Native Americans With Limited Proficiency in English

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 21, 2007 1 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I’ve been here in Rapid City, S.D., most of the week attending an “Indian Education Summit” hosted by the South Dakota Department of Education. Because of the loss of indigenous languages in Indian country, most American Indian children these days speak English as their first language. A local educator here (who declined to tell me his age except to say he’s lived “many winters”) told me, for example, that he’s one of the 2 percent of Lakota people who are fluent in Lakota.

In a breakout session about teaching strategies that take into consideration the culture of Native Americans, Sandra F. Fox, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation and a consultant for Native American education based in Albuquerque, recommended that educators plan lessons to help Native American children to develop English skills as well as content. “Most Indian children don’t fall in the category of limited-English-proficient, but they are,” she said. “That’s why their test scores are so low.”

She urged teachers who work with Native American students to teach through thematic units because, with that approach, words and phrases relevant to the theme tend to be repeated, which helps children to learn them. Ms. Fox is also an advocate of helping American Indian children to access “Indian literature,” books and stories about Native people.

As a former employee for Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, which are now called Bureau of Indian Education schools, Ms. Fox created materials that match Indian literature with themes teachers tend to teach in kindergarten through 3rd grade. She told me she’s happy to send those materials to readers of this blog free of charge. Request the materials by contacting her through e-mail at

I’m thinking that non-Native English-language learners would benefit from some of these thematic lessons linked to stories about American Indian people as well. Whenever I meet American Indian people and hear more of their stories, I feel cheated that I didn’t learn more about them in school.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.