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Relating curriculum to culture key in educating English language learners with disabilities, researchers argue

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

LAWRENCE — For as long as people have been teaching, they have tried to put a new idea or concept “in terms you’ll understand.” But believe it or not, new teachers are often not trained how to put ideas into terms their students will understand when working across cultural and linguistic lines.

University of Kansas researchers have recently published a study arguing that culturally responsive teaching — or relating new ideas to the cultural and linguistic experiences students are familiar with — is vitally important, especially when working with English language learners with disabilities.

Michael OroscoThe qualitative case study examines the work of a teacher in a large public school district in the Southwestern United States tasked with teaching reading to a class of English language learners with learning disabilities. An inner-city teacher with 10 years’ experience, bilingual, with a master’s degree in education, “Mrs. Estrella” had received training in culturally-responsive teaching. In relating reading curriculum to experiences that students were familiar with, she engaged her students more thoroughly and annually improved their scores on the Woodcock-Muñoz Language Survey Revised Passage Comprehension Test.

Michael Orosco, associate professor of special education, and Naheed Abdulrahim, a doctoral student in special education and Chancellor’s Fellow at KU, detailed their work in an article published in the journal Educational Borderlands. The authors detail several examples of how Mrs. Estrella, in working with her elementary students, was able to link reading curriculum to experiences the students had, such as sewing with family members, attending rodeos or discussing family traditions, all of which were themes in their reading assignments. Orosco and Abdulrahim focused on a teacher having success with English language learners with disabilities in third, fourth and fifth grades, as that is the age when students learning English are most often placed in special education classes.

“You would begin to see the kids engaged in the activity, their eyes would light up and they would take part in the discussions. That was a sign they were starting to comprehend,” Orosco said. “She connected the contents of the story to their backgrounds, and connected the unknown to the known.”

As simple as the practice may sound, culturally responsive teaching is lacking in policy, practice and in training for future teachers. Most teachers lack the preparation, expertise and experience to teach reading and other subjects to English language learners. It is also largely unaddressed in educational research.

Federal education policy has largely omitted the idea of culturally responsive teaching since bilingual education fell out of favor in the 1990s, the authors say. It also often has to be vague, leaving leeway for state policy, but very few include culturally responsive teaching as a requirement for future educators.

Research has shown, however, that many teachers in the field feel unprepared to try teaching concepts to students from cultural and linguistic backgrounds different than their own, even when curriculum is diverse and opportunities exist to make connections between classroom materials and students’ life experiences.

Making those connections is especially important for English language learners with learning disabilities, for whom simply reading text and comprehending is more challenging. However, direct skills-based instruction devoid of cultural and linguistic connections is still the standard approach. Most “evidence-based” practices have not been sufficiently validated for diverse populations. Higher education and teacher preparation programs would be well-served to educate future teachers in how to undertake culturally responsive teaching matched with evidence-based skills instruction, the authors write.

Research can also play a role, not only in better understanding how such approaches can be successful, but in translating the findings into methods teachers can put to work in the classroom. The majority of evidence based research is large-scale, quantitative designed work, aimed at developing new methods and interventions. Although often considered the “gold standard” of research, the approach has an important role. Experimental research studies tell us what works best with the majority of students in a research sample, not all students. Some practices that may be effective have not yet been fully researched.

Qualitative research helps us understand why a practice works or not and factors that can affect implementation, Orosco said. Observation studies in the classrooms of effective teachers tell us a lot about the attributes of successful teachers and the characteristics of effective instruction. It is one thing to tell educators and school administrators that research shows an approach will work, and another to help them understand how to make it work in their own schools with their English language learner population.

“We have very little research in this area. The bulk of it has been quantitative, based on the principle that evidence based practices or interventions should be based on scientific research evidence about ‘what works.’ However, it is essential to find out what works with whom, by whom, for what purposes and in what contexts,” Orosco said. “When you go out and talk to teachers about research, they often say ‘I don’t know what to do with this. These evidence- based approaches are not working with my ELL students. Who decided if these recommended practices were appropriate with ELLs? Shouldn’t it have been validated with students like those with whom it would be applied to?’

"Large experimental design based on the medical model can show what medicine is working, but when this type of thinking has been applied in education, generalizations on the medication have been found to be limited to the particular sample that it has been tested on because the social world goes through such rapid changes.”

The demographics of the United States have been steadily changing for years, and nearly every teacher will work with English language learners at some point in their career. Being prepared to put a lesson in terms the students will understand — especially those who are English language learners with disabilities — is vital in helping students boost their reading scores and reach their full educational potential.

“When you use new teaching methods, the question is always ‘are you getting gains,’” Orosco said. “These kids weren’t doing well, but when their teacher started using culturally responsive teaching the students started improving their comprehension and made gains ever year.”

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