Leveraging Culturally Responsive Literature in early learning classrooms podcast header

Leveraging culturally responsive literature in early learning classrooms [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are joined by Hilary Price, Professional Learning Literacy Advisor at Learning Without Tears. We discuss how to leverage culturally responsive literature in early learning classrooms.

When being culturally responsive as a whole, literacy is just a piece of the puzzle. It refers to books and stories that we bring into our classrooms that include relatable characters for all children, contain realistic images, familiiar settings, and universal storylines such as sibling relationships. Children can see these stories from the perspective of things that happen to them and help them cope, problem-solve and grow.

When we read books to children, we want them to be engaged and feel seen, heard and that they belong, not only in our classroom but in the world as a whole! When we don’t see these responses from our children, we need to revisit the literature we are sharing with them.

When selecting books for your classroom, ensure you take the following into consideration:

  • That they have current, correct information (not dated)
  • They are representative of different groups
  • They avoid stereotypes
  • Ensure the main characters are not all the same (there need to be variations in gender and background)
  • Illustrations need to be accurate representations of various people

Books are very powerful tools that can act as mirrors where we allow children to see themselves reflected in them and see their experiences and background. This helps children develop a positive sense of self and belonging, knowing that they are not alone and can be the star of the show! Books can also serve as a window that allows children to see outside of their own little world, even in egocentric phases. Using books can help children peer into the lives and experiences of others that may be different from them. This helps children learn about similarities and differences which in turn leads to understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of diversity.

As educators, we tend to have an established classroom library. The first step to ensure you are culturally responsive is to do an audit and look through your current books. Ensure the language and illustrations are appropriate. Once you go through them all, there are so many resources to find new books, starting with the library! Also, Reading Rockets is a great resource to find new diverse books!

No matter what diversity looks like in your classroom, giving children the opportunity to experience diverse literature is so important. Every classroom library should look very similar no matter who the children are that come in and out every day.

If we intentionally begin this practice in early education, think about the impact we could make over time. Early childhood educators have a huge impact on children. This is often their first out-of-home experience and we want to ensure we have the tools available to expose them to diversity.

Hilary’s recommended resources

Podcast episode transcript

Hilary PRICE:

If there are really great books that you read with your children at home or that you have had shared with you, I’d love a recommendation for that. I’d love to preview it. Can I borrow it so I can read it to the students in our class?


Hilary, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you so much for having me today, Ron!


Really excited to have on the show with us today Hilary Price. She’s a professional learning literacy advisor at Learning Without Tears, a great organization who we’ve had the pleasure of speaking with and interacting with in the past. We’re excited to talk to Hilary today about leveraging culturally responsive literature in early learning classrooms. Super interesting, important topic. Hilary, before we dive deep into that, let’s learn a little bit about you and how you ended up at Learning Without Tears.


Absolutely, Ron. So, my background actually is in classroom teaching. I taught pre-K and kindergarten for about 15 years, both in neighborhood schools, charter schools, early-childhood settings – just kind of various educational settings with young children. So, way back from when I was very young, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I grew up in a very diverse area, lots of different languages around me. And so I very quickly understood the benefits of multiculturalism and being multilingual, also, from a very young age.

I had begun to learn Spanish at a young age and I continue to learn today, as well. So, I have a great appreciation for language and culture. I had served families and children in those pre-K and kindergarten classrooms from different backgrounds: bilingual Spanish, typically developing, special needs students, at-risk students. So really, in turn, working with those diverse families really broadened my perspectives and understandings. And from that, I really continue to gain new respect for other people who were not like myself.

I taught until about 2019. And I had decided that it was time for a little bit of a change and wanted to stay within the educational field to really continue to make a difference in children’s lives. So, I had joined the family at Learning Without Tears, which was one of my favorite curriculums and programs to use in my own classroom. So, I joined them first as a workshop presenter. And I have since moved into the role of professional learning literacy advisor, where I really get to make a huge difference, as I said, from the top down, from the literacy aspect of it, and really get in there and use my experience and my knowledge to bring some of those important literacy pieces and that diversity into the program, as well.


