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Fall 2011


Cultural  Bias  in  Leveled  Texts  for  the  Elementary   Grades:  Implications  for  teachers,  administrators,   school  district  personnel  and  textbook  publishers

Crystal Glover

University of North Carolina at Charlotte Introduc)on  

Cultural bias in academic textbooks can negatively impact the socio-cultural, emotional, and intellectual well-being of ethnic minorities (van Belle, 2010). When the cultural and societal norms presented in instructional textbooks differ from those of the students who use them, the result is a cultural discontinuity that can interfere with learning. Reading textbooks, also known as basal readers, serve as the dominant means of literacy instruction in 75% - 95% of elementary schools across America (Apple & ChristianSmith; 1991; Gunning, 2002; Pirofski, 2003; Starr; 1990). Urban elementary schools are frequently staffed with young, inexperienced teachers that rely heavily on basal reading programs for literacy instruction (Kozol, 2005; Kincheole; 2004). Low income, minority students in urban elementary schools have the poorest performance on standardized tests of literacy proficiency (Wilkinson, Mandel Morrow, & Chou, 2008). According to the Annie E. Casey National Kids Count Data (2009) report, 79% of fourth graders in Title One schools scored below proficient in 2009 on standardized tests of reading compared to 58% of fourth graders in non Title One schools. The Kids Count Data report also revealed that 85% of African American and 84% of Hispanic American fourth graders scored below proficient in reading in 2009. While there are many factors that contribute to the poor performance of urban students on standardized reading tests, some educational researchers have attributed the cultural bias that exists in the instructional materials used to teach minority students to lowered academic performance (Brown, 2005; Fields, 2006).

basals remain the primary instructional tool for reading in the majority of public schools (Koehler, 1988; Nieto, 2005; Shannon, 1998). Supporters of the balanced literacy approach recommend the combined use of multiple literacy strategies such as read-alouds, shared reading, guided reading, independent reading, shared/modeled writing, interactive writing and independent writing (Johnson, 2002). In an effort to strengthen and diversify the instructional opportunities available through their products, textbook publishers have responded to the balanced literacy movement by providing supplemental instructional materials, in addition to their traditional basal readers for teaching reading. One of the most popular types of supplemental reading materials offered by publishing companies to enhance their basal reading program are leveled readers. Leveled readers are tiered texts that progress in difficulty from simple to more complex (Brabham & Villaume, 2002; Fountas & Pinnell, 2006). All three of the major U.S. textbook publishing companies (i.e., Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) offer leveled readers to accompany their reading programs. Classroom teachers have embraced these instructional tools as a means to target the individualized literacy needs of their students. Leveled readers are provided to address the reading abilities of advanced readers, average readers, and struggling readers. Through an instructional method known as guided reading (see Fountas & Pinnell, 1996), classroom teachers scaffold and support the reading development of their students.

In a study of more than 100 first, second, third, and fourth graders, Bell and Clarke (1998) examined the effects of racial imagery and cultural themes on reading comprehension. The researchers found that student recall of facts and overall story comprehension was considerably higher when the text and illustrations of the reading materials reflected themes consistent with their own socio-cultural experiences than when they depicted White imagery and culturally distant themes. The findings indicate that a critical component in addressing the discrepancy between the reading scores for children of color and White children is to consider cultural factors in the production and selection of reading materials (Hughes-Hassell, Koehler, & Barkley, 2010).

While educational studies have been conducted to assess the cultural bias that exists in reading textbooks, very little research has been done to evaluate the cultural content and appropriateness of the leveled readers that accompany basal reading series. In a critical discourse analysis of a third grade basal reading series, van Belle (2005) discovered the existence of subtle racism that reproduced White, middle-class privilege, while marginalizing people of color. BrownLevingston (2005) found a shortage of African American family portrayals in the state-adopted textbooks she researched as part of a detailed content analysis. Furthermore, she found that African- Americans were portrayed mainly as filler characters, athletes, and musicians and were rarely used as main characters. Fields (1996) found a lack of multicultural content in the Texas state-adopted basal programs he analyzed.

