Culturally Responsive Instruction for Non-Native Speakers of English

By: Dr. Elke Schneider, Winthrop University

What is culturally responsive instruction and why is it important? 

How would you feel if you involuntarily had to leave all you knew and were comfortable with, and found yourself in a completely new environment, including a school where everyone spoke a language you could not understand, and where people interacted differently than you are used to seeing happen in the culture you came from? How would you feel, if you did not even know how to ask for a bathroom break, or were not sure if it was safe to eat the unfamiliar food that you saw served in the school cafeteria? For some of us who have never moved far from the environment and home culture of our initial upbringing, this might be really hard to imagine. It would probably come close to a nightmare that you wished you could wake up from and forget.  

Such experiences are common for non-native speakers of English, or English Learners (ELs) who represent the fastest growing community of learners in our public schools nationwide as well as within the state of South Carolina. Many of them have recently moved into our state and only know themselves in their home language and culture. Coupled with this newness, ELs have to participate in state standardized testing without integration time, and their school performance is part of annual school report cards. All this puts pressure on content area instructors to have strategies at hand that help ELs succeed quickly.

ELs, along with their classmates, present a potpourri of diverse learner backgrounds due to different socio-cultural, ethnic, religious, linguistic, and socio-economic experiences. Teaching in a culturally responsive way actively integrates these differences into instruction in which a) a culture of respect for differences and diversity is fostered as an enrichment and asset for all, b) common life challenges are seen as connecting anchors amidst apparent differences, and c) knowledge is built in such a way that every student has the same fair chance to succeed. 

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Specifically, culturally responsive instruction thus provides explicit opportunities for students to link the newly learned content with what they already know. It infuses a variety of different, multisensory, carefully structured learning opportunities that occur often through cooperative learning interactions. These allow ELs to learn in the context of natural exchanges with peers and teachers. Such instruction requires teachers to model different learning and problem-solving strategies explicitly and to make academic language structures and associated nonverbal behavior patterns explicit. 

The interconnectedness of acculturation and language acquisition

Acculturation refers to the process of integrating a representative of a minority culture into a majority culture. This includes accepting and learning social interaction patterns and the language of the majority culture. Acculturation and language acquisition are therefore tightly interrelated. This means for ELs in the school culture that the safer and more socially integrated ELs feel, the faster and more successful is their learning progress. This is true for all learners with language and cultural experiences different from those of the main culture. While this blog focuses only on ELs, many of the shared strategies can be considered for the integration of learners of other minority groups.

Strategies to strengthen culture-sensitive instruction of ELs

Helping ELs understand the American school culture

Photo by Sam McGhee on Unsplash
  • Create video clips about essential features of the school culture (i.e., school nurse, bus or morning routines, homework assignments) or routine tasks and expectations in your content area (i.e. science lab procedures, history project) in collaboration with colleagues and administration. These, both ELs and their parents (i.e., during parent conference times) can watch repeatedly until they understand the shared routines or procedures when the oral explanations are provided in several most commonly used languages. Each can be saved separately so they can be shared among teachers as needed.

Activating ELs’ unique contributions to the learning community

  • Allow ELs to use their native language to make connections with the content presented in English. Canadian multilingual learning researcher Jim Cummins stresses the importance of allowing the use of ELs’ first language in school because, if denied, an essential part of ELs’ identity and livelihood is squelched. This in turn impacts the learning progress negatively. 
  • Examples could be a) providing space on graphic organizers to note a realization in the first language, b) allowing ELs to use their native language as they figure out tasks or work together with others by using a bilingual dictionary and translation digital devices, c) pairing up several ELs with native speakers so clarifications can occur naturally in two languages.  
  • Prior to any topic, activate ELs’ prior knowledge by eliciting experiences from their home culture where appropriate (i.e., wild life, weather, socio-cultural routines, historic sites, historic events, or how basic math skills were taught in the home culture).

Infusing culturally and linguistically sensitive content instruction

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  • Provide repeated opportunities for ELs to orally repeat essential academic language structures used with a content through whole or small group choral response. This builds ELs’ confidence in using academic language when engaging in natural group interactions with peers. Such oral practice also provides the basis for subsequent writing tasks. 
  • Provide Illustrations in handouts, posters, and/or on PowerPoint presentations with subtitles in English for each step-in procedural task (i.e., math task, science project, history report). This makes content more comprehensible and allows ELs to participate in community learning tasks more successfully.

Building culturally sensitive relationships and understanding

  • If something does not feel right in the communication process (verbal and/or nonverbal), do not ignore it, rather seek clarification in a way that allows an EL to keep his/her face. Often ELs do not feel comfortable asking questions or acknowledging confusion, especially not in front of peers. Therefore, it is the teacher’s responsibility to seek clarification, best one-on-one. 
  • Teach all students about how to be a culturally responsive citizen. This includes building empathy for differences and practice of conflict resolution through explicit reflective dialog and role play as needed. It also includes clarifying what bullying is and what the consequences are for such behavior in the classroom learning community and during recess. It also includes teaching all students how to act respectfully towards each other. Positive behavior reinforcement of appropriate interactions can provide meaningful incentives.

Assessing ELs’ acquisition of academic knowledge

  • Preteach test language and response structures for different test tasks. This is important because American common test types may not be familiar to ELs nor may they have the language capacity. Collaborate with ESOL teacher/s on this as well.
  • Provide alternative assessments. ELs who cannot present their knowledge with proper academic language yet need to share their knowledge via projects that allow them to illustrate or gesture what they know or label graphic images with what they know. Provide word banks to use for responses, and simplified sentence structures and number of response choices in test tasks. 

These are just a few ideas to infuse culturally and linguistically responsive strategies for ELs into content area instruction. The following three sources provide a variety of research-evidenced instructional practices beneficial for ELs to be culturally and linguistically integrated into the American education system.

Additional resources to investigate are:

a) Go to Strategies retrievable from:

b) 50 strategies for teaching English language learners by Adrienne Harrell and Michael Jordan (6th edition)

c) For more project-based content instruction see Dinah Zike’s foldables resources on the internet for math, science, social studies, math

About the Author

Elke Schneider (PhD) is professor for Literacy, Special Education, and Second Language Learning at Winthrop University and has worked in this field for 25 years. She has supported regional and statewide efforts in training teachers at all grade levels and content areas in meeting learning needs of English learners with research-evidenced practices.

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