V. Cultural Experience and Personal Relevance
Student learning and motivation are enhanced by a connection to cultural experience and personal relevance.
Connection to cultural experience and personal relevance is known to enhance student motivation and learning. Acknowledgment and valuing of learners’ cultural experience is also considered an important aspect of creating relationships that lead to learning.
In addition, evidence supports the notion that a learner’s background and beliefs influence the learning process and that effective teaching involves activating and building upon students’ prior knowledge and strengths (Bransford, 1999). What students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information related to the content (Marzano, 2006). Many research studies have confirmed the strong connection between background knowledge and student achievement (Nagy, Anderson, & Human, 1987).
Therefore, while it has been established that “the same societal, familial and individual factors that predict good literacy outcomes for monolingual readers do so for second-language readers,” (August & Shanahan, 2008 p.279), it also follows that an educator’s awareness of cultural factors, and ability to create bridges with a learner’s background and prior knowledge makes instructional sense.
Ongoing research may clarify the relationship between socio-cultural factors and student learning outcomes. Goldenberg, Rueda, & August (2006, p. 250) define socio-cultural influences as factors that make up the social context in which children and youth live and go to school.
These factors include a wide range of possible influences related to beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, routine practices, social and political relations, and material resources associated with groups of people sharing some common characteristics, such as economic or educational status; cultural, ethnic, or national origin; and linguistic group.
Membership in one or more socially defined groups can influence student educational outcomes. At present, educators need “to know how to inquire into the backgrounds of their students so that they can connect what they learn to their instructional decision making...” (Banks et al., p. 243). Better understanding of the unique characteristics and collective background in these groups will assist educators in making instructional decisions to create optimal learning environments for their students (Goldenberg, Rueda, & August, 2006).
When a phonetic comparison is made between English and Spanish, we know that the twenty Spanish phonemes have a one-to-one correspondence with print while the English language is considered “deep” in that it contains 44 phonemes that are represented by more than 250 graphemes (Honig, Diamond, & Gutlohn, 2008). There are many differences between the phonemes of English and other languages as well. Teachers can use this knowledge to create a bridge for English learners between their native language and English, during reading instruction. Moats (LETRS Module 2, 2009) asserts that teachers can anticipate phonological substitutions and confusions and “these students can benefit from being taught both the sound and the feel of the sound in order to hardwire these missing English phonemes accurately into the phonological processor” (p. 54).
Educators must provide opportunities for students to make personal connections with the text they are reading. There is evidence of the impact of culturally familiar material (material that is rooted in specific experiences of a culture) on student achievement. “Language-minority students’ reading comprehension performance improves when they read culturally familiar materials” (Goldenberg, Rueda, & August, 2006, p. 256). “When teachers use culturally relevant books, students understand the books more fully, and, as a result, become more engaged in their reading. When students become engaged in texts, they are motivated to read more.” (Freeman & Freeman, 2004, p. 7) Thus in making connections to text, students become more motivated to continue reading. This can be accomplished by providing a classroom library with a wide variety of text which portrays experiences similar to those of the students. “Readers…can more easily construct meaning from a text that contains familiar elements because their background knowledge helps them make predictions and inferences about the story.” (Freeman & Freeman, 2004, p. 7) “Culturally relevant books connect to students’ lives not just their cultural heritage.” (Freeman & Freeman, 2004, p. 8)
Freeman & Freeman (2004) have designed a rubric to assist students in examining materials for cultural relevance. Questions included in the rubric are:
Are the characters in the story like you and your family?
Have you ever had an experience like the one described in this story?
Have you lived in or visited places like those in the story?
Could this story take place this year?
How close do you think the main characters are to you in age?
Are the main characters in the story boys or girls?
Do the characters talk like you and your family do?
How often do you read stories like these?
Readers bring their personal experiences and background knowledge, based in socio-cultural factors to literacy tasks. As previously discussed, making personal connections with text can greatly impact comprehension; therefore, teachers must be thoughtful in the selection of text for modeling making connections and give students multiple practice opportunities to make connections with texts.
Three types of connections are identified as positively influencing students’ comprehension (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000; Keene & Zimmerman, 1997; Tovani; 2000):
- Text-to-Self, the personal connections that readers make between a piece of text and the reader’s own experience or memories.
- Text-to-Text, connections that a reader makes between the text they are reading and another text.
- Text-to-World, connections that a reader makes between the text and what the reader knows about the world.
Educators can provide instruction in making Text-to-Self connections in a variety of ways; modeling a think aloud of the personal connections the teacher is making to the text, coding text with letters or sticky notes designating the connection made , or using two-column notes to indicate the portion of the text and the connection made (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000).
Goldenberg, Rueda, & August (August & Shanahan, 2006, p. 269) assert, “…the sociocultural influences on literacy attainment must be understood as the product of interactions between children’s home culture and the culture of the school and classroom…what matters, is the degree of fit between home and school.” When the expectations and beliefs of a cultural group match those of the school, student academic success will follow. Educators often mistakenly assume that parents and families lack motivation or skill to provide their children with academic help (August & Shanahan, 2006, p. 295). If school and home cultural expectations for literacy achievement match, students will be motivated and learn.
- CDE’s ELL Guidebook and the Equity Toolkit (Language, Culture and Equity publications) provide information and guidance to educators, administrators and districts about socio-cultural factors that can influence literacy development.
- Early Childhood Education Brief – 10 Essential Practices.
- Literacy Squared.