This paper reviews 30 articles relevant to the effective primary literacy instruction in a multicultural classroom. The history of multicultural teaching in America has shown itself to be a subtractive process, in which there have been attempts to force minority cultures to assimilate to majority values, cultural practices, and language. This is the context into which many students of minority cultures enter into school. Identifying culturally relevant teaching practices is vital to the success of these students. The use of multicultural literature, acceptance by the teacher of a student’s use of heritage language and dialects, and specific culturally relevant methods for teaching reading are discussed as ways to engage students and to help all people’s children succeed in learning to read.
Statement of the Research Question and Rationale
What are teaching methods that help students from diverse culture and class backgrounds succeed in learning to read? This question is important because classrooms are becoming more and more diverse. According to Willis (2002), the shifting demographics will continue to construct an increasingly diverse American society.
Students from minority cultures were approximately thirty six percent of the school population in 2000 (Willis). About sixty three percent of students in schools are Caucasian, seventeen percent are African American, fourteen percent are Hispanic, four percent are Asian American or Pacific Islander, and fewer than two percent are Native American (Willis, p. 151). There is also great diversity among these groups, due to immigrant status, country of origin, and other cultural subgroups. The less than two percent of Native American students alone are comprised of 280 different tribes that “…differ in terms of their language, traditions, economics, and social interactions” (Willis, p. 152). According to Riccio et al. (2001), “the number of Hispanic immigrants in the United States continues to increase… and it is estimated that by 2020, one in four children in U.S. schools will be Hispanic, with even greater proportions in specific regions of the country” (p. 585). Looking at these statistics, it is clear that many classrooms will have on significant percentage of their population consisting of children who are linguistically and culturally diverse.
Teachers have students who come from a variety of backgrounds, and these student groups will continue to grow, and diversify. Differences of race, ethnicity, class, immigrant status, and language of origin are factors teachers have to consider in determining a student’s needs. Since children learn to make meaning through their experiences with their culture, the strategies for teaching reading that work with mainstream students will not necessarily be effective with students from minority backgrounds (Willis, 2002, 150). Treating all students as if they have the same educational needs will normalize the majority. This can leave many students who already belong to oppressed groups even further disadvantaged, creating inequity in the classroom.
The early years of literacy training are some of the most important for the rest of a child’s time in school. According to Barone (2003), children’s achievement in literacy in the early grades is the best predictor of their future success in reading, and “the quality of instruction in kindergarten and the primary grades is the single best weapon against reading failure” (p. 970). Lane, Menzies, Munton, Von Duering, and English (2005) concur, stating that “if children have not learned to read by the fourth grade, they have an 88% probability of never learning to read, even if intervention is put in place”(p. 21).
Considering this phenomenon in the context of the multicultural, multilingual classroom, it is important to find ways to help students from all backgrounds succeed in early reading acquisition.
In order to be effective as a teacher of literacy, it is important to know the background of all students and how cultural factors could affect their learning. It is also important to use these factors as resources and skills rather than as problems to overcome. According to Delpit (1995), “Schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background, but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate (sic) strategies appropriate for all the children it confines” (p.30). By using strategies that work for all students in a classroom, a teacher can be confident that success is attainable for all.
The teaching that goes on in most schools reflects middle class norms and values. For students who do not fit this mold, that education will not help them achieve as much as instruction based on their needs. “To provide schooling for everyone’s children that reflects liberal, middle-class values and aspirations is to ensure the maintenance of the status quo, to ensure that power, the culture of power, remains in the hands of those who already have it” (Delpit, 1995, 28). If we want to give students a chance at upward mobility and an equitable chance in life, teachers must provide education that evens the playing field.
Many times teachers recognize ethnicity, culture, and language and use it to stereotype children. While it is important to consider these factors of the student’s identity as resources, it is never acceptable to make assumptions about individual students. For example, some Asian Pacific American students’ “culturally influenced, nondisruptive classroom behavior, along with the teacher’s stereotype of ‘good Asian students,’ … [can lead to him or] her not receiving appropriate instruction” (Delpit, 1995, p.171). Even though the teacher is assuming the student is more able than he or she is, the student is still being done a disservice because their needs are not met. Conversely, teachers can also use ethnicity, culture, and language to track minority students into programs meant for less able students. For Native American students, “The cultural deficit model continued to drive the engine programming education for students with ‘special needs.’ Many of these children were identified on the basis of their cultures and languages, not on the basis of their abilities” (Klug and Whitfield, 2003, p.41). This occurs not only for Native American students, but for other minority groups as well. Teachers often attribute limited Standard English production to be a sign of a student not being able or intelligent, and that is not the case in most situations. Similarly, understanding the role dialect plays will help provide new teaching approaches to enhance achievement in African American and other students (Charity, Scarborough, and Griffin, 2004). Many of these students are highly intelligent, and are tracked into special education or vocational programs instead of being given their rightful chance at an education because their language does not match the standard English dialect.
