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Beyond Career Day: Nurturing Career Literacies for Children of Color in K-5 Schools

This commentary explores career literacies as a concept that is gaining increasing attention from K-5 schools. As the Common Core Standards in K-5 English Language Arts, which are anchored in college and career readiness, come to the fore of elementary teaching and learning, we would be wise to closely consider the nascent career goals and views of career literacies that children of color bring into the classroom. In a recent study, I asked 31 elementary-aged children from African American and Latino backgrounds to draw pictures of themselves in their future professions, and to describe what reading (and writing) they imagined doing in those professions. Analyses reveal that childrenís drawings of their future careers highlight the complex, discursive nature of career literacy practices and identities in a variety of professional fields. Pedagogical possibilities for designing career relevant learning experiences that leverage children of colorís career goals for literacy learning in elementary schools are also discussed.

I have fond memories of Career Day at the Philadelphia High School for Girls. It was inspiring to see so many accomplished professional women discussing their career paths and passions. At that time, career literacies were primarily considered a “secondary school” issue, in the purview of educators and scholars interested in vocational education, adult literacy, and school-to-work transitions (e.g., Hull, 2000; Mikulecky, 2000). Today, career literacies have found their way into the classrooms of the K-5 schoolhouse. Conversations about what it means to be ready for the workplace are being taken up by elementary teachers, specialists, and administrators working to adopt and implement the Common Core State Standards in K-5 English and Language Arts (2010). Professional organizations like the International Reading Association are encouraging educators at the earliest levels of schooling to “bridge the gap” between classrooms and the workplace by equipping students with the 21st century skills that will help them meet employee demands and sustain life-wage careers in the future (Long, 2013).

With our gaze fixed upon educators and the curriculum, it is easy to overlook an equally powerful way that career literacies enter the K-5 schoolhouse door—through the hearts and minds of children from diverse cultural backgrounds. In their early years, children envision what they want to be when they grow up, and develop “everyday” notions about the literate nature of their chosen careers. To tap into these nascent conceptions of career literacies, I asked 31 elementary-aged children from African American and Latino backgrounds to draw pictures of themselves in their future professions, and to describe what reading (and writing) they imagined doing in those professions (Author, 2012). Analysis of these drawings suggested that children’s envisionments of their future careers reveal powerful insights into the nature of career literacy practices in a variety of professional fields. In this commentary, I describe these insights as well as raise pedagogical possibilities for leveraging children’s career goals for literacy learning in elementary schools.


Every child in the study had clearly chosen a future profession. About one third of the children in this study drew future careers that required a college degree (e.g., President of the United States, veterinarians), another third drew careers that may be enhanced with career training (e.g., construction workers, artists, musicians, police officers), while the remaining third drew careers that do not require formal training or education (e.g. race car driver, cheerleader). What was striking was that nearly all the children—no matter what kind of future career they had depicted—were able to articulate the role that reading and writing would play in those professions. One drawing especially exemplified this point was created by Kevin (all names are pseudonyms), an African American boy who wanted to be a police officer. As he drew, he told me that he was “making a police station and it says ‘police’ so that I know where to go when I bring in the bad guy. He’s right here, and I am arresting him with a taser” (see Figure 1). Kevin went on to say that police officers’ literate practices would include “reading books about the law, and listening to your orders from the boss [police chief].”

Surprisingly, the children’s envisionments of how significant a role reading and writing will play in their professional lives are quite accurate. Literacy demands in many industries are rapidly changing, and while most people acknowledge that “white collar” professions, such as medicine, law, and engineering, require high literacy skills, the reality is that many “blue collar professions” also require sophisticated literacy practices. An ever-increasing number of “blue collar” jobs, including miners (Waibel, Rice, Kelley, & Anders, 2012), factory workers (Hull, 2000), and manufacturing employees (Long, 2013), require more complex literacies than most people realize. This is not to say that all jobs require the exact same literacy practices. However, workers in virtually all industries must effectively (a) orchestrate multiple literacy practices, including reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing, (b) communicate via multiple symbol systems (e.g., print, formulas, maps, models, gestures), (c) navigate differing types of texts (e.g., safety procedures, work orders, forms) and (d) solve problems in order to perform successfully on the job (Long, 2013; Mikulecky, 2000; Waibel et al, 2012). These children’s drawings depict an important economic reality: “being competitive in a global information age requires a skilled workforce, with many workers possessing knowledge economy skills obtained through education beyond high school” (Maruyama, 2012, p. 252).


