Emergent bilinguals, or English language learners (ELLs), comprise 10% of all students in US public schools (USDOE, 2017). By 2025, this number is expected to jump to 25%, meaning one in every four students will be an emergent bilingual (Quintero & Hansen, 2017).
These students differ in language and cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and how they or their family came to be in the US. As a result, they have different academic needs, interests, and strengths that can be addressed through culturally responsive teaching.
What is culturally responsive teaching?
According to a 2019 New America report, culturally responsive teaching is an “approach that challenges educators to recognize that, rather than deficits, students bring strengths into the classroom that should be leveraged to make learning experiences more relevant to and effective for them” (Muñiz, 2019).
This doesn’t mean just celebrating students’ cultural traditions once a year. Rather, culturally responsive teaching incorporates “rigorous learning objectives” for all students, connecting academic curriculum to students’ heritage, lived realities, and issues they care about (Muñiz, 2019).
How can teachers create a culturally responsive classroom?
While there are a number of ways to ensure a more culturally responsive classroom, below are six generally agreed-upon steps.
1. Consider one’s own cultural lens
Teachers must first reflect on their own life experiences and implicit biases and ask themselves how these factors may affect their beliefs about cultural diversity (New America, 2019).
2. Engage emergent bilinguals’ families
It’s important to engage with parents as early as possible about their hopes for their emergent bilingual child and ways teachers can help (Education Alliance, 2020). When parents are more involved in their children’s academic progress and teachers understand more about their students, better academic outcomes can be achieved.
3. Communicate in culturally responsive ways
The words we use matters. When educators communicate in more culturally sensitive ways, emergent bilinguals and their families feel more encouraged to participate in school (New America, 2019). This includes pronouncing students’ names correctly. It may sound simple, but it makes a big difference, helping ensure that students feel welcomed and valued.
4. Set high expectations for all students
Every student should receive the same message: high academic achievement is expected. This fosters an environment in which all students can be successful, helps emergent bilinguals develop a healthy self-concept, and provides the structure needed for intrinsic motivation (New America, 2019; Education Alliance, 2020).
5. Reshape the curriculum
Connecting the curriculum to emergent bilinguals’ interests, knowledge, and aspirations encourages them to contribute to classroom discussion on the basis of their own experiences. If this isn’t done, emergent bilinguals can feel marginalized, leading to disengagement and lack of motivation (New America, 2019).
6. Promote respect for differences
It’s important to create an environment that’s respectful and inclusive, one in which students value the cultures of their classmates. Teachers can model how to engage across cultures and encourage students to reflect on their own experience with bias (New America, 2019).
What are the benefits?
Many of the benefits of culturally responsive teaching have been touched upon above, but here are a few others.
Culturally responsive teaching can help to (New America, 2019; Education Alliance, 2020):
- Motivate and engage more students
- Cultivate problem-solving skills
- Foster creative thinking
- Build student confidence
- Strengthen students’ racial and ethnic identities
- Promote empathy and reduce bias
- Create a sense of safety and belonging for emergent bilinguals
- Prepare all students for a global economy
- Improve emergent bilinguals’ academic outcomes
How can technology help?
EdTech has made it easier than ever for emergent bilinguals to take ownership of their learning, both inside and outside of the classroom. Learning programs can allow emergent bilinguals to engage in lessons that interest them, while working at their own pace. Find out how EdTech can impact equity in the Rosetta Stone eBook How Access to Online Learning Increases EL Equity.
Administrators and principals can support this learning by providing their educators with the tools and resources they need for success. As educators develop and hone their culturally responsive teaching skills, they’ll create inclusive classrooms and relevant lessons that benefit not just their emergent bilinguals, but also all of their students.
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The Education Alliance, Brown University. Culturally responsive teaching. Retrieved on 3/27/20 from https://www.brown.edu/academics/education-alliance/teaching-diverse-learners/strategies-0/culturally-responsive-teaching-0.
Muñiz, J. (2019). Culturally responsive teaching: a 50-state survey of teaching standards. New America.
New America. (2019). Understanding culturally responsive teaching. Retrieved 3/24/20 from https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/reports/culturallyresponsive-teaching/understanding-culturally-responsive-teaching/.
Quintero, D. & Hansen, M. (2017). English learners and the growing need for qualified teachers. Brookings Institute. Retrieved 3/24/20 from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2017/06/02/english-learners-and-the-growing-need-for-qualified-teachers/.
Sugarman, J. (2019). The unintended consequences for English learners of using the four-year graduation rate for school accountability. Migration Policy Institute.
US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2017). Digest of education statistics. Retrieved 3/24/20 from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_209.10.asp?current=yes.