English adviser and primary senior leader Shareen Wilkinson reflects on Penguin Random House and The Runnymede Trust’s recent Lit in Colour research into diversity in reading. She shares her own experience of the gaps in what children are reading and suggests some steps you can take to start diversifying reading in your school.
Experiencing the gaps in children’s literature
Growing up, I did not experience a diverse range of books at school. I recall reading and loving David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl books. That was it. Though it was wonderful to read these classic texts, when I became a teacher myself, I wanted to incorporate diverse authors and experiences as well. I utilised Malorie Blackman’s books to teach reading comprehension in a way that reflected diversity. However, typically, I found that many other books showed stereotypical views of people of colour, e.g. as living in poverty, or experiencing trauma.
The books that children encounter should be more diverse to encourage all children to see people ‘like themselves’ and people ‘different to themselves’ in what they read. This is important. In addition to this, children need to identify themselves in the literature, e.g. having a birthday or having adventures. ‘Children also need to learn about the lives of those whose experiences and perspectives differ from their own. Choosing stories and non-fiction that explore such differences begins to break down a sense of otherness that often leads to division and prejudice’ (DfE, 2021).
Interestingly, recent research has shown that for primary-aged pupils, ‘Overrepresentation of male names in children’s books was largely attributable to male authors’ (Hsiao, Banerji & Nation, 2021). Indeed, although (as a teacher) I try to use a diverse range of authors from different backgrounds and genders, there still seems to be a gap in children’s literature. Now, 20 years after I started teaching, this situation still needs improving, to ensure diverse literature for all pupils.
What does the Lit in Colour research tell us?
- The findings were focussed on the English curriculum and not the history curriculum.
- 34.4% of school students in England are not White British.
- There are a greater diversity of Black, Asian and minority ethnic authors being used to teach in primary schools than in secondary schools. The most popular included: Malorie Blackman, Benjamin Zephaniah, Onjali Rauf (The Boy in the Back of The Class) and Sharna Jackson’s High-Rise Mystery books.
- By the time primary pupils reach secondary school, fewer than 1% answer a question on a novel by an author of colour in their GCSE English Literature exams.
- Just 7% of candidates for GCSE English Literature answer on a full-length novel or play by a woman.
- Time, money, subject knowledge and teacher confidence were the greatest barriers to teaching more diverse texts.
Source: Lit in Colour research report
What can we do to diversify reading?
A salient point to note is that classic texts are still a relevant part of the curriculum and should continue. This is not about removing anything, but about ensuring that the literature that children read reflects a wider diversity of authors and content.
Here are some things you can start doing in your school straight away:
1. You might find it useful to conduct an audit of your current provision, keeping the classic texts but finding ways to diversify the books children are reading. This includes core texts from reading schemes, texts in the library and book corners.
2. Think about the messages conveyed by the texts you already use. We need to be aware that some books may contain stereotypical views of Africa, for example, or stereotypical views of women. Therefore, focus on ways of creating a greater understanding and reading books that challenge preconceived assumptions about particular people.
3. Poetry is an excellent way to bring in Black, Asian or minority ethnic authors, but one poem does not make a diverse curriculum.
4. Create groups for teachers to discuss books that focus on new diverse novels to help develop subject knowledge.
Some questions to think about:
- Are the narratives selected wide and varied? Think about whether they only represent trauma, Black exceptionalism, American literature or are historical, and how they might be perceived.
- Are female authors represented in the literature that pupils are reading?
- Does the portrayal of certain genders in texts represent known stereotypes?
- Are the diverse texts selected representative of non-fiction, fiction and poetry and not limited to one type of writing, e.g. poetry?
- If you work in a non-diverse school, do you have a diverse range of texts within the English curriculum? This is important because it prepares children for the society that they may live in.
Support to diversify reading from Oxford
Oxford University Press will be providing free support for teachers and parents to increase your confidence in teaching and discussing a more representative range of books from writers of colour and from minority ethnic backgrounds. This will include a school planning toolkit, as well as reading lists and an expert-led series of podcasts and blogs.
You can sign up to receive a free getting started guide to help you take the first steps towards diversity in reading in your school in time for the new school year. Sign up now >
Lit in Colour have also developed lots of practical free resources to support you:
- Lit in Colour editable presentation for staff meetings
- Lit in Colour auditing tool
- Lit in Colour teaching resources
Department for Education (2021) The Reading Framework: Teaching the Foundations of Literacy. DfE publication. Accessed online here.
Elliott, V., Nelson-Addy, L., Chantiluke, R., Courtney, M., (2021) Lit in Colour: Diversity in Literature in English Schools. The Runnymede Trust and Penguin Books.
Hsiao, Y., Banerji, N. and Nation, K., (2021). Boys write about boys: Androcentrism in children’s reading experience and its emergence in children’s own writing. Child Development.
About the author
Shareen Wilkinson is an English adviser and a primary senior leader, leading on teaching and learning for a multi-academy trust. In addition, Shareen was previously an LA lead primary adviser and has over 20 years’ experience in education. She is an established educational author, series editor and writer with 10 years’ experience in publishing, having written for leading educational publishers. She is also the joint series editor and author for the Oxford University Press Word Sparks reading programme.