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Teaching Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

August 26, 2020

Honoring the mandate to provide all students with an equal education requires adaptation. Shifting demographics in the United States have dramatically altered the ethnic and racial makeup of student populations, and a growing number of students do not speak English fluently. These changes present significant challenges for educators, requiring them to rethink their curricula and teaching strategies.

Examining the growing need for diversity and exploring ways to modify behavior in the classroom constitute a critical step toward creating linguistically inclusive and culturally sensitive learning environments.

The Growing Need for Diverse Teaching Strategies

US school districts are required to provide equal educational opportunities to language minority students, but meeting that standard has become more challenging as the number of students classified as an “English language learner,” or ELL, has grown.

Generally, the term “English language learner” describes a student who is learning English in addition to their native language. Exact definitions of ELL vary, as do delineations between ELL and ESL (English as a second language), but by any measure, the number of students for whom English is not their first and primary language is growing as a percentage of all students enrolled in US public schools.

An average of 10 percent of students in US public schools are English language learners, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). In cities, the average is close to 15 percent. (NCES defines ELL students as those being served by programs of language assistance, including ESL, high-intensity language training, and bilingual education.) Among ELL students in the US, Spanish is the most common language spoken at home (75 percent), followed by Arabic (3 percent).

The increase in ELLs in public schools reflects a larger demographic shift. The percentage of non-white students in US public schools has increased significantly over the last decade, from 48 percent in 2010 to an estimated 54 percent in 2020. The percentage of Hispanic students enrolled in public schools grew from 23 percent to 28 percent over the same period.

While addressing diversity in the classroom largely consists of focusing on ELL students, cultural and linguistic divides are not exclusive to that segment of learners. In 2018, 47 percent of students and 79 percent of teachers in US public schools were white. This contrasts starkly with the student-teacher ratio for Hispanics (27 percent of students, 9 percent of teachers), Blacks (15 percent of students, 7 percent of teachers), and Asians (5 percent of students, 2 percent of teachers). Such disparities in representation of races and ethnicities among educators constitute a longstanding issue in US public schools.

Teaching Strategies for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

The first step in addressing cultural and linguistic diversity is to be aware. The very act of considering culture and language skills when developing curricula and activities makes it more likely that lessons will be inclusive. Teaching culturally diverse students entails the following additional steps:

  • Learn about your students’ cultural backgrounds and demonstrate appreciation of those cultures. Teachers show students how to embrace different cultures by modeling respect and acceptance.
  • Learn more about students’ lives outside of the classroom, and let that information inform lessons. For example, try to find examples that are relevant to students with different cultures and backgrounds.
  • Embrace diversity in teaching styles. Making an effort to accommodate different communication preferences, cognitive styles, and aptitudes results in lessons with a greater chance of reaching all students.
  • Encourage students to relate the benefit of a lesson to their own lives.
  • Bring diverse guest speakers into the classroom.

Educators can also benefit from the following tips for teaching linguistically diverse students:

  • Develop a relationship and work closely with an ESL teacher or interpreter.
  • Incorporate more group work. This allows students to practice their language skills in a more personal, less intimidating setting than the front of the classroom.
  • Make things as visual as possible by writing on the board, diagraming, and using pictures.
  • Allow ELL students to preview materials before a lesson when possible.
  • Understand that some students may experience a silent period. Students learning a new language commonly go through a period of several weeks or longer when they are taking in the new language but do not yet speak it.

Efforts to better serve culturally and linguistically diverse student populations are not limited to the classroom. Developing responsive curricula and teaching strategies is critical, but a holistic approach that includes families and the larger school community promises better outcomes.

Working With Parents

Positive parent-teacher relationships can influence any student’s success, but they can be particularly important for students whose culture or dominant language differs from that of the majority of their classmates. Developing a relationship with the parents of ELL students or any student who is outside the dominant cultural or ethnic group, or whose culture or ethnicity differs from that of the teacher, builds a sense of trust and acceptance among students and their families. Making the effort to build such relationships can be challenging for teachers, and in cases where there is a language barrier, it may be necessary to engage with a language instructor or interpreter for support.

Support From Schools

Schools can address linguistic and cultural diversity by working to recruit teachers of color and instructors who can teach and tutor in languages other than English. Demonstrating support for student diversity is also crucial. Measures such as providing school signage in different languages, encouraging students to speak their first language at school, and displaying non-English books and materials creates an environment of acceptance and appreciation that benefits all students.

Schools can also play a role in supporting more training designed to mitigate implicit bias. Research has shown that teachers are just as likely to have a racial bias as non-teachers.

Create Inclusive Classrooms

American University’s online EdD in Education Policy and Leadership prepares educators to shape education policy and create more inclusive learning environments.

The degree program provides future teachers and education leaders with the tools they need to transform the education system to benefit all learners. With a focus on building equitable learning environments, the curriculum emphasizes systems change, personal leadership, social justices and anti-racism, and policy and research.

Learn more about American University’s online EdD in Education Policy and Leadership.