How History and Religion Affect Reading Habits and Practices for Latino Students

There can be no doubt that the level of teaching and learning in your classroom would vastly improve if every single student possessed a high literacy level and a consistent reading habit, both at home and school.  However, many do not, and perhaps you’ve wondered why.  In a search for some answers, I would like to pose a few sensitive questions.

  • Are individuals’ reading habits and practices affected by their race and ethnicity?
  • Do income level and culture matter?
  • How about religion?
  • Do Latinos read more or less than whites and African-Americans?
  • Do Catholics read more or less than Protestant Christians and Jews?

There are no definite answers, but looking at history and culture can inform a search for answers and, ultimately, your teaching practices.

The Reading Habits and Practices of Latino Students

Several factors affect Latino students’ reading habits and practices. The principal one is the income level of the family. According to the California Department of Education (CDE), in 2017-18:

  • 54% of public school students in California were Hispanic or Latino (almost 3.4 million students out of a little over 6.2 million total),
  • Just taking 4th grade as an example, 81% of Hispanic or Latino students who took the English Language Arts part of the California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance (CAASPP) were economically disadvantaged (205,000 out of 253,000 total), and
  • In contrast, 29% of White students were economically disadvantaged (31,000 out of 74,000).

Statistics such as these help explain significant achievement gaps between various subgroups of students.

Low income often results in less reading material at home, a condition that Stephen Krashen calls “the lack of a print-rich environment” (1999, p. 3).  Little disposable income results in few magazines, newspapers, and books in the home, and students do not read because they do not see their parents reading. Poor parents work multiple jobs, leaving little time available to take their children to the public library or a bookstore. Poverty means cramped living quarters with no quiet room or corner where a child can read quietly. Large families mean older students must take care of younger siblings. Poverty essentially means little leisure time, space, and money. Of course, all students, poor or not, have basic intellectual and emotional needs to learn and communicate through verbal interaction with other humans, and in modern times, be entertained by electronic devices.  Students from low-income families have less of the essential conditions of time, space, and money required to go from meeting their basic needs to having the curiosity and willingness to learn and be informed through print. In other words, cell phones distract all students from the work of your classroom, but this dynamic affects poor students even worse, influencing the quality of teaching and learning in your classroom.




Parent Literacy and Education Level

Yes, the home matters a great deal, but not because some parents care more or less about their children’s education.  All parents care to some degree, but there are differences in parents’ knowledge about and attitudes toward formal schooling.  Mexican immigrant parents come from a country in which the average formal educational attainment is lower than in the U.S. Compulsory education in many areas of Mexico only extends to the middle school level, and many children leave school even “earlier out of economic necessity or lack of access to schooling” (Gándara and Contreras, p. 206).  Parents with less than a high school education generally read less than those with more than a high school education, and are less able to promote literacy in the home.  Parents who do not speak English, or do not speak it well, are less able to reinforce their children’s learning of academic English at school.

The Influence of Religion on Literacy

I would like to draw your attention to the element of religion, an issue I have raised in other blogs (see “Help Students Explore How Puritanism Shaped the U.S. Government,” and “Give Students a Fresh Perspective on Government:  How Catholicism Shaped Latin American Regimes”). While many Latino children, if they are Catholic, prepare for their First Communions by reading prayers and parts of the Bible, there are other elements of reading and literacy practices that distinguish Latin American Catholicism from other faiths, particularly English Protestantism, and Judaism.  A history teacher can explore this perspective in the course of teaching about the Protestant Reformation and the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

One key is to go back to Martin Luther.  A central thrust of the Protestant Reformation was to put the most important text of the time at the center of an individual Christian’s life, replacing the clergy who read, interpreted and explained the Bible to the people, and challenging individuals to make their own interpretations of the text.  Another thrust involved departing from the mass in Latin, instead insisting on the mass being in the language, or vernacular, of a particular region or country (Barraclough, p. 80).  What came to be known as the Protestant Reformation was thus about “the importance of individuals encountering the Bible for themselves and in their own language,” and resulted in “raising the level of education among the general European population” (Eppehimer, 2007, p. 80).



