Research and Reflections, Tools and Resources

Developing Language and Literacy With Children’s Literature and Through the Lens of a Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

Why children’s literature fosters a culturally sustaining pedagogy

I no longer have a classroom of my own. Yet, my habit of mind as an instructional coach and a scholar practitioner prompts me always to reflect on teaching pedagogies, especially since I still work directly with children. Lately, I have embarked on a project to deeply understand the theory of culturally sustaining pedagogy. I wonder how one can teach through this lens to improve literacy and language for emergent bilinguals.

A culturally relevant pedagogy asks that we value the linguistic, literate, and cultural practices that students from underprivileged communities of color bring to school. A culturally sustaining pedagogy, on the other hand, asks that teachers support students in accessing “Dominant American English” and other dominant literacy and cultural norms that enable school success while simultaneously ensuring that students of color preserve and sustain their own language and cultural competence (Paris, 2012). 

In teaching struggling readers to read, I observed that many children have high deficits in their reading abilities, are not motivated to read, and do not have the necessary stamina. In my school district, which is made up of about 50% English learners and 72% who qualify for free and reduced lunch (Education Data Partnership, 2022), teaching through the lens of a culturally sustaining pedagogy is beneficial and necessary.

Utilizing children’s literature as a tool to promote linguistic and literary competence can accomplish multiple goals. It can address the gaps in reading foundational skills, develop language comprehension, and teach critical thinking skills. More importantly, children’s literature is a “mirror, window, and sliding glass door” (Bishop, 1990) that gives students the opportunity to see themselves as relevant and to develop empathy as they read about characters from different cultures and the challenges these characters face. 

To create a context for teaching reading through the lens of a culturally sustaining pedagogy, teachers need to fill their bookshelves with authentic books about people of all cultures and that tell true stories about people’s lived experiences, such as those of refugees and immigrants. Teachers need to include not only books that affirm children’s experiences and multi-layered identities, but also books that celebrate the incredible accomplishments of girls, women, and people of color.

Freedom in Congo Square (Weatherford, 2016) and My Beautiful Birds (Del Rizzo, 2017) are beautiful picture books that offer rich literacy experiences. The lesson examples below begin as read-alouds, then extend to include small-group discussions, phonics, writing, and art.

Freedom in Congo Square
Grades  K–5

Freedom in Congo Square, a historical picture book, is a rendering of the lives of 19th-century New Orleans slaves who would congregate on Sundays at Congo Square, a large outdoor area within Louis Armstrong Park, to sing, dance, play instruments, talk, and laugh together while celebrating their weekly half-day of freedom. The story does not sugarcoat the harsh reality of slavery, racism, pain, and suffering. This book can serve as a mirror for Black children and help deepen their understanding of their identities.

Before a read-aloud of the book, begin with providing a brief history about Congo Square and Jazz music, explaining what some words mean. Ensure that key vocabulary words are displayed. Elicit discussion and dialogue about the text. To support emergent bilinguals, provide language frames. A second reading of the text can happen during small-group instruction. In small groups, provide a review of decodable and sight words and an additional review of the key words in the story. To integrate phonics in the lesson, select words in the story that contain a target sound and spelling pattern, such as specific blends, digraphs, or inflectional endings. Discussion questions can include: “What do you think is happening on this page?  How do you know? Why did the slaves look forward to Sundays? Why do you think the author wrote this story?”

Another follow-up activity allows for choice and the study of multiple genres. After reading the story, form small groups of four or five students. Each group discusses the message of the story and expresses it through one of the following genres: 1) music, 2) poetry, 3) movement, 4) drama, or a unified mixture of genres. After each presentation, audience members provide feedback on how the selected genre was effective in relating the message of the story. After all the non-presenting groups have had a chance to provide feedback, the group that presented will share their process in creating their presentation.

 My Beautiful Birds
Grades K3

Author and illustrator Suzanne Del Rizzo uses polymer clay illustrations to tell a story about a Syrian child refugee, Sami, who, with his family, escapes the bombing and destruction that was once their home. Sami had to leave his birds behind, which adds to his sadness. One day, three birds fly into the camp near Sami. Sami’s enchantment with the birds begins his pathway to healing. This poignant story awakens readers to the plight of refugees who suddenly find themselves without a home.

An accompanying literature response activity for this story requires students to put their ideas on a “graffiti board.”  Because students will write or sketch in a public forum, they are able to see how others are responding to the story, which builds on their understanding and/or challenges it. Teachers can also gauge students’ current background knowledge and/or misunderstanding. To do the activity:

  1. Display a list of key vocabulary words produced from an earlier discussion of the story.
  2. Put up a large sheet of chart paper and invite students to sketch or write their thoughts about the story. 

Tell students that there are no wrong or right answers, they don’t need to worry about spelling at the moment, and they do not have to write their names. 

  1. As a whole group, have students look for patterns and discuss issues or surprises that they deem important. 


  • Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Reading is Fundamental. 
  • Del Rizzo, S. (2017). My beautiful birds. (S. Del Rizzo, Illus.). Pajama Press Inc.
  • Education Data Partnership. (2022). Salinas City Elementary [Data set].
  • Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational researcher, 41(3), 93-97.
  • Weatherford, C. B. (2016). Freedom in Congo Square (R.G. Christie, Illus.). Bonnier Publishing Group.

One thought on “Developing Language and Literacy With Children’s Literature and Through the Lens of a Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

  1. Love it!! I’m passionate about culturally sustaining pedagogy being an immigrant myself, and this article resonates with me at a deeper level! Thanks Jennifer!!!

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About the Author: In her 12th year as an instructional coach, Jennifer Benitez is privileged to plan with and co-teach alongside teachers, a process that allows her to observe how children learn best. In the last decade, she has worked in various districts in Central California coaching and facilitating professional development on topics such as, “Guided Reading Using Leveled Readers in K-2,” “Writing in K-1,” “Designated and Integrated English Language Development,” “The Essence of Formative Assessment,” and “Writing in Small Groups,” among others. From 2013 - 2015, Jennifer worked for the California Department of Education as part of the BEAL (Building Teachers’ Assessment Literacy) project whose goal was to train California educators on developing their assessment literacy in Grades 3-5 English language arts performance tasks. Jennifer also presented in several national and international conferences. In 2021, Jennifer presented at ASCD’s Annual Conference on “Mindful and Meaningful Teaching: Using Play-Based Strategies to Support the Development of Language and Literacy in PK-2.” In January of 2022, she presented at the annual Hawaii International Conference on Education (HICE) on “Teacher Self-Efficacy and Its Influence on Teacher Effectiveness.” In January of 2023, she will be presenting at the HICE again on “The Art in the Science of Reading: A Hybrid Approach That Also Builds Student Engagement, Empathy, and Identity for Emergent Bilinguals and Students of Minority.” Currently, Jennifer is supporting Tier 2 reading intervention at one of her schools by working with small groups of students in grades 1 and 5, helping them to develop their phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, vocabulary, and comprehension using children’s literature.

Jennifer Benitez holds an MA in Educational Leadership from San Jose State University, and an Ed.D in Curriculum, Teaching, Learning, and Leadership from Northeastern University in Boston. Currently, she is an Academic Coach for the Salinas City Elementary School District in Salinas, California. A lifelong learner and passionate about improving language and literacy for all students, Jennifer is nearly completing her master’s degree in Reading and Literacy along with a Reading & Literacy Leadership Specialist Credential. Her goal is to continue her work on developing elementary students’ English language and literacy through the lens of a culturally sustaining pedagogy.