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Literacy Instruction for Alaska Native Students
June 2021


"What does the research say about effective literacy instruction for Alaska Native students?"

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Gillispie, M. (2021). Culturally responsive language and literacy instruction with Native American children. Topics in Language Disorders, 41(2), 185-198. Full text available at:

From the Abstract:
"Many American Indian education leaders advocate for the need to combine evidence-based reading instruction with cultural-based educational practices. In the broader education literature, education philosophers propose analogous models such as culturally responsive teaching to meet the educational realities of diverse students. Culturally Responsive Early Literacy Instruction (CRELI) was a project funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs to train graduate scholars in speech–language pathology to work with American Indian/Alaska Native communities. The grant scholars and staff of CRELI worked with two early childhood education centers for American Indian preschoolers and developed curriculum units that featured culturally relevant storybooks as thematic centerpieces and activities to facilitate early language and literacy development. This clinical tutorial summarizes this work, broader components of culturally responsive teaching, and attributes of language-focused literacy curriculum and differentiated instruction, followed by a sample curriculum unit to demonstrate application of culturally responsive teaching concepts."

Jesse, D., Northup, J., & Withington, A. (2015). Promising education interventions to improve the achievement of Native American students: An annotated bibliography. San Francisco, CA: West Comprehensive Center at WestEd.

From the Abstract:
"The purpose of this annotated bibliography is to identify interventions and supporting research that may benefit educators in their efforts to close the American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) achievement gap. It examines promising programs, policies, practices, and processes related to improving academic and nonacademic outcomes for AI/AN students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Collectively, the articles relate to a broad range of indigenous peoples, including American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. Studies touch on Indians living on reservations, students in Bureau of Indian Education schools, students in tribally controlled schools, and English language learners. The 32 articles are categorized as follows: (1) School Improvement; (2) Literacy, Mathematics, and Science; (3) Language and Culture; (4) Behavioral and Social-Emotional Interventions; and (5) Parent, Family, and Community Involvement."

Keehne, C. N., Sarsona, M. W., Kawakami, A. J., & Au, K. H. (2018). Culturally responsive instruction and literacy learning. Journal of Literacy Research, 50(2), 141-166. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Research in culturally responsive instruction (CRI) to improve literacy learning was explored through study of Hawaiian-focused charter schools. Building on work by Au, an indigenous framework reflecting the work of these schools was developed, highlighting five elements: (a) literacy in indigenous languages; (b) community connections; (c) a shared vision that encompasses culture, academic proficiency, and community; (d) authentic assessment; and (e) teaching grounded in culture and higher level thinking. Schools implemented CRI in an outward-looking, action-oriented manner and literacy was viewed as a means of serving community, not as an end in itself. Schools emphasized CRI as content, in contrast to earlier research with Native Hawaiian students that viewed CRI as process. CRI centered on exploration of cultural identity as the basis for gaining cultural knowledge of one's ancestors, as well as Western academic knowledge for the purpose of contributing to the well-being of family, community, and nation."

McKeough, A., Bird, S., Tourigny, E., Romaine, A., Graham, S., Ottmann, J., & Jeary, J. (2008). Storytelling as a foundation to literacy development for Aboriginal children: Culturally and developmentally appropriate practices. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49(2), 148-154. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"There is substantial evidence that Aboriginal youth face serious challenges in schooling, in general, and in literacy development, specifically. Thus, it is essential to design early literacy programmes that engage Aboriginal children and produce positive outcomes. In this article, the authors propose that such programmes include oral storytelling by teachers and students because it is a precursor to reading and writing across cultures and a traditional Aboriginal teaching tool. Moreover, storytelling fits with Aboriginal epistemology—the nature of their knowledge, its foundations, scope, and validity. The authors begin by reviewing a representative sample of the research that has examined the outcomes of early literacy instruction with Aboriginal children. Next, the authors describe Aboriginal epistemology, highlighting the role of the oral tradition. Finally, the authors describe an ongoing study aimed at supporting early literacy development through a developmentally and culturally appropriate oral storytelling instruction programme."

Ohle, K. A. (2018). Early childhood teachers' use of dual language digital books. NHSA Dialog, 21(1), 1-21. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This qualitative study investigated how dual language digital books are used by early childhood teachers working with primarily English-speaking Alaska Native children and families. In particular, there was a desire to know how the teachers used the dual language digital books in their classrooms and if the resources were used to foster early literacy and/or to help teach and preserve native languages. The research was situated in six preschool classrooms where researchers observed the teachers using the books and conducted semi-structured interviews to triangulate the data. Using a qualitative approach to analysis, findings emerged that teachers used the books to introduce specific content or concepts, to emphasize home – but not heritage - languages, and to reinforce early literacy skills using both whole group instruction and independent exploration time. Additionally, how they used the books appeared to be in direct response to their students and their needs. Implications for teachers, families, and administrators are shared."

