Teaching language to culturally diverse children (Practices and pedagogy)

By Karen Elzinga 6/06/2018

Children learn at individual rates in individual time frames, what one child perceives as an easy task, another may find alien until such time that may come into their own developmentally. Culturally diverse classrooms also come with the addition of complex challenges where beliefs, values, socio-economical and social status, play a part in how and what children learn and deem important to their learning. This paper delves into the constructivist, socio-cultural and humanistic approaches to teaching and learning in early childhood, and ways that educators can incorporate pedagogical teaching strategies to classrooms, to achieve better language outcomes from students.

In schools or early childhood centres that deal predominantly with students from diverse cultural backgrounds, and where language barriers have been identified, require teacher's added attention to ensure all students are achieving the appropriate standards of language education. As this is not an isolated occurrence across Australia, all teachers within any given school should provide input on how to change the educational practice around teaching language, if their schools practices are failing children. Because the student body is made up of a culturally diverse population with varying skill and degree of ability, it would be advisable to create an equally diverse way of teaching to ensure that all students do well in their language learning

Constructivist learning is adding new knowledge to existing knowledge to create a new, in-depth and improved understanding of topics, for example a preschooler knows that a Rhinoceros is big in stature and dangerous, but after a trip to a zoo discovers that their hide is tough and they have a horn on their head. The outcome is that new information is added to the old information, and the child has now received a new and improved understanding about a rhinoceros's features (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016).

Two examples of how constructivist learning can aid in education are psychological and social constructivism (Palincsar, 1998 & Phillips, 2000). The psychological constructivist theory centres around learners forming their own unique learning based on individual knowledge of information, personal beliefs, values and personal identity of self and how they learn (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016). Social constructivism on the other hand is just that 'social'. Childhood theorist Vygotsky insisted that people learn better when situated with other learners, and that individuals learn better as they draw information from a collaborative group with a collective knowledge base, rather than a self centred individual approach (Cobb &Yackel, 1996 & Prawat, 1996). Both of these constructivist practices could be adopted into pedagogy practices to further engage students in language learning.

By educators understanding about constructivist strategies and how culture plays a part in what students choose to absorb, and what they unintentionally leave behind due to beliefs, values and social standing, educators can build on several ways of thinking and teaching to ensure more information is impactful and interesting to students individual learning. This approach also ties nicely in with the learner centred approach to learning. Learner centred educational approaches come from the view that students previous topical knowledge is related to their own individual interests, and past environmental or social opportunities. This self regulated interest means students develop knowledge in areas that interest them most as individuals. For e.g. a child who enjoys swimming in the ocean may learn about marine life as an extension of their environmental activity, where as another child living on a farm maybe very knowledgeable about how to milk cows, feed chickens etc but know nothing about marine life (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016).

Based on this approach the pedagogical strategy could be for educators to strongly bond with students. Teachers need to get to know students and where their learning and thinking extends from and to, that way teachers can understand the students 'current' knowledge construction and check how, where, when and why it was constructed. Educators need to measure and assess that whatever the child will learn in class in the future, is simply not previously learned material or information that has been deconstructed and reconstructed, from previously acquired knowledge (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016). 

It is vitally important for educators to document aspects of student's lives. When educators understand about the diversity within their classroom, they can start to draw on individual student interests, student ideologies, student backgrounds and previously learned knowledge. This helps to develop inclusive programs that construct new and engaging knowledge, and creates a new found understanding and depth of topics (Gillies, 2007).

Another pedagogical strategy would be to utilize 'Discovery Learning' techniques. Bruner (1966) expressed that this style of learning where students discover for themselves how things work, how they are constructed and simply how things are related. For e.g. a child pulls apart a toy to see how it works, will acquire new knowledge based on this see and do hands on approach. By building upon their previous understanding of how the toy worked before it was pulled apart, the child can visualize after they have pulled it apart, how the toy functions by seeing what is inside it that makes it work (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016).

This can be said also for the acquisition of language. If language is done creatively and not just written as ' cat' or 'dog' on a black or white board, but based on knowledge learned about individual students, and their particular learning styles such as the seven ways that students learn, that more individualised learning can occur (Pinantoan, 2012).

Although it is recognised that students needs to acquire the skills to learn in a multitude of ways in order to cater for future endeavours, such as further schooling or employment opportunities, the practice most likely to aid language development in this school is to cater for, and teach via a multitude of learning styles ((Felder, 1993). By adopting practices such as language through imaginary play, child focused conversations allowing the child to lead the conversation, child directed reading aloud of poems, books, rhymes and teaching irregular word use that may not crop up in everyday speech, can be taught by utilizing various learning styles (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016).

 Teaching methods that could be implemented are:

Visual - Learning through sight

Auditory - Utilizing sounds, music, instrumental rhythms

Kinaesthetic- touching, feeling and explorative learning 

Verbal- Listening to instructions spoken aloud

Logical- Mathematical reasoning and analysing

Intrapersonal- Singular learning

Interpersonal: Group learning (Pinantoan, 2012).

The socio-cultural learning approach is respectful and relevant to cultural diversity, as culture can determine and influence how and what information is retained. For e.g. if a student is a refugee or migrant they may have been previously taught via a particular learning style, and through moving to another country may not be used to being taught via an alternate method, and thus may have difficulties in understanding and absorbing the necessary new information (De Vita, 2001 & Garsha, 1990). Educators need to be aware that this is not a myth, but is in fact real causation for student learning difficulties. By utilising different methods of learning through the 7 different teaching styles, all students may learn better, faster, and retain more information by adding new information to old information, thus helping in their language retention (Qiang, 2003).

