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Culturally Responsive Literacy Instruction

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 2 Comments

Culturally Responsive Teaching is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of meeting students where they are culturally and linguistically. It puts students at the center of instruction that validates and affirms students’ identities and gives students from historically marginalized communities an equitable education experience. When culturally responsive educators validate and affirm students and bring them where they need to be academically, students are more likely to feel recognized, valued for their contributions, and eager to learn. (Hollie, 2017)

Muniz (2019-2020) points out that over time, several frameworks were developed for culturally responsive approaches, and identifies Gloria Ladson-Billings (who is credited with coining the term culturally responsive teaching in the early 1990’s), Geneva Gay, and Django Paris as early authors of seminal works. Zaretta Hammond (2020) suggests that culturally responsive teaching needs to be distinguished from multicultural education and social justice education. She explains that culturally responsive teaching is focused on the cognitive development of under-served students, while multicultural and social justice education have more of a social supporting role.

What are the tenets of Culturally Responsive Teaching?

Educators use varying definitions that emphasize different aspects of culturally responsive teaching, but there is a common theme among all definitions (Hollie, 2017; Martinez, 2021; Muhammad, 2020; Hammond, 2014; Krasnoff, 2016; Johnson, 2021; Gatlin,-Nash, Johnson, Lee-James, 2020; Kubic, 2021; Stringfellow, 2019). Culturally responsive teaching is a strategy for engaging all students where teachers

  • use culturally diverse and inclusive practices that recognize and validate students’ home cultures and languages as assets;
  • communicate and hold all students to the same high expectations and provide instruction so all students can access the same grade-level content;
  • are aware of, and take into account linguistic and dialect differences;
  • include culturally diverse inclusive practices and curriculum; and
  • use classroom books and sources that enable students to see themselves represented in the text they read.

How can culturally responsive teaching be applied specifically to reading instruction?

Culturally responsive teaching, including how it applies to teaching reading, cannot be deduced to a single routine, program, or set of steps to follow. As the term implies, it should be based on the culture, language, and uniqueness of those you are teaching, “…shaped by the sociocultural characteristics of the setting in which it occurs, and the populations for whom it is designed” (Gay, 2013, p. 63.) With that said, the following suggestions for integrating culturally responsive teaching into literacy instruction are a starting point upon which educators can build. For more detailed explanations of these suggestions, read the Keys to Literacy white paper titled Culturally Responsive Literacy Instruction (2021).

  • Set and Communicate High Expectations for Developing and Using Reading Skills: Set rigorous literacy learning objectives and provide all students with a consistent message that they are expected to attain high standards related to reading. Provide explicit instruction of reading skills and use a gradual release of responsibility model to insure that students develop grade-appropriate reading skills.
  • Select and Use Culturally Responsive Texts for Reading Instruction: Students must see themselves in the tex they read. Books that are used for read aloud and student reading should reflect multicultural experiences that validate for students their worth and value at school and in society. Students also need exposure to books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in.
  • Linguistic and Dialect Considerations: Dialect awareness, the appreciation of the systematic differences between the standard and the vernacular form of a language, has been shown in research studies to be positively correlated with literacy outcomes. Improving students’ dialect awareness will support instruction for several components of reading.
    • Phonology: It is important for teachers to be aware of phoneme differences between dialects when teaching students to produce phonemes, calling attention to contrasts between Mainstream American English (MAE) pronunciation and pronunciation in a student’s primary dialect, being respectful of both dialects. Dialect variation should also be taken into account for phonological awareness assessment because traditional assessments often assess only knowledge of MAE. For English language learners, some languages have different spoken phonemes than those in English. Teachers need to be mindful of these differences and provide additional instruction and support when asking students to produce phonemes or teaching letter-sound correspondences.
    • Phonics & Spelling: Learning the alphabetic principle can be challenging because often, Non-Mainstream American English (NMAE) dialect differences do not map well onto the standard English writing system’s orthography. Teachers should help students recognize the difference between how words are spelled and how words are pronounced, especially for graphemes (letters) that represent sounds not always said or heard in a student’s dialect.
    • Vocabulary: Contrasts in pronunciation of sounds and morphemes may also affect the ability to learn the meanings of new words. When teaching vocabulary, teachers should teach words in context and make sure that students are aware of all the features of a word — its spelling, pronunciation of its phonemes, its word parts (morphemes), multiple meanings, and related words.
    • Syntactic Awareness (sentence grammar): Teachers should keep in mind that dialects of English are complex and rule-governed systems of English, no different than MAE. Dialect features related to syntax should not be considered grammatical errors. Students benefit from explicit instruction for developing syntactic awareness that respects students’ home languages while drawing attention to the differences between informal dialect and MAE.
  • Explicit Instruction for Reading Comprehension Strategies: Students benefit from instruction that develops higher-order and critical thinking skills that are necessary to meet high expectations for learning. In order to become independent thinkers and learners, students need to develop metacognitive reading comprehension strategies and close reading skills. Explicit instruction for these skills and strategies enables students to monitor their understanding while reading, identify when they are not comprehending, and respond by applying fix-it comprehension strategies.
  • Classroom Participation and Discussion About Text: Students benefit from culturally relevant opportunities to respond to what they are reading and learning. Teachers should set high-expectations for participation in classroom conversations and discussion with teachers and peers, as well as explicit instruction for discussion skills. Teachers should also become familiar with their students’ communication styles, including those most commonly utilized in the cultures represented by the students.

