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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

One Approach to The 50 % Problem

Alfred Tatum and "Textual Lineages"

One of the best parts of going to conventions can be the flights, because you are often seated near people with similar interests, but not necessarily the circle of familiar faces you plan to meat on panels and at parties. Flying out here to NCTE-ALAN, I met a woman who edits books on secondary school education aimed at teachers, and she told me about one of her new authors, Alfred Tatum Dr. Tatum is focused on kids who, like he was as a child, are poor, black, male — and thus in great danger. The editor I met (Lisa was her first name, I must admit I don’t recall her second name) told me she attended a conference where people who build prisons stated that they decide where new facilities should be built based on 3rd grade reading scores — show poor literacy in third grade, very likely you will have a population that will later fill up prison cells. Dr. Tatum is working to change that.

The key phrase you’ll see on his site is "textual lineage" — the idea — similar to what I said about the vertical axis a few blogs ago — is that kids who don’t read do not have a set of stories, images, phrases, narratives to ground, to weave in to, their current understanding. So the challenge is not merely to find texts that, say, poor black males will like (the cry of relevance), or that they can easily read (readability indices), but also which add depth, texture, understanding to their lives. Reading then is not merely a skill but a foundation

This sounds very promising to me, so I am going to his talk this afternoon. As I have written here before, approximately 50% of black kids in America do not graduate high school — ever, no GED, no future. And if Dr. Tatum is working to counter that, he is a man I need to meet and get to know.


  1. Perhaps if we spent the necessary money to improve our schools, we wouldn’t need to spend so much on prisons in those areas after all…

  2. Susan (Chicken Spaghetti) says:

    Marc, that third-grade reading/prison idea sounds like an urban legend to me. An article in the Wash. Post (which I can’t link) says as much, at least about California.

  3. Marc Aronson for Sandhya Nankani says:

    Sandhya was not able to post this, so I am doing this for her:
    What did you think of this talk? I’ve found Alfred Tatum’s ideas and work with students really very impressive. His book “Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap” provides worthy examples of the type of literature – classics, contemporary shorts, and historical documents — that he has successfully used in his writing workshops. I recently did some work for Scholastic where he served as an advisor for a reading program-in progress and it was heartening to come across an academic who is so connected to the audience that he writes about. His idea that “literacy instruction must … foster the development of students’ cultural, social, and emotional literacies” is one that I think can have a larger application in the field of education as well.