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Literacy Achievement and Diversity: Keys to Success for Students, Teachers, and Schools

reviewed by Nida Rinthapol - February 23, 2012

coverTitle: Literacy Achievement and Diversity: Keys to Success for Students, Teachers, and Schools
Author(s): Kathryn H. Au
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807752061, Pages: 192, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

In her compelling book, Literacy Achievement and Diversity, author Kathryn Au presents her life’s work and scholarly contributions to the advancement of research in the field of literacy among students of diverse background. Au, a Hawaiian-born of Chinese ancestry, is an educator and researcher who has ceaselessly sought means of improving literacy achievement for students from culturally and linguistically diverse background.

Starting with her professional training in the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition under the guidance of Michael Cole, and then her work with the well respected educational anthropologist Frederick Erickson, Au became acquainted with the landmark work of Vygotsky and the social constructivist school of educational theory.  Her work on literacy achievement among Native Hawaiian students developed through the lens of social constructivism.

Au, drawing from her own background, discusses the development of literacy through an examination of language acquisition across successive generations of her own family. Au’s examinations bring to the field an awareness of the influence that economic achievement plays in driving expectations of achieving a high level of literacy as a means of increasing the likelihood of financial success in one’s chosen field.  As Au keenly observes, the mere expectation of a high level of literacy achievement does not necessarily result in improved literacy activity measures among students of various ethno-cultural groups; while some groups manage to achieve a higher level of literacy, other groups lag in their literacy development by as much as four years in comparison to their high-achieving peers. Au’s question is what factor(s) conspire to cause so substantial a literacy achievement gap, and what course of action can be implemented to remedy it?

Au proposes the implementation of what she terms four Keys to Success for reducing the size of the literacy achievement gap, basing her theory of action on her 25 years of experience in working with students of diverse backgrounds in the classroom and in research studies. Following a particular and deliberate sequence, Au’s prescription for improving literacy is implemented accordingly: (1) the first key to success requires a systemic approach to change; (2) the second key to success imposes a curricular emphasis on higher-level thinking; (3) the third key places emphasis on sensitivity to and investment in culturally responsive instruction; and (4) the fourth and final key to success involves creating a school wide professional learning community.

Coming from a Chinese immigrant family background, Au sensed a disconnect between her home life, the world she inhabited on a daily basis, and the world as it was described in the reading materials she was assigned in her elementary and secondary school classroom settings; these experiences profoundly shaped Au’s thinking about social constructivism in the classroom curriculum and led to her appreciation for the importance of “cultural responsive instructions” as being a key factor in literacy achievement among students from diverse (historical, economical, cultural or linguistic) backgrounds. Once able to relate their own experience to the classroom through culturally responsive instruction, students emerge with a deeper and more meaningful level of thinking.  In language quite similar to Rogoff’s (2003) research on intent community participation among Latino children from communities where formal schooling was not prevalent, Au describes the contrasts between the “world views” of students educated in conventional mainstream Western settings and students of diverse backgrounds, drawing attention to the importance of the learning differences (e.g. observation of ongoing events versus pre-determined lessons) in evidence.  In Au’s view, it is crucial that educational institutions and educators be made aware of cultural differences and how they influence the cognitive process in order to design and administer a curriculum that is effectively targeting students from various diverse cultural backgrounds.  For example, Au proposes a form of culturally responsive instruction that incorporates in the curriculum the concept of "talk story," a technique that promotes a “co-narrative” among speakers during which students speak simultaneously or one at a time. Au found this technique particularly effective in promoting a substantial improvement in reading levels among her Native Hawaiian students (Au and Mason, 1981).

Au’s concept of the relationship between a curriculum with a culturally competent emphasis and literacy achievement is quite similar to Jerome Brunner’s (1996) concept of spiral curriculum; Au argues that instead of “learning to read”, children need to “read to learn,” an outcome best achieved when “children draw relationships between the text and their own experiences.” The notion that reading for comprehension carries less importance than a student’s ability to pronounce words accurately is, in Au’s view, a hindrance to higher level literacy achievement among children from diverse backgrounds, leading Au to promote an implemented curriculum that promotes students’ ownership of literacy and encourages them to read and write as part of everyday life, in school and at home, thus fostering a higher level of thinking.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, small and unsustained change in curriculum design is not likely to result in the desired outcome, for it is only through a sustained and systematic approach to change where a school “must be willing to focus and move steadily forward with a disciplined, research based multiyear improvement effort” that high-impact change will take place.  Au’s recommendation for addressing and mitigating the literacy achievement gap among students of diverse background is the implementation of a long-term literacy invention of at least a 6-year duration to see significant improvement of cognitive academic language proficiency (Cummins, 2003) among students who speak a language other than Standard English at home.  As described by Au, the approach to literacy improvement she called Standard-Based Change (SBC) Process, referred to by many as a ‘sure and steady fix’, is not aquick fix’.  It is Au’s opinion that the act of purchasing and implementing a scripted, canned program will not result in significantly improved scores on a state’s literacy test, because in her view “programs don’t teach; teachers teach.”  The SBC process Au describes in her book is the tale of a ‘learning community’ in which students, teachers, administrators, and the institution are summary components of a larger and longer process, working as a team to develop a sense of authorship and cultural identity that leads to improved literacy.  In her final chapter, Negotiating the Slippery Slope, Au concludes that success in literacy among students of diverse backgrounds can take place only when “school-wide communities and teachers pull together to construct a staircase curriculum.” Curriculum alone will do little for improving literacy levels among students of diverse backgrounds, and so educators must work together to create a learning community with the goal of “moving their school forward and improving students’ literacy achievement.”

Each of the book’s chapters includes a follow up activity in which the reader is called on to reflect on his or her relationship to the topic of the chapter.  Literacy Achievement and Diversity offers a research-based social constructivist approach to the classroom curriculum with the goal of improving the literacy achievement among students of diverse backgrounds by incorporating classroom-based instruction that is culturally responsive and competent.  This book contributes to an understanding on the part of teachers, educators, researchers and policy makers of curricular approaches that are crucial for assuring the academic success of students from culturally, historically, and linguistically diverse backgrounds.  Using both her own and others’ research findings, Kathryn Au guides her readers through each Key to Success in deliberate fashion, supporting her claims while simultaneously engaging the reader by retelling tales of her personal and professional experiences as they pertain to each of the issues examined.  


Au, K.H., & Mason, J.M. (1981). Social organizational factors in learning of reading: The balance of rights hypothesis. Reading Research Quarterly, 17(1), 115-152.

Bruner, J. (1996) The Culture of Education, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Cummings, J. (2003). BICS and CALP: Origins and rationale for the distinction. In C. Paulston & G. Tucker (Eds.), Sociolinguistics: The essential readings (pp. 322-328). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 23, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16709, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:34:51 PM

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About the Author
  • Nida Rinthapol
    University of California Santa Barbara
    E-mail Author
    NIDA RINTHAPOL is currently a doctoral candidate at the Gevirtz School of Education, University of California Santa Barbara, specializing in cultural perspectives and comparative education and quantitative method in social science. Her research interest focuses on achievement motivation, specifically examining different patterns of achievement goal orientation among students from low-income immigrant backgrounds and how certain goals adoption foster or inhibit their motivation in academic context. Recent publications include Validation of Goal Orientation Measure in PALS Among Latino Adolescents Participating in a College Outreach Program in the US-China Education Review and Factors Supporting Academic Engagement Among Cambodian American High School Youth in the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement.
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