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Theoretical Foundation

To study and understand any culture, one needs to study the context from which that culture evolves. “The culture in which each of us lives influences and shapes our feelings, attitudes, and responses to our experiences and interactions with others. Because of our culture, each of us has knowledge, beliefs, values, views, and behaviors that we share with others” (Duffy and Matikainen, n. d.).

What Is Culture?

Defining “culture” is a complex process in any context, because it is a dynamic and continuously evolving human phenomenon (Miraglia, Law, & Collins, 1999). Chamberlain and Landurand (1991) define culture as, “the values, norms and traditions that affect the way we perceive, interact and think about the world” (p. 113). Culture shapes how students and their families view themselves, and they interact with the world around them. All humans have a culture including the US public school teachers “who tend to be white and middle class”(Lessow-Hurley, 2003,9) and who often claim to have “no culture”.

Cultural Diversity And Its Impact On Learning

The misrepresentation of minority-language children in special education has been a major issue in American education for a very long time (International Reading Association, 2003). In order to avoid misinterpreting cultural and linguistic characteristics as behavioral and/or learning disorders, it is important for all educators to understand these characteristics for each minority language student.

Indeed, as Helmer and Eddy (2003) suggest, “An appreciation and understanding of the way values and beliefs can mandate what happens in given contexts greatly enhances our ability to work with learners from many cultures” (p.9). Thus, it is important for teachers to recognize the implications of language and cultural diversity in the context of teaching and learning (Warger & Burnette, 2000).

Sensitivity to cultural variations and diversity requires educators to develop a deep understanding of their own cultural values in order to be able to better relate to the culture of others in a non-judgmental way. When assessing students from different linguistic backgrounds, it is crucial that educators become familiar with: (1) the variety of cultures and ethnicities that the student’s language may encompass and (2) the major characteristics of the student’s native language.

There are variations from culture to culture and within cultures. Kohls (see table below for self assessment) has done extensive research on how typically-American cultural values differ from those of other countries and the chart below illustrates his model of cultural values’ continuums (Kohls, 1984).

Kohl’s Cultural Values Continuum

      1. highly identify
      2. somewhat identify
      3. identify equally with both
Values in the United States 1 2 3 2 1 Values in Some Other Cultures
Personal control over environment, responsibility Fate, destiny
Change is natural and positive Stability, tradition, continuity
Time and its control Human interaction
Equality, fairness Hierarchy, rank, status
Individualism, independence Group’s welfare, dependence
Self-help, initiative Birthright, inheritance
Competition Cooperation
Future orientation Past orientation
Action, work orientation “Being” orientation
Informality Formality
Directness, openness, honesty Indirectness, ritual, “face”
Practicality, efficiency Idealism, theory
Materialism, acquisitiveness Spiritualism, detachment

Source: Adapted from Kohls (1984)

In order to appreciate the culture of others in a non-ethnocentric and empathic way, educators must develop a deep understanding of their own cultural values. When assessing students from Portuguese-speaking countries (Portuguese Language, 2004), it is crucial that educators become familiar with:

  • the essential cultural background information about the Portuguese country of origin and its educational system.
  • the main characteristics of the Portuguese language, and how these may influence English acquisition.
  • the variety of cultures and ethnicities that Portuguese language speakers encompass.
  • the ways in which the cultural and ethnic heritage of Portuguese language speakers differ from that of the U.S. majority culture

Culture Versus Ethnicity

It is also important to note that culture and ethnicity are not synonymous. While culture relates to a shared understanding of values and meanings, ethnicity relates to common customs and traditions shared by those from the same ethnic origins and from similar “racial” roots within a society. For example, the principal author of this website is Portuguese in terms of her ethnicity, but is culturally best described as a Portuguese-American (Lesley University, 2005).

Level Of Acculturation

Acculturation is “the process that occurs when characteristics of a group are changed because of interaction with another cultural or ethnic group” (Banks, 2002, p. 59). Immigrant or newcomer students in U.S. classrooms vary in many different ways including their level of acculturation (See “Stages of Acculturation”). Students exhibit a variety of behaviors. These behaviors are the expression of the experience of adapting to a new cultural milieu and language.

You may wish to refer to Catherine Collier’s (2002) assessment tool for the Acculturation Quick Screen which is available for a fee.