In addition to illustrating the sophistication and complexity of career literacies, the children’s drawings represented an explicitly sociocultural perspective of literacy as identity (Moje & Luke, 2009). Rather than viewing literacy as decontextualized cognitive skills, the children in the study described literate practices as “identity kits” (Gee, 1996) that embodied the reading, writing, and speaking skills, norms, conventions, and ideologies situated within particular professional communities. More specifically, these children depicted themselves as “working professionals” and imagined taking up two specific literate practices situated within workplace communities: literacy for learning and literacy for earning. Many discussed how they would use reading and writing to communicate with colleagues, solve work-related problems, and acquire new skills and knowledge. For example, one second-grade Latino boy drew himself as a construction worker, noting that he would need to “read books that show you how to build house.” A young Latina girl who wanted to be a cheerleader noted that she would need to “read to learn the cheers and the moves.” Even a young African American boy who drew himself as a superhero claimed that reading would be important to him “because I wanna read to learn how to save people!” According to the Career Readiness Partners Council (2013), this disposition will serve children well when they enter the workforce, because “to be career ready in our ever-changing global economy requires adaptability and a commitment to lifeline learning.”

Finally, several children’s drawings highlighted ways that literacy practices could be used to earn for entrepreneurial purposes, and more specifically, to earn money. Several children wanted to be veterinarians, explaining that their literate practices would include “reading books about the sicknesses that animals have and the medicines they need, and writing medical bills.” Other girls like Shanika, an African American fifth grader, portrayed themselves as beauty stylists, describing reading as a tool that would help them to access “books about cutting, coloring and styling hair, and business books for [owning] their own beauty salons (see Figure 2). Luis, an aspiring soccer player, explained that he would literacy “to read books to learn better tricks, and to sign my contract!”


Schools do not “train” children for particular careers, but they do fundamentally shape the core skills that children need to be ready to work. Career Days are a good starting point, but additional career relevant learning experiences must be designed if we truly want to help African American and Latino children acquire the kinds of literate practices that facilitate success in school, work, and life. Encouraging children to draw themselves working in their future careers, and discuss the kinds of literate practices that undergird those particular professional identities, can build classroom community. Providing access to a wide range of informational texts, including (a) biographies of famous athletes and other professionals, (b) books integrating science, social studies, and math content, and (c) developmentally-appropriate career books, helps prepare children to read, comprehend, and synthesize key information from the complex texts that they will encounter in their careers (Long, 2013). Nonfiction writing is equally important, and children’s career interests could be at the center of inquiry projects where they research the educational and/training requirements, responsibilities, and salary related to their dream jobs, and write career reports. Such activities demonstrate how schools may be able to help children build “career ready identities” that can flexibly adapt literacy practices developed in school as well as acquire new literacies in whatever career worlds they imagine and ultimately enter.


Careers Readiness Partners Council. (2013). Building blocks for change: What it means to be career ready. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium.

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Retrieved March 23, 2013 from http://www.corestandards.org/

Gee, J. P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in Discourses (2nd ed.). London: Falmer Press.

Hull, G. (2000). Critical literacy at work. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 43(1), 648–652.

Long, R. (2013). Career success demands strong 21st century literacy skills. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Maruyama, G. (2012). Assessing college readiness: Should we be satisfied with ACT or other threshold scores? Educational Researcher, 41(7), 252–261.

Mikulecky, L. (2000). What will be the demands of literacy in the workplace in the next millennium? Reading Research Quarterly, 35(3), 379–380.

Moje, E. & Luke, A. (2009). Literacy and identity: Examining the metaphors in history and contemporary research. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(4), 415–437.

Waibel, A., Rice, S., Kelley, J. J., & Anders, P. (2012). Digging deeper: Literacy, language, and learning in the mine safety industry. Literacy Research Association Yearbook, 61, 212–224.


Figure 1: Kevin’s Police Officer Drawing


Figure 2: Shanika’s Salon Owner Drawing


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 22, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17330, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 11:34:08 PM

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