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

A study by Grice and Vaughn (1992), sought to explore the effect of using multicultural literature on African American and Caucasian children. Thirteen children in a southern city were asked to respond to twenty-four books representing African American experiences and culture. Nine respondents were black (5 boys and 4 girls) and 4 were white (3 boys and 1 girl). All were third graders and had been identified as slow learners, reading two years below grade level.

In the study (Grice & Vaughn, 1992), the teacher read the entire class each book, and then interviewed three children who were randomly selected about each of the twenty four books. I do not think this is thorough transferable, because if only 3 children are interviewed randomly, there is no assurance that there will be enough representation of African American boys versus girls, and the same with Caucasian students. Interviewing more students on each book, and trying to represent all male/female and ethnic groups could make the study more convincing.

The questions asked (Grice & Vaughn, 1992) were over the content of the book, whether or not the story or characters could be real, whether or not the student could place themselves in the story, and whether or not they liked the book and why. The stories read ranged from African heritage and biography to community, friends, and family themes, and poetic verse. After the individual interviews, the teacher led a class discussion about the books. The students shared their feelings about the book and ranked it.

The study (Grice & Vaughn, 1992) found that family, community, and friend themed books were the easiest for children to follow. One hundred percent of black females and 83% of black males identified with the community and friendship books. Sixty seven percent of white boys also identified with these stories.

The children took the question referring to whether or not the story could be real very literally. If it had not happened to them, they could not believe it. They found middle class and books about interracial families, even autobiographical ones, to be unbelievable, because “nobody in my family is white” (Grice & Vaughn, 1992, p.159). Because the students were not biracial and did not know any multiracial families, they could not relate to the themes. Also, many students did not find the African heritage books believable. One African American boy said “If I was in Africa and the slavers tried to kidnap me, I would want to leave Africa” (Grice & Vaughn, 1992, p.159).

The terminology used by Grice and Vaughn is interesting. I wonder what they mean by saying that 67 % of white boys found a story believable, when really only saying 2 children out of 3 thought so. This is the same thing, but 67% makes the research sound more extensive than interviewing only 3 children on each book if a reader is not reading very closely. The study could also have been more complete if it included a book about a white protagonist who had a low SES, to see if the students identified with this book as much or more than the African American stories in which the children identified with the main character because of social conditions and not race.

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The findings of this study (Grice & Vaughn, 1992), are confirmed in Taylor’s (1997) study, and so seem more convincing. The information was not recorded by tape recorder, and no information was given as to how the interviews were recorded (Grice & Vaughn, 1992).

Taylor (1997) conducted a study continuing Grice and Vaughn’s 1992 research. Taylor’s study researched the literature preferences of African American and Hispanic American fifth graders, two years older than Grice and Vaughn’s study. In Taylor’s study, 24 students were asked to respond to literature. 14 of the students were African American and 10 were Hispanic. No information was given as to the gender makeup of the sample, other than that it did include both boys and girls. The school the study was conducted in was an inner city elementary school in the Southwest. It does not give the state, but the students received a score of 70 on the Texas learning index by taking the Texas assessment of Academic Skills, implying that it took place in Texas. This qualified the students to receive assistance from a Title I teacher. All the students in the study were low income and received free lunch from the school.

In Taylor’s (1997) study, students read 24 picture books. There were 24 students and 24 books. Each student read each book. The report does not say how they were read (alone or in groups) or over what period of time. The books included a majority of melting pot and culturally conscious books. Melting Pot fiction consists of stories wherein African Americans or other minorities are included in plots with Caucasians.

They are not usually main characters and the only differences between African Americans and European Americans addressed here is skin color. No other social issues are addressed. Culturally Conscious stories do address historical, social, and cultural aspects of African American life. They might use African American English and include plot details dealing with extended family. Other books read included Hispanic American fiction, mainstream children’s literature, and African and African and African American folklore.

After each child read all 24 books, they completed a questionnaire which asked their opinions on the books they read (Taylor, 1997). The rated each book from 1 to 5, but the questionnaire asked not only their opinion of the book, but also whether they could picture themselves in the story (identify with the characters). The children then wrote a paragraph about their favorite and least favorite books to give reasons for their opinions. The children’s favorite books as a whole class were The Talking Eggs (a fairy tale) by Robert San Souci, Grandma’s Joy (a culturally conscious story) by Eloise Greenfield, and The Snowy Day (a melting pot story)by Ezra Jack Keats, a very popular children’s author and one of the first to include African American characters in mainstream children’s literature.

