Growing Need for Culturally Responsive Teaching
The 2020 Census data has been released, confirming what teachers already knew: America—and its student population—is becoming more diverse every year. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that there are approximately 5 million Emergent Bilinguals (EBs) in U.S. public schools, and these students make up more than 15% of the classrooms in grades K–2.
Finding ways to connect with and engage this growing U.S. student population is essential. For EBs, the more inclusive the classroom, the more engaged the student. Across all subject areas and educational activities, research shows a strong correlation between student engagement and student achievement. Ultimately, engaged students feel connected to their academic experiences and develop more positive attitudes.
As students return to school, EBs will potentially be facing additional challenges due to the adversities of distance learning during the pandemic. EdWeek focused on this very issue in a webinar, asserting that:
"[T]eachers will need to give English Learners proper support going forward, which includes ensuring they are learning language within content and not in isolation; doing holistic assessments that take into account any gains made in home languages; and most importantly, avoiding assumptions on how much or how little progress was made in English-language skills."
EBs already face the uphill climb of learning English, math, and reading at the same time. With the added concern about slowed literacy growth during remote instruction, a culturally responsive pedagogy is the key to making classrooms inclusive and keeping EB students engaged and moving forward.
Implementing a culturally responsive pedagogy
Culturally relevant teaching respects students' backgrounds and traditions as assets in the classroom. This pedagogy focuses on helping students on a personal, individual level, rather than making assumptions based on demographics. Schools that embrace culturally relevant and responsive instruction report higher levels of community engagement and academic achievement.
As educators consider ways to implement culturally responsive teaching in their curriculum—and as more classrooms shift to a technology-integrated blended learning model—there is an opportunity to select edtech experiences where all students can identify themselves and see their communities reflected in the content.The K–12 Teachers Alliance blog explains the value as follows:
"Culturally relevant lessons are engaging because they are personalized. They make the students themselves the foundation for learning. Students are more likely to engage in lessons that are tailored to their experiences and needs. They are more likely to be enthusiastic about learning when they can make connections between the work and their world. Cultural relevance is the answer to the 'Why are we learning this?' questions. When learning has a clear purpose, students are more likely to invest."
If they haven’t already, educators will need to shift their thinking to an "asset" model. The diversity that EBs bring must be respected, appreciated, and seen as the unique strength it is. This is one of the reasons Lexia uses the term "Emergent Bilingual"—it honors the native language, cultural background, and other assets students bring to the classroom, rather than viewing students through an English-deficit lens.
Students who speak more than one language have demonstrated advantages in awareness of language, communication skills, memory, decision-making, and analytical skills. Not only are these students bilingual, they are bicultural. They develop empathy through awareness and respect for other cultures and customs. Indeed, educators that focus on the positive qualities of having more EB students in class see an increase in student confidence, engagement, and growth.
When multilingualism is valued and seen as a resource and talent, EB students are empowered to actualize their gifts and strengths, and teachers can build learning around students' existing capabilities and knowledge.
Adding cultural diversity to the curriculum
A curriculum that embraces the ethos of culturally responsive pedagogy should be purposefully designed. With this in mind, the imagery and perspectives reflected in content and instruction should draw upon diverse cultures so that it is relatable to real-world issues that impact students' lives. Students' cultural experiences, knowledge, and languages can be significant assets in the classroom, creating rich learning experiences for culturally diverse students and their peers.
Supplementing curriculum with asset-based edtech can help with this shift. As an example, Lexia® English Language Development™ affirms learners of all backgrounds and allows them to see themselves as part of a diverse, growing community that encompasses a plethora of cultures, worldviews, and ideas. This culturally responsive approach honors a variety of heritage languages and backgrounds by reflecting them in the content, characters, and accents.
Edtech can make it simple for teachers to adopt a language and literacy curriculum that is diverse and engaging, while students get to see their heritage and multilingualism as an asset to be celebrated.
