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Reading aloud that develops empathy and perspective-taking in young learners


In order to engage as a citizen in your community, nation, or the world, embracing different perspectives is an essential skill (Colwell et. al., 2020). Empathy is a crucial social emotional skill that also helps students analyze texts and develop literacy skills applicable across multiple disciplines, especially social studies (Colwell et. al., 2020, Ziemke & Muhtaris, 2020) .

“Empathy can be embedded in everyday life when we consider it in conjunction with knowing the stories of others” (Ziemke & Muhtaris, 2020, p. 94). Students can learn about other people’s stories by reading about other people who are different and similar to them. Students can relate to characters from diverse backgrounds through shared feelings as they learn more about them.

I hope this list provides you with books that you can read aloud or have in your classroom library that can help students develop language, feelings, and understanding around empathy with different people. ‘them.

Books that develop empathy and perspective taking

Title: I am new here

Author: Anne Sibley O’Brien

Gender: Fiction

Age Interval: 5-8 years

The description: This book shares the perspective of three students whose families have recently immigrated.

cover of the book 'separate is never equal' showing 6 children: three with lighter skin and blond hair walking to the left and three with darker skin and dark hair walking to the right.Title: Separate is never equal

Author: Duncan Tonatiuh

Gender: Nonfiction

age range: 6-9 years

The description: This book is about Sylvia Mendez, whose family fought for equal rights for Latinos during the Jim Crow era.

cover of the book 'I love Saturdays y Domningos' showing a child opening the shutters of a window with flowers in front and a family behindTitle: I like saturdays and domingos

Author: Alma Flor Ada

Gender: Fiction

age range: 5-8 years

The description: This book is about a young girl who spends Saturdays with her English-speaking grandmother and grandfather, and domingos (Sundays) with her Spanish-speaking abuelo and abuela.

cover of the book 'Don't Touch My Hair' with a dark-skinned girl with natural hair and several arms reaching towards herTitle: Don’t touch my hair

Author: Sharee Miller

Gender: Fiction

age range: 4-8 years

The description: This book teaches respect for others and the importance of asking permission before touching someone.

Cover of the book 'My Brother Charlie' showing two black children kissing and being licked by a dogTitle: My brother Charlie

Author: Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete

Gender: Fiction

age range: 4-8 years

The description: Told by the twin of an autistic boy, this book explores what autism is and the point of view of a girl close to an autistic person.

Cover of the book 'In Our Mother's House showing 2 lighter-skinned adults holding three children with different skin tonesTitle: In our mother’s house

Author: Patricia Polacco

Gender: Fiction

age range: 6-8 years

The description: This book is the story of an adoptee who, with her two adopted brothers and sisters, has two mothers.

Book cover Title: For the right to learn: the story of Malala Yousafzai

Author: Rebecca Ann Langston-George

Gender: Nonfiction

age range: 6-9 years

The description: This book is a biography of activist Malala Yousafzai aimed at young learners.

Cover of the book 'Yo Soy Muslim: A Father's Letter to His Daughter' showing a father holding his daughterTitle: Yo Soy Muslim : Letter from a father to his daughter

Author: Mark Gonzales

Gender: Poetry

age range: 4-8

The description: This book is formatted like a letter from a father to his daughter. It deals with questions of identity.

Cover of the book 'Hello, Goodbye Dog' showing a child in a wheelchair playing with a dog whose tail is waggingTitle: Hello, goodbye dog

Author: Maria Gianferrari

Gender: Fiction

age range: 4-8 years

The description: This book is about a girl in a wheelchair whose dog wants to come to school with her. The dog finally arrives once he becomes a service dog.

Cover of 'The Name Jar' book showing a girl reaching for a jar with several slips of paperTitle: The pot of name

Author: Yangsook Choi

Gender: Fiction

age range: 3-7 years

The description: This book is about a girl who leaves Korea for the United States and struggles to make the transition to a new culture.

Cover of the book 'Powwow Day' showing several Native Americans dancing and playing drumsTitle: Powwow day

Author: Traci Sorell

Gender: Fiction

age range: 4-8 years

The description: This book is about a young Native American woman who wants to dance at the pow-wow but is recovering from an illness.

General considerations (Ziemke & Muhtaris, 2020):

Set expectations around trust and respect

  • It is important to create a classroom culture where it is okay to make mistakes and disagree with others. These are not easy things to do and so creating this climate will help students to take risks and therefore become more engaged in learning.

Set discussion standards

  • Set expectations around discussions. How can we :
    • Take turns speaking?
    • Indicate that we want to talk?
    • Provide students with sentence sequences for respectful discussion?
    • Provide students with a vocabulary of empathy to help them express their feelings or those of a character?

Make sure the books you choose don’t reinforce systems of oppression

  • While it’s important to have books about people from diverse backgrounds, it’s not enough. It is important to ensure that books do not reinforce prejudices or stereotypes.

Ask students to share what they would like to read or what they think is missing from the books they have access to

  • Older elementary school students can share perspectives they feel are missing.
  • Young elementary students can share more general topics they would like to read about.


I hope you now feel a little better equipped to teach empathy and perspective taking through reading aloud with your students. If you have any books you might be interested in, please email the author of this blog.


Colwell, J., Hutchison, A. & Woodward, L. (2020). Digitally assisted subject literacy for various grades K-5. Teachers College Press.

Ziemke, K. & Muhtaris, K. (2020). Reading the World: Rethinking Literacy for Empathy and Action in the Digital Age. Portsmouth, NH.

More to explore

Black-owned bookstores

The links below will take you to some black-owned bookstores that have extensive collections of diverse and culturally appropriate books.

Sentence stems for class discussion

These sentence stems are intended to support ELLs (English Language Learners) in class discussions; however, they can be used as best practices for all students. This resource includes, but is not limited to, stem phrases for disagreeing and expressing opinions. http://msbacon.com/documents/ELL_Sentence_Stems.pdf

Anchor chart for empathy in books

This resource is an anchor chart on empathy. It provides guiding questions that students can use while reading to develop empathy for the characters. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/394346511114902806/

Author’s Note

Anna McCarthy-Reynolds is a 4e and 5e an English language development teacher at East Silver Spring Elementary School and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in teaching literacy to culturally and linguistically diverse populations at Loyola University. Click to learn more about the Loyola University of Maryland Literacy Program.

Posted: November 16, 2022