Keys to Literacy and Culturally Responsive Literacy Instruction

In 2020, Keys to Literacy updated its mission statement to reflect our commitment to supporting culturally responsive literacy instruction:

We believe the ability to read and write is the foundation for all learning and essential for a fulfilling and impactful life. We also believe effective, culturally responsive literacy instruction is a critical equity issue. Our mission is to provide high-quality, engaging, and sustainable professional development that is aligned to research-based literacy instruction. The goal is to help educators teach literacy skills in a way that increases literacy achievement for all students. 

Muniz (2019-2020) points out that compelling research highlights the benefits of culturally responsive teaching (citing Hammond, 2014; Tatum, 2006, 2009; Wood & Jucius, 2013; Morrison, Robbins, & Rose, 2008; Byrd, 2016). She explains:

“Research illustrates that instructional materials, assignments, and texts that reflect students’ backgrounds and experiences are critical to engagement and deep meaningful learning. A smaller, yet promising group of studies evaluating the effectiveness of CRT interventions link this approach to a wide range of positive outcomes such as academic achievement and persistence, improved attendance, greater interest in school, among other outcomes.” (p. 10-11)

Given Keys to Literacy’s focus on providing professional development for the use of evidence-based instructional practices that increase student literacy achievement, we hope the suggestions in this post and the longer white paper will help teachers deliver instruction that supports the needs of their students who come from a large and increasing number of racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse families.


Byrd, C.M. (2016, cited in Muniz, 2019-2020) Does Culturally Relevant Teaching Work? An Examination From Student Perspectives. SAGE Open 6 (Summer 2016).

Gatlin-Nash, B., Johnson, L., & Lee-James, R. (2020). Linguistic Differences and Learning to Read for Non Mainstream Dialect Speakers. Perspectives, 46 (3). International Dyslexia Association. Retrieved from

Gay, G. (2013). Teaching to and through cultural diversity. Curriculum Inquiry, 43(1), 48–70.

Hammond, Z. (2014) Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Corwin.

Hammond, Z. (2020). Distinctions of Equity. Retrieved from

Hollie, S. (2017). Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning – Classroom Practices for Student Success, Grades K-12. Shell Education.

Johnson, L. (2021). Cultural Considerations for Diverse Readers. Webinar sponsored by The Reading League, November 30, 2021.

Krasnoff, B. (2016). Culturally Responsive Teaching: A Guide to Evidence-Based Practices for Teaching All Students Equitably. Region X Equity Assistance Center at Education Northwest. Retrieved from

Kubic, C. (2021). Taking Small Steps Towards Equity. Edutopia. Retrieved from

Martinez, G. (2021). What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching? Curriculum Associates Blog. Retreived from

Morrison, K. A., Robbins, H. H., & Rose, D.G. (2008, cited in Muniz, 2019-2020 and Krasnoff, 2016). Operationalizing Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: A Synthesis of Classroom-Based Research. Equity & Excellence in Education 41 (4).

Muhammad, G. (2021). Cultivating Genius: How to Select Culturally and Historically Responsive Text. Scholastic. Retrieved from

Munez, J. (2019-2020) Culturally Responsive Teaching. New America. Retrieved from

Stringfellow, L. (2019). Sustaining Readers Through Culturally Responsive Literacy Instruction. National Association of Independent Schools. Retrieved from:

Tatum, A. (2006, cited in Muniz, 2019-2020). Engaging African American Males in Reading. Educational Leadership 63 (5).

Tatum, A. (2009, cited in Muniz, 2019-2020) Reading for Their Life: (re) Building the Textual Lineages of African American Males. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Wood, S. & Jucius, R. (2013, cited in Muniz, 2019-2020). Combating “I Hate This Stupd Book”: Black Males and Critical Literacy. The Reading Teacher 66 (9).

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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  1. Concha Wyatt

    Thank you, Joan! Your synthesis of this body of research is so helpful. You are a gifted master at in translating research into digestible useful information for educators!

    • Joan Sedita

      Thanks Concha for your kind comments!



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