Identity, avatars, and visual diversity
Part of celebrating cultural diversity means incorporating content with which students can identify. Identity formation is a critical phase in a child's development, and seeing themselves reflected in books and content can play a powerful role in the formation of identity, self-awareness, and self-esteem—particularly for students from traditionally marginalized communities. As noted by Karen Sumaryono and Floris Wilma Ortiz in a 2017 article, "Recognizing and validating multiple cultural identities in the classroom community and developing positive student–teacher relationships strengthens individuals' sense of worth and, ultimately, their academic performance."
A personal way of visually providing this cultural reflection involves the use of avatars. Edtech programs like Lexia English let students select avatars that look like them and share their native accents.
When not using edtech, students should still be able to identify themselves and their cultures in displayed images, bulletin boards, classwork, and books. This visual diversity helps more than just EBs; materials that feature characters of different races, religions, appearances, and abilities help students recognize similarities between their lived experiences and the experiences of people who may appear different.
Linguistic and culturally responsive communication
Culturally and linguistically responsive teaching views students with home languages other than English as assets to the classroom. Knowing a student's heritage language and how to pronounce their name may sound basic, but research shows that understanding and honoring students' verbal and nonverbal culturally influenced communication styles can significantly reduce school dropout rates. Educators should also seek to communicate with parents who speak a home language other than English by utilizing translation services to break down barriers that may keep parents from participating in their children's education.
Speech recognition and scaffolding
To learn a language, EBs need frequent opportunities to speak it. For their language and literacy skills to flourish, they need daily opportunities to learn and practice oral English. This can be supported through edtech programs that provide individualized learning paths through speech recognition technology. Lexia English uses speech recognition technology to provide scaffolded support with immediate guided and corrective feedback in a safe and nonjudgmental environment.
For classrooms that don’t have edtech, scaffolded support in oral language practice can still support students in a linguistically and culturally responsive way. Every student should have access to scaffolding and learning accommodations until they are able to gain independence in their literacy and language.
A 2016 study by Alan White explored the effects of accent familiarity on English-as-a-Foreign-Language students and suggested that familiarity with an accent can aid listener comprehension. In other words, greater familiarity with an English accent—native or non-native—affects overall listening comprehension.
Throughout their use of the Lexia English software, students can be exposed to a variety of accents through 17 EB characters whose accents and pronunciations were thoughtfully selected and developed to reflect the English accent variation found not only across the U.S. but around the world.
Recognize and redress biases
Research from the Brookings Institution found that "simply being classified as an EL student in school can have a direct, negative impact on students' test scores, graduation, and college-going." This is not due to the inherent abilities of EB students, but rather to how schools perceive, educate, support, and empower these students.
Brookings recommends interventions to help teachers better understand and more accurately assess their EB students' skills and assets, along with professional learning that increases educators' understanding of implicit bias and empathy toward marginalized students. Brookings also cites evidence that home visits can help teachers develop more positive perspectives about their students and families.
Schools can start by acknowledging that unconscious bias exists, striving for honest conversations, and using the asset-model mindset as a guidepost to change the classroom environment for EBs to be more inclusive.
Strengthen the school-to-home connection
Remote learning had a surprising side benefit for teachers of EBs, providing a window into students' home lives and often a closer working relationship with parents drafted into service as assistant teachers. Edtech brought English language learning into the home through literacy programs like Lexia English.
Teachers can incorporate what they learned about students into their lessons to create a culturally responsive classroom rooted in their students' reality. In conversation with parents, teachers can learn about parents' hopes and aspirations for their children, along with each family's culture and community. It is also important to encourage parents to speak their first language at home with their children to reinforce EB students' proficiency as bilinguals.
Harness the strength in diversity
This is the time to refocus curricula, pedagogies, and classroom environments to reflect the reality of a more diverse student population. While there will be hurdles to overcome, there are also powerful opportunities for EBs to gain literacy proficiency and for ALL students to thrive in a more culturally responsive, asset-focused environment.
The steps that educators can take to adapt a more inclusive pedagogy are summarized in Lexia's Checklist for Creating a Culturally Responsive Classroom. Whether your district has implemented an edtech literacy solution or not, incorporating culturally responsive teaching methods in your classroom will help harness the strength of a diverse student population.