Photo: Pixabay

Reading in Catholic Latin America

In contrast, it appears that the reading habits and practices of Latino students in the U.S. have been influenced by the cultural legacy of a Latin American Catholicism that did not emphasize the reading and interpretation of text.  The Catholic Church aimed to convert all of the indigenous people of the New World to Catholicism, but ended up focusing on the formal literacy training and education of a few select natives, hoping these chosen few would then turn around and educate the rest (Leyes de Burgos, 1512, #9).

The religious perspective is important.  Consider the following demographic portrait:

  • In the U.S., 48% of White non-Hispanics are Protestant Christian, and 19% are Catholic.
  • But among Hispanics, only 26% are Protestant Christian, while 48% are Catholic (Pew Research Center, 2015), down from 55% in 2013, and 67% in 2010 (Pew Research Center, 2013, p. 11).
  • Among Hispanic immigrants who are foreign-born, 60% are Catholic.

The reason this is important is that while Hispanic/Latino persons have historically been perceived as “brown” people in a country of mostly “white” people, or poor people in a wealthy country, or Spanish-speakers in an English-speaking country, or immigrants among a native-born population, an oft ignored dimension is that many of them are descendants of Latin American Catholicism in a predominantly Protestant Christian country. 

Protestant vs. Catholic Approaches to Text

Why is that important for your classroom?  Octavio Paz, the late Nobel prize-winning poet and essayist from Mexico, wrote that a key difference between the U.S. and Mexico was the degree of intellectual freedom in both societies based on religion, a freedom characterized by different approaches to reading text.  In colonial Mexico, Catholic “orthodoxy prevented examination and criticism,” while New England communities were made up “of people who believed that the Scriptures should be read freely” (Paz, 1979, p. 147).  Both Spanish Catholics and English Protestants in the New World were carrying on an existing tension between two different approaches to reading and interpreting the Bible, one that carried over to reading and interpreting any text.

The Experience of One Latino Catholic

The Catholic mass in predominantly Latino parishes, the kind I grew up with in the East L.A. of the 1970s and still exists today, is a passive experience in terms of literacy development.  People sit and hear a series of prayers being spoken, they hear someone else read from the Bible, and they hear a priest explain the readings.  Even if a Latino Catholic child can follow and understand the priest’s homily or sermon, it is difficult to determine how much of the prayers and readings the child actually understands.  The child is not reading the spoken words in print, a simple act that would improve his comprehension and spelling skills considerably. 

There are, in fact, striking similarities between the pedagogical and instructional practices Latino Catholic children experience weekly in mass, and daily in the least adequate of their public school classrooms:  passive instruction involving listening to a reader, priest, or teacher, and few authentic opportunities to read and interpret challenging text themselves.


Photo: Pixabay

The Oral Tradition as a Strength For Latino Catholics

The reading and interpretation of text may not be the principal feature of the Latino Catholic experience, but there is another feature of that experience, perhaps one of its greatest strengths, that should find a home in the public-school classroom.  In Mexico and Latin America, the way the “popular religion” of Catholicism has been passed on from generation to generation for over 500 years is through oral rather than literate practices.  As Deck and Tirres explain (1999, p. 144),

“Religious communication among Latinos…is fundamentally oral rather than literate…the three religious currents that configure Latino popular religiosity…all are primarily communicated orally, not in books or catechisms.  They are almost always expressed in rituals and in narrative, but almost never in abstract propositions.”

In other words, in order to express their religiosity, Latino Catholics talk more than they read.  They tell stories, recite and chant prayers, and make music and art, much more than they read and re-read text.  But if given the opportunity by skilled facilitators, either at church, at home, or in school, they could then take the next step to discuss big principles and ideas. 

