Why Culture Matters when Teaching English Learners

Kate Fritz
Kate Fritz
LIEP Supervisor for PA School Districts; M.A. in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist
A boy holds the Spain flag, doing a thumbs-up.

We often think of English learners as simply students who do not speak English. This is a highly over-simplified understanding of students within this population. Our understanding of English learners and how to best serve them educationally is much deeper and wider. There are many myths and misconceptions that, unless otherwise informed, will hinder academic growth and achievement and create harm to English learners.

Even teachers who are student-centered with instruction, create engaging learning opportunities, utilize data, and other pedagogical best practices can still miss the mark with English learners if they are not culturally competent and responsive. We know from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that all humans need to feel safe and experience a sense of belonging before reaching their full potential academically.

School cultural norms have evolved little over centuries unless purposefully redesigned by school leaders and teachers who are willing to challenge these norms. Recognizing that everything we do in schools reflects culture and that we, as educators, are transmitters of culture ourselves has led many educators and researchers to realize that continuing to function as we always have is not creating a sense of inclusion and belonging for students of other cultures. Furthermore, research shows that valuing and affirming the identities and cultures of others has a positive correlation to academic achievement in the classroom.

Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education

This is where culturally responsive-sustaining education comes in when teaching English learners. The Education Alliance at Brown University cites the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings, credited with the theory of culturally relevant pedagogy, in their definition of culturally responsive teaching as “a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning.” It is an approach to teaching English learners that makes meaningful connections between school and the students’ cultural experiences, languages, and life outside of school.

What are Cultural Identifiers?

Cultural identity refers to identification with, or sense of belonging to, a particular group based on various cultural categories, including nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, and religion. While we often think of food, music, holidays, and language as primary cultural examples, there are actually many more ways that culture impacts students in schools.

Additional examples of cultural identifiers include gender roles, how parents view their role in education, generational roles, religious beliefs, discipline and behavioral expectations including what respect looks like, personal space, facial expressions, tone of voice, concept of time, notions of courtesy and manners, attitudes toward authority, and more.

How Do They Impact Our Classrooms?

In my role as LIEP Supervisor, I provide professional development to educators around how best to meet the needs of English learners in the classroom. The first thing we discuss are misconceptions that relate to English learners, specifically about culture. In the geographic area that we are in, the primary home language of English learners is Spanish.

When I ask what strategies teachers are using to help English learners in the classroom, their most frequent response is, “I partner the English Learner with another student who speaks Spanish.” While this may be a support to some students, what it really displays is a lack of cultural understanding on the part of the teacher.

There are over 20 countries whose primary language is Spanish. All these countries have varying dialects of Spanish, and other languages are spoken within them as well. For example, a student may come from Guatemala so it would be natural to assume that they speak Spanish, but it is not uncommon for Guatemalan students to speak one of the other 18 languages spoken in Guatemala instead of Spanish. It is also essential to understand the implicit hierarchy of power between Hispanic/Latino cultures, as discrimination among native countries of origin is rampant.

Another way that cultural identifiers impact our classrooms is through discipline. It is not uncommon for teachers who lack cultural understanding of familial and gender roles to inadvertently cause harm or escalate a disciplinary situation out of ethnocentrism. In Haitian homes, it is common for young men to be seen and treated as the head of their household.

When that same 15-year-old male student comes to school, they are treated as a child who falls under the authority of the classroom teacher. This role reversal upon entering the school building daily can be hard for a teenager to grasp and frustrating to a teacher if they misinterpret this cultural identifier in their student. Often, small and simple situations can escalate to a point where the teacher and student both perceive that they are being disrespected.

Lastly, some cultures find it disrespectful for students to not look the adult in the eyes when the adult speaks to them. In other cultures, looking the adult in the eyes is disrespectful. This frustrates adults who do not understand cultural differences around communication.

These are only a few examples of how culture can play a role in the classroom with English learners. It is important to note that culture matters in schools and classrooms with students who are not identified as English learners, as well.

We all carry culture with us every day. It’s not an option to leave it behind, and no one should have to drop their own culture or assimilate to another to succeed and achieve at work or school. It may also be easier for some of us to code-switch at work or school depending on the degree to which the culture of our school varies from our own and the degree to which a purposeful sense of inclusion and belonging is fostered, and cultural responsiveness is prioritized.

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