A question popped up in one of my classes last week about cultural accommodation: “Dr. L, how much should we acknowledge or accommodate our students’ cultures in our classroom or school? How do ELLs learn to function in the new culture if they’re constantly living in the old one?”
This must be on the minds of many teachers, because I came across two different studies via Education Week: one about how prior school experience is one of the largest predictors of the success that refugees will (or will not) encounter in a school setting, and the other about how important it is that teachers adapt to the culture of their newcomer students. Fellow TESOL blogger Nathan Hall also provided some ideas for helping ELL students acculturate to a new context, as well. While not every ELL is a refugee or a newcomer, both of these studies and Nathan’s blog support the answer that I gave in class, which supported the necessity of including culture in the language classroom for both students and teachers. For TESOL teacher educators, though, I think there is one more step that teachers should take, and that is to go so far as to integrate students’ culture and background knowledge into your instruction to be more effective.
In one approach to culturally-inclusive education, González, Moll, and Amanti (2013) stress the importance of using students’ funds of knowledge, which are created by the out-of-school life experiences that students have. For example, it may be tough for a beginning ELL to express his knowledge of fractions, but he may be well-versed in portions and ratios as he helps his parents cook. Thus, it isn’t that he doesn’t understand fractions; he might not understand them as presented in a book, but is well aware of the concept in real-life. A math teacher who is aware of this would try to incorporate more of the familiar context to support the classroom learning.
It seems the more we know about the role of students’ funds of knowledge, the more important they seem to be. Even if you are working with English learners in a foreign language, rather than a second language environment, drawing upon your learners’ life and cultural experiences as they learn language can strongly impact their language learning. In addition, if you’re a teacher trainer or teacher educator, teachers’ life experiences and beliefs should also be taken into account, as Johnson (2006) put forth in her discussion of the sociocultural turn in L2 teacher education. Teachers who are learning how to teach in a preservice university setting, as well as in-service teachers with their own career experiences, have their own funds of knowledge that effective teacher educators will account for as they facilitate coursework, professional development, and reflection.
Some practical ways of beginning to learn more about your students’ cultures and funds of knowledge, in addition to web-based research, are:
- conduct home visits;
- have students create photo essays of a typical day or weekend in their home/family life;
- have students create a collage of hobbies/pastimes;
- interview your students/students’ families;
- invite guest speakers from various linguistic communities to share traditions, celebrations, or slices of daily life;
- attend public events in your students’ communities;
- host an event at your school where students and families can contribute food and/or music; and
- advertise events from your cultural community that students/families might enjoy.
Then, don’t stop there—challenge yourself or the teachers that you work with to take that cultural knowledge and integrate it into teaching via texts and activities that place language and content in contexts that tap into those valuable funds of knowledge.
Feel free to add ways that you’ve integrated funds of knowledge into your language teaching in the comments below!
González, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2013). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Routledge.
Johnson, K. E. (2006). The sociocultural turn and its challenges for second language teacher education. TESOL Quarterly, 40, 235–257.