that are related to what you teach.
Provide more challenging texts.
When given a choice of texts, some students may opt for a simple read, but on a topic of interest to them. However, they don’t want “easy” texts to be all that they have access to. Students want to be challenged. They want texts that they would not have thought of, and they are looking for their teachers to provide suggestions.
Improving reading ability is a dialogue.
When some professionals think about reading, they think about the text as a standalone item. This view presents reading as a process of decoding, extracting information, and nothing more. However, individuals are much more complicated, and literacy and identity are deeply intertwined. Improving reading ability cannot be found solely in the teaching of reading comprehension skills and strategies. Instead it has to be focused on the individual as a unique, complex person and that person’s relationship to texts. Ask your students how they want to improve as readers. Show them how you are helping them meet their goals. Let them know how you can help them in ways they never imagined. Have a conversation about reading and watch them take control over their development.

Researcher Bio

Dr. Leigh A. Hall’s research addresses issues relevant to literacy, middle school, and teacher education. Her work considers if and how students’ identities as readers influence the decisions they make when reading, and how teachers can use information about students’ identities to inform their practice and improve students’ reading comprehension.

In addition to conducting research on adolescents, Dr. Hall has studied how book clubs can help pre-service teachers understand how students’ identities, as well as their social and cultural backgrounds, impact the decisions they make with text.

A full biography can be found at the School of Education website.