Schools that are culturally diverse have varying students who are influenced by different countries of origin, different cultures, religions, beliefs, values, and ethnicity, social and economic factors. How students learn can be depended on what their home country had established as important aspects of education based on the needs and desires of their individual country. For example gender can play a huge part of how children are educated or not educated in certain countries. In Pakistan for instance, it is not seen as imperative or even worthwhile that girls be educated at all. Girls education is stunted especially in rural areas by attitudes of parents, whether or not the parents had education themselves, the distance between a child's house and an established school, whether parents can afford it given the poverty within rural areas and whether teachers can be attracted to live and work in poor conditions (Suleman, Aslam, Habib, Yasmeen, Jalalian, Akhtar, & Akhtar, 2015).

When a school's population is culturally diverse, it would expected that some student's maybe refugees, aboriginals, or migrants new to Australia. As a result they may be prone to suffering unfortunate degrees of racism, have lower levels of English language competency, and may be in circumstances of low socioeconomic status. Whilst Australian schools insist on equal opportunities for all students, a report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation (OECD), has released results from a study, showcasing the link between students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and their level of academic and educational advancement in numerous areas (OECD, 2014), such as:

Lower rates of attendance and retention

Reaching lower standards of competency in areas of literacy, comprehension and skills in numeracy

Student's have study difficulties and show cause for negativity

Problematic and disruptive behaviour (OECD, 2014).

One pedagogical strategy for the school to implement and help aid language development would be to provide specialist training to teachers in dealing with culturally diverse students. Educators need to first understand the significant challenges that culturally diverse students have, in order to tackle the issues associated with them. Teachers could be taught to teach from socio-cultural perspectives, to encourage classroom diversity, and to utilize individualism and collectivist approaches to bridging the cultural gaps within classrooms. Some pedagogical strategies that were successfully introduced into similar set up schools were: (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016).

# The group mathematical star chart- Children receive a star on a math chart when they pass a test. The overall status of the group that children were placed in relied upon individual performances for a group related benefit. This encouraged all group members to be extra supportive and helpful towards all team members, so they were all able to individually pass the test and achieve a better result for the group as a whole. This activity was able to unite students together collectively in order to aid each other individually when results were lacking (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016).

# Language Support- Children read aloud to smaller more targeted groups, so they were not overwhelmed with the process of achieving results in front of the entire class, but were more private and inconspicuous in trusted small groups. Children in the group were advised to help, support and encourage the reader as a teacher would (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016).

# Classroom etiquette and management- Allowing students to feel more comfortable and at ease with fellow students through simple bonding. In some countries it is considered natural for students sitting on the floor to touch and interact with others in non-disruptive ways, for e.g. touching hair or feet. Appropriate touching allows children to socially interact whilst learning to trust in others, which plays out later in their language development and confidence that others will provide support and help for them (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016).

# Humanist learning practices provide students of low socio-economic status, and culturally diverse groups with varying learning abilities, by helping them to fulfil needs of autonomy and self actualization. This student body needs to understand that their basic needs will be meet. These children may have had difficult family situations and maybe very distrustful of educators and schooling facilities, and thus students could benefit from a humanist approach to schooling and learning, to build trust and to understand that they can be successful. The school could implement certain strategies as defined by Maslow's human needs hierarchy such as: (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016).

# Food and something to drink (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016)- whilst schools can ensure drinking water fountains throughout schools, some students will come to school without any breakfast or food for the entire day. Schools could provide a free breakfast to those students as simple as a slice of toast or piece of fruit, to enable students to learn and concentrate more effectively. Such a the program is run by Foodbank in Western Australia, who feed breakfast to children recognised as being at risk, and supply emergency snacks for recess and lunch. This program has shown increased student attendance and learning capabilities since its inception (Foodbank, n.d.).

# Safety- Students need to feel safe and secure on school grounds, (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016)- after all refugees may have come from war torn countries where daily bombing of houses were in effect. This could mean school drills so students know what to do in an emergency, and teachers bonding well with students so trust levels increase. Good pedagogical practices for classroom behaviour set the standard of the classroom from day one, with follow through on advised repercussions for inappropriate actions. For e.g. name calling, if students understand there is a zero tolerance from the start, the classroom will feel safer to all students. Another strategy for educators is to remain calm at all times, if the teacher stresses out the children will be just as affected, and it will ruin the tone of the relaxed and safe classroom. Smile often, talk one on one to students often, and allow students to problem solve areas or situations of difficulty (Alber, 2011).

# Sense of belonging- Children believe they are a part of or building something special (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016). This could be providing a sense of purpose in the wider community, helping teaches with important tasks, or teaches showing affection for students by actively listening and communicating with them regularly. Educator pedagogy could also include providing family days where parents are welcomed to participate with their child, encouraging students to share memories, photographs or bring in special items for show and tell from home, and creating homely and welcoming environments (Kid's Matter, n.d.).

# Self Esteem- Children need to feel respected, approved of, hold status and receive recognition from their peers and educators, whilst obtaining a good level of self concept and confidence in one's ability to perform tasks. (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016). This could mean that teachers explore pedagogical practices in building self esteem such as generously praising achievements, role modelling behaviour and teaching of good choices, allowing students to problem solve and make decisions that are in their own best self interest (Tiller, 2010).

# Cognitive function- The knowledge to function and understand the world around, whilst being inquisitive in exploration of an environment. (Duchesne & McMaugh, 2016). A pedagogical approach to this school of varying learner abilities according to Vygotsky, would be to couple students with higher developmental learning with those students who are experiencing developmental delays. This approach yields higher results for delayed learners, than them trying to work through learning on their own (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2010).

A teacher by the name of Erin Gruell, whose endeavours in teaching caught Hollywood's attention, and is played by Hillary Swank in the non fiction movie entitled the "Freedom Writers", gives