The University of Iowa

Celebrating Students’ Identities and Experiences With Culturally Relevant Texts

Boy and two girl students read a book together at school

It is important to understand the connection points available to students in culturally relevant texts in order to select books that match the interests of your students.


Posted on: November 29, 2022

Think of your favorite book.

Why do you like it? Are the characters relatable? Are their beliefs and values similar to yours? Have you gone through something similar to what one or more of the characters experienced? Is the setting of the story similar to a place you have lived or visited?

Literature can serve many different purposes, including providing a way for us to explore our differences and look at the world through perspectives other than our own. However, many readers are better able to understand and benefit from stories that connect what they read to their lived experiences. For example, a student living in a rural area may relate to a story in which that kind of community is represented. In contrast, that same student might have difficulty relating to a story about a child who lives in a large city. When readers can connect to a story using their personal experiences and knowledge gained outside of school, at home, or through family members, the story is referred to as a culturally relevant text.

In this post, I will review the benefits of incorporating in classroom literacy instruction texts that are culturally relevant for your students and provide several strategies for selecting these texts.

Why Are Culturally Relevant Texts Important?

In conjunction with explicit reading instruction, students practice reading strategies and acquire content knowledge by reading and discussing classroom texts. By incorporating culturally relevant texts into literacy lessons and read-alouds, educators are recognizing and celebrating the identities and experiences of their students. Selecting classroom texts that are relevant to students’ interests and everyday lives can support reading motivation and engagement (Kamil et al., 2008). That is not to say that readers cannot appreciate books about people, times, and places that are very different from what they know; reading is an important way to explore unfamiliar perspectives and build cross-cultural understanding. But ensuring that all students are represented in at least some of the texts explicitly used or made available in the classroom can be incredibly beneficial for increasing student participation and motivation, especially for multilingual English learners and other students who may not often see themselves represented in literature (Ebe, 2011). Because students’ backgrounds and experiences are varied, different books will be culturally relevant for different readers. Therefore, it is important for educators to include a diverse collection of books that feature characters with a wide range of identities (Leko et al., 2013).

How Do I Select Culturally Relevant Texts?

Learn About Your Students

An important first step toward selecting culturally relevant texts is getting to know your students (Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2021). What subjects do they like in school? What do they like to do outside of school? What issues are important to them? Teachers can have students respond to these questions and others like them in a survey in order to gauge their interests. Our “Reading Interests Survey” has some short-answer and checkbox options for students to choose from (see Supplemental Resources for Teachers). Teachers should inform students that they are collecting this information in order to select classroom texts on topics that the students will find interesting and important.

Understand the Differences Between Multicultural and Culturally Relevant Texts

Websites like Reading Rockets have compiled reading lists of books that were written by or about people representing different cultures and identities. Reading lists such as these are a good place to start when attempting to diversify classroom libraries. However, “multicultural” is not always the same as “culturally relevant.” Selecting books from multicultural reading lists is not sufficient to ensure that students will find the stories relevant to their lives. That is why it is also important to use the information gathered about students’ interests to inform text selection. For example, if a student shared that they spend their free time practicing guitar or listening to music, they might consider books about musicians to be equally or more relevant than books whose characters share their ethnicity. When possible, finding books that connect both to students’ cultures and to their interests is ideal.  

Consider Multiple Characteristics of the Text

What other factors contribute to cultural relevance? Culture refers to the values, beliefs, and practices that people use to navigate the world, which are informed by multiple, interacting factors. Often, people equate “culture” with “ethnicity,” but many other factors also contribute to our culture. The Cultural Relevance Rubric created by researcher Anne Ebe (2011, available in the article as Figure 1) provides educators with some guidance regarding what aspects to consider when selecting texts. The rubric suggests that students may connect with a story based on the following characteristics:

  1. the ethnicity of the characters
  2. the setting
  3. the year the story takes place
  4. the age of the characters
  5. the gender of the characters
  6. the language or dialect used in the story
  7. the genre and exposure to this type of text
  8. the reader’s background experiences

Educators can use this rubric as a starting point or personalize it and add their own criteria. For example, I might choose to add “family structure” to the rubric as a reminder to look for stories that represent different kinds of families (e.g., children living with grandparents, multigenerational homes, single parents, children with two fathers or two mothers, children with an incarcerated parent or a parent in the military, children with a parent who lives in a different state or country, children living with foster families, etc.). Other factors to consider may include “ability level of the characters” and “immigration status of the characters.” What other factors contribute to one’s culture? When reviewing books and texts for relevance, educators can use the items on the rubric to reflect on their selections by asking questions such as: “Are the ethnicities of all of my students represented in at least some texts?” or, “Will all of my students see representations of settings that they are familiar with?” Considering questions such as these will help shed light on the strengths of the selected texts and the ways classroom libraries can be improved to reflect your students’ cultures.

