The goal of this paper was to find the strategies for teaching early literacy to students of a variety of cultural backgrounds. It explored studies that sought to illuminate the needs of different student groups and methods that teachers of emergent readers and writers could use to equitably teach all their students. By creating a bank of resources with these needs and methods, I hope to provide a chance for equity in the classroom where a teacher can give all their students an even chance at success.
The topic of race, culture, and class is huge. This paper is limited to the study of major ethnic, cultural, and class groups in the United States, and studies that help illuminate strategies that support literacy development for these groups. The focus was on strategies for emergent literacy development, and I focused an age range of grades from pre-kindergarten through 5th grade, with an emphasis on Kindergarten through 3rd grade. Some older students (late elementary and early middle school) are still acquiring the primary literacy skills that are the focus in the early years of elementary school, and some strategies for helping these students may be included as well, but are not a major focus of this paper. Some studies with older subjects may also have implications for students of all ages, and a few of these are included as well.
The National Reading Panel Report
The National Reading Panel released a report in 2000 detailing the best practice for teaching reading. It considered only experimental and quasi-experimental studies. The panel justified this action, because the report could turn into mandates for schools and the relationships between method and result needed to be very clear. The report was used as the basis for the Reading Excellence act instituted by George W. Bush and Secretary of Education Rod Paige in 2001 (Shanahan, 2002).
The panel found that there were six major elements to effective reading instruction, including conducting phonemic awareness activities, implementing systematic and explicit phonics instruction, using guided oral reading, encouraging children to read, using incidental and direct vocabulary instruction, and teaching children comprehension strategies(Shanahan, 2002).
Some in the educational community feel that the National Reading Panel left out important aspects of reading acquisition in the study. The report considered only studies of experimental design, but there is a large body of research that was left out of the study simply because it was of a different design (Hiebert & Adler, 2002). Qualitative and descriptive data was not considered (Shanahan, 2002). This research could be used to guide practice, but was not considered by the panel, and thus is not in the official government recommendation for teaching reading (Hiebert & Adler).
According to Hiebert and Adler (2002), the panel also failed to look into different types of instruction, such as the literature based reading instruction which is used in a majority of schools (p. 119). The panel also did not address the teaching of English to students who did not already know it, one of the most challenging and important jobs for a reading teacher. Because of the aspects of emergent literacy instruction that were left out of these studies, it is important to look to other sources for a more well rounded idea of strategies that work.
Because the panel did not differentiate their research for different types of students, the recommendations they make are based on the needs of the majority, which disadvantages minority students who may have different needs. By focusing on only quantitative studies, the panel is not considering the benefit using other types of research might have for students inside and outside the mainstream U.S. culture. By leaving out study on how to teach students who are language minority, the panel devalues their worth in the school system. Finding methods that work for all students, or including all students in its recommendations, would be a more equitable proposal than the one put forth by the National Reading Panel.
Another controversy in teaching multicultural students is the issue of being so called color-blind as a teacher. Treating all children the same in order to treat them fairly seems sensible, but in reality all students have different needs and some believe that treating them all one way disadvantages minority students. “Teachers [have] tried to become ‘color-blind’ in their classrooms in order to treat students equally. In doing so, they devalued the positive influences of the students’ natal communities” (Klug and Whitfield, 2003, p.41). Delpit (1995) states that when teachers attempt to not treat children differently based on race, they do their students a great disservice. Because the race of the child is not being recognized, the child may infer “that there is something wrong with being black or brown, and that it should not be noticed? I would like to suggest that if one does not see color, then one does not really see children.” (p. 177).
Some contend that teachers must recognize a student’s ethnicity, culture, and class as frame of reference, a resource, and something to be honored. If any of these things is ignored, a student’s education will suffer. In the struggle to treat all children equitably, some assume we must treat them equally, but many teachers who work with minority communities recognize that treating all children the same disadvantages minority students.
In review, because of current levels of diversity and a continuing trend towards even greater diversity, it is important to consider the needs and unique abilities of nonmajority students in order to have equitable schools where all students learn. If there is no consideration for culture, schools will leave more and more children behind as classrooms continue to diversify. The early years set the stage for all later schooling, so it is important for teachers of primary literacy take these needs into account. Teachers who attempt to be color blind, and not treat minority students differently, only further disadvantage students who will not succeed when treated the same as majority students. Teachers sometimes disadvantage students by overestimating or underestimating their abilities based on stereotypes.
The goal of this paper is to help teachers find methods of teaching a diverse student base that will provide resources for all types of students that a teacher can use in order to provide equitable education to all their students. The next Chapter will explore the history of schooling in America in relation to methods for teaching reading and the experiences diverse cultural groups have had in public schools. Since cultural differences have caused conflict and misunderstandings in the classroom throughout history, it is important to keep in mind our purpose here, to find ways to help all children succeed. In order to help children of different cultures to learn as much as they can, it is important for teachers to understand the history that culture has experienced.