Implications For The History/Social Science Classroom

This, then, is where my hope lies for our public-school classrooms.  Perhaps you disagree that Latino students have different reading practices and habits because of inherited religious and cultural legacies, but we can agree that we should tap into these students’ inherited legacies of oral traditions to create better teaching and learning experiences. The reform could be as simple as changing the order of instruction, consistent with the principle of tapping into prior knowledge (see TPEs 7 and 8, CCTC, pp. 14-15).

As a general example, much instruction may dutifully follow Common Core State Standards guidelines and ask students to analyze and seek evidence in the text, determine text structure and author perspective, distinguish facts from opinions, distinguish claims from reasoned judgment, and determine chronology and causation/explanation (Miller, 2013, p. 19).  

However, rather than put the reading first, the text on center stage, consider giving Latino students opportunities to first talk about underlying ideas and principles of what they are about to read, as they have encountered them in their daily lives, and as they have heard them commented on at home or elsewhere in their community.  Students can have preliminary opinions and viewpoints on almost any topic before they are asked to do the reading.

Latino students grow up listening to adults lecture and explain readings to them.  This happens at home, church, and school. To break that cycle and encourage Latino students to read, their classroom instruction should involve asking them before, during, and after the reading, what they think about the ideas and topics.

Near the end of the academic year, it would be good to have this conversation with your Latino and other students with a view toward their summer vacation.  They can spend most of that summer vacation gaming and watching videos on their devices, or they can spend some time picking up real books and other sources of text, and…read.


**Disclaimer: This perspective is that of the author and not of Social Studies School Service.

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David L. Moguel is a professor of teacher education at the Michael D. Eisner College of Education, CSU Northridge. He holds degrees from Stanford University, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and UCLA.  David served as a John Gardner Public Service Fellow with Ramon C. Cortines, school superintendent, and as a presidential management intern for the U.S. Department of Education.  He is the co-author, with Ron Sima, of Teach Me, I Dare You:  Taking Up the Challenge of Teaching Social Studies, published in 2011 by the Social Studies School Service.


Barraclough, G. and Overy, R. (eds.) (1999).  Hammond Atlas of World History, Fifth Edition. Maplewood, NJ:  Hammond Incorporated, and London:  Times Books and HarperCollinsPublishers.

California State Department of Education (2017), CAASPP Statewide Student Data Summary:  

Commission on Teacher Credentialing (2013).  The California Teaching Performance Expectations.  Revisions adopted March 2013.   Sacramento, CA:  CCTC.

Deck, A.F., S.J., and Tirres, C. (1999).  “Latino popular religion and the struggle for justice.”  In Orfield, G. and Lebowitz, H.J. (eds.) (1999).  Religion, race and justice in a changing America.  The Century Foundation Press:  New York.

Eppehimer, T.  (2007)  Protestantism.  New York, NY: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark.

Gándara, P. and Contreras, F. (2009).  The Latino education crisis:  The consequences of failed social policies.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Krashen, S. D. (1999).  Condemned without a trial:  Bogus arguments against bilingual education.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Leyes de Burgos (1512-13).  The Laws of Burgos.  Retrieved from:

Miller, M. (2013).  “Don’t be afraid of the Common Core.”  The Source.  The California History-Social Science Project.

Paz, Octavio (1979).  Mexico and the United States, translated by Rachel Phillips Belash. The New Yorker, 136-153, 55/31, 17 79, September 17.

Pew Research Center (2013).  National Survey of Latinos and Religion, May 24 – July 28, 2013.  Washington, D.C.:  Pew Research Center.

Pew Research Center (2015).  “America’s changing religious landscape:  Christians decline sharply as share of population; unaffiliated and other faiths continue to grow.”  Based on U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Washington, D.C.:  May 12, 2015.  Retrieved July 20, 2015 from:

Pew Research Center (2015).  “Religious composition of racial and ethnic groups.”  In Chapter 4:  The shifting religious identify of demographic groups, 2014 Religious Landscape Survey.  Washington, D.C.:  Pew Charitable Trusts.  Retrieved July 20, 2015, from: demographic-groups/