Who Are Successful Readers?

Author: Jill Torrey Emmons

Time: 2-3 periods
20 minutes to make copies of reading.
Materials: Copies of 3 short texts that discuss the reading experiences of people from various multicultural / socioeconomic backgrounds. See suggestions below. Also, poster board or butcher paper for groups.


The goal of this lesson is to introduce students to a variety of prominent individuals in history and society who have become successful through their reading and writing abilities. The individuals students will read about may not simply be authors, but also leaders who play important roles in their respective societies. It is important that students read about the reading experiences of such individuals to show them how reading skills can empower all people. Students will also read a variety of multicultural texts, about people from different backgrounds and socioeconomic groups; so that they will understand that such factors do not necessarily limit one’s ability to become a strong reader.

This lesson is meant as an engagement piece to have students become aware of the power of reading, and a chance for them to explore the lives of prominent people whose lives were changed once they became strong readers.

Students will be able to:

1. Read about the literacy experiences of people from various multicultural backgrounds.
2. Explore and identify the ways in which reading empowered the people studied.

National English Education Standard
Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and also for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.

Teacher Background
The teacher should be familiar with a variety of multicultural texts which discuss the ways in which reading empowers people. I highly recommend using Building Academic Literacy: An Anthology for Reading Apprenticeship, edited by Audrey Fielding and Ruth Schoenbach, as it provides many such texts. For this lesson, I suggest having the students read the following selections from this anthology:

  • “Coming into Language” an excerpt from Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing by Jimmy Santiago Baca
  • “Learning to Read” from The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X & Alex Haley
  • “India’s Literacy Miracle” from Building Academic Literacy: An Anthology for Reading Apprenticeship, edited by Audrey Fielding and Ruth Schoenbach

Resource Websites
Background on J.S. Baca: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/547
Background on Malcolm X: http://www.cmgww.com/historic/malcolm/home.php
Background on literacy in India: http://www.ilpnet.org/




Day One

1. Before students enter the classroom, write the questions of the day on the board: “Can a person who is poor be a strong reader? Why or why not?” Allow the students a few minutes to answer these questions in writing. After everyone has had a chance to write a response, begin a short discussion of these questions. Ask the class to share some of their thoughts, and carefully guide the discussion when sensitive issues arise. The purpose of this starting activity is to get students thinking about any preconceived ideas they may have about what makes a successful reader.

2. Tell the class that they are going to read a selection about a man who learned to read while in prison. Ask the class what they might assume about a person who has been in prison. For example, “Would you expect this person to be a certain nationality? Would you expect him to be a good citizen? Would you expect him to be a good reader?” These questions will again get students thinking about any biases they might have.

3. Once the class has finished reading “Coming into Language” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, allow the students to work with a partner and create a “before and after” chart. The students may decide how to orient the information, but explain to them that they must somehow explain how Baca was before he learned to read and write, and how his life changed after he acquired these skills. If students finish early, you may decide to briefly discuss the text.

Day Two

1. To refresh the students’ minds about the previous day’s reading write this question of the day on the board: “How did reading empower Jimmy Santiago Baca?” Give the class approximately 5 minutes to respond to this prompt, and then ask a few students to comment on what they have written. Ask the class what it means to them to “empower” someone. Allow a student to look up this word in the dictionary if they wish. Students may also be asked to share the charts they created the previous day, outlining how reading empowered Mr. Baca.

2. Explain to the class that today they will be reading a selection about a man that many of them will already be familiar with. You may want to give a brief background about Malcolm X and his contributions to society (see website). Allow the students time to read part or all of the selection “Learning to Read” by Malcolm X. You may decide to put them into groups to discuss the ways in which the author’s life was changed once he began to read and write, or students may work independently. Encourage the students to jot down notes while they read about how Malcolm X is being changed by his reading. If time allows, bring the class together at the end of the period for discussion of the text after they have finished. If necessary, the class may finish the reading and their notes for homework, but this will be in addition to their scheduled homework assignment.

3. Assign the reading “India’s Literacy Miracle” for homework, to be discussed the following day. Ask students to be thinking about the question: “How is India changed after a literacy program is put in place?”

Day Three

1. Before the students enter the classroom, prepare their question of the day on the board, which reviews their homework assignment: “What changes happened in India after the introduction of a literacy program?” Encourage them to be specific and to look back at the text to help them write their answers. Give the class about 5-10 minutes to write a thorough response. Afterwards, you may choose to have students share their answers, or proceed directly to a discussion format.

2. Students will discuss the article “India’s Literacy Miracle” and the ways in which the people of that culture were empowered by reading. This discussion should take about 15-20 minutes. Allow the students to guide the flow of discussion as much as possible, but feel free to jump in with prompting questions, such as:

a) What do we know about India as a country? A culture?
b) What was India like before the literacy program was introduced? How do we know this? What clues in the text lead us to this conclusion?
c) Why does this article refer to India’s literacy program as a “miracle”?
d) Why do you think the literacy rate for women was even lower than that for men?
e) In what ways is literacy useful to the people of India?

3. Have students divide into groups of 3-4 people. Their job will now be to compare and contrast the ways in which reading empowered each of the individuals or groups we have read about. Have them design a poster which explains what they have seen in the case of each selection read. Students may decide how to arrange the information and observations they have made

Pose this final question to the class: “Do you think the individuals and groups we have studied would have been successful in life if they had not had the reading and writing skills they possessed?” Allow for a short whole class discussion, or you may wish to have the students write a response to this question for homework.

See daily activities.

Embedded Assessment

At the beginning of each period, student responses to the questions of the day should be carefully evaluated. The posters and notes which they create can also be used for assessment. Check to see that all students are participating and engaging in the reading and discussions. The goal is for the students to discover how literacy empowers people, and for them to come to the conclusion that this empowerment is available to all people, regardless of their ethnicity, culture, or socioeconomic position. Hopefully the students will also begin to desire this empowerment for themselves.


PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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