How does linguistic diversity influence classroom performance?
Page 4: Communication
Another important factor that culturally responsive teachers keep in mind is their students’ linguistic diversity. To become responsive to linguistic diversity, teachers should familiarize themselves with students’ styles of communication, always remembering how challenging education can be for those students whose communication happens to differ from that of the school culture.
Such variant styles of communication can shape in-class interactions as well as personal ones. For example, in a typical classroom, students are expected to listen attentively to their lessons. Afterward, the teacher might ask specific questions, but the students are expected to wait for acknowledgement before responding. When they do respond, students are usually expected to do so in a manner that is concise and to the point, maintaining eye contact, restricting their physical movements, and checking their emotions. By contrast, culturally responsive teachers understand that some groups of students are accustomed to communicating through:
A form of demonstrative address characterized by vocal variation (e.g., loudness, emphasis on certain words) and pronounced body gestures at the expense of more reserved verbal communication.
conversational and active participatory discourse
The interjection of commentary (e.g., “That’s right,” “Tell it”) and physical gestures by a listener as a means of signaling approval to a speaker.
gestures and body movement
Physical motions or gesticulations meant to convey or emphasize a point.
rapidly paced rhythmic speech
Oral repetition intended to create a cadence or to display a dramatic flair; may involve a poetic tone or persuasive intent (e.g., as in rap or hip-hop music).
A rhetorical device that employs reference to seemingly unrelated concepts as a vehicle for comparison or explanation (e.g., “Paul, a mountain of a man, lifted the piano all on his own.”).
Culturally responsive teachers also recognize that some students organize their ideas differently than do those who are more familiar with the dominant cultural style. For example, students may use topic association or topic chaining, a circular communication style that omits explanations about the relationships between topics. For teachers more accustomed to a straightforward, linear style of communication, it may sound as though the speaker is rambling and failing to complete his or her thoughts or is unable to think logically.
Listen to Alfredo Artiles talk about the importance of recognizing and valuing differing storytelling styles (time: 1:34).
Alfredo Artiles, PhD Professor, Division of Curriculum & Instruction Arizona State University
There are some really interesting studies showing that kids who might bring a very different tradition in telling stories—for example, an African American boy who is starting to say a story about what they did this weekend and begins to move off that main topic to engage in subtopics as he is describing that whole activity—might be regarded as being a little more scattered, distractible, not well organized in his thinking, whereas a white, middle-class student who might be narrating a very linear story—with a beginning, a middle part, and an end—might be regarded as being more competent in his thinking and linguistic practices. When, in reality, when you look at cultural practices in the African American household of this child, it might be very much commonplace to describe stories that have multiple plots that are unfolding at the same time, and what he’s doing is very much consistent with what he’s been exposed to. So when it comes to designing instruction, you need to take into account those very complex layers that I’m describing—not only what experiences these students have had with certain ways of engaging with language, with thinking, with memory, with all the kinds of areas of cognitive functioning but also how we are setting up conditions for students in the classroom to show what they know and can do. To what extent what they are doing in the classroom is in part shaped by the way we’re setting up things.
Keep in Mind
Teachers who do not recognize that communicative styles differ might consider interactive styles of communication to be rude and disruptive, requiring disciplinary action.
Teachers who judge their way of speaking English to be more correct than the way their students speak (e.g., due to their dialect) might hold inaccurate beliefs about their intelligence and abilities.
Mr. Bennett realizes that he had made inaccurate assumptions about some of his students based on their communication styles. In order to be more culturally responsive, he makes efforts to:
Create a classroom environment that is accepting of all students and respects diversity
Learn about the intent behind students’ communication rather than reacting negatively to the communication style itself
Listen to what students say rather than to how they say it
Encourage all students to participate in class discussions and activities
Think about the scenarios outlined below. Try to imagine how culture might influence the following statements. Click on the audio links to hear Donna Ford, an expert in multicultural education, discuss her perspective.
Donna Ford, PhD Professor of Special Education and Betts Chair of Education and Human Development Vanderbilt University
During class, some students participate in the discussions while others sit silent. Could cultural values and beliefs about sharing personal opinions determine participation? Why or why not (time: 2:05)?