Stages Of Cultural Adaptation

Learning a new language and adapting to a new culture are challenges faced by the English Language learners in U. S. schools. The literature indicates that individuals experience distinct stages in the process of adapting to a different culture (Brown, 1995); however, not all persons advance through the stages in the same manner (Diaz-Rico & Weed, 1995).

These stages are characterized by typical behaviors and emotions, and they range from elation, hyperactivity, anxiety and initial disorientation to some degree of adaptation. The intensity of these emotional responses in school will vary depending on several factors such as a welcoming class and school environment, and a teacher that is culturally responsive. If students are not given adequate support and/or their home culture is not recognized and valued in the classroom, they may experience personal challenges in the acculturation process.

Stages of Cultural Adaptation:

Stage Descriptors Possible Behavior Manifestations
Euphoria (initial contact) This is the "honeymoon" period in which the individual is enamored by new customs, food, sights and the newness of the new and different culture. Students at this stage experience much stimulation, fascination and excitement with the new culture. Some may look distractible and unfocused. They may experience the silent period of second language acquisition.
Culture Shock At this stage, individuals begin to notice cultural differences and feel deprived of things familiar to their culture of origin. The awareness of such differences may be disorienting to the individual.This stage usually lasts from several weeks to several months.

Students at this stage may experience difficulties with self-esteem, depression, withdrawal, inattention or hyperactivity. Moreover, some may feel fear or loneliness.

Students at this stage are often, perceived or erroneously diagnosed as having Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorders.

Anomie This is a stage of gradual recovery of equilibrium and the acknowledgment of the differences of both cultures. This is also referred to as culture stress. Students at this stage may experience an identity crisis, where one feels neither bound firmly to the native culture nor yet adapted to the new culture.
Adaptation: Assimilation or Acculturation

Students move into one of two directions--assimilation or acculturation (Wilson-Portuondo, 2003).

Students who have reached this stage, take a course of action in one of two ways:acculturation or assimilation.

Acculturation - individuals are able to find value and meaning in both cultures and identify with both. Acculturation: The student reacts positively towards both cultures and no longer feels the need to hide his/her linguistic or cultural background.
Assimilation: The student’s home cultural values and beliefs are replaced by the new culture, leaving behind the parents’ culture for example . . .

Assimilation: The student usually over identifies with the host culture, denies and hides his/her cultural and linguistic backgrounds. (This is usually the result of receiving instruction in non-culturally responsive ways.) Students who move in this direction experience negative cultural self-esteem and are embarassed about their non English backgroung families.

NOTE: Intervention is recommended.

Cultural Identification Styles:

Style Description Classroom Implications
Crystallizing Identifies mainly with home culture. May express resistance in learning or associating with English. Very rare!
Cross-Over Identifies with predominant culture and rejects native culture.

Tends to feel ashamed about the culture and language of the home. Sometimes this is due to great suffering for students who are refugees of war countries. Other times this is pedagogically induced.

Criss - Crosser Identifies with both or multiple cultures. This is the ultimate goal. Expresses comfort with multiple languages and cultures. This may be primarily due to experiencing culturally and linguistically diverse teaching.

Adapted from: Ventriglia, L. (1982). Conversations of Miguel and Maria: How Children Learn English as a Second Language: Implications for Classroom Teaching. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Developmental Stages Of Second Language Acquisition

It is essential to understand second language acquisition stages as a natural developmental process when assessing and teaching English language learners. Like first language acquisition stages, any student learning a second language needs to be supported and allowed to progress through the following developmental stages of second language acquisition:

Stage Descriptors
Pre-Production Or Comprehension Stage (THE SILENT PERIOD)
  • Engagement in active listening in the target language.
  • The learner is working hard to make sense of the new language by observing its speakers.
  • During this period the learner tries to understand but does not yet speak.
  • This initial stage may last for a few months.

NOTE: This is the most misunderstood second language acquisition stage. At this developmental second language level, some educators erroneously perceive learners as refusing to speak, or resistant, or diagnose them as having selective mutism, when in fact their temporary silence is to be expected.

Early Production Stage Single words and short phrases are produced.
Speech Emergence Stage Meanings are communicated while language forms still demonstrate lack of full proficiency.
Intermediate Fluency

Both meaning and form are approaching age-appropriate levels, yet growth is still required in specific areas (e.g. lexicon, syntax, pragmatic, overall fluency).

Age-Appropriate Fluency Both meaning and form are age appropriate.

