George Lucas Educational Foundation
Culturally Responsive Teaching

Foundations of Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching

Teachers can provide multiple ways for English learners to engage with lessons and demonstrate their understanding.

February 10, 2022
Elementary school teacher working with a small group of students
PeopleImages / iStock

What is culturally and linguistically responsive teaching? It involves leveraging students’ cultural and linguistic experiences, utilizing their background knowledge, and providing multiple ways for students to learn and demonstrate new learning. When we use culturally and linguistically responsive practices, we employ interactive and collaborative learning activities that draw from students’ references and previous experiences to help them make connections to new learning.

As a teacher, I found that these practices helped my students engage in the learning process and built up their confidence—even when the learning became challenging.  These practices helped my students say, “I think I can,” rather than “I can’t.” Later, as a researcher, I found that teachers who received professional development and coaching on how to use culturally and linguistically responsive practices saw an increase in reading scores among their English language learners (ELLs) and racially diverse students within a school year.

So let’s take a look at some activities that support foundational pieces of culturally and linguistically responsive teaching. You may find that you already do some of these activities, or you may find new activities that you will be excited to try.

Acquire Cultural Knowledge

A cornerstone of culturally and linguistically responsive teaching is having cultural knowledge of the students in your classroom. It is the understanding that culture impacts how we process and learn information. I often started the process of getting to know my students with a questionnaire that I called “Getting to Know You.” In this questionnaire, I asked students to let me know what name they would like me to use, their interests, any activities they enjoyed, and what they would like to learn in this class. Before and during lessons, I’d ask students to discuss their own experiences and try to make connections to the topic we studied. This not only helped make the learning relevant for the students but gave me insight regarding how to conduct a lesson.

Many of my students came to my classroom with collectivistic experiences, which emphasize the needs of the group over the needs of each individual. To leverage this asset, I would often build opportunities into lessons for students to work together in small groups or with a partner.

For example, during writing time I would have students work with a partner or small group to discuss their ideas before writing them on paper. During a math lesson, I would have students work together to solve a problem and then discuss how they solved that problem. Such activities gave my students the opportunity to use their collectivistic skills in the learning process, thus building their confidence, communication, and problem-solving skills.

Using Language Acquisition Principles

A culturally and linguistically responsive environment also involves providing language supports for our ELLs. Researcher Stephen Krashen has noted language acquisition principles that help teachers create a supportive, nurturing place where language is learned through meaningful tasks and authentic interactions. Krashen reminds us that comprehension of language typically develops before the production of language and that conversational, or everyday, language develops more quickly than academic, or more formal, language. These principles can help us tailor supported opportunities for students to practice language within their Zone of Proximal Development.

So how does this play out in the classroom? To support the development of language, I used the following practices to support my students’ language growth, while still being able to share their knowledge and new learning.

  • Connect content to real life by inviting community members to the classroom to talk about their experiences, relate content to students’ lives, or provide students with real problems to solve. 
  • Nonverbal methods such as drawing or pointing to a picture/answer can be used by ELLs to demonstrate comprehension, even when they do not yet have the production language to verbally answer.
  • Provide opportunities for ELLs to work with a partner or in small groups. This will support their use and input of language.
  • Allow ELLs to use their first language when learning new concepts. This allows them to understand the concept, then learn the concept language, rather than learning both at the same time.

Employ Instructional Scaffolds

I often referred to instructional scaffolds as training wheels for learning—they are used as you are learning a new skill but are intended to be temporary until a skill is mastered. Instructional scaffolding involves understanding the specific, temporary instructional supports that a student needs and providing these supports. Once the student has mastered the skill or task, the scaffolding is gradually removed.

I often used the following scaffolds to help support student learning:

  • Various levels of questions to build students’ thinking, from the recall of information to answers that required synthesis or evaluation of ideas/information
  • Incorporating visual tools such as pictures and illustrations for science and social studies lessons and graphic organizers for reading to help students connect language to content
  • Supplementing texts with study guides, definitions of key vocabulary, and an outline of key events
  • Reading instruction that uses language modified texts and focuses on an interactive reading skills approach

Provide Effective Feedback

Instruction isn’t complete without effective feedback, because it provides students with information to improve upon a task, and why. I found that when I involved students in the process of assessing their work with rubrics, I was able to provide specific actions that focused on working toward not only the learning target at hand but also future assignments. This would later impact student assessments because students understood what actions were needed to successfully reach learning outcomes.

How can we ensure that our feedback will help our students grow? The following practices helped me provide feedback that was actionable and concrete for my students.

  •  Provide feedback in written and verbal form to ensure that the student understands what needs improvement and why. This can be done by annotating an assignment or meeting with students one-on-one to review a task with a rubric.
  • Give students specific information about their performance on a particular task. This can be done with the use of a rubric, which breaks down a learning task into individual elements.
  • Give feedback almost immediately after a student has demonstrated new learning. This will help the student make connections between the feedback and the task.

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  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Collaborative Learning
  • English Language Learners
  • Student Engagement

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