Written by Serie McDgoual and Sureshi Jayawardene
Dr. Alfred Tatum is the leading scholar on approaches to enhancing Black male literacy. His field-tested strategies have proven effective at increasing what he refers to as, meaningful literacy engagement (Tatum, 2005). He defines a meaningful literacy exchange as “reading or encountering print texts that initiate or shape decisions significant to one’s wellbeing” (Tatum, 2014, p.36). African American males generally score below their peers of other races and ethnicities in all levels of literacy testing. In light of this state of affairs, Tatum’s new ways of viewing literacy offer a window into viable solutions. Tatum criticizes the lack of research on the role that different kinds of fiction and non-fiction texts play in enhancing the lives of Black males. Further, he explains that school teachers often have to comply with administrations that privilege commercial reading materials that may not be the most effective ones for Black males.
Tatum has recently published a new study exploring how to increase African American males’ meaningful literacy exchanges with texts. Based on his survey of 73 African American males from an urban school, Tatum makes several interesting findings. He finds a distinction between hard and soft knowledge texts that increase Black male engagement. Soft knowledge texts are those that enhance students’ socio-emotional orientations, such as books that inspire or encourage them to aspire to, and set and achieve goals. On the contrary, hard knowledge texts are those that improve their academic knowledge, such as those that promote a deeper knowledge of academic subjects or give them technical instruction on how to complete tasks such as writing and editing. According to Tatum (2014), English teachers may fall back on the default strategy of selecting too many texts that engage Black males with soft knowledge and not enough that engage them through hard knowledge. This means, for example, well-intentioned teachers may too often select books meant to inspire Black males by showing them that they can be high achievers against all odds, without providing them texts that appeal to their practical and intellectual curiosity.
In this study, Tatum (2014) draws attention to texts identified by Black adolescent males and their remarks about the meanings these texts hold for them. Analysis of these youths’ responses revealed an underlying pattern: due to the default strategy that “continues to underserve” them, Black male students identified few texts in their classrooms as meaningful (Tatum, 2014, p. 43). While this analysis reveals the oversaturation in the characteristically soft knowledge oriented texts these young men were exposed to, Tatum (2014) does not undermine its value, but urges educators to balance this with texts that enhance hard knowledge as well. More perplexing is that this administrative strategy inhibits any school-based opportunities for meaningful literacy exchanges with texts with greater interdisciplinary depth. Furthermore, this approach to Black male literacy remains “misaligned” with the historical evidence of Black males reading a wide range of fiction and nonfiction texts for meaningful engagement (Tatum, 2014, p. 45).
Overall, Tatum (2014) urges teachers and administrators approach literacy and print texts in particular as “tools of protection” and resilience that would equip Black males with the necessary acumen to contest the constraints of urban environments. In other words, “there is a need to shape textual pathways that restore their belief in texts as tools of human progress and development” (Tatum, 2014, p. 45). Recommendations to educators in opening and supporting pathways to literacy as well as the larger pursuit of favorable socio-economic conditions in the future include:
Tatum, A. W. (2014). Orienting African American male adolescents toward meaningful literacy exchanges with texts. Journal of Education, 194(1): 35-47.
Tatum, A. W. (2005). Teaching reading to black adolescent males: Closing the achievement gap. Stenhouse Publishers.