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Is There Proof that Culture-Based Teaching Works?


I thought it was a no-brainer that teachers of English-language learners should align their instruction and materials with their students' culture, until I investigated what research is available to back this assumption for a Jan. 9 Education Week article.

I didn't find any researchers who thought culture-based instruction is a bad idea, but I did talk with some who say the claims of its effectiveness are not YET backed up with empirical evidence from research studies. Those folks are arguing for more research that carefully looks at the impact of culture-based instruction on reading test scores and other student achievement outcomes.

I discovered that a review of research on ELLs, such as that of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and published in 2006 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, isn't just gathering dust on the bookshelves of college professors.

Candace A. Harper, an associate professor of education at the University of Florida, Gainesville, said she used the National Literacy Panel's review as a textbook for a graduate-level class for reading teachers preparing to teach English-language learners. She encouraged her students to critique the review, not just to accept all of its conclusions.

"The way that the targets for learning have been framed determines the kind of research that gets funded, tending to be toward discreet, easily measured gains, which are short-lived," Ms. Harper told me in a telephone interview. "They aren’t examined over the long term. The strong associations between skills like phonemic awareness and success in reading and reading achievement hold through the elementary grades. We don’t know if they are long-term gains."

Her message to her students is to know the research, but don't consider it to be the be-all and end-all when it comes to teaching ELLs.


I have to admit that I'm not really sure I understand the definition of "culture-based teaching."

However, there's an enormous amount of research that demonstrates the importance of connecting the background knowledge (their "schema")of English Language Learners with the content they're being taught.

There are a whole lot of problems in conducting any kind of synthesis of what is known from research about this approach. Aside from there being very little research on this issue, a lot really depends on (a) how the researcher defines the term (b) how the school and the teachers understand what this practice is; and (c) how it is actually being implemented in practice. Unfortunately, it is quite common in education for something to be called one thing but actually look quite different in practice. If you don't have some kind of consistent implementation, you may end up mixing apples and oranges when you really wanted to examine just apples. Finally, the goals of the program and/or the instructor will have a lot to do with the actual outcomes achieved. In other words, if your goal is to get kids to connect learning to their home lives, you may not see a significant effect on test scores in the first year or two, but you might get a long-term effect (e.g., kids who stay in school instead of dropping out).

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