Riser, Q. H., Rouse, H. L., Choi, J. Y., & Ku, S. (2020, April). The contribution of home literacy context to preschool academic competencies for American Indian and Alaska Native children. Child & Youth Care Forum, 49(2), 303-323. Springer US. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Background: Despite rich cultural, lingual, and tribal assets, American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) children experience suboptimal educational outcomes that start before kindergarten entry. Evidence suggests that home literacy activities may be supportive of developmental outcomes within this population, but these home literacy activities have not been substantially investigated with AIAN populations. Objective: This study examined how the overall home literacy context and individual home literacy indicators (i.e., frequency of shared book reading, singing songs, telling stories, and the number of books in the home) relate to AIAN children's preschool reading and math skills. Method: This study comprised data from the ECLS-B, which included a nationally-representative sample of 10,400 children born in 2001 and a deliberate oversample of AIAN children. Hierarchical regression analyses were conducted to investigate the relationships between home literacy and preschool reading and math skills with an analytic sample of 650 AIAN children. Results: Overall home literacy context was supportive of AIAN children's reading and math skill development, and the particular import of shared book reading was found in improving reading skills. Conclusion: Findings support the value of what parents do with their children (i.e. participate in home literacy activities) above and beyond relatively static economic or social characteristics (e.g., maternal education, income-to-needs ratio)."

Sharma, S. A., & Christ, T. (2017). Five steps toward successful culturally relevant text selection and integration. The Reading Teacher, 71(3), 295-307. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Given the increasing diversity in U.S. schools and the impact of texts that reflect students' identities and experiences in the world, it has become imperative for teachers to be able to effectively integrate culturally relevant texts. In this article, the authors show how to do this using five steps to guide the process. First, teachers need to recognize the need for culturally responsive instruction. Second, they need to know more about their students' lives; the authors present three methods for discovering this. Third, teachers need ways to search for culturally relevant texts, such as using multicultural booklists and Google searches to learn more about authors. Fourth, the authors provide a construct for selecting a text that will likely be culturally relevant for a specific student. Fifth, the authors provide an example of critical questions and personal response opportunities for using these texts within instruction."

Vincent, C., Tobin, T., & Van Ryzin, M. (2017). Implementing instructional practices to improve American Indian and Alaska Native students’ reading outcomes: An exploration of patterns across teacher, classroom, and school characteristics. Journal of Teacher Education, 68(5), 435-450.

From the Abstract:
"The Native Community strongly recommends integrating Native language and culture (NLC) into reading instruction to improve outcomes for American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) students. However, little is known about the extent to which recommended practices are used and what might facilitate their implementation. The National Indian Education Study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education surveys teachers of AI/AN students on their instructional practices. This descriptive study builds on previous analysis of survey data, which identified measurable dimensions of NLC in instruction. We now examine (a) the extent to which teachers implement these dimensions and (b) what teacher, classroom, and schoolwide characteristics facilitate implementation. Outcomes suggest that the recommended practices are rarely implemented, and that AI/AN teachers speaking Native language(s) and teaching in classrooms with high AI/AN enrollment located in schools employing AI/AN teachers and staff implement the recommended practices more often. We discuss implications for teacher education and support."

Webster, J. P., & Yanez, E. (2007). Qanemcikarluni tekitnarqelartuq [One must arrive with a story to tell]: Traditional Alaska Native Yup'ik Eskimo stories in a culturally based math curriculum. Journal of American Indian Education, 46(3), 116-131. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This article describes an ethnographic study of the process of collecting, transcribing, translating, retelling, and adapting of a traditional Yup'ik story for a children's bilingual picture book, which is part of a culturally based math curriculum project, Math in a Cultural Context (MCC). The article opens with an overview of MCC and the role that storytelling and traditional Yup'ik stories play in its development as well as in language revitalization and maintenance and school-based literacy and reading comprehension. The data have been analyzed and organized according to three phases of the project: (a) collection, transcription, and translation of stories; (b) literacy team, illustrator, and Yup'ik elders' work with new and archived stories--a draft composite story and illustrated children's text; and (c) creation of a second- and third-grade version of a bilingual children's picture book."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: "Literacy instruction", "Alaska Native", "Culturally responsive", Literacy, Instruction

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.