Affirming Beliefs Matter to Black Students’ Reading Development

I want Black students to do more than learn to read. I want them to be empowered by reading!

You don’t need an alphabet of degrees to know that students’ reading abilities are essential to their success in school, the choices they will be able to make in life, and most importantly, in my view, the full expression of their humanity. Certainly, the pandemic took its toll on students with school shutdowns, remote learning, isolation, and fractured relationships. But if we are being truthful, the failure of our educational system to empower Black students as autonomous critical readers has little to do with COVID-19 and more to do with an educational system that devalues and limits the learning of Black students to basic literacy. 

Black people have always valued the written and spoken word, using it to name, navigate, contest, and fight against oppression and injustice in our lives and, at times, at great peril (Douglas, 2020; Muhammad, 2020; Perry et al., 2004). For Black people, literacy encompasses more than reading fundamentals. When I think of Black people and literacy, I am reminded of words from Theresa Perry’s essay “Freedom for Literacy,” “To be literate also included what you could do with your knowledge–with words–whether you could use words to motivate people to action, persuade people of the truth of your assertion, or inspire others to become literate” (Perry et al., 2004). Literacy is a tool for the individual and collective advancement of Black people. 

The real “reading crisis” is that the systems, policies, practices, and beliefs driving education do not value how Black people value reading or what it means to Black people to be literate. Reading instruction has historically framed and treated the literacy experiences, practices, skills, dispositions, and strengths Black children arrive to school with as deficits that need remediation, problems to be fixed. Black students’ cultural frames of reference are generally not considered vital resources when it comes to their reading development. The literacy resources, experiences, and behaviors Black students bring to their learning are valued only when they align with traditional, western practices and standardized measures. White-centered curricula and instructional practices dominate reading instruction creating disconnects between the lived realities of Black students and their learning which is a devastating barrier to learning (Wingfield, 2023). 

The rejection, erasure, and negation embedded in these learning experiences make learning cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually unsafe for Black students. As a result, Black students are continuously required to make choices about the pieces of themselves that they carry with them in our classrooms, schools, and districts. Where connection and relationship should be nurtured, alienation and separation are instead normalized, making Black students particularly vulnerable when learning to read. We must challenge ourselves to disrupt this. For reading instruction to advance true literacy development for Black students it must be grounded in the literacy traditions and practices of Black people and build on the interests and dreams of Black students today. 

A significant body of research demonstrates how culture influences neurocognitive processes. As Zarretta Hammond (2015) suggests, “Culture is the software that programs our brains.Given the complex brain functions that are required when learning to read we should not expect the significance of culture to to be any less important when it comes to learning to read. Drawing from the science of reading without connecting reading instruction to the science of how the brain learns will not significantly propel Black students’ reading development. The expanding knowledge about how cultural experiences impact our brains (particularly how we process information) tells us that our uses of brain-based principles should center and integrate culturally responsive-sustaining approaches (Hammond, 2019; Jackson, 2010; Park and Huang, 2012; Han and Ma 2021). But do we all have the beliefs needed to do this?

For Black students, reading development must be guided by the purpose to “create in (them) the ability to look at the world for (them)self, to make (their) own decisions,” and “act to liberate themselves, and the world, from injustice”’ (Baldwin, 1963; Freire, 2010, Wells, 2023). Cultivating these literacy environments, what I call emancipatory educational ecosystems, requires that educators replace the deficit beliefs about the literacy repertoires of Black students and culturally-centered approaches that underlie many evidenced-based reading policies, strategies, and practices with affirming beliefs that nurture literacy environments that are connected to Black students’ identities, cultures, histories, and communities.

As teachers, schools, and districts develop plans and galvanize parental and community support to promote reading, their plans must strive to create learning environments, emancipatory educational ecosystems if you will, where Black students are affirmed and immersed in reading instruction where their identities and cultures matter. Learning to read must be powered by affirming beliefs that lead to meaningful culturally responsive-sustaining practices. And because beliefs are core to what we do as human beings and educators, we must start with a belief system that directs us towards policies, strategies, practices, and content that leave no doubt they are intended for Black students to be empowered readers. Here are four affirming beliefs that support Black students.

  • Black lives matter: Black lives matter is the unambiguous belief in the humanity, dignity, intelligence, beauty, and worth of Black to our society and the entire planet, that Black people, Black history, Black culture(s), Black experiences, and Black sensibilities are vital to the past, present, and future and Black people have the right to be everywhere and be vibrantly, joyfully, creatively, largely, and abundantly alive wherever we are.
    •  Use Black students’ lived experiences boldly and creatively to spark curiosity and interest, strengthen their identities, and sustain their culture(s) through the use of culturally responsive-sustaining content and instructional practices. 
  • Belonging: In Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and Standing Alone, Brené Brown (2019) defines “true belonging” as “the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.
    •  Welcome, love, support, and engage Black students with the intention of fortifying their understanding that “(their) existence—who and how (they) are—is in and of itself a contribution to the people and place around (them)” (Brown, 2019).
  • Interdependence: Interdependence is the belief that people share social and emotional bonds with each other that support their individual and collective well-being and, at the same time, allow everyone to hold a solid sense of themselves within those bonds. 
    • Understand learning to read as a collective act that develops through interaction with words and the world, by building on Black literacy practices, and in relationship with others.
  • Empowerment: “Empowerment is a multi-dimensional social process that helps people gain control over their own lives. It is a process that fosters power (that is, the capacity to implement) in people, for use in their own lives, their communities, and their society, by acting on issues they define as important” (Page and Czuba, 1999).
    • Immerse Black students in texts that are mirrors of the historical greatness of Black people and windows that invite them to develop their own understandings of lives, their communities, and the world.



Aukerman, M., & Chambers Schuldt, L. (2021). What matters most? toward a robust and socially just science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1). 

Baldwin, J. (1963). A talk to teachers. In J. Baldwin (Ed.), The price of the ticket: Collected nonfiction 1948–1965 (pp. 325– 332). St. Martin’s Press.

Brown, B. (2019). Braving the wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. Random House.

Douglas, F. (2020). My bondage and my freedom. Mint Editions.

Freire, P. (2010). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Green Bee.

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Corwin.

Jackson, Y. (2010). Pedagogy of confidence: Inspiring high intellectual performance in urban schools. Teachers College Press.

Han, S., & Ma, Y. (2015). A culture–behavior–brain loop model of human development. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19(11), 666–676.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. Scholastic.

Perry, T., Steele, C., & Hilliard, A. G. (2003). Young, gifted, and Black: Promoting high achievement among African-American students.

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Page, N., & Czuba, C. (1999). Empowerment: What is it? Journal of Extension, 37(5).


Park, D. C., & Huang, C.-M. (2010). Culture wires the brain. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(4), 391–400. 

Wells, L. (2023). There Are No Deficits Here: Disrupting anti-Blackness in education. Corwin.

Wingfield, J. (2023). Literacy as a Revolutionary Act in Early Learning Classrooms. In K. Porsher, R. Ramkellaean-Artega, C. Hinds-Roger, & J. Bell (Eds.), From Being Woke to Doing# theWork (pp. 225–233). Brill.