It is important to study the needs and special abilities of the diverse types of students encountered in today’s schools. In order to be effective and equitable teachers, it is necessary to provide instruction in a way that all students have a chance at success.
This means recognizing a student’s identity, and using it to empower rather than hold back.
In order to continue, it is important to define the terms used in this paper so we can move forward with a consistent understanding of the author’s meaning.
Emergent Literacy is used here to refer to the early literacy experiences of young people just coming into their abilities as readers. It would refer to the early elementary grades, and deals mostly with ways in which students acquire the ability to read.
Wiencek, Cipielewski, Vazzano, and Sturken, (1998) define emergent literacy as “behaviors that precede and develop into conventional literacy” (p. 1).
Culture is a multifaceted word that we can use to mean many different things. It is not the same as ethnicity, or race, but rather encompasses the norms and values of a specific group of people. Delpit (1995) identified several aspects that make up culture, “…linguistic forms, communicative strategies… presentation of self; that is, ways of talking, ways of writing, ways of dressing, and ways of interacting” (p.25). Religion, country of origin, ethnicity, and many other factors all influence culture.
It is important to identify a distinction, though, between culture and ethnicity.
Ethnicity is used here to refer to a person’s race. Though race can not be defined genetically, it is a cultural construct that has a history of defining people in this country and in the world at large. It manifests itself in particular physical characteristics common in specific races. I used it here because it is a factor that has grouped people historically and continues to do so today. Race can be attached to culture, but it can also be a less strong influence on the culture of some students who may be part of a minority race, but part of the mainstream culture. There has been a long, unfortunately somewhat effective, history of attempts to eradicate minority cultures by the U.S. government. A teacher must not assume by the color of a child’s skin that his/her race is attached to a specific culture we might identify with that race, but rather understand that it might and learn from the child what their culture is.
Different terms were used to describe racial groups. Tatum (1997) preferred to use the terms that the people themselves prefer. The terms Native American, Native, and Indian are here used interchangeably. Many Native Americans use the term Indian or American Indian to describe themselves. Asian Pacific American is used to describe people of Asian descent, as well as the actual nationality when possible, such as Chinese or Chinese American. For African Americans, the preceding term, or Black, which many African Americans prefer, is used. Hispanic, Latino, or the country of origin is used to describe students from Mexico, Central, and South America, and the descendants of immigrants from these locations.
It was also important to define class. Here it was used to describe a person’s socioeconomic status, or their access to monetary resources and the benefits that go along with that. Most teachers today work within a decidedly middle class system, though they work with children from both upper class and students living in poverty, or the poor working class. It is the students in poverty that this paper most concerned itself with.
There are students in situational poverty and generational poverty (Payne, 1996). Poverty does not deal only with the presence or absence of money, but with the cultural way people interact in different types of poverty, mainly situational and generational.
Situational poverty is a situation in which a person has most of the cultural resources from a middle class background, while a generational poverty situation is one in which the family has been poor for at least two generations. People from different financial backgrounds, including generational poverty, situational poverty, middle class, and wealth, will have much different resources to deal with the difficulties of life. There are ways of handling situations that have to do with financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical resources, as well as relationships/role models to help you deal with problems and hidden rules of interactions for different classes that people from another group may not understand or be able to overcome. (Payne, 1996, p.7). Someone in situational poverty likely knows the hidden rules for the middle class, and has the resources that come along with it, if not the monetary resources. Often it is easier to escape situational poverty than generational poverty because of these resources.
Another term that may be used in this paper is African American English. This is the term Craig, Connor, and Washington (2003) used for the dialect spoken by many African Americans in this country. There are different terms used for this in different studies, such as Black Vernacular English or Ebonics, but the term African American English, or AAE, is used throughout the paper.
Multicultural literature is also addressed in this paper, and is often defined by “the character’s physical attributes, languages, and status as members of marginalized groups” (Harris, 2002, p. 368). The term can also define the author or illustrator of the book if he or she be of a minority group.
Another subject that comes up often in this research is Phonics and Phonemic or Phonological Awareness. Phonics can be defined as the association of letters (graphemes) with the phoneme (sound) it represents (Morrow, Holt, and Sass, 2002).
Phonemic or Phonological awareness is the ability of a student to identify the different sounds in oral words, and manipulate them.