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What students read matters.

by Snow Li and Marie Kodama

One of the major shifts in Common Core is a push to have students engage deeply with authentic texts, especially texts that reflect a diverse range of topics and cultures from around the world. The hope is that these texts will “support students in systematically developing knowledge about the world” (Key Shifts in English Language Arts). As members of the ELA Assessment team, we face the complex and fascinating task of defining “authentic” for the schools and communities that we partner with.

When the two of us consider what this all means, we reflect on how our unique identities impacted our own K-12 education. Both of us are women. We are both Asian Americans. We both immigrated to the country at an early age (one of us from China, the other from Japan). And we were both English Language Learners for the majority of our elementary years.

We often bond over experiences, such as using bilingual flashcards to communicate with our teachers (“I think I have a stomachache. Can I go to the nurse’s office?”) or excitedly, but cautiously, navigating the school cafeteria (“Why are they called chicken fingers?”). We also have in common a deep love of reading, made evident by our choice to become literacy specialists in an education non-profit.

When we think back to the texts we encountered in schools, we recall mostly anthologies and textbooks. While these texts were fodder for many rich classroom discussions and fostered our love for the written word, they also fell short by reflecting a narrow range of cultures and histories. This mainstream narrative often marginalized the perspectives and stories of populations that were either wholly excluded or misrepresented.

All children should feel like they can relate to the literature that they read; and they should feel assured that their stories are worth telling, their perspectives worth sharing, and their narratives as worth valuing as mainstream literature and history.

Texts like these signaled to students who and what was worth learning about—and this usually did not include the minority pieces of our personal identities. For us, the key shift called for by the writers of the Common Core is deeply meaningful and much needed.

Assessments, even those that are formative, carry an aura of being official and factual, just as school textbooks do. When we make decisions about passages to place on our assessments, we have the opportunity to provide texts that both accurately reflect the identities of the students we serve and expose them to unfamiliar cultures. We see the call for “authenticity” as a way to challenge mainstream narratives, expand inclusive perspectives, and ultimately better serve students.


Where are we now and what have we learned?

ANet provides ELA assessments to schools four times a year, for grades 2 through 8. There are anywhere from two to five passages on each grade level assessment, totaling about 120 passages per year. At the end of the school year, our team combs through this set of passages to determine which ones to keep or replace. We reflect on progress and identify gaps in our passage sourcing process.

We begin with looking at the numbers. Two of the metrics we analyze are the number of passages that have female and male main characters and the number of multicultural texts, or literature that accurately reflect or are written by people of different races, ethnicities, and cultures. But we only consider these abstract data alongside the nuanced qualitative work of determining how students may perceive what they read. Below are our thoughts around these two particular topics and some of the things we consider as we move towards sourcing diverse, inclusive, and authentic texts.

How women are represented in texts

On the surface, the metric for gender representation seems simple: Are there female characters? Is the number of female main characters equal to the number of male main characters? These numbers, however, do not capture the more subtle ways in which women are represented in texts.

As a team, we push to answer more difficult questions: Are characters examples of strong women? Are female characters represented in a variety of occupations? Do informational texts cite female experts in fields of study as often and with as much credibility as male experts?

The way that women are represented is equally as important as the frequency in which they appear in texts. While quoting female experts may not seem significant in the context of a single passage, the absence of their mention sends a strong message to students about what is and isn’t possible for women to achieve.

Students need to be exposed to texts about women in a variety of roles: a grandmother who preserves tradition in her immigrant family, a scientist who discovers rare microbes in underground caves, and an engineer at NASA, working to send a spacecraft to Mars.

Defining traditional literature

Traditional literature is a sub-genre that often features texts from different countries and cultures. Typically, we think of traditional literature as folktales, tall tales, fairy tales, and, more recently in schools, oral lore of African and Native American nations. At ANet, we are extremely mindful of the connotations when we consider what qualifies a text as “traditional.”

This is because research on multicultural literature has shown that “traditional” can be construed as “backwards” or “unsophisticated,” and that Native American stories overwhelmingly portray these populations stereotypically as close to nature and having mystical qualities. The loaded meaning of the word “traditional” and the fact that traditional literature often features one-dimensional depictions of specific populations can send a subtle message that these cultures are primitive and ignorant. This effect can be even more pronounced when exemplars of “seminal texts” (works by Shakespeare, the Federalist Papers) are distinct from traditional literature.

Here again, we find that looking at the mere inclusion of certain populations is an insufficient metric. We have to be mindful of representing many different cultures in traditional literature (not just Native American folktales, European fairy tales, and African folklore) and ensuring that we are not representing any cultures in a stereotyped way.

Where to next?

As immigrants who engaged with literature to understand our new home, stay connected to our roots, and even find friends within literary characters when we felt lonely, we turned to reading to help us learn about and respect the views and cultures of others. And when we saw pieces of our identities featured in texts, we felt proud and empowered.

All children should feel like they can relate to the literature that they read; and they should feel assured that their stories are worth telling, their perspectives worth sharing, and their narratives as worth valuing as mainstream literature and history.

By continuing to pursue authenticity in our texts, we hope to not only ensure that children are able to see their unique identities reflected regularly in what they read, but also have the experience of being transported to cultures that are foreign in their daily lives. In this way, we believe that the Common Core’s shift to have students engage deeply with authentic texts affords us the opportunity to expose students to high quality and rigorous literature and, more importantly, to nurture confidence and tolerance by supporting students’ understanding of themselves and the world.

We recognize that our work does not exist in a vacuum and that the texts on our interim assessments alone can only have so much impact on students. As always, we strive to continue “learning together” with our innovative and diverse thought partners. We welcome input and feedback in the comments section below.

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