Despite significant research to support the use of a more balanced approach to literacy instruction,

No such studies have been conducted on the leveled texts that accompany basal readers. This


void in research is of extreme importance because basal reading programs are widely used in urban schools. Since urban schools are typically populated with diverse student bodies from varying racial and ethnic groups, the implications of using culturally-biased instructional materials with the nations’ most vulnerable student populations are necessary and urgent. The impact of using culturally biased instructional texts can reinforce the hegemonic beliefs that pervade American life and normalize mainstream values. It is imperative that research be conducted to examine the cultural content and appropriateness of the instructional texts being used with America’s youngest readers. As these youngsters experience their first encounters with reading and leveled texts, we must ensure that these initial experiences are positive. When there is a disconnect between what children read in texts and what they experience in their own lives, these children may lose interest and motivation in literacy activities (Ferdman, 1990, Heflin & Barksdale-Ladd, 2001). Thus, classroom teachers, administrators, school district personnel, and textbook publishers must aim to create, secure and support the implementation of culturally relevant instructional literacy materials in urban classrooms.

“In a study of more than 100 first, second, third, and fourth graders, Bell and Clarke (1998) examined the effects of racial imagery and cultural themes on reading comprehension. The researchers found that student recall of facts and overall story comprehension was considerably higher when the text and illustrations of the reading materials reflected themes consistent with their own socio-cultural experiences than when they depicted White imagery and culturally distant themes.”


CULTURAL BIAS Research cont.


Implications  for  Teachers • When choosing texts for teaching

Figure  2:  U.S.  percentage  of  4th  grade  students     scoring  below  proficient  in  reading

reading, consider characteristics of readers such as their interests, experiences, strengths, needs, background knowledge, culture and language because these factors can contribute to the understanding of a text.

Implications   for   Administrators   and   School  District  Personnel • When purchasing instructional materials, select culturally responsive literature that is inclusive, accurate and inspirational.

Implica)ons  for  Textbook  Publishers • Include a variety of multicultural

literature that reflects the cultures and values of America’s diverse population.

When students read books that fail to reflect their own experiences or that presents distorted representations of their culture, they learn they are not valued members of society; and thus, their love and motivation for reading declines (Bishop, 1987; Jackson & Boutte, 2008; McNair, 2008; Stanovich, 1986).

Children receive powerful messages about society through the books they encounter; Children’s literature has a powerful effect on the self-concept and world view of young children (Chall, Radwin, French & Hall, 1979; Pirofski, 2003; McNair, 2008; Sims, 1982).

Books that inaccurately depict people of color can mislead children by promoting misconceptions that perpetuate biased stereotypes (Hughes-Hassel & Cox, 2010; Sims, 1982).

Children that lack exposure to literature that offers cultural relevance and perspective, have lower reading achievement and motivation (HughesHassell, Barkley, & Koehler, 2009).

Note.  Adapted  from  the  Annie  E.  Casey   Founda8on  2009  Kids  count  data  center  report Figure  3:  Number  of  books  classified  by    CCBC   about  or  authored  by  African  Americans

Prevent the inclusion of leveled texts that perpetuate stereotypes and marginalize minority populations in basal reading programs.

Figure  1:  Percentage  of  4th  grade  U.S.  students   scoring  below  proficient  in  reading  2009

“Understanding where we were, and are, in terms of accurate inclusiveness of African Americans in textbooks, content analysis studies of children's text as well as affiliated research on the topic is crucial” (Chall & Squire, 1991, p. 27).


