The majority of the literature used to teach reading has reflected predominantly Anglo Saxon Protestant characters and values. Often, when a minority is portrayed, they are a secondary character, they are stereotyped, or they are represented in skin color only and the character reflects white mainstream culture. This is reflected not only in trade books for children, but also in the textbooks used in schools (Harris, 2002).
Research has shown that students may be more engaged and comprehend more when they read literature that reflects their home culture. Reyhner (1986) cites information from the U.S. department of education claiming that “students read passages more deftly when the passages describe events, people, and places of which the students have some prior knowledge” (p. 14).
After the civil rights movement and the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s respectively, most literacy textbooks were reviewed for racist and sexist content, which led “to recommendations for change, such as printing readers in African American English” (Monaghan et al., 2002, p. 229)
In the past few decades, some improvements have been made in the published literature used in classrooms, but there is still a lack of consistently culturally relevant literature for use with students of color and with all students. Harris (2002) states that though multicultural literature is being used in schools and libraries in many ways “one overlooked site for inclusion is in series created for reading or language arts instruction”(pg. 372). Some teachers do not see the necessity of using multicultural literature with white students (Harris, 2002).
One reason for a struggle to use multicultural literature in classrooms is the fact that publishers are primarily concerned with turning a profit, and “many books categorized as multicultural sell less than 5,000 copies” (Harris, 2002, p. 369). Questions have also arisen as to whether literature with minority characters, but written by a white author, can be relevant or count as multicultural (Harris, 2002).
History of Heritage Language Development and its Use in Schooling
Some researchers and teachers have more recently found that helping children to develop their language abilities in their native language helps more with their acquisition of a new language more than an English only approach does (Kondo-Brown, 2002). It is also difficult for schooling to be effective when conducted in an unfamiliar language, as it takes an average of 5 to 7 years for a person to learn all the complexities of academic English, the language of schooling (Kondo-Brown, 2002). A person might be able to converse in English in under a year, but the foundation in the academic language needed for school, because it takes longer to master, may not be available to students until the upper grades. By then they may have missed many of the important foundations for this later study.
America has historically had a subtractive/ additive policy when it comes to language (Kondo-Brown, 2002). Schools attempted to transition students from their native language into English only, and then attempted to teach students a new language in foreign language classes. There is little attempt to maintain a student’s native language unless it is English. Often the family is the only resource to maintain bilingualism for minority language students. Adults who have come from minority language backgrounds have talked of their “reluctance to use their heritage language due to negative external reactions” ( Kondo-Brown, p. 221).
Because students do not understand the language, the only resource they have is a graphophonic cueing system. Without the ability to understand the words they read, there is no way to use context, syntax, or semantics to understand what they are reading. Students who enter school with prior knowledge of Asian languages have also had problems in school, because of the need to transition between characters to an alphabetic system. These students have to learn the concept of graphophonics in a whole new way. (Kondo-Brown, 2002).
History of Differentiation in Schooling Based on Socioeconomic Status
In the 1960s, the U.S. government instituted a War on Poverty. This legislation wanted to help the poor get a better education, so that human resources were not being wasted. Head Start was established to give poor children equal footing as middle and upper class students upon entering kindergarten. The idea was to “attack the very social structure that caused poverty” (Spring, 2005, pg.390). Walter Heller was appointed to create a report on poverty, entitled “The Problem of Poverty in America”. This report claimed poverty and poor education were linked, blaming the workers for their low wages rather than the system that paid such low wages (Spring, 2005). The report states “it is difficult for children to find and follow avenues leading out of poverty in environments where education is deprecated and hope is smothered” (Spring, 2005, pg 391). Title I of the Educational Opportunities Act helped to “provide financial assistance… to expand and improve… educational programs by various means…which contribute particularly to meeting the special educational needs of educationally deprived children.” (Spring, 2005, pg 392), while Title II provided monetary resources to school libraries and for textbooks.
To review, the history of American schooling has been one of attempting to create a unified culture. There have been attempts to bring students from diverse backgrounds together, but rather than creating an amalgamation of cultures, there have been attempts to bring minority cultures into the fold of Protestant Anglo Saxon values. Students may come to school with a specific feeling or attitude based on the history people in their culture have experienced in public schools in the past.
Examples of this effort to create a unified culture include attempts public schools have made in the past have Catholic students use Protestant books and reading materials to study from, leaving them little choice but to create private schools so their culture could be valued in schools.
African American students were not provided education in the countries early years, and many believe the inferior schooling provided in separate schools was a way to keep them uneducated and powerless. The attempt to eliminate Ebonics, which linguists view as a valid dialect, devalues African American culture and makes them feel unappreciated in schools.
Native American’s were taught English early on, but were able to use the alphabetic system to further their Native culture and language. When the attempt to Christianize Native Americans and bring them into the mainstream culture did not work, whites in power removed Indian children from their families and sent them to boarding schools where they were stripped of their language and culture. Many Native American’s still refer to public schooling as the White Man’s schooling, and have deep distrust of schools. Native American students continue to have a disproportionate representation in special education classes, as do with African American and Hispanic students.
Hispanic peoples, who have lived in the southwest since before Europeans landed on the east coast, were compelled to public schooling that devalued their language and attempted to transfer them to mainstream language and cultural practices. They continue to be subjected to so called subtractive schooling under No Child Left Behind, in which their native language skills are not respected and are not developed into further skills, but rather seen as something that needs to be transferred into mainstream language and culture.
Early Asian settlers were first not allowed to attend public schools, and then were relegated to separate schools. Now that schools are integrated, teachers often misjudge the abilities of Asian Pacific American students because of stereotyping and differences in communication styles between cultures, and many do not receive the assistance they need to succeed.
The materials used to teach in many American classrooms have not been culturally relevant, and continue to have flaws that keep minority students from seeing themselves represented in the materials of their classrooms. Since there has been little attempt to maintain native languages of students, this can also cause problems in reading acquisition because students cannot comprehend, even if they can decode, in a foreign language.
It is essential to keep in mind the experiences different cultural groups have had when assessing their success in school. Since some minorities, for example Native Americans, have had negative experiences with public schooling as a group, they may place a different amount of importance on success in schooling. Also, understanding what has happened in the past can help us see a big picture when looking at the current research, and give a broader context when attempting to find ways to help children from all cultural backgrounds succeed in a more and more diverse classroom. We can see from the past that the idea of a melting pot of American citizens has not left minorities in this country with an equitable education. We must start looking at our classrooms as a mosaic in which each piece is different, but all are equally important and valuable. The next Chapter will look at studies that have explored different methods used to enhance the reading development of children from many different cultural and class backgrounds.