• by Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., and José A. Velázquez, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2019 •

Children are attracted to books that represent their culture, with characters like themselves. That connection promotes meaningful literacy involvement. And it helps children build cognitive, linguistic and affective skills needed for developing competencies in expressing, imagining, understanding, reading and becoming more socially and academically engaged individuals.

When children are exposed to culturally-relevant text, educators and parents can tap into their social and emotional state of mind. This more profoundly advances literacy skills deeply connected to reasoning and critical thinking skills (Piña, et al., 2015).

At IDRA, we believe that diversity of language, race, culture, human experience and expression are strengths and gifts for all humanity to cherish. Proficiency in reading readiness skills that lead to mastery of reading by third grade is the gateway to future academic success (Meloy, et al., 2019).

Steps for Expanding Your Literature Library

For children who are learning English, the classroom teacher and the school’s librarian can work together to identify not only age-appropriate literature but also literature that is culturally-authentic and relevant (Bauml & Mongan, 2014; Ebe, 2010). That requires vision and intentionality. The following represent key elements in this process.

  • Conduct deep reflection grounded in knowledge of the community you serve.
  • Consider the cultural history of the community as well as recent demographic changes.
  • Be fully transparent with parents, students and educators in your network as you share your vision for building a classroom library that reflects the diversity of the community. Request their input regarding topics, authors, areas of interest, positive role models, cultural traditions and social equity issues.
  • Take inventory of what you currently have and identify gaps that need to be filled.
  • Invite parents and students to suggest titles and conduct Internet searches and consult award-winning literature for young scholars to develop a “wish list” of books that reflect cultural diversity of the classroom.
  • Review the generated wish list, discuss findings with students and parents, and use a decision-making process that produces a final list that realistically reflects your budget.

A community approach to building a culturally-relevant library that involves all stakeholders ensures an inclusive decision-making process. Be sure to extend your search beyond the traditional large publishers. Books by local authors could be rich additions to your collection.

Semillitas de Aprendizaje Books

In one example, IDRA’s Semillitas de Aprendizaje is a unique set of bilingual materials that are closely connected to the Latino experience in the United States. The 10 stories are culturally-appropriate and capitalize on the power and attraction of the culturally-cherished art of storytelling (see Page 7). Their use helps build literacy by valuing diversity and richness of language, history and print for early childhood and primary grades.

Children listen, view, read along, and interpret the authors’ purpose in the inviting and engaging stories. When children begin to repeat the stories and learn the art of creating their own, they are inspired to love learning and creativity and to grow their sense of pride and identity with their first language and culture.

Exposing children to a series of books that provides a rich source of knowledge and cultural familiarity leads children to want to learn even more. During the development stages of life, the opinion of peers is of major importance to children for personal development and growth. Storytelling bridges the connection of self with the author’s intent and sense of inspiration. The art of storytelling not only gives children a voice, it inspires them to become creative writers and actors themselves. Libraries equip children with learning opportunities and literacy skills.

The Semillitas de Aprendizaje teacher guide contains play-based learning activities, comprehension skills, morning songs, storytelling, literacy connections, centers activities, phonemic awareness, writing and alphabet knowledge and English transition. Play-based learning is key for children in the early stages of life. Books that incorporate culturally-relevant song, dance, rhyme, rhythm, repetition and thematic content can enhance play-based learning in ways that meaningfully engage children and their families. Play-based exploration and discovery invites children to investigate the world around them on their own. They are naturally curious about everything, from tiny insects under a wooden log to the stars and prehistoric creatures.

IDRA will soon publish a new reader’s theater component of Semillitas de Aprendizaje to further engage students in developing oral fluency and declamation – critical factors for reading comprehension. Children can explore, demonstrate and portray the emotions that are reflected in the lines of each story through facial expressions, body language and rhetorical exercise. As children act out stories, they learn to engage with the main characters. They expand their vocabulary by associating word meanings with the characters’ emotions.

Play-based learning is key for children in the early stages of life. Books that incorporate culturally-relevant song, dance, rhyme, rhythm, repetition and thematic content can enhance play-based learning in ways that meaningfully engages children and their families.

The set also has 15 early math books that focus on numeracy and social and emotional development to complement the illustrated stories. The teacher guide provides lessons that draw on both the math books and the storybooks.

Semillitas de Aprendizaje also connects the classroom with the home through its Cartitas, which are letters so that families can expand on the stories at home. These letters are designed to support home-school dialogue around shared stories, educational growth and learning. Building strong teacher, student and family relationships is the foundation of IDRA’s classrooms of excellence model where parents are valued as their children’s first teachers and recognized as full partners in education.

Many teacher preparation programs do not equip teachers to engage with diverse parents and community members. But doing so builds healthy, vibrant and energetic relationships that recognize parents as assets in the process of raising student achievement. This helps strengthens the quality of the school (Chavkin, 2017). Culturally-relevant literature can help facilitate partnerships between home and schools as librarians create opportunities for parents to assist their children in selecting stories that reflect their heritage and life experiences.

Our classrooms today are increasingly diverse; thus, there is no single story. We have the power to share many stories created by students’ own narratives that enrich classroom libraries with meaningful stories for children. In the process, we also affirm children’s identity that, in turn, inspires them to become authors to advance the literacy skills of young learners.


Bauml, M., & Mongan, K. (2014). “Getting to Know You: Sharing Time as Culturally Relevant Teaching,” Dimensions of Early Childhood.

Chavkin, N.F. (2017). Family Engagement with Schools: Strategies for School Social Workers and Educators. Oxford University Press.

Ebe, A.E. (2010). “Culturally Relevant Texts and Reading Assessment for English Language Learners,” Reading Horizons.

García, J.C. & Rodríguez, R. (April 2015). “Margarita’s Necklace – Beads, Patterns and Algebraic Thinking for English Learners,” IDRA Newsletter.

Meloy, B., Gardner, M., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2019). Untangling the Evidence on Preschool Effectiveness: Insights for Policymakers. Palo Alto, Calif.: Learning Policy Institute.

Piña, P., Nash, K. T., Boardman, A., Polson, B., & Panther, L. (2015). “Engaging Children and Families in Culturally Relevant Literacies,” Journal of Family Strengths.

Posner, L. (March 2012). “Family Engagement in Early Childhood – IDRA’s New Semillitas de Aprendizaje Cartitas Letters Home Series,” IDRA Newsletter.

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is an IDRA senior education associate and co-directs IDRA’s Re-Energize project. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at nilka.aviles@idra.org. José A. Velázquez, M.Ed., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at jose.velazquez@idra.org.

[©2019, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2019 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]