Reflections from Teachers of Culturally Diverse Children (page 3)

By — National Association for the Education of Young Children
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

Misconception 4—If you want children to learn English, just speak English

Prior to the workshop series, several Latino parents had expressed concern because their children’s teachers had advised them to speak and read in English and to avoid speaking Spanish at home because it confuses their children. “I can’t speak English,” one parent said through an interpreter. “What can I do?”

Young children are able to learn more than one language well, and children who fully develop two languages enjoy cognitive advantages, especially in the areas of divergent thinking and linguistic competence (Baker 2001). Children who become balanced bilinguals (develop equal competence in both languages) can differentiate between languages and accurately switch languages when appropriate. In a study of Puerto Rican children in the United States, the children developed complex linguistic abilities at a young age, accurately switching between English and Spanish depending upon their perceptions of their audience (Zentella 1997).

To illustrate the absurdity of requiring non-English speaking parents to use only English with their children, one workshop presenter displayed a drawing of a smiling dog wearing dentures and asked the teachers to work in small groups to develop rich descriptions of the illustration. Participants read their sentences aloud, displaying their native English linguistic abilities. Next the presenter asked teachers to again generate descriptive sentences, but this time in a second language. None of the teacher participants was able to do so. “And if you were able to,” the presenter asked, “would your writing have the same quality and richness as it did when you wrote in English?” Throughout the room, teachers shook their heads.

The point was made. The teachers saw the importance of encouraging parents to use their most proficient and richest language when speaking with their children. “Now I really understand [the damage] we do when we ask parents to only speak English—now I know,” said one teacher. Encouraging parents to read to their children in their richest language builds English language reading because abilities developed in the first language transfer to English. Reading in the first language also keeps parents with limited English proficiency involved in their children’s literacy development. Children also benefit from reading to their parents in English. Parents who attended Family Literacy Nights often borrowed both tape recorders and English books on tape so they could read with their children.

Most teachers gained a greater understanding of the complexity of language and second language literacy. As one kindergarten teacher summarized, “Being immersed in Spanish reading was good for me. This role playing was so important. We were reading a Big Book [in Spanish], and I was trying to figure out from the pictures what was going on. It was difficult for me even though the readers were very expressive and asked many questions. I could imagine a child in my classroom when I’m reading a Big Book. As a teacher I often think, ‘The book has pictures; it’s expressive and repetitive.’ I ask questions to build comprehension so the child should understand. Yet these same strategies didn’t work for me. How would these alone work for a child who is learning the language?”

Lessons from the professional development initiative

The majority of teachers who participated in the professional development series indicated that the workshop content, combined with the invaluable interaction with families, promoted greater understanding and empathy. As one teacher said, “When you work one-on-one with anyone, it breaks down some of the misconceptions.”

Some teachers who expressed the greatest changes in their perceptions and perspectives indicated that they would benefit from ongoing workshops and regularly scheduled interactive activities with families outside the school setting. Of the 27 participants, there were two teachers who reported that they had experienced little change in their understanding of cultural diversity and multiple perspectives.

Implications for culturally diverse students

Further study is needed to understand how these teachers’ increased empathy and competence shapes their classroom practice, relationships with families, and ultimately the success of their students. But the initial results of the effectiveness of the Family Literacy Nights on student achievement are promising. The school district used the Survey of Out-of-School Youth Outcomes (SAYO) (Miller & Surr 2002) to measure behavioral changes in children in grades K–3. (The SAYO is not normed for pre-K.) According to those results, children who participated in the Family Literacy Night program demonstrated statistically significant progress (p.05) in the areas of reading, verbal communication, and overall behavior during the school year.

Although this professional development model focused on Latino cultures and mainstream teachers, such learning experiences can be adapted for use in schools with other cultural and ethnic populations. Everyone benefits when we get to know the children in our classrooms.

Developing Cultural Competence: Suggestions for Teachers

Illustrating the Complexity of Learning a Second Language

  • Take a cultural/linguistic immersion trip by dining at authentic ethnic restaurants where English is not spoken and you’re not sure of the cultural norms. Remember, any sense of discomfort is temporary; you can return to your English-speaking environment. Although visiting a place where another language is spoken is by no means the equivalent of living in a culture in which one does not know the mainstream language, it can provide some initial insight into such a predicament.
  • Value the burgeoning bilingualism of your second-language learners. Choose good multilingual children’s books (both fiction and nonfiction) for your classroom. Encourage parents to communicate with and read to their children in their first language as well as English.
  • Imagine completing an educational degree in another language. Consider the linguistic sophistication it would require.
  • Explore research on second-language acquisition (such as Baker 2001). The National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA—www.ncela/ provides information and resources in English and Spanish for teachers, families, and community members; Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL— provides lists of resources for teachers; and the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE— features research articles and many references.
Developing Cultural Competence: Suggestions for Teachers

