When Multicultural Literature Is at a Crossroads With Its Readers



Elementary school curricula include reading texts that introduce students to a wide variety of cultures. It seems like such a great idea! However, these stories may compound the problems of struggling readers by throwing in words from other cultures without enough context, making comprehension even more difficult. For instance, a group of ­urban, African-American students were reading a multicultural story in which one sentence caused considerable stress for the third-grade readers: “Mother wrapped the cassava bread in banana leaves and packed guavas for lunch.” The struggling third graders could not decode wrapped, with its peculiarly silent w, and had no comprehension of the direct object of the unknown verb because they stumbled over cassava (the students sounded it out well, but did not recognize any meaning). When asked why the mother wrapped the bread in foil, the students responded that they didn’t know. The teacher told the students that the mother had not used foil, but something else. The students had gleaned so little meaning from that single sentence that they didn’t know the question the teacher had posed was nonsensical.

The teacher read the sentence aloud to the students. She asked again about wrapping the bread: Why did the mother wrap the bread in banana leaves? One student finally stated with a mimed demonstration that it would be tough to wrap bread in such skinny things. Lavell was linking the sentence to the only related experience he had, the narrow strips of skin from peeling a banana. The teacher then asked why it was that the mother had not used foil or even a bread bag. The students again had no idea.

Use pictures

The teacher encouraged the students to look at the picture. The students couldn’t understand why because there was no lunch preparation going on. Another student eventually said to the teacher, “The kids don’t even have shoes!” The teacher enthusiastically told the students that this observation was on the right track and asked what else they could tell about the family. A student said the family lived in a shack. Another noticed the pots did not look like they had been made in a factory or sold in a store. The teacher wondered if the family would then have plastic bags and foil. The students agreed that they might not—but leaves? Why would the bread have to be wrapped, and why use leaves? A third student said the bread would dry out if it wasn’t wrapped and, shrugging, she observed that leaves were all over in the picture and the mother probably had to use what was available. The students were really excited about their deductions. Their excitement soon soured when they looked over at the other group of children working with the teacher aide and said, “The others have read the whole story already!”

Challenges of time and comparison

Teachers know how to help students build comprehension, but such achievement takes time—time to explore what is already known, examine pictures, make connections, and help students conquer the text. Teachers feel enormous pressure to move through grade-level material at a rate that ensures finishing the text and provides students with exposure to all of the concepts introduced in the texts. Annual tests designed to prove “adequate” progress reinforce this sense of pressure—the burden that children feel to keep pace with their peers is substantial. No one knew if the other group had read the story with comprehension or just plugged along until they got to the end; nonetheless, the students were upset that their group was taking too long on a single part of just one sentence.

Inner city students know many things

This anecdote does not suggest that the inner-city, African-American third graders described here know nothing; that is far from the truth. However, they did not have the contextual knowledge to make sense of the story, a problem any student could have when reading multicultural tales. Multicultural literature, so often praised, may actually cause more stumbling and may decrease reading efficacy. The author’s and publisher’s intent—to provide students with vicarious experiences of cultures and locations other than their own—is counteracted by the difficulty experienced by readers who already lack some of the skills needed to read at grade level.

Take the time, reuse color pictures

The solution is for teachers to take all the time necessary for true reading comprehension and confidence, showing students that what they know (bread dries out if unwrapped) is important even when a story seems irrelevant to their lived experiences. Teachers should also use pictures as often as possible. Color pictures matter, especially to kinesthetic learners. Sharing one color picture of unfamiliar items is worth the cost of ink. Teachers can glue the color pictures into file folders with labels that can be stored and located for reuse. The file folders also help the pictures stand up to being passed around and handled.

Opening a multicultural world is possible for all learners.

margaret carroll headshotMargaret Carroll, Ed.D., is a professor of education at Saint Xavier University, teaching courses in special education and instructional methods.

It’s a Science Literacy week!

Edmonton’s science institutions, libraries join national celebration of Canada’s scientific achievements

By Ramin Ostad

The University of Alberta participated in Science Literacy Week with a number of events throughout the week.

The University of Alberta participated in Science Literacy Week with a number of events throughout the week.

Edmonton’s expansive scientific institutions are having a very busy week.


That’s because from Sept. 19 to 25, institutions like the University of Alberta, Telus World of Science and a number of Edmonton libraries have joined 60 other Canadian cities in celebrating Science Literacy Week.

It’s an initiative designed to highlight and showcase the many great scientific intuitions, initiatives and programs that Canada has to offer.

The nationwide celebration of science is the brainchild of Jesse Hildebrand, a University of Toronto graduate who first piloted the program in 2014. He approached the university’s library with an idea to highlight the numerous science collections, science books, and insightful professors over the course of a week.

That program has now become a national event, with 150 partners hosting 430 events throughout Canada 150 partners.

