Transcript: Leonard Baca, PhD

The Use of Native Languages in the Classroom

Leonard Baca describes how he became involved in bilingual special education, the importance of teachers making connections between the curriculum and the language and culture of their students, and the dynamics of family involvement for English learners (time: 7:24).

Narrator: This podcast is brought to you by the IRIS Center, a national center funded by the Office of Special Education Programs.

Leonard Baca is a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and executive director of the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education. The BUENO Center’s mission is to promote education for cultural and language minority students through rigorous and comprehensive research.

Narrator: Professor Baca, can you tell us how you became involved in studying culturally and linguistically diverse exceptional learners?

Leonard Baca: I was in special education first in the Albuquerque, New Mexico, area, and one of the first things I noticed after the first couple of years: the large number of Hispanic and African American kids that were being referred and placed in special education. I then started looking for some answers and found out that in fact there was an overrepresentation of minority students in special ed., and it was due to, a large part, language differences, cultural differences. And assessment procedures were such that they were in a sense discriminating negatively against these groups. So I began then to try to correct some of those problems and see what I could do to contribute to the field.

Narrator: Will you talk a bit about the reason behind classroom teachers’ using their students’ native languages and connecting those students’ culture to the curriculum?

Leonard Baca: The reason we want to do this is to establish a strong rapport, to increase the intelligibility of what we’re saying and doing so that the comprehension is high, and to put it in a comfortable cultural context where they can say, “Yeah, I can relate to that. You know, that’s the way that we do it at home,” or “That’s the way my uncles and aunts and my parents approach learning.” Students do their best work when their teacher can relate to them in their own language and culture and when the curriculum is connected and has meaning for them in their daily life. If the curriculum and the teacher are so foreign or so unfamiliar to the student, they’re not really going to perform at their optimal levels. So the principles of adapting a curriculum to the language and culture of the kids is important. It definitely takes some extra preparation and training. It’s not easy. On the other hand, if you’re motivated to do this it’s not going to be hard, either, because you will be motivated by the outcomes that you see with the kids. Obviously, if you can develop the language proficiency, that’s a great asset. Many people are monolingual and don’t have a second language so they can’t quite do that, so we use what we call an English as a second language approach, which strives to make communication as intelligible as possible. When you’re talking to someone who’s not fluent in English, you want to use short sentences. You want to use contextual clues of real objects. You say, “This is a cup,” and you can hold up a cup or whatever it is that you’re talking about. Speak a little more slowly than you would normally speak just to make sure that the message gets across. Also providing sufficient wait time. Sometimes these kids aren’t quite as quick to respond, and you need to let them think about it and understand it and gradually make the response. Those are the kinds of things that I think would be helpful.

Narrator: It seems that many of the reading materials we have in use today are more reflective of culturally diversity than in the past.

Leonard Baca: The classic example we used to use in the old days around Dick and Jane, you know, white picket fence and dad coming home with a briefcase, and images that many minority kids had no connection to. I think that’s a similar example here with the standard reading materials—there are more and more coming out on the market that have more appropriate multicultural pictures, kids of different ethnic backgrounds, content that is based more on diverse views in addition to just mono-cultural views of life and reality. It really matters for I think two reasons. One of them is that learning is culturally mediated, so if something is tied to your life and your experience, you’re able to integrate it and make sense of it and comprehend it a lot quicker and easier and build your knowledge base. You’re socially constructing your knowledge, and it fits in with your prior experience. I think that the other is just more common sense. In terms of the cultural relevance of the material, it’s so basic to effective understanding and learning.

Narrator: And what about family involvement?

Leonard Baca: In special education, the importance of involving the family is paramount, simply because there’s so much to do in terms of teaching and development that you have to work really hard at it and involve the parents as partners in the process. So my whole thing is, get familiar with the parents and work with them. Get to know them, involve them in the planning and the IEP, and you have much better outcomes. You want to acknowledge them as the first and best teacher of their own child and as partners in the educational process. So calling them into the planning of the program becomes very important because they know things about their child and the child’s behavior at home that you don’t. They can take on certain kinds of tutorial and homework and motivational kind of responsibilities to be a partner and to follow what’s going on, and as a result then you have some extra wonderful help that you would otherwise not have. What’s most important is to reach out to these families because they’re not necessarily comfortable with the schools. They don’t necessarily understand the language as well. They may need to bring in an interpreter or a social worker to make home visits. But the most important thing is to make sure that every child with a disability is given support so that we can assure that they have every opportunity to hook up and partner with the school. Otherwise, if we leave it to them and we just send home an announcement and say, “Please come,” they’re just not going to respond. You need to have that extra personal invitation and home visit and really reach out to them in a sincere way for that to happen.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to this episode of the IRIS Center podcast. For more information about the IRIS Center and its resources, visit us at

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