Teaching reading with multicultural literature

Donna E. Norton, professor in the Department of Educational Curriculum and Instruction at Texas A&M University, has designed a five-phase multicultural literature study aimed at developing in upper elementary and middle school students an awareness and understanding of the literacy and cultural heritage of our country’s minority groups.

As minority populations continue to rise in the U.S., it is increasingly important for students to become aware of and to know about our diverse cultures. Studying the literature of different peoples, Norton believes, fosters tolerance and multilateral understanding because students tend to identify with the characters and authors of the stories they read.

Indeed, students become aware of similarities, as well as differences, among various cultural groups and thereby come to have a better understanding of themselves and their own culture. In addition to developing aesthetic appreciation and social sensitivity, Norton claims, the sequence also helps students expand their knowledge of geography and natural history, and increase their understanding of historical and social change.

Norton outlines her five-phase instructional sequence using as a framework literature of and about the North American Indian, Black and Hispanic cultures. The books and activities for each culture are designed for students in the fourth through the eighth grades. (Although some books may be used with younger students, the activities would need to be simplified.)

The instructional sequence includes the study of the traditional folklore (myths, fables and legends) of each culture, as well as historical and contemporary fiction and nonfiction. Through their study of folklore, students learn to identify the traditional values and beliefs of a culture.

Through North American Indian literature, for example, students gain an understanding of what it means to live in harmony with nature. They become aware, as well, of the close relationship in Indian culture between nature and religion. The Indian’s respect for bravery, the high regard they have for patience and for wisdom acquired through age and experience, are also brought to the attention of students. Teachers can help students identify values and beliefs illustrated in a particular story by posing questions. (Norton provides examples.)

Students then compare traditional cultural values to both contemporary and historical fiction and nonfiction. Activities during the final phases of the sequence require students to analyze what they read. Students are asked to evaluate the writing for authenticity: Does the story accurately portray the values and beliefs of a people as expressed in their traditional literature? Are the historical settings and events authentic? Are the characterizations believable? Comparisons are made between the literature written by members and nonmembers of the cultural group. Students conclude their study of a culture’s literature by considering what they have discovered about a people and the roots of their culture.

“Teaching Multicultural Literature in the Reading Curriculum” The Reading Teacher Volume 44, No. 1, September 1990, p. 28-40.

Published in ERN November/December Volume 3 Number 5

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