I love it. I love seeing folks like yourself who have been in the classroom, on the ground, working directly with children, taking opportunities in other organizations to have an impact in early-childhood education. Wonderful to see and to hear. We kicked this off talking about the subject of the day, culturally responsive literature. Let’s start off with learning what exactly we mean when we say “culturally responsive literature”.


Yes, so when we talk about being culturally responsive, the literature part of it is really just a piece of that puzzle within the umbrella of teaching in a culturally responsive way. So, specifically, when we talk about the aspects of literature, we’re referring to books and stories that we share with our students and that we bring into our classrooms to expose our students to that include relatable characters to all students, whether those students are represented in our classrooms or not.

We also want those books and stories to contain realistic images, familiar settings to our students, universal storylines that all students can connect with, things like conflicts with siblings, losing a tooth, “I can’t find my shoe,” different things like that that students can really understand, connect with and engage with.

They can also see these stories from a perspective of, “Wow, that’s something that happened to me,” and using the story to really help guide them through any issues that they might have. Help them cope, help them problem solve, and really grow in a deeper, social-emotional way, just through literature. It’s so powerful.

And really when we read a book to a child or any group of children, we want them to be engaged. And we want to hear them say things like, “I see me, I’m in that book.” So, they really feel like they’re seen and they’re heard and that they belong not only in our classroom, but in our world. And if we don’t see or hear our students responding that way, really connecting to a text that we’re sharing with them, that could be really a call to action, that we need to possibly revisit the literature and the stories and the books that we’re sharing with our students, as well.


Yeah, so really that relatability is key, it sounds like. And so is there an aspect of this which is even more so important in that early-childhood preschool setting, which of course Learning Without Tears is very focused in supporting?


Yes. So, even specifically when we’re looking at these stories, we want students to be engaged. We want those stories to… we want to take some things into consideration when we’re selecting books and when we’re looking at these types of things, kind of characteristics that these books or stories would have. We want to make sure that the stories that we’re sharing with our students have current, correct information. We don’t want to be reading books that maybe I was read in the 1980s.

We want to make sure that the information is accurate for representing different groups of people and children. We want to make sure that they are avoiding stereotypes, whether it’s gender or whether it’s culture. We want to look at our stories and we want to make sure that the main characters in these stories are not all the same. We want to make sure that they have variations in gender and in background. We want to see who holds the powerful positions in stories, who solve the problems, who are our superheroes or our protagonists in our books that we read to our students.

We want our depictions and illustrations to really be accurate representations of various people. So, whether that is from a diverse perspective, we want to see lots of different children and people highlighted from a diverse perspective. But we also want our students to be exposed to characters with varying needs. In our program for Learning Without Tears, we have a great supplemental book program called A To Z For Mat Man And Me. And it’s a whole book set from A to Z, featuring a different character from various backgrounds, diverse cultures, different needs, things like that.

And these students and these children in these books actually have a storyline and they have a problem and a solution. And there is a whole question-and-answer series within the book as well, as you’re going through, to help students really process and understand these scenarios that these students are going through. So, they are able to look at these books and be read these books and see students that maybe look like themselves – maybe culturally, maybe from a different needs perspective.

“That child in a wheelchair, I use a wheelchair. Wow! That’s the main character of the book.” This child has maybe a cochlear implant. This child maybe has a lot of siblings and has some conflict with them. So, these are things that students can relate to. And we want students to be able to see themselves in books, as well as understand the perspective of others.


I’ve never heard of siblings that have conflict before.


Never, that doesn’t happen at all


I’ve heard before the term “windows and mirrors” when it comes to this subject matter. Is that in relation to this relatability topic that we’re talking about?


