ERIC Identifier: ED317273
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Bowman, Barbara T.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Educating Language-Minority Children.
Why can't all Americans just speak standard English? This plaintive question
reflects the distress many citizens feel about the linguistic diversity in the
schools. In many school districts, languages of Central and South America,
Africa, and Asia mix with American dialects, creating classrooms in which
communication is difficult. Across America, children are not learning essential
lessons in school. In the next decade or two, the problem will become even more
serious. Language-minority children will become the majority in public schools,
seriously straining the capacity of those institutions.
In a nation increasingly composed of people who speak different languages and
dialects, the old notion of melting them together through the use of a common
language is once again attractive. Requiring all children to speak the same
language at a high level of proficiency would make the task of educating them a
good deal easier. Unfortunately, what seems quite good in theory is difficult to
put into practice. In this instance, the interrelationship of culture, language,
and the children's development may make a common language difficult to obtain.
CULTURE, LANGUAGE, AND DEVELOPMENT
Differences in the ways
groups think and act are more than a matter of using different words or
performing different actions for the same purposes. Differences in cultures are
more substantial than whether members of a community eat white bread, corn pone,
or tortillas. The behavior of people varies, and the beliefs, values, and
assumptions that underlie behavior differ as well. Culture influences both
behavior and the psychological processes on which it rests. Culture forms a
prism through which members of a group see the world and create shared meanings.
And a group's culture is reflected by the group's language.
Child development follows a pattern similar to that of culture. Major
structural changes in children, such as language learning, arise from the
interaction of biology and experience. Such changes are remarkably similar in
kind and sequence among cultural groups. But the knowledge and skills--the
cultural learning--the child acquires at various ages depend on the child's
family and community.
Learning a primary language is a developmental milestone. However, which
language a child learns and the uses to which that language is put are
determined by the culture. As the ideas from a child's social world are brought
to bear through the guidance of the older members of the community, children
come to share meanings with their elders.
Classroom discourse presents children with the challenge of learning new
rules for communication. The use of formal language, teacher control of verbal
exchanges, question-and-answer formats, and references to increasingly abstract
ideas characterize the classroom environment. To the extent that these new rules
overlap with those that children have already learned, classroom communication
is made easier. But children whose past experience with language is not
congruent with the new rules will have to learn ways to make meaning before they
can use language to learn in the classroom.
When teachers and students come from different cultures or use different
languages or dialects, teachers may be unaware of variations between their
understanding of a context and their students'; between their expectations for
behavior and the children's inclinations. When children and adults do not share
common experiences and beliefs, adults are less able to help children encode
their thoughts in language.
TEACHING CHILDREN FROM DIFFERENT CULTURES
the challenge of teaching children from different cultural communities are
hard-pressed to decide what constitutes an appropriate curriculum. If children
from some groups are hesitant to speak up in school, how can teachers organize
expressive language experiences? If children from some groups are dependent on
nonverbal cues for meaning, how can teachers stress word meaning? How can
teachers test for mastery of the curriculum if children do not speak a standard
language or use the same styles of communication? Cultural diversity makes it
hard for teachers to assess each child's developmental status, find common
educational experiences to promote growth, and measure the achievement of
Given the complex interaction between culture and development, is it possible
to design a developmentally appropriate curriculum? If that question implies
that the same curriculum can be used for all children, the answer must be "no."
However, the following developmental principles can provide a conceptual
framework for teachers trying to bridge the gap between children's cultural
backgrounds and school objectives.
GUIDELINES FOR TEACHERS
First, teachers need to learn to
recognize developmentally equivalent patterns of behavior. Before children come
to school, they have all learned many of the same things, such as a primary
language and communication styles. Although these developmental accomplishments
may look different, they are developmentally equivalent. When a child does not
respond to the social and cognitive expectations of the school, the teacher
should look for a developmentally equivalent task to which the child will
respond. A child who does not separate buttons correctly can be asked to sort
car logos or other personally relevant artifacts. A child who does not listen to
stories about the seasons may be spellbound by a story about an ice skater.
Teachers with doubts about the development of culturally different children
should assume that the children are normal and look at them again, recognizing
that their own vision may be clouded by cultural myopia.
Second, it is essential not to value some ways of achieving developmental
milestones more highly than others. Asa Hilliard and Mona Vaughn-Scott point out
that because the behavior of African-American children is so different from that
of their white peers, African-American children are often judged to be
deficient, rather than different, in their development. Young children who speak
languages other than English, or who speak nonstandard dialects, are often
reluctant to give up this connection to their group. When such children find
that the way they talk is not understood or appreciated in school, they are apt
to become confused or disengaged. And their rejection by the school presages
their rejection of school.
Third, teachers need to begin instruction with interactive styles and content
that is familiar to the children. Whether this entails speaking in the child's
primary language, using culturally appropriate styles of address, or relying on
patterns of management familiar to the children, the purpose is to establish a
basis for communication. While fluency in a child's primary language may not be
possible for many teachers, they can nonetheless become more adept at planning
and implementing a culturally sensitive curriculum. Such a curriculum
encompasses more than tasting parties, ethnic costumes, and shopworn
introductions to practices of people from different nations or racial groups. In
order to teach such a curriculum, teachers must come to grips with their own
Fourth, school learning is most likely to occur when family values reinforce
school expectations. Parents and other community members must view school
achievement as a desirable and attainable goal if children are to build it into
their sense of self. Interpreting the school's agenda for parents is one of the
most important tasks for teachers.
Fifth, when differences exist between the cultural patterns of the home and
community and those of the school, teachers must deal with these discrepancies
directly. Teachers and children must create shared understandings and new
contexts that give meaning to the knowledge and skills being taught. Learning
mediated by teachers who are affectionate, interested, and responsive has
greater sticking power than learning mediated by an adult who is perceived as
impersonal and distant.
Sixth, for children from different racial and ethnic groups, meanings of
words, gestures, and actions may differ. Assessment of learning outcomes
presents a formidable problem when children misunderstand the teacher's requests
for information or demonstrations of knowledge and skills. Formal assessment
should be delayed until teachers and children have built a set of new meanings.
A developmentally appropriate curriculum can never be standardized in a
multicultural community. But thoughtful teachers can use principles of child
development to make the new context of school meaningful and to safeguard the
self-confidence of children.
This digest was adapted from the article "Educating Language-Minority
Children: Challenges and Opportunities," which appeared in the October, 1989
issue of PHI DELTA KAPPAN, copyright 1989.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Carter, Margie. "Honoring Diversity:
Problems and Possibilities for Staff and Organization." CHILD CARE INFORMATION
EXCHANGE, 59 (1988): 43-47.
Corder, Linda J., and Nancy L. Quisenberry. "Early Education and
Afro-Americans: History, Assumptions and Implications for the Future." CHILDHOOD
EDUCATION, 63 (1987): 154-158.
Hilliard, Asa, and Vaughn-Scott, Mona. "The Quest for the Minority Child," in
Shirley G. Moore and Catherine R. Cooper, eds., THE YOUNG CHILD: REVIEWS OF
RESEARCH, VOL. 3. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of
Young Children, 1982.
Phillips, Carol Brunson. "Nurturing Diversity for Today's Children and
Tomorrow's Leaders." YOUNG CHILDREN, 43 (1988): 42-47.