4 Pathways to a Culturally Responsive Classroom

Culturally relevant or responsive teaching is a pedagogy grounded in the idea that educators teach to students’ unique cultural strengths. Geneva Gay is one of the early leaders in this field, and her book Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice (2000) became popular as a way to teach ethnically diverse students. Early work in this field focused on African American and Native American students in the United States.

In 2004, I published an article on my website entitled ESL Teacher as Cultural Broker after hearing James Banks speak on multicultural education. I urged classroom and content-area teachers to avoid interpreting the behavior of others through the eyes of their own culture. The idea that teachers should be culturally responsive to ELs became a passion of mine.  Today, the term “culturally responsive teaching” has been expanded to include culturally and linguistically diverse students. In her recent book, Making Connections: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (2014), Zaretta Hammond relates the term to culturally and linguistically diverse learners and links classroom instruction and cognition.

Here are four pathways to a culturally responsive classroom that teachers need to take:

1) Get to know your ELs. Children from backgrounds where the culture and language in school are different from that of the majority culture may be at a disadvantage in academic learning. These children often become marginalized in the classrooms. Teachers need to consider what schema ELs bring to the classroom and to link instruction to the students’ personal, cultural, and world experiences. Teachers should also strive to make the information relevant to ELs and to understand how culture impacts the learning of their students. ELs will bring a wealth of experiences from their families, homes, neighborhoods, and communities to school. Children with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds have stories and experiences that are unique. Teachers should use these experiences to help children begin to understand other cultures. They should build on the knowledge their students and families have of the countries they come from and the cultures they represent.  Here is an excellent article by Xiao-lin Yin-Croft on “Working with Chinese ELLs and their Families” on the Colorin Colorado website.

2) Build relationships with the families of ELs. When families of ELs are actively engaged in the education of their children, those children will attend school more regularly, be less likely to drop out, and be more successful academically. Many classroom teachers do not know how to communicate with parents who do not speak English and who are not familiar with U.S. school practices (Haynes, 2015). Teachers need to recognize and appreciate the legitimacy of the cultural heritages of different ethnic groups. There is no “right” or “wrong” when looking at the cultural beliefs of the families of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Here are 6 Tips for Communicating with Families of ELs.

3) Provide a welcoming classroom environment for your ELs. Teachers can alleviate many fears experienced by beginning ELs by creating a welcoming environment in their classes. A nurturing teacher and welcoming classmates can greatly help beginning ELs cope with the challenges they face. The more comfortable new arrivals feel in your classroom, the more quickly they will be able to learn. The more anxiety students experience, the less language they will comprehend. Learn a few words of the languages of your ELs and have them teach a few words to their classmates. Display pictures and artifacts from your students’ home counties. Have newcomers write in a home-language diary, read books in their home language, draw pictures of people and places in their home countries, and share music from their culture.

4) Make academic information accessible to ELs. Scaffolding academic learning
so that ELs are full participants in your classroom is essential to their academic success. Teachers need to find culturally relevant ways to support the learning of our students. When teachers scaffold lessons, they break down the language into manageable pieces or chunks. This way, students can be given the necessary support to understand the information provided in the lesson.  Lecture-style teaching excludes ELs from the learning in a classroom so they benefit from cooperative learning strategies.We don’t want to relegate ELs to the fringes of the classroom, doing a separate lesson with a classroom aide or ESL teacher. Working in small groups gives ELs  an authentic reason to use academic vocabulary and real reasons to discuss key concepts.

Here are two other excellent resources:

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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2 Responses to 4 Pathways to a Culturally Responsive Classroom

  1. mihee woo says:

    I love this essay. As a foreigner who studying in America,
    I really like this mindset.
    When I came America, I felt everyone trying to help me and trying to understand my culture.
    I think every professor tried to “link instruction to the students’ personal, cultural, and world experiences.” as you said in your essay.
    And I think these 4 steps ar pretty important for me to become a teacher,
    these days in Korea also has many international students studying there, so these are help me a lot!
    Thank you!!

  2. Eric Peters says:

    October 10, 2015
    What a fascinating field, TESOL!
    I am just at the beginning of my Master’s degree program in TESOL and reading the blog encourages me to learn more and more. It’s a privilege, honor and pleasure to learn from people in the field who “know it all.”
    I have dual-language learning/teaching designated as my area of specialization within TESOL as I find that with the growing Latino community within the United States, this is one area where knowledge could prove to be very helpful.

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