Adapted from: Cloud, N. & Medeiros-Landurand, P. (1989). Multisystem: systematic instructional planning for exceptional bilingual students (SuDoc ED 1.310/2:396485) Division of Training, Evaluation & School Services, Institute for Urban and Minority Education, Teachers College, Columbia University (U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Educational Resources Information Center.

Second Language Acquisition and Disabilities

Second Language and Disabilities: Implications for the Classroom

Key Concepts General Implications Classroom Implications
1. There is a common underlying language proficiency (language assessment device) for first and second language acquisition. 1. Speaking a language other than English does not interfere with the acquisition of English. 1. Speaking a language other than English is not evidence of a disability.
2. Second language acquisition is similar, although not identical, to first language acquisition. 2. Learning a second language takes time:Conversational skills (BICS) are acquired in 1-2 years. Academic language proficiency (CALP) is acquired in 5-7 years. Later research suggests that this can take as long as 10 years. 2. Many children are exited out of language programs (English as a Second Language,Sheltered English Instruction, Bilingual) when they have only acquired conversational skills. If they experience academic problems, these are likely related to their lack of academic language proficiency, not necessarily related to cognitive deficits or learning disabilities.
3. Second (or third) language acquisition is a developmental process, you cannot hasten it. 3. Children must be given adequate time to acquire English skills.Conversational skills (BICS) are acquired in 1-2 years. Academic language proficiency (CALP) is acquired in 5-7 years. 3. As children are in the process of acquiring English, they will make many errors. These are developmental and should not be considered indications of a disorder.
4. Language is acquired (versus being taught and learned). 4. Teachers should facilitate acquisition rather than trying to teach language as a subject via drill and practice. 4. Children’s language proficiency problems can be pedagogically induced by the use of inadequate methodologies.
5. The language a child speaks is related to the quantity of the interaction s/he experiences with adults. 5. Parents should be encouraged to speak to their children in their native language, for obvious reasons 5. If limited English proficient parents speak English to their children, they may limit cognitive development. Moreover, they present a model of English that may need to be corrected. If this happens, the children do not have disabilities. Their English language (re)development is the responsibility of regular classroom teachers.
6. Children must have a high level of linguistic competence in at least one language to be communicatively and academically successful. In the case of English Language Learners, the native language is the foundation upon which English competence is built. 6. Children must be given the opportunity to develop interpersonal communication skills and academic language proficiency in the native language while learning English. 6. A child, whose native language skills are significantly deviant from those of age levels peers from the same speech and language community, is likely to have speech and/or language disorder.
7. Some language minority students do not qualify for bilingual education programs or English as a second language programs because, although they speak another language, they are considered to be English proficient. 7. These students, even though they are considered to be English proficient, may not have the same level of English competence as do their Native English speaking peers. Therefore, regular classroom teachers need to continue to provide language development programs. 7. If language development programs are not provided, students may experience communication or achievement difficulties. These problems are related to inappropriate instruction, not to the presence of disability.
8. Some children will come to school with language skills, which are appropriate and functional for their speech and language community but are not adequate for schooling. 8. Teachers must accept and respect language differences. They must also provide instruction to develop the language skills needed to be successful in the school context. The need for school language development is typical of students from lower socioeconomic environments. It may also be true of students who learn English. The need for language development may be present in the native language and/or in English. 8. The education of children with language differences is the responsibility of regular educators. If teachers do not provide second language development, students are likely candidates for remedial instruction or special educational referral. If they do not have disabilities, special education should refuse to serve them.
9. Bilingual education programs allow students to stay on grade level as they acquire the English language

9. Students should not be prematurely exited from bilingual or ESL language programs until they have acquired academic language proficiency in English. If they are exited before this, regular classroom teachers must continue the student’s English as a second language instruction. Since premature exit is almost always the case, we must train regular classroom teachers in ESL techniques.

9. Students who are prematurely exited are likely to experience academic difficulties. These difficulties are pedagogically induced; they are not learning disabilities.

If tested, children who have been exited prematurely are likely to show an IQ-Achievement discrepancy. This is not sufficient to inappropriately classify the student as having a learning disability.

10. LEP children who have true disorders have the right to bilingual instruction. 10. They should not be exited from bilingual education. 10. Special education teachers must be trained to provide native language and/or English as a second language specially designed instruction. Placement in an English language special education class, without adaptation, does not provide appropriate educational opportunities.

Adapted from: Alba Ortiz, (n.d.). Department of Special Education, College of Education, University of Texas in Austin.

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