Note:  Adapted  from  the  Annie  E.  Casey   Founda8on References Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2009). Kids count data center report. Retrieved from Apple, M. & Christian-Smith, L. (Eds.). (2001).The Politics of the textbook. New York : Routledge. Bell, Y.R., & Clark, T.R. (1998). Culturally relevant reading material as related to comprehension and recall in African American children. Journal of Black Psychology, 24(4), 455-475. Brabham, E.G.; Villaume, S.K. (2002). Comprehension instruction: beyond strategies. The Reading Teacher, 55, 672-675. Brown-Levingston, C. A. (2005). The portrayal of African Americans in the Texas state-adopted reading textbooks: Grades one, three, and five. Ed.D. dissertation, Texas A&M University - Commerce, United States -- Texas. Retrieved September 10, 2011, from Dissertations & Theses: Full Text.(Publication No. AAT 3196393). Chall, J.; Squire, J. (1991). Handbook of reading research. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum. Ferdman, B. M. (1990). Literacy and cultural identity. Harvard Educational Review, 60(2), 181-204. Retrieved from EBSCOhost. Fields, J. D. (1996). Analysis of the multicultural content of the 1992 Texas approved reading programs. Ph.D. dissertation, Texas A&M University, United States -- Texas. Retrieved September 11, 2011, from Dissertations & Theses: Full Text.(Publication No. AAT 9718341). Fountas, I. C. & Pinnell, G. S. (2006a). Leveled books K–8: Matching books to readers for effective teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Gunning, T. G. (2002). Assessing and correcting reading and writing difficulties / Thomas G. Gunning. Boston : Allyn and Bacon. Hefflin, B. R., & Barksdale-Ladd, M. (2001). African American children's literature that helps students find themselves: Selection guidelines for Grades K-3. Reading Teacher, 54(8), 810. Retrieved from EBSCOhost. Hughes-Hassell, S., Koehler, E., & Barkley, H.A. (2010). Supporting the Literacy Needs of African American Transitional Readers. Teacher Librarian, 37(5), 18. Retrieved from EBSCOhost. Jackson, T. O., & Boutte, G. S. (2009). Liberation literature: Positive cultural messages in children's and young adult literature at freedom schools. Language Arts, 87(2), 108-116. Retrieved from Koehler, V. (1988). Teachers' Beliefs about At-Risk Students. Retrieved from EBSCOhost. Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: Apartheid schooling in America. NY: Random House. McNair, J. C. (2008). The representation of authors and illustrators of color in school-based book clubs. Language Arts, 85(3), 193-201. Retrieved from Pirofski, K.I. (2003) Multicultural Representations in Basal Reader Series. Critical multicultural pavilion research room, San Jose State University. Retrieved from Shannon, P. (1998). Reading poverty / Patrick Shannon. Portsmouth, NH : Heinemann. van Belle, L.(2010). Gentle doses of racism: Racist discourses in the construction of scientific literacy, mathematical literacy, and print-based literacies in children's basal readers. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, United States -- Michigan. Retrieved September 11, 2011, from Dissertations & Theses: Full Text.(Publication No. AAT 3429240). Wilkinson, L., Mandel Morrow, L., Chou, V. (Eds.) (2008). Improving literacy achievement in urban schools: critical elements in teacher preparation. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Suggested  Cita,on:  Glover,  C.  (2011).  Cultural  bias  in  leveled  texts  for  the  elementary  grades:  ImplicaBons  for  teachers,  administrators,  school  district  personnel  and  textbook  publishers.   (UERPC   Research  Brief,  September  2011,  No.  1)  CharloKe,  NC:  University  of  North  Carolina  CharloKe,  Middle,  Secondary,  K-­‐12  EducaBon,  UNCC  Urban  EducaBon  Research  and  Policy   ! CollaboraBve. Submission  Guidelines:   The  Urban  Educaiton  Resarch  and  Policy  Collabora7ve  accepts  manuscripts  for  review  and  publica7on  considera7on  for  the  Research  Brief  series.  Submi?ed  manuscripts  should   not  exceed  1,000  words  and  must  conform  to  the  guidelines  outlined  in  the  6th  Edi7on  of  the  Publica0on  Manual  of  the  American  Psychological  Associa0on.  All  manuscripts  will   undergo  a  blind  review  and  refereed  process.  The  review  process  takes  approximately  3-­‐4  weeks.  Manuscripts  can  be  submi?ed  for  review  via  e-­‐mail  to  Dr.  Chance  Lewis   ( Correspondence  regarding  this  report  may  be  sent  via  e-­‐mail  to:


Crystal Glover