Making Reading Relevant

Categories: Uncategorized

I’m honored to share this blog today.  Lacy Asbill is the co-founder of Moving Forward Institute, which focuses on students’ emotional well-being as a critical strategy for improving their academic achievement. At the heart of MFI’s work is their deep belief that how students feel about themselves and their lives directly impacts their ability to engage with school and succeed academically. They draw together the strengths of culturally relevant literacy instruction and social and emotional learning (SEL) to inspire young people to engage with reading, accelerate their academic achievement, and develop life-changing social and emotional skills. To learn more about the Institute and its Reading with Relevance curriculum, visit

I have a new role model-eleven-year-old Marley Dias. Sick of reading about “white boys and their dogs” in school, she decided to do something about it! “I told [my mom] I was going to start a book drive, where black girls are the main characters in the book and not background characters or minor characters.” Marley won my heart with #1000blackgirlbooks, her social action campaign to lift up, collect, and donate books featuring protagonists who look like her. Marley’s words affirm what scholar Rudine Sims Bishop asserted more than 25 years ago, that reading “becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek mirrors in books.”

As teachers, we know that our students need relevant literature to better understand their identities and experiences, and recognize that reading can be an invaluable resource in building our students’ social and emotional skills. But what does relevant reading look like in practice? After years in the field educating young people in Oakland, here are our tips:

Start with culturally relevant literature.

Pick books that feature main characters that provide your students with the mirrors they crave (and deserve!). Select stories that counteract stereotypes and support students to build a positive sense of self.

Look for compelling and inspiring characters.

Select books that feature a strong main character, with a compelling voice and an engaging character development arc. You want characters that face authentic challenges, but also keep an eye out for an uplifting plot that will inspire!

Highlight social and emotional themes.

Intentionally focus on the the rich SEL themes present in the books you read (like friendship, social inequality, making mistakes, grief, determination, etc.). This focus will transform great stories into concrete skill-building opportunities that help your students feel good about themselves, connect with their peers, and solve problems.

Make connections to students’ lives.

Teach students how to connect what they’ve read to their own experiences and identities. In academic discussion and reflective writing, prompt students to think about the story in relationship to their own. How can their reading help them better understand their own lives?

Want to take it to the next level? We’re happy to share the literacy curriculum we’ve spent the last dozen years developing, testing, and refining in our own academic intervention programs in Oakland. Reading with Relevance improves students’ literacy skills and builds their self-confidence. Students are motivated to read because they relate to the strong, diverse, and resilient characters featured in our selected novels, and because each session gives them the opportunity to connect what they’ve read to their own lives. We’re on a mission to positively impact one million people with relevant literature-Join the Reading with Relevance movement!