It’s an idea that Hildebrand had been mulling over for many years. He said the idea of science literacy is something people should not take lightly, because science is a big part of our everyday lives.

“Well, every time you make a call with a cellphone, every time you are sick and take medicine, every time you use the Internet you are, knowingly or not, reaping the benefits of scientific inquiry,” Hildebrand said.

“Science literacy enables us to understand those technologies, to view the world around us in a different way, and to think skeptically about scientific claims.

“Literacy, when it comes to science, means being an informed citizen about the innovations and ideas that make our world possible.”

Along with the major science institutions, Edmonton’s public libraries have also been taking part, hosting over 30 events throughout the week.

Hildebrand said that, even nationally, libraries have been particularly eager to participate, as it raises awareness for the diversity of programs they offer.

He is delighted that his initiative seems to have struck a nerve nationally, and said that greater science literacy can only improve everyone’s understanding of the world around them.

“It’s an effort to encourage people to get that understanding, to take out books and read research online so they can have an understanding that information and make informed decisions,” Hildebrand said.

“(That includes) voting for people going into office or dealing with reading or understanding newspapers, looking at scientific issues skeptically, science literacy is meant to encourage people to have an understanding of scientific issues in society.”

For more information on ongoing events in Edmonton, head to scienceliteracy.ca

A is for Aids: Elton John launches literacy alphabet campaign to promote reading and writing

Emma Watson, Usain Bolt and James Franco among stars who will each share a letter from the alphabet to promote International Literacy Day

Sir Elton John has launched a campaign to promote reading and writing called the Alphabet of Illiteracy – with “A is for Aids”.

Some of the world’s biggest stars including Julianne Moore, Emma Watson, Usain Bolt, James Franco and Taylor Schilling, will each share a letter from the alphabet to promote International Literacy Day.

Aids campaigner Sir Elton tweeted “literacy helps stop its spread” as he highlighted how those who cannot read or write are five times less likely to understand how HIV is contracted.

The campaign is to mark the 50th International Literacy Day on 8 September, raising awareness of the 758 million people worldwide who lack basic skills in reading and writing.

In the Alphabet of Illiteracy, B is for bloodshed and C is for child brides, as better education for girls leads to fewer child marriages.

The stars of film, music, politics and the arts will each adopt a letter to show how illiteracy is linked to almost every major global problem, including infant mortality, malnutrition, gender inequality and unemployment.

Project Literacy aims to ensure that by 2030, no child will be born at risk of poor literacy.

In Britain, 5.2 million adults are functionally illiterate, while one in five British children leaves primary school unable to read and write proficiently.

Model Lily Cole, who gave a speech at the House of Commons in February about the illiteracy crisis, said: “If we want to tackle many of the global challenges our world faces, we need to begin by properly addressing education and literacy.”

Making information accessible: an essential precondition for effective refugee protection?

This is an article that appeared on the Information Literacy blog. We published this article in December of 2014. Since then, 25000 Syrian refugees are being admitted to Canada, including a few to Charlie Lake and Fort Nelson. Because of this, it seemed appropriate to bring this post back to the top of the blog.

CILIP asked Maurice Wren, Chief Executive at The Refugee Council, to blog about the importance of information literacy to refugees, as it is Human Rights Day today (10 December). He says “Denying refugees the opportunity to transcend their ‘victim’ status, to be their own best advocates, and to rebuild active and engaged lives, is to limit our humanitarian response to their plight to meeting only their most basic physical needs. We must humanise the way we provide refugee protection and one vital way of doing that is to give refugees access to the tools that will enable them to live a full life of the mind.”
Although it may seem churlish, he does only talk about access to online information; I’m not sure that he is talking about information literacy in the fuller sense (e.g. using all kinds of information sources effectively, including people sources; being able to evaluate and create information collaboratively: this are also vital aspects in crisis situations and for empowerment).
There is an interesting link to the “Technology” issue of Forced Migration Review (2011)http://www.fmreview.org/technology which has articles about the use and impact of technology, including the impact on access to information.
Wren, M. (2014, 10 December) Making information accessible: an essential precondition for effective refugee protection? http://www.cilip.org.uk/cilip/blog/making-information-accessible-essential-precondition-effective-refugee-protection
Photo by Sheila Webber: fallen leaves, November 2014

A View from our Classroom!

A quick snap-shot from our classroom! This is where we work best, and we’ve still got lots of space for newcomers too!




Literacy is Life

A video regarding literacy and community:


Decoda Literacy Solutions shared this series of videos demonstrating  literacy as a strategy for building stronger communities.

Literacy is Life

Check out this awesome video by Decoda Literacy


Social Justice Math

Check out the interesting video below about connecting math lessons to social justice issues. Additional resources can be found here.

Family Math Fun


A great review of this workbook here from Decoda. Try some of the activities by accessing the online pdf or borrowing a copy from the Decoda library!

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