How Can I Be More Culturally Authentic?

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Kathy G. Short is the director of the Worlds of Words, a website that works on bridging cultures in our global society through literature.


The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) “…is a non-profit organization which represents an international network of people from all over the world who are committed to bringing books and children together” (IBBY, n.d., para. 1). Kathy G. Short, a Language, Reading and Culture professor at the University of Arizona, wrote a well-versed article regarding what makes an authentic piece of literature.


What Does It Mean to be Culturally Authentic?

Over the years, I have continually pondered this question as I have pushed to have more culturally diverse and authentic texts in my classroom and throughout my curriculum. Just as educators need to blur the barriers between disciplines for our learners to see an interdisciplinary understanding of skill applications, we must also allow for learners to be exposed to their own cultures and to other cultures. It is in this way that we can help cultivate and nurture an empathetic culture within schools. Sure, I can pull latest nonfiction articles for my learners so they can be reading something relevant to the time in which they live or aimed at their age group. However, when I do expose my learners to relevant texts, are they culturally relevant and culturally authentic? Or are these texts only catering to a specific population? 

Rudine Sims Bishop (2003) states that cultural authenticity cannot be defined but ‘you know it when you see it’ as an insider reading a book about your own culture…. The reader’s sense of truth in how a specific cultural experience has been represented within a book, particularly when the reader is an insider to the culture portrayed in that book, is probably the most common understanding of cultural authenticity
— Short, K., 2006
Elizabeth Howard (1991) states that ‘readers from the culture will know that it is true, will identify, and be affirmed, and readers from another culture will feel that it is true, will identify, and learn something of value about both similarities and differences among us’
— Short, K., 2006

Accuracy Versus Authenticity

Cultural authenticity has often been defined as the accuracy of the details of everyday life as represented in a children’s book…. While there will be no one image of life within a specific cultural context, there are themes, textual features, and underlying ideologies that be used to determine authenticity. Authenticity is thus not just accuracy or the avoidance of stereotyping, but involves the cultural values and practices that are accepted as norms within that social group
— Short, K., 2006

Cultural authenticity takes more than just memorizing a list of facts about that culture. Rather, it takes experience. A step toward a genuine immersion within those cultures. A true, first-hand account of what people within those cultures experience in all facets of their lives. Allowing for those who are in a marginalized group to be heard beyond surface-level knowledge. This all comes from the opportunities schools can create for learners, if we are taking into consideration culturally authentic texts.

When looking at what experiences authors need to have in order to consider writing a culturally authentic text, Mingshui Cai (1995) remarks that “…imagination is needed for a book to have literary excellence but that too much imagination without experience leads to inaccuracies and bias…” (Short, K., 2006). Aside from careful, in-depth research, the crossed cultural gaps can continue to bridge once the author immerses themselves significantly within that culture. The process in which an author gains understandings of that culture that aids in their authenticity of the text should be noted within their writing. It is important for others to see that those outside of a culture can indeed learn about and within a new culture.

How Can We Begin to Understand and Empathize with Other Cultures?

Considering and Seeing a Reflection

Last year I began studying Louise Rosenblatt’s reader-response theory (1938), which asks that "the reading of any work of literature is, of necessity, an individual and unique occurrence involving the mind and emotions of some particular reader and a particular text at a particular time under particular circumstances” (1985, p. 40). She began creating the framework for the idea that literature does not hold the entirety of its meaning within its pages. Rather, the reader of the literature was needed in order to create an understanding of what was written.

The ability of students thinking critically and forming deeper understandings independently is becoming more and more valued in today’s global and diversifying society. As we continue to compete globally, we must continue to find ways to foster students’ ability to look more deeply at text to create meaning.

One step toward nurturing an empathetic classroom and cultural understandings with our learners might be allowing them to see some part of themselves within different texts. Asking learners to identify connections with characters, plots, and conflicts in comparison to themselves, rather than identifying those elements for the sake of the meeting a Common Core State Standard (2010) (CCSS) is more powerful to our society. We are requesting that our learners see some piece of themselves in other cultures unalike their own. We also are exposing our learners to cultures they may know little to nothing about, yet find personal connections with. This practice of peering into other cultures while seeing a reflection of themselves, even in the slightest, is a step of growth toward knowledge, to understanding, to empathy, to altruism.

How do we know it is authentic if we are not, nor are our learners, from that culture?

Using the reader-response approach (Rosenblatt, 1938) in classrooms can bring meaning and understanding to texts for learners that may not have been seen before. This transaction between the reader and the text should bring enjoyment and fulfillment as the reader sees themselves within the text. However, experiences are not all the same from person to person, nor should all experiences within a text be expected to have happened to the reader. Rather, the reader-response approach (Rosenblatt, 1938) should be a practice that helps the readers dig deeper and find conclusions from their own understandings. “Following his investigation of struggling middle school readers, Wilhelm (1997) concluded that the students did not respond to literature because they often lacked experience in the areas that they were asked to reflect upon. Wilhelm found that little emphasis was placed upon what the readers did to go beyond simple story comprehension in order to elaborate on the text” (Samuels, 2011, p. 36). From this, it can be concluded that the emphasis of the reader-response approach (Rosenblatt, 1938) should be focused on the action and not merely the content.

Seeing themselves within another culture is a step in the right direction. However, it cannot stop there. A sliver of exposure can only do so much for a developing person. Educators must provide their learners with opportunities to explore those diverse cultures in more meaningful ways. One example of this type of opportunity comes in the form of interdisciplinary activities and units. A Social Studies teacher may be studying a region of the world, but cannot find the time to dive into the culture of that region. (As we know in education, time is something that is rare and valuable.) A Language Arts teacher could compile text sets of that region. This would be providing their learners with multiple types of texts that build on the knowledge of that region, as well as allowing time to submerge themselves in the culture and stories that come from that region of the world.

In these ways, educators are able to expose learners to diverse cultures, cross-discipline skills, and opportunities to explore and reflect on cultures in a more relevant and authentic sense. “Opportunities to represent thoughts and feelings that arise during reading are important for two reasons: one, to capture the variety and diversity of students’ responses and two, to facilitate metacognitive development of the response processes” (Asselin, 2000, p. 2). Having readers think about their response processes and understanding why they came to a specific conclusion helps to allow learners to confront the root of their thoughts, interpretations, and feelings. Not only are other cultures being discovered, but so are their own.

Short, K.G. (2006). Ethics and cultural authenticity in international children’s literature. The International Board on Books for Young People. Retrieved from

The University of Arizona. (n.d.) Kathy G. Short. Retrieved from

Asselin, M. (2000).  Reader response in literature and reading instruction. Teacher Librarian, 27 (4), 1-2.

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