Culturally Responsive Literature and its’ Effect on Students – Part II

A study by Rickford (2001) showed that culturally relevant literature does make a positive impact on the enjoyment of reading and comprehension of what is read for at risk students in the 6th and 7th grades. She worked with a group of poor readers who were able to come up with insightful thoughts on literature when they were provided with culturally relevant fiction along with high order questions.

Rickford (2001) theorized that when children saw representations of themselves in the literature they were reading, it motivated them more than other texts. She states “ethnic folk tales and contemporary narratives have the advantage of increasing cultural congruence and motivation for multicultural students, through their inclusion of themes, situations, perspectives, language, and illustrations with which they can relate” (Rickford, 2001, p. 383).

The study (Rickford, 2001) was conducted over a two year period, from 1994 to 1996, in a split grade six/seven class in a school that served from kindergarten through 8th grade. There were 25 students included in the study, a majority of whom were African American. There were also Hispanic and Pacific Islander students, who included Tongans, Samoans, and Fijians. A majority of the students scored below the 50th percentile on the state test, the California Test of Basic Skills. Almost one third of the class was around only the 10th percentile. The school was located in a low income urban area in northern California, and was surrounded by the Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay area.

Six stories were chosen as a focus for the study (Rickford, 2001), three African American folktales and three modern stories about African Americans. All stories featured African American characters and had at least one full page illustration that was well drawn and showed ethnic minorities. After students read each book, they answered 11 questions. Two were about their enjoyment of the text, three quizzed the child with multiple choice about the surface features of the text but did not go for deeper understanding. These were recall only, and did not ask the students to interpret. The last six questions were higher order questions that asked the students to apply their knowledge of their own lives, and interpret the story and characters.

The multiple choice questions were scored on a scale, there was a most right answer, a somewhat possible answer, a barely possible answer, and an impossible answer, which scored from three to zero, respectively (Rickford, 2001). Then senior students at the university were trained to use rubrics to score the higher order questions, which were in short answer format. The inter-rater reliability was between 100% and 75%, depending on the question. It was lowest (80 and 75) for the two questions that asked students to put themselves in the situation and to write a new ending. For questions that asked them to make a moral judgment, identify a favorite character, and write about character feelings, the inter-rater reliability factor ranged between 84 and 100%.

Children identified with the folktales deeper relationships, and were able to identify with the personal circumstances that caused difficulty in the lives of characters in a completely different context (Rickford, 2001). This went far beyond the surface structures children are most often asked to identify on multiple choice exams. They also identified strongly with characters in a modern setting, and most of the time empathized with the underdog or whoever was being mistreated in the story.

Students seemed to especially enjoy the dialogue of characters that used African American English (Rickford, 2001). Even students who were not African American enjoyed this, but it was noted that many of them also spoke with features of AAE, especially Pacific Islanders. The students felt this feature made the stories more believable. A student “commented ‘I like the dialect because it was my kind of talk. I enjoy reading dialect stories and also I think it help [sic] the story’ ” (Rickford, 2001, p. 371). The researcher notes the research from this field that shows teachers who accept the use of dialects and also teach the Standard English a child will need to know for life skills will reach children better than one who attempts to eradicate native dialects. This also applies to the students’ engagement when their ethnicities are represented in illustrations. One student commented about the illustrations “I like the way they… are made and everything. AND THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE [student’s emphasis]” (Rickford, 2001, p. 372).

Students scored higher on the higher cognitive demand questions than the low order questions (Rickford, 2001). Even though they were allowed to use the books to refer to, students scored a mean of 60% on the recall, multiple choice questions, and were more successful with 79% and 75% means on the critical evaluation and creative reading questions, respectively. The researcher attributed these differences to the fact that students could not use their real life experiences to interpret the answers; it was more literal and had to be found exactly in the text, not interpreted. On the higher order questions students were able to “stake a claim, and provide a well reasoned warrant in support of it” (Rickford, 2001, p. 379). She believed the reason was because students could apply things that happened to them in their lives to their answers here.

Rickford (2001) concluded that not only were culturally relevant texts important to student’s engagement with the text, but also that comprehension questions not only be based on surface details, but underlying themes and student reactions are important to engaging students in thinking about reading.

A critique of this study would emphasize its lack of a comparison. Since all the stories used were culturally relevant we have no way to see if the students would not have gotten the same scores with mainstream, not culturally relevant literature. The methodology seemed to only confirm what the researcher already thought. If other types of literature had been added, then we would have some proof here. But without that, the findings of this study lack credibility.

