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Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Environment Part Five

In Part IV, we discussed the importance of words. We concluded that “words do indeed matter.” Following in that same vein, the focus of Part V of Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Experiences is to honor the home language students bring with them into the classrooms.

To accelerate word learning, experts such as Zaretta Hammond, admonish classroom teachers to activate and tap into that rich schema of words that may not be academic language. Now, before going further, it is important to not one key principle of learning: All new content must be linked to existing background knowledge. Why is this important? We learn things in relationship to what we know (Hammond 2019).  Each student comes to school possessing their own funds of knowledge (i.e., background knowledge); therefore, how educators deepen it will build their cognitive capacity and move them forward in their independent learning agency. 

One of the roles of educators is to help students recognize what they already know and then use that information to “anchor and twist” (Hammond, 2019). All Colorado students are incredibly brilliant word wizards. Talk and word play are core learning strategies in collectivist cultures that have strong oral traditions (i.e., Indigenous, African American, and Latinx). Build on it!

One powerful way to do this, Zaretta Hammond says, is through contrastive analysis. We speak in different “registers”—a “causal register” when at home using conversational, everyday words. This might resemble the mixing language forms and dialects that are more widely used in the community. The next register is a step up from the casual home language—"business register”. It’s not academic, but it is professional. The language students learn when their parents are socializing them to handle business out in the world—interacting with bank tellers or talking to a manager if they have a problem. Finally, there is the “academic register” that is used in school—"school talk” that revolves around the language of instruction (i.e., Webb’s Depth of Knowledge levels or Blooms Taxonomy). It is also the language of academic texts and assessments. This is the language educators want students to use during accountable talk or academic conversations (Hammond, 2019).

Three registers: Casual --> “Business” --> Academic (Hammond, 2019)

People generally move up and down these registers as they move in and out of different settings. One way to honor students’ home language is by helping them do contrastive analysis of language that is used (Hammond, 2019). It is important to stop here and emphasize that students' home language is not wrong; it is just a different language register. Many people refer to it as code switching; however, it goes beyond the traditional definitions and/or misconceptions that label code switching as moving between slang and Standard English. In fact, the textbook definition for code-switching (or language alternation) is that “it occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation. Multilinguals, speakers of more than one language, sometimes use elements of multiple languages when conversing with each other ” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).  Therefore, educators have to help students learn to get good at moving across registers as part of word study (Hammond, 2019). This type of word consciousness is what we want students to learn. When students encounter new academic words, give students a chance to demonstrate what the “casual” word would be in their community. It honors their informal learning environments while simultaneously equipping them with the tools necessary to navigate business and academic settings for which they will move in and out of as they grow and live as adults. It also emphasizes respect for their culture as members of our global community.

Yes, the goal is for students to master the conventions of Standard English, but not by labeling their home language or cultural contributions as "wrong” or “inferior.” Instead we, through contrastive analysis, teach students how to recognize the differences between home, business, and academic language, so they are able to differentiate between time, place, audience, and the communicative purposes for each.  After all, the richness of the literature and divergent rhetorical styles employed in the literature and informational texts they read, write about, and discuss in the English language arts classroom (or block in elementary) convey these very principles and techniques. This is how we ensure equity by design.

Next Module: Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Experiences Part Six