Fostering Empathy

  • Get to know families in their homes, neighborhoods, or places of worship. Talk with parents and discover the diverse strengths within families. Explore family customs and history and make these an integral part of your curriculum.
  • Be aware of your own feelings and reactions when visiting culturally different communities. By placing yourself in situations that cause a sense of cultural disequilibrium, you can better understand how the children and their families feel when they come to school.
  • Read adult literature about other cultures written by authors from those cultures. For example, for Latino cultures, consider the writings of Julia Alvarez, Esmeralda Santiago, Sandra Cisneros, or Gary Soto. Authentic multicultural literature is available at many public libraries, large book stores, and online retailers.
  • View My Brown Eyes (Koh 1994) with a colleague. Keep notes of your reactions and share your ideas with each other.
  • Read educational books that recognize and celebrate differences in young children, such as Other People’s Children (Delpit 1995), White Teacher (Paley 2005), The Girl with the Brown Crayon (Paley 1997), Kwanzaa and Me (Paley 1995), and The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities (Nieto 1999).
Developing Cultural Competence: Suggestions for Teachers

Becoming an Advocate

  • Explore Whiteness and its privilege in such books as We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know (Howard 1999), and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Tatum 2003). Read What If All the Kids Are White? Anti-bias/Multicultural Education with White Children (Derman-Sparks & Ramsey 2006). Also see Derman-Sparks and Ramsey’s Young Children article (based on their book) “What If All the Children in My Class Are White? Anti-bias/Multicultural Education with White Children” (November 2005, pp. 20–27) and their article “What If All the Children in My Class Are White? Historical and Research Background” in this edition of Beyond the Journal.
  • View Blue Eyed (Verhaag 1995) and reflect upon White teachers’ responsibility for empathy, honesty, and advocacy.
  • Ask parents about their work schedules and any transportation problems and arrange meetings accordingly.
  • Speak up for culturally and linguistically diverse children and their families—and about their needs—at meetings within the school and the greater community.

Au, K. 1993. Literacy instruction in multicultural settings. Belmont, CA: Wordsworth.

Baker, C. 2001. Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. Rev. ed. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters.

Cuban, L. 1993. How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms 1890–1990. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Delgado-Gaitan, C., & H. Trueba. 1991. Crossing cultural borders: Education for immigrant families in America. London: Falmer.

Delpit, L. 1995. Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.

Derman-Sparks, L, & P.G. Ramsey. 2006. What if all the kids are white? Anti-bias/multicultural education with white children. New York: Teachers College Press.

Genesee, F., I. Boivin, & E. Nicoladis. 1996. Talking with strangers: A study of bilingual children’s communicative competence. Applied Psycholinguisitcs 17: 427–42.

Halcón, J.J. 2001. Mainstream ideology and literacy instruction for Spanish-speaking children. In The best for our children: Critical perspectives on literacy for Latino children, eds. M. de la Luz Reyes & J.J. Halcón, 65–77. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hoover-Dempsey, K.V., O.C. Bassler, & J.S. Bridsie. 1987. Parent involvement: Contributions of teacher efficacy, school socioeconomic status, and other school characteristics. American Educational Research Journal 24: 417–35.

Howard, G.R. 1999. We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers, multiracial schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Koh, J. 1994. My brown eyes. Videocassette. San Francisco: National Asian American Telecommunications Association.

Miller, B.M., & W.B. Surr. 2002. The Massachusetts Department of Education After School and Out-of-School Time Survey of After-school Youth Outcomes. Wellesley, MA: National Institute on Out-of-School Time, Center for Research on Women, Wellesley College.

Moll, L.C. 1994. Literacy research in community and classrooms: A sociocultural approach. In Theoretical models and processes of reading, 4th ed., eds. R.B. Ruddell, M.R. Ruddell, H. and Singer, 179–207. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Moll, L.C. 2001. The diversity of schooling: A cultural-historical approach. In The best for our children: Critical perspectives on literacy for Latino children, eds. M. de la Luz Reyes & J.J. Halcón, 13–28. New York: Teachers College Press.

NCES (National Center for Educational Statistics). 2003. Online:

Nieto, S. 1999. The light in their eyes: Creating multicultural learning communities. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ogbu, J. 2001. Understanding cultural diversity and learning. In Handbook of research on multicultural education, eds. J.A. Banks & C.A. M. Banks, 582–96. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Paley, V.G. 1995. Kwanzaa and me. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Paley, V.G. 1997. The girl with the brown crayon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Paley, V. G. 2005. White teacher. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Saluja, G., D.M. Early, & R.M. Clifford. 2002. Demographic characteristics of early childhood teachers and structural elements of early care and education in the United States. Online:

Sleeter, C.E. 1995. White preservice students and multicultural education coursework. In Developing multicultural teacher education curricula, eds. J.M. Larking & C.E. Sleeter, 17–29. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Tatum, B.D. 2003. “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” and other conversations about race. New York : Basic Books.

Verhaag, B., with J. Elliott. 1996. Blue eyed. Videocassette. San Francisco: California NewsReel.

Zentella, A.C. 1997. Growing up bilingual. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Michaela W. Colombo, EdD, is an assistant professor in the Leadership in Schooling Program at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where she teaches sociocultural contexts of education, second language acquisition, and diversity issues for school leaders.

View Full Article
Add your own comment
DIY Worksheets
Make puzzles and printables that are educational, personal, and fun!
Matching Lists
Quickly create fun match-up worksheets using your own words.
Word Searches
Use your own word lists to create and print custom word searches.
Crossword Puzzles
Make custom crossword puzzles using your own words and clues.