To the Editor:
A few additional points regarding your article “Evidence on Effect of Culture-Based Teaching Called Thin” (Jan. 9, 2008), in which my work was discussed:
The article dealt with language-minority students—students from non-English-speaking homes who are not proficient in English. This category is problematic, since it omits African-American-language speakers. These students can be considered language-minority, since they are not speakers of “standard English.” But we tend to draw arbitrary lines that exclude them from the “language minority” designation. Coincidentally (or not), there is more research suggesting that culturally accommodated instruction promotes achievement for black students than there is for students typically considered “language minorities.”
The strongest evidence the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth found for the achievement benefits of culturally accommodated instruction was that using material with familiar content improves reading comprehension. The question is whether “familiar content” has to be part of the students’ home culture, or if “familiar” simply means familiar.
The panel found that culturally familiar reading content promoted reading comprehension, but it also reviewed a study which found that Latino and non-Latino children knew about polar bears and comprehended a passage about them equally well. Polar bears are obviously not part of any “Latino culture”; the animal was probably something students learned about in school.
Teachers should try to use reading material with familiar content for students who face the double challenge of learning a language and content simultaneously. What is familiar, however, should not be limited to what is part of students’ natal cultures. Teachers influence what students are “familiar” with.
Regardless of culturally accommodated instruction’s “effects,” educators should know and respect students’ cultures. Using materials, events, and customs from their lives probably helps students feel more connected to their classrooms, while also teaching them about other cultures. These are good things. But educators should realize we are far from being able to say that educating this group of language-minority students in this or that culturally accommodated way will lead to better achievement. Maybe someday.
In the meantime, we would all be better off knowing more about the varieties of human experiences, those of our students included. It should simply be part of what being educated and an educator means.
Professor of Education
The writer is the executive director of the Center for Language Minority Education and Research at California State University-Long Beach, and a member of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth.
A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Language-Learners and Culture-Based Teaching