Cultural differences and cultural dynamics are always at play in a classroom. So if you’re in a classroom and you have some group of students who participate and others who don’t participate, first and foremost you need to consider the individuality of that child—what his or her personality is. Is he a shy child or a more extroverted, outgoing child? Just as important is the essential: that you take into consideration cultural differences. Research does indicate that some groups come from more of an indirect style in their way of communicating, and others are more direct. So groups that are more direct, for example African Americans, are more likely to speak up than others. Research says that Asian Americans—and this is without trying to stereotype but actually look at what research says—but Asian Americans tend to come from more indirect cultures. So if you were to ask, say, a Japanese or a Chinese student do they understand what you just taught, some of them might say “yes” or shake their heads “yes,” but really it means “no.” And one of the reasons they might agree that they’ve understood what’s been taking place is because there’s a high reverence in that culture for teachers. And to tell a teacher, “I did not understand what you’ve just taught” could be considered offensive. And so they don’t want to indicate in any way that you have not taught well. But, again, look at the individual child and his or her personality, so that means you really have to know your students. And then, from that point on, go ahead and start looking at cultural differences. A final variable that I think needs to be looked at is whether you have children in your classroom who come from cultures that are highly verbal or tend to communicate in non-verbal ways. Some students might shake their heads and confirm that they’re listening, those kinds of things, as opposed to actually saying something. And even when you ask did they understand, was the information clear, you still may get more of a non-verbal response than a verbal response.
You’re engaged in conversation with a student who repeatedly interrupts you. Explain why this behavior could be culturally acceptable for some students. What could you do if this happened in your classroom (time: 2:31)?
You can be engaged in a conversation with your students or teaching a lesson in your classroom and have some students interrupt you or be viewed as interrupting you. And this happens because there are cultural differences in how people communicate. The concept of the oral tradition comes to mind right now. And under oral tradition is this notion of call-and-response. So when you’re working with some groups—and African Americans come to mind right now—while you’re talking, while you’re reading a book, while you’re doing a lecture, while you’re having a conversation, you will hear children talk while you’re talking. So they might say things like, “I understand, okay, uh huh, I get it, that’s funny”—you know, say, when you’re reading a book. If your cultural software says that only one person talks at one time then you might find this offensive. You might find it irritating and annoying. But when a child does that, especially if that’s their cultural software, it’s not meant to be offensive, and it’s not meant to be rude. That’s how the child communicates. Not just in school, but at home, perhaps in their place of worship, and in other types of settings. So don’t look at it as something that’s negative; look at it as a different way of communicating. And in a lot of ways, I think we should look at as a compliment. It’s an indication that the child is listening and paying attention, that the child understands, so the child is with you. It’s called immediacy. So when you have students in your classroom who interrupt you when you are talking, or who do call-and-response, it would not be a good thing to say something like, “Don’t interrupt me when I’m speaking.” Instead, teach the child that there is a time and a place for call-and-response, when it’s appropriate. And in a classroom situation, especially when you are instructing, call-and-response may not be appropriate. So you could say something like, “Well, right now let’s listen and then I’ll listen to you a little bit later. Or I’ll ask you, the students, for some feedback in a little bit.” And that’ll help teach that child that call-and-response may not always be acceptable in certain situations and to be able to code-switch, to turn it off and to turn it on. So instead of taking something away from that child—because call-and-response is what’s prevalent perhaps in the home and in the community and the places of worship—you don’t take it away, but you add to that child’s skills so that they can be in a win-win situation, not only in a school setting but in the larger society as well.
While telling a story, a student jumps around from one idea and incident to the next, without consideration of conventional narrative sequence (i.e., beginning, middle, and end). Could this narrative style be based on culture? Why or why not (time: 1:47)?
When you have a student who’s telling a story, and they don’t tell that story in a conventional narrative sequence—meaning from beginning, middle, and end—it may be difficult for you to appreciate that child’s narrative style. But I do want to add that narrative styles do vary across cultures. Some cultures do use that traditional style, but others are more circular in their conversation, rather than linear. Some teachers believe they’re talking off the topic when they really are on the topic. For some groups, this warm-up period, where they need to tell you the story and then get specifically to the point that you’re asking. So it does take some patience and understanding on a part of teachers to realize that the child is telling a story. May not be in the traditional sequence or format, but if you give them some time, they really will get to answer your question. Now in reality, you know, class time is short, and you may not always have an opportunity for students to tell their story and get to a point. So, again, that’s not a narrative style you want to take away from a child or culturally different populations. That’s something you want to build on so you have to assertively, aggressively, proactively, but with care and compassion teach that child how to also tell a story in the traditional sense because when they write a paper, when they have to answer an exam question, it is more likely going to be in that traditional sense. So don’t take the non-traditional style away. Add to it with the traditional style, and that will benefit that child in both ways, both inside of school and outside of school.