Question Assumptions

When attempting to select texts that students can relate to, it is important to avoid making assumptions about students’ cultures. For example, a story about daily life in Mexico will not necessarily be culturally relevant to a Mexican American student who has spent her entire life in the United States. As previously mentioned, one should not assume that students will relate to characters just because they share the same ethnicity or country of origin. Students may relate to characters in a story based on other factors, such as shared interests or values. Further, a text may appear to represent the culture of a student while actually perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Educators can keep the following points in mind as they review books for potential biases.


Essentialism is the false belief that all individuals belonging to a certain group share some inherent qualities. The idea that all people who speak a certain dialect are uneducated or that all people who live in rural areas have outdated beliefs are examples of essentialism. Essentialist ideas can emerge in literature when all characters belonging to a certain group are represented in the same way, or when only one character is meant to represent an entire group.

Characters’ Roles

It is not enough for diverse characters simply to appear in a story—it is also important to examine the role they play. Are characters from underrepresented backgrounds main characters or do they play a supporting role? What is their relationship to other characters in the story? Are they expected to resolve conflict by being exceptional? Are they encouraged to change a part of themselves to gain acceptance? Classroom texts should feature different kinds of characters as leaders and problem-solvers.

The Author’s Background

Does the author have a similar background to the characters they are writing about? What qualifies them to write about the subject? Just as it is important for readers to see themselves reflected in the characters of a story, showing them that there is diversity among published authors can be similarly motivating.

This article by anti-bias educator Louise Derman-Sparks provides additional guidance and outlines some questions educators can ask themselves to evaluate books for bias. 

Ask For Feedback

In order to avoid making inaccurate assumptions about students’ cultures, teachers can determine the cultural relevance of a text by eliciting feedback from the students themselves. For example, after students have finished reading a text, teachers can ask questions such as:

  • Have you ever experienced something similar to one of the characters?
  • Have you ever been to places like the ones described in the story?
  • Do the characters in the book look, act, or speak like you or anyone you know?
  • Have you ever read a story similar to this one?
  • Would you like to read more books like this one?

Students can write their responses to these questions in our “Reading Relevance Log” (see Supplemental Materials for Teachers). Reviewing students’ responses to these questions can help teachers gauge the relevance of that particular text for their students. If students’ responses indicate that they were able to connect with the story, the teacher may choose to select other texts that are similar based on the characters, setting, or storyline.


Children’s literature researcher Rudine Sims Bishop (1990) proposed that books can be windows as well as mirrors. Books serve as a window when they allow readers to learn about times, places, or people that are unfamiliar to them. On the other hand, when readers see their own lives and experiences reflected through the stories they read, books act as mirrors. Sims argues that both functions of books are important for readers to develop an understanding of themselves and build relationships with others. Historically, some cultures and identities have been underrepresented in children’s literature, meaning that some students seldom experience books as mirrors. However, the strategies outlined in this post can provide a starting point for ensuring all students are represented in classroom texts.

Supplemental Materials for Teachers

PDF iconReading Interests Survey

Gain insight about your students and their reading interests by having them fill out this survey. Use the information gathered to select texts that students will find interesting and important.

PDF iconReading Relevance Log

Containing yes-or-no questions, this log will provide teachers with insight on whether or not a particular text was culturally relevant to their students.


Ebe, A. E. (2011). Culturally relevant books: Bridges to reading engagement for English Language Learners. Insights on Learning Disabilities, 8, 31–45.

Harvard Graduate School of Education (2021, September 28). What you can do to bring multicultural texts to the classroom [Video]. YouTube.

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., & Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A practice guide (NCEE 2008-4027). National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.   

Leko, M. M., Mundy, C. A., Kang, H. J., & Datar, S. D. (2013). If the book fits: Selecting appropriate texts for adolescents with learning disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 48, 267–275.   

Reading Rockets. Diverse Books for Children.

Sims, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6.