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The Talking Eggs was popular because of its humor and fantasy (Taylor, 1997). The researcher felt that the popularity of Grandma’s Joy served to confirm Grice and Vaughn’s (1992) conclusion that all children could identify with family themed books, no matter what the race of the reader or the character was.  The Snowy Day was a favorite for its interesting pictures and ability to put oneself in the place of the main character (Taylor, 1997). Even though the top three included culturally conscious fiction and melting pot books, the least popular 5 books were also made up of these types. The children seemed to dislike books that dealt with unpleasant topics, such as Daddy, by Jeannette Caines, which was about a girl whose parents are divorced who gets to spend the day with her father.

When the students were split by ethnicity, the favorite books differed somewhat (Taylor, 1997). Looking at only African Americans, Jambo Means Hello by Muriel Feelings, Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, and She Come Bringing Me That Little Baby Girl by Eloise Greenfield were favorites, all three culturally conscious fiction. These students had two years of maturity on the subjects in Grice and Vaughn’s study, and were more able to appreciate books involving African Origins.

Hispanic American student’s favorite books included Where the Wild Things Are (mainstream children’s literature) by Maurice Sendak, Grandma’s Joy , and Snowy Day. Hispanics seemed to enjoy mainstream books and books that dealt with family issues most (Taylor, 1997). Abuela (Hispanic American literature) by Arthur Dorros ranked 9th with Hispanic subjects, even though it was the only book with Hispanic characters and plot. The third favorite book for African American students was the least favorite for Hispanic American students. She Come Bringing Me That Little Baby Girl came in last at 24 for Hispanic American subjects.

The researcher (Taylor, 1997) concludes that not all students have the background knowledge to appreciate culturally conscious stories. Membership in an ethnic group does not mean that students know the history and culture of that ethnic group. Teachers may need to pre-assess knowledge and teach some background information before reading some culturally conscious books.

The research by Taylor (1997) is believable, results of the children’s rankings are included, as is a copy of the assessment they used. What would make the study more convincing would be the inclusion of over what period of time the books were read. This could affect how the students ranked the books. If the students read the books all at one sitting, they may have tired of reading halfway through and not enjoyed the later books. If they read a few books each day, by the end of the period they may not have kept fresh in their mind exactly how much they liked the first ones. Children, and adults, can move from one favorite to another very quickly depending on how recently they were exposed to the material. Information as to how these issues were addressed would lend more credibility and transferability to the research.

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The study (Taylor, 1997) is consistent with the findings of Grice and Vaughn (1992) in that it found that students often can relate to universal family relationships no matter the race of the character. It (Taylor, 1997) moved beyond this research and showed that with maturity and more background information, students are more able to process information about culturally conscious books, including information about African origins.

To summarize, Mohr (2003) found that first grade students preferred nonfiction books to books with characters who represented their race, and Grice and Vaughn (1992) found that third graders didn’t enjoy stories they couldn’t relate to in their immediate lives, even if their race was represented by the characters in the book. Trousdale and Everett (1994) found that 7 year old children used their life experiences to interpret texts, and Taylor (1997) showed that some students just don’t have the background information to appreciate culturally conscious stories, and preassessment and teaching background knowledge may be necessary for some culturally conscious books, even if the students are part of the culture represented in the book. Rickford (2001) found that culturally relevant literature positively impacted the reading enjoyment for 6th and 7th grade students.


There is a wealth of research on ways to help different cultural groups find success in reading. Some suggest community and school wide programs in order to help all children succeed, while others give teachers specific strategies that could be implemented in the classroom.

Craig et al. (2003) showed that state funded preschools for low income students could help overcome the achievement gap, while Gilliam et al. (2004) showed that parental involvement in classes to help their children in reading caused more families to read together. Wilson-Jones (2003) showed that students achieved more when their families were involved in their schooling. All of these suggestions are something that must be supported by communities, school districts, and individual schools in order to effect change for students.

Wiencek et al. (1998) showed the reader that many of the so called developmentally appropriate views of reading in some kindergartens disadvantage low income students. Denton, et al. (2004) and Chappe et al. (2002) both showed that students’ fluency in a second language could be improved using explicit phonics instruction, but neither of these programs benefited comprehension. Ruan (2003) reminded readers that Chinese students may not be assertive about getting their needs met. Chang and Ho (2005) showed readers that characters use syllables as the smallest unit of sound, so expecting students who speak Chinese as a first language to segment words into phonemes may be asking more than for a student who uses English as a first language. Grice and Vaughn (1992) and Mohr (2003) showed that students, when given a choice, didn’t necessarily prefer culturally relevant literature, and Taylor (1997) showed that sometimes students don’t have the resources to understand this literature, even if the characters represented are part of their racial group.