Section I: Instruction

Zaretta Hammond is a writer and consultant who specializes in the science of teaching and learning. “Becoming culturally responsive starts with showing genuine caring that recognizes the unique gifts and talents of every child, particularly when that child doesn’t look [or sound] like you,” she says. “Imagine going through school without feeling affirmed for the way you speak, think or see the world? I can bet that doesn’t generate a lot of happy feelings … .”

Bringing a culturally responsive lens to instruction benefits every student; for ELL students this approach can be the difference between engagement and alienation in the classroom. Regardless of whether families opt in or out of specialized ELL instruction, consider a review of how your classroom practice responds to the specific talents, interests and needs of your ELL students.

ELL Best Practices Boy and American Flag
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

Culturally Responsive ELL Instruction

Create a responsive room environment.
A classroom should reflect the identities of the children who learn there. Think about the posters, flags, images and people featured on your classroom walls. Do all your ELL students see themselves in the decor?

Make the curriculum relevant.
Embed stories, readings and perspectives that focus on history, immigration and community into the units you teach. This will create opportunities to bring personal stories to the classroom. It will also show students that their lives are a part of the United States’ long history of changing borders and movements of people.

Use a variety of teaching modalities.
Movement, call-and-response, claps, stomps, chants and cheers are all ways to get—and keep—the attention of students who may not understand every word. These approaches also offer opportunities to make memorable connections to the curriculum. Graphic organizers, sentence stems, Visual Thinking Strategies and journals are just a few instructional strategies educators can incorporate to make the curriculum more accessible and less intimidating to ELL students.

Familiarize yourself with cultural norms.
Respect looks different in different parts of the world. Don’t make assumptions about ELL students without seeking out some information about the messages their behavior may be sending.

Get to know your students’ contextual skills and educational backgrounds.
Educational structures and norms vary from country to country. Making assumptions—for example that students are used to interacting with printed materials—can impede your instructional relationship. Similarly, informally assessing kids for skills such as using scissors, writing on lined paper, writing the date or using art supplies can save students from embarrassment in front of teachers and peers.

Distinguish between academic English and conversational/home English.
Some ELL students speak conversational English at home but are less familiar with academic English. Rather than seeing this as a deficit and continually correcting students’ use of their home language, show them similarities and differences, creating bridges between home and academic English. As a general rule, it takes 5 to 7 years to become proficient in conversational English and 7 to 11 years to reach proficiency in academic English. It is also important to note that, although some students may speak conversational English well, they may still need ELL services to help them with academic English skills.

Honor your students' first languages.
If you know a student is literate in another language, find ways to bring it into the classroom and celebrate its use at home and at school.


Teacher Leadership Spotlight

Model cultural competency outside the classroom by making sure the voices and concerns of ELL students and families are heard at the school leadership and district levels. Using the Social Justice Standards as a jumping off point, initiate courageous schoolwide conversations about the issues that face your students and how to best address those issues and serve each student equitably. Engage your school and community by starting a multicultural group or an ELL family advisory committee. If your school has a large immigrant population, bring in a therapist who specializes in immigration issues to address stress and anxiety from the newcomer perspective or host speakers from national and local agencies to address topics related to immigration.


Teacher Leadership Spotlight

Does your school library offer a variety of books written in every language spoken at your school? If not, organize a task force to diversify the bookshelves in your school. Reach out to families for title recommendations, and consider using Reading Diversity, a tool to help your taskforce select texts that support critical literacy, cultural responsiveness and complexity.


See Appendix A for a list of anti-bias teaching strategies ideal for use with ELL students.

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