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What Does Research Say About African American and Latino Boys and Reading?

by Alfred W. Tatum
January 29, 2014

Alfred W. Tatum
by Alfred W. Tatum
University of Illinois at Chicago
January 29, 2014


How could research guide us to advance the literacy development of African American and Latino boys in K8 classrooms?


African American and Latino Boys and ReadingFor more than 20 years, I have focused on advancing the literacy development of low-academically performing and high-academically performing boys and youth in the elementary, intermediate, and middle grades. Critical to this work was ongoing reflection and bringing together research findings across multiple domains (e.g., cognitive, sociological, and historical) that would allow me to sharpen my teaching, identify and select texts, and shape classrooms contexts to nurture boys’ confidence that reading and writing are tools of human development. As a result of my analysis of several frames of research, I have settled on the premise that each literacy lesson for boys should have twin aims. The first is teaching a lesson to ensure they are becoming better readers and writers. The second, and equally important, is selecting and discussing texts in ways to ensure young boys become “smarter” about something during each lesson. In short, literacy lessons should concurrently focus on building students’ reading and writing skills and nurturing their intellectual development. One without the other is insufficient. This understanding emerged from a research journey that has led to at minimum four lessons that I share below:

Lesson #1: Relying on current reading and writing research alone will yield insufficient guidance for advancing the literacy development of boys, particularly African American and Latino males,  because much of the research ignores approaches to literacy and intellectual development that have been effective for more than 300 years in the United States (Tatum, 2008, Tatum & Muhammad, 2012). Expanding the research lens is important for honoring the historical precedence that will challenge some current assumptions that it is difficult to engage boys with reading and writing. Outside of my first year of teaching, I have never had difficulty engaging boys with reading and writing texts and subsequently helping them become better readers, writers, and thinkers as result of this expanded lens.

Lesson #2: Honor the multiple identities boys bring into the classroom and avoid “imprisoning reading lessons by smallness” by only focusing on the boys’ racial and linguistic identities. Young boys also have developmental, gender, personal, community, national/international, and economic identities. Selecting and discussing texts through multiple identities are important for shaping meaningful literacy exchanges that will impact boys beyond a given lesson (Tatum, 2009, Tatum, in press a). I have observed too many teachers fall short because reliance on the text default that exists for African American and Latino boys. The text default is defined as selecting certain texts for certain students based on a limited view of their humanity and limited recognition of their need to read and learn from a wide range of texts across disciplines. Soft texts that often focus on emotional and aspiration needs (e.g., beating the odds) are selected over hard texts that can potentially connect boys to disciplines (e.g. discovering the need to read more science). There needs to be greater balance early on and often (Tatum, in press b).

Lesson #3: Move beyond a slow-growth model of literacy development that is anchored by the goal to have students meet minimum standards as the metric for success. While this has been a focus in the U.S. for more than three decades, the minimalist approach is counterproductive for high-performing boys who are often ignored by this approach and for low-performing boys who experience fewer and easier texts that usually focus on minimum standards (Tatum, 2013). Moving boys to reading at advanced levels requires a different orientation. How we conceptualize literacy for boys will affect their literacy experiences in classrooms (Tatum, 2005). This point holds true without regard to students’ ethnicities or their parents’ economic status.

Lesson #4: Becoming paralyzed by a common refrain that suggests a natural divide between African American and Latino boys and reading is problematic. Instead, there is a need to focus on cementing a marriage between boys and reading and writing to tackle the challenges we often encounter as educators when teaching boys who struggle with both.

I share lessons from a research journey to indicate that our questions will continue to change, our demands to do good by the young boys in the U.S. and other nations will continue to grow, and the need to share ongoing lessons emerging from ethically responsible research will be our pathway to ensure boys receive the literacy instruction they deserve.

For more on this topic see



Dillenbourg, P. (Ed.,Tatum, A.W. (2005). Teaching reading to black adolescent males: Closing the achievement gap. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Tatum, A. W. (2008). Toward a more anatomically complete model of literacy instruction: A focus on African American male adolescents and texts. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 155-80.

Tatum, A. W. (2009). Reading for Their Life: (Re) building the textual lineages of African American adolescent males. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Tatum, A.W. & Muhammad, G. (2012). African American males and literacy development in contexts that are characteristically urban. Urban Education, 47(2), 434-463.

Tatum, A.W. (2013). Identity and literacy instruction for African American males. In R. Wolfe, A. Steinberg, & N. Hoffman (Eds.), Anytime Anywhere: Student-centered learning for schools and teachers, (pp. 103-121). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Tatum, A. W. (in press a). Orienting African American male adolescents toward meaningful literacy exchanges with texts. Journal of Education.

Tatum, A.W. (in press b). Texts and adolescents: Embracing connections and connectedness. In. K. Hinchman & H. K. Sheridan-Thomas (Eds.), Best Practice in Adolescent Literacy Instruction, (2nd ed.).New York: Guilford.

This article is from the International Reading Association’s Literacy Research Panel. Read more about the LRP Blog here. Reader response is welcomed. E-mail your comments to



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