Trousdale and Everett (1994) also conducted a study to see how minority students reacted to literature.  They wanted to see if students from minority cultures comprehended the messages in mainstream literature, or if there was a cultural barrier that impeded meaning.

The researchers (Trousdale & Everett, 1994) included one elementary school teacher who taught at a school with a majority of African American students and who also wrote children’s books. The second researcher was a teacher from a local university. Both were Caucasian and spoke Standard English.

Their subjects (Trousdale & Everett, 1994) included 3 seven year old African American girls, none of whom were in the researcher’s classes. All students lived in a mostly African American community in a low income housing area. All children spoke the African American English dialect.   Two children came from single parent homes, one of whom lived with extended family (grandmother), and one of the children lived with both parents. Although many people in the area are unemployed, often because they were illiterate, the subjects chosen were all from families who were employed. All three children said they went to the library often, and that they liked reading. The first child admired her teacher, and wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. Another wanted to be a writer, especially plays, which she wrote and performed with children in the neighborhood. The last child was shy, but enjoyed reading as well.

Author number one wrote three different stories, all around the same theme of birthdays (Trousdale & Everett, 1994). It was decided to have her write them so it would be easier to analyze whether the students comprehended the author’s message, since the author was right there and not a third person! All books were humorous, and had main characters around the children’s age. One was “Mom Don’t You Like It?”, a story that included a lot of repetition, and two more stories, one based on Alexander and the Terrible, horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, and was called “The Worst Birthday in the History of the World”, where many bad things happen, but which of course has a happy ending. The last was based on The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash, and was called “The Iguana Got Loose at the Birthday Party”, where a series of funny events follows one after the other. There was no information given as to whether illustrations accompanied the stories.

Each student was read each story separately in the living room of one of the researchers (Trousdale & Everett, 1994). The stories were read one week apart, and afterwards the child was asked to retell the story and asked questions about it. For the most part, students understood the plot very well. Only one child grasped the overlying message, which the authors speculate might show she is closer to the formal operations stage than other students her age. Most grasped a message such as the importance of obeying your parents, whereas the theme the author intended was “situations and people are not always what they appear to be. Through patient waiting, reasons for actions become evident” ( Trousdale & Everett, 1994, p. 6). The authors concluded that it was unreasonable to expect all children in first grade to comprehend abstract messages.

All the children identified with the main character, but only one of the children was on his “side”, thought he or she was the most important character and was right when there were conflicts with adults (Trousdale & Everett, 1994). Although the other two children identified with the main character, they thought the adults were the most important characters, and cited many flaws in the child such as selfishness, bad, or naughty. They justified the parents’ actions, even though they thought maybe they too were a lot like the child character.

When students were asked to retell the story, deletions or additions were almost all based on their life experience, and not from misunderstanding the story (Trousdale & Everett, 1994). For example, one student was not familiar with what Crackerjacks were, but was familiar with the Cracker Barrel store. Instead of saying the children got prizes from a Crackerjack box in the story, she said they went to the Cracker Barrel store and got prizes out of the machines there when she retold it. Not only did she replace Crackerjack with Cracker Barrel, but she also changed the surrounding details so it would make sense. In another instance, students added characters to the story to make them match their own family circumstances, for example saying one of the characters had two bothersome sisters (like herself), or saying a cousin and uncle had come to the birthday party (the student had close extended family relationships, especially with her cousin and uncle). This shows that students are always going to interpret a story with their own experiences.

Subjects also analyzed the stories based on their own cultural lenses (Trousdale & Everett, 1994). The student who wanted to become a teacher evaluated each books usefulness for that purpose, and the student who wanted to write plays discussed each book in terms of how it could be used in that sense.

These children used their lives and goals as a reference for their understanding and enjoyment of the texts (Trousdale & Everett, 1994). The conclusion of the authors is that it may be important to include literature that includes an emphasis on extended family when working with children of the African American community. Also it seems important to encourage students to use their own life experience to understand and interpret stories, as this may bring about a better understanding of the writing.

In critiquing this study, the reader must focus on its credibility and transferability. How the children were selected was not shared, and the children that were chosen did not represent a cross section of the community they lived in, rather in a location with high illiteracy and unemployment, children were chosen whose families were employed and who encouraged literacy activities. The findings then could not be transferred to the rest of the community. It is not a good representation of the students she would be working with, and so I would need justification as to why this sample was chosen. If they were not students of the researcher, how did she find them? If she found them, say, at the library, then this would not be a bias free sample. Perhaps the goal here was to create a sample where culture would be the only factor, and not reading ability, but then that needs to be stated. And since the problem in the community was the illiteracy, working with the comprehension of students who do not have the family support may be more important to research than how to help the students who already do have the family support.