It absolutely is, Ron, that is very relatable. So books, as we know as educators, are very, very powerful tools. And they can serve multiple purposes for our students. Books can act as mirrors where we allow children to see themselves reflected, like when we look in a mirror. We can have students look in that book as a mirror and see their experiences, their backgrounds. And that mirror perspective really helps to develop for students a positive sense of self and belonging. And it really helps them know that they’re not alone in their experiences and scenarios that they encounter in life.

It also helps them to know that they are front and center. No matter which child this is, no matter what their background is, they get to be in a story. They get to be the main character, not a secondary character. They’re the star of the show in that story. And from the window perspective, books can absolutely also serve as a window. And how we explain that is, it allows children to see outside of their own little world. Because we know pre-K students kind of go through that egocentric phase, as we know, and it’s very kind of hard for them to see outside of their little world.

And so if we’re using these books as a tool to be a window, we can help students see outside of their own little world, out of that window. And they get to peer into the lives and experiences of others that might be different from them. So, this idea really also helps children better comprehend similarities and differences between themselves and others. And this is a really important skill for young children – or really anyone at all – because that skill really helps develop understanding, acceptance and really appreciation of diversity itself.


Cool. And if I’m working with children in an early-childhood setting, how do I try to get this culturally responsive literature in my classroom? Where can I go? How do I go about that? Like, I think folks who are listening would agree it makes sense. But sometimes there’s only limited places or sources we can go to for these types of things. Any ideas there?


Absolutely. So, the first thing I would suggest doing is… because as educators, I know we have an established either classroom library or text collections and things like that that we already have. So, the first thing I suggest to do is take some time and really review the books you already have. Kind of do a classroom library audit, if you will. Look through those books that you already have and make sure that they’re meeting all of these requirements to be culturally responsive from a literature perspective.

We want to make sure that lots of different people or characters are represented. It’s not heavy on one type of person or one type of protagonist. We want to make sure that we’re looking through every page of the book to make sure the language is appropriate and we are really using positive language, positive illustrations in our stories with regard to heritage of various groups of people as, well.

So, after you go through all your books and see which ones kind of meet these criteria, which ones don’t, any new books that you’re bringing in, there are so many amazing resources to find new stories, to look for specific books. One place that I would go that doesn’t cost any money at all is the library. Local library districts have amazing, amazing library media specialists that can go help you and walk through the search process with you. So, if you are previewing books and looking for new books before you purchase, the library is a really, really great place to start.

There are a couple great websites to help you whittle down because I know it can be overwhelming looking for different types of stories and books to bring in. So, Reading Rockets actually has a really great web page [www.ReadingRockets.org] that is specifically for diverse books for children, and that is exactly what it’s called. There are articles called Diverse Books For Children. And it goes through section by section and gives a lot of really great suggestions as far as specific books to use, different topics, books that you can keep in your classroom library all year long that represents a lot of different students.

There’s also a really great article from NAEYC – the National Association for the Education of Young Children – from their Young Children publication from 2016. And that article is called Reading Your Way To A Culturally Responsive Classroom. And there are some great links there to different lists that have been compiled that will definitely help you on your way to building that library of culturally responsive literature, as well.

So, one other suggestion that I have for that is to talk to your classroom family. If maybe there’s a great book that a family member has shared with the students, kind of put a call out to your family and say, “If there are really great books that you read with your children at home or that you have had shared with you, I’d love a recommendation for that. I’d love to preview it. Can I borrow it so I can read it to the students in our class?” And so really asking for family input is greatly appreciated, as well, and kind of brings that diversity in from your specific families and your classrooms, as well.


Those are some great tips, I love it. Now, if I think about various early-childhood settings, my sense is there’s going to be a spectrum of diversity in those settings where some are going to be extremely diverse and some may have less diversity. Is that something that should be considered in the library? Or is it really to no matter and we should be thinking about the library, independent of the current diversity that exists in our preschool or early-childhood settings?


Right, that’s a great question. And no matter what your student population looks like or your diversity looks like in your classroom or in your school or your area where you live, giving the opportunity to your students to be able to experience diverse literature is so very important. And I have actually taught in multiple different settings. I’ve taught in extremely diverse settings and I’ve taught in the settings that were not so diverse. And I find that there is not really a… they both have benefits to expose our students to lots of different literature.

And so within those classroom libraries, I would say that from one type of classroom to the other, the libraries would almost mirror each other. I think it’s really important for students who are in a not-so-diverse setting to really experience that diversity. And additionally, for students in diverse settings, as well, because it’s important for all students to see themselves as a main character in a story and that they are represented.

So, that kind of goes back to the mirrors and windows, as well. So, when we walk into any pre-K classroom or early-childhood setting, we would love to see that type of setup in the classroom library. So, those are books that students can access any time to explore and look through themselves or on a rotating basis thematically that teachers would go through and read, as well.


Yeah, that makes a ton of sense, cool. Alright, Hilary, before we wrap things up, anything else you’d like to share on the topic of leveraging culturally responsive literature in early-learning classrooms, based on your experience and your role at Learning Without Tears?


Oh, absolutely. So, just really quickly, I was actually reading a study recently that was done by a professor from Oakland University in California. And they had found that second to eighth grade students comprehension really improved when they were reading culturally relevant books that had characters, places and events that aligned well with their cultural and experiential background.

And as I was reading that study, I thought, “Wow, if we intentionally really begin this particular practice in pre-K, sharing culturally relevant books with our students where they see themselves represented, and then they get to learn about the perspectives of others, think about that impact that we could make over time.” So, not only in the academic area of reading comprehension, but motivation in our students to read and want to see things about themselves. And then additionally broadening perspective of our students and understandings as they grow, as well.

So, I thought that that was really interesting. That was something that I came across pretty recently. So really, as early educators, we have a huge impact on our students because sometimes in early-childhood, this is going to be the first out-of-the-home experience that our students would have. And so we can really work to change the narrative for our students from the very beginning of their educational experience.


Wonderful. The other thing that just came to mind there when you were talking about that, as well, and the impact that this can have, is I think maybe it’s a great opportunity for educators, teachers out there to take this on as a leadership opportunity. To Hilary’s point, taking a look through your library and researching other sources like your community or municipal library to get some more diversity in your literature that’s in your classroom setting. Really great opportunity for you to step up and take on a project that can really have such a positive impact in your classrooms.


Absolutely. And as I mentioned before, through Learning Without Tears, we have a really great text collection within our supplemental alphabet knowledge program called A To Z For Mat Man And Me. And it has a complete A To Z alphabet book set. And it features contemporary settings and cultures from all around the world. Lots of different diversity in the characters, real storylines. Children can encounter those characters in situations where they can see themselves and experience other cultures and students at the same time. So, really leveraging those mirrors and windows that we talked about earlier, as well.


Wonderful. And can you share with our listeners where they can find more information about that, as well as any other professional development or learning resources you might recommend for them?


Absolutely. So, the A To Z For Mat Man And Me can actually be found right on our website at www.LWTears.com. And from there are some blogs. We actually have a fantastic video conversation series with Cheryl Lundy Swift called Literacy Matters that you can check out there. We also have, of course, our supplemental programs there for alphabet knowledge and really bringing in the diversity of those books. We have some great articles, as well, on other early learning areas and lots of different opportunities for webinars, for workshops and learning opportunities for educators there, as well.


Wonderful, www.LWTears.com, check it out. Lots of amazing resources, including those on leveraging culturally responsive literature. Hilary, it’s been wonderful chatting with you here today. Thanks so much for sharing more on this really impactful subject. And again, I kind of think, where can you have an impact with frankly a little bit less effort than a lot of the other really challenging things that I know all of our listeners have to manage day-in and day-out in their challenging roles in early-childhood education. Upgrading your classroom library is one that can have a huge impact with potentially somewhat less investment up front. So, great opportunity here. Hilary, thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast!


Great, thank you so much for having me, Ron!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!