Reading Against the Text in a Supportive Classroom Community By Dr. William Kerns



As many of you know- I am a bit under the weather- a root canal is coming. UGH! But I am getting by with a little help from my friends (and co-blogger!). It is timely and well worth the read!!! Dr. Sam 

Reading Against the Text in a Supportive Classroom Community


William Kerns


In this blog I wish to stress the importance of teachers and students alike engaging in reflective thinking while learning to read the word and read the world, as advocated by Freire (1973; see also Freire & Macedo, 1987). This means building strong literacy skills but in the context of reading and communication that is socially and culturally meaningful. As part of this type of instruction, teaches should build positive communication with families and community members. The approach advocated in this blog is one in which dialogue with families enriches the curriculum, including the development of learning objectives and content, with both teachers and parents viewing each other as experts and resources in a relationship of mutual respect (Swap, 1993).

Readers engage in a transaction with text that is situational, shaped by activity, context, and sociocultural-historical factors (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Smagorinsky, 2001). Scholes (1985) differentiated between interpretations of text that involve reading within a text and interpretations that involve engaged reading against a text. Reading against a text enables an examination of the way that language use can serve to perpetuate patterns of discrimination and inequitable power distribution in schools. Teachers who promote reading against a text can share with students, families, and community members a common determination for meeting the challenges of using reflection and inquiry to continually learn and continually seek to improve the society in which we live.

The promotion of reading against a text includes the establishment of a supportive environment for reflection in which students learn to take control and responsibility for their own learning. Steps that I recommend taking to promote reflective thinking and reflective teaching include the following: establishing a supportive environment within the classroom for reflective thinking and for inquiry; guiding students to learn about the role of reflection in learning and development of concepts such as identity and moral decision making; guiding students through the conduct of systematic reflection and inquiry; and encouraging students in their development of dispositions involved in the conduct of reflection and inquiry.

Promotion of presence is an important part of the process of cultivating within students the ability to read against a text. Rodgers and Raider-Roth (2006) define presence as “a state of alert awareness, receptivity, and connectedness to the mental, emotional, and physical iterations of the individual and the group with the world and each other, and the ability to respond with a considered and compassionate best next step” (p. 266). A teacher with presence can observe students as they engage in activities, gathering information used as data, and make instructional choices based on an analysis of this data. Further, a teacher with presence builds a caring, trustworthy relationship through a wholehearted (Dewey, 1986) commitment to learning with and responding to students.

Teachers and students alike can cultivate presence within the supportive context of a caring classroom community. The concept of presence emphasizes reflectiveness and inquiry as well as compassion in responses during the context of activities that include teaching or dialogue. Teachers who develop presence are alert to the needs of students and have a heightened sense of self-awareness. Students with presents are alert to the needs of peers and have a heightened self-awareness. Presence is not limited to classroom contexts. Presence can be cultivated as a part of daily life and daily interactions. A teacher wishing to encourage presence among students needs to model presence. Dialogue that is open to an exchange of ideas based on mutual respect is an important aspect of presence.

Dispositions involved in inquiry should be promoted. To foster the development of reflective thinking as a habit among students, teachers should be open to new ideas and understandings. Over time, a teacher may experience a paradigm shift related to views on social justice, race, gender and gender roles, poverty, or other matters.  A teacher or a student who engages in reflective thinking as a habit develops the dispositions of open-mindedness, whole-heartedness, responsibility (Dewey, 1986) and directness (Dewey, 1980). Open-mindedness, as understood by Dewey, is a willingness to rethink ideas based on inquiry. Reading against a text requires a student (or a teacher!) to exhibit wholeheartedness, or an in-depth commitment of personal and emotional resources when inquiring into key social and cultural themes within a text. However, commitment is not enough without responsibility. A sense of responsibility entails taking seriously the moral choices faced by habitually evaluating how actions may bring about desired or undesired consequences. Dewey urged an attitude of directness, or faith that actions grounded in the conduct of inquiry and the process of reflective thinking are worth taking for the benefit of a just society.

It’s important to read against a text when encountering stereotypes that may previously be unexamined. Often, for example, a student may genuinely consider himself to be “not racist” while failing to challenge stereotypes within a text. For example, stereotypes about poverty intersect with stereotypes about race in a nasty web that can have a deeply detrimental impact on students when the deficit model influences instruction.

Race and poverty are addressed in this blog from a multiculturalist perspective in that I emphasize the value of cultivating cross-group and cross-race mutual understandings and shared interests (Hartmann & Gerties, 2005). Socially constructed racial identities can be sources of misunderstanding and tension, yet there are social interventions that can reduce the effects of prejudice (Allport, 1954). Race is viewed for the purpose of this blog as a socio-cultural construct rather than biological. There are widely varying ways of defining race in the literature (Markus, 2008).

Poverty is commonly defined based on income thresholds (Brady, 2003). These definitions are problematic given that thresholds fail to adequately account for different needs of families whose incomes are both below the thresholds or above the thresholds. The lived experience of people who are classified as living in various types of poverty, such as urban poverty, rural poverty, situational poverty, or generational poverty, can widely vary. Further complicating discussions on poverty, different people can view the same reality and yet their social constructions of this reality and representations of this reality might be very different (Leeuwen, 2016).

We must watch out for the insidious impact of deficit perspectives. Valencia (2014) defines a deficit perspective as a stance that: “the student who fails in school does so because of his/her internal deficits or deficiencies. Such deficits manifest, adherents allege, in limited intellectual abilities, linguistic shortcomings, lack of motivation to learn, and immoral behavior” (p. 6-7). A deficit perspective within a text which accentuates weakness of people who are characterized as “living in poverty: poisons teaching-and-learning interactions as well as teacher-parent interactions (Gorski, 2011). For example, classroom teachers tend to underestimate the cognitive ability of children who are growing up in poverty (Ready & Wright, 2011). Additionally, many teachers in high poverty urban schools view the families and home communities of their students as obstacles to their students’ success and so they distance themselves from families and community members (Hyland & Meacham, 2004).

A deficit perspective contributes to a pattern of seeking to “change the victim” and “blame the victim” (Ryan, 1971). Such a deficit perspective historically is a predominant one in US discourse on poverty (De Goede, 1996) which frequently is reflected in texts read by students. According to Katz, who investigated the deficit perspective related to discourse on welfare reform, “debate has focused on ameliorating the condition of disadvantaged people with income supports and social services and on eradicating the cultural traits that retard their economic progress” (1989, p. 208). When storylines about the poor highlight claimed moral or behavioral deficiencies the focus turns toward ways of reforming the poor rather than a focus on reforming the socio-economic and political structures (Katz, 1995).

When many teachers enter the profession, they are trained for working with families and students who live in poverty through Ruby Payne’s framework that makes use of stereotypes (Bohn, 2007; Gorski, 2007), a deficit model (Bomer et. al., 2008; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski 2006, 2008; Kunjufu, 2007; McKnight, 2006; Ng & Rury, 2006; Osei-Kofei, 2005) and which contains inaccurate scholarship (Bomer et. al., 2008; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Montano, 2006).


Stereotypes include the image of parents who do not plan for the child’s education. I am struck by the following claim made by Payne (2008): Individuals in poverty usually have a strong belief in fate and destiny. Therefore, to expect changed behavior after a parent-teacher conference is, in most cases, a false hope” (pg. 23). If a teacher believes, as Payne claims, that an expectation of changed behavior after a parent-teacher conference represents a false hope then it may inhibit that teacher from communication with the family in a manner that expresses genuine hope for positive outcomes.

Instead of the deficit perspective, tap into the background knowledge – the schema – of students while building meaningful bridges between the families and what children experience at school (Gay, 2002; Howard, 2003). An important factor in overcoming deficit model approaches and instead, drawing on the strengths of a family and the community to be culturally responsive.

Cultural differences and language differences can cause teachers to form low perceptions of parental interest in school involvement (Halgunseth, 2009). Efforts to increase communication and family involvement should be shaped to the needs of the community (Auerbach, 2009). Teachers improve communication with students and parents by frequently reaching out in positive dialogue that builds comfort in the conversation. Parent involvement increases when teachers talk with families in order to provide instruction within the context of the family’s culture and knowledge base (St. Claire & Jackson, 2007).

Reading against a text is a valuable aspect of literacy which is socially and culturally meaningful to students. The fostering of ongoing reading against a text takes time. It is unrealistic to expect paradigm shifts for students in one class session. However, I do believe that the heightened awareness that is associated with reading against a text is a vital aspect of the educational journey.

Schools are cultural hubs where students can learn to see beyond socioeconomic and racial differences and to spot the flaws in deficit-oriented thinking. This can be done through careful means. But it starts with teachers understanding their roles as cultural role models (Banks, 2015). Teachers can overcome cultural obstacles by using dynamic, emergent, and interactional teaching to engage students and help bridge the gap between students. This will, in turn, allow students to become more engaged in the mentor/mentee partnership and instill positive relationship knowledge in the student.



Dr. William Kerns.
> Assistant Professor of Education
> College of Education and Health Professions
> University of Arkansas-Little Rock

Aug 2019


Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito/Dr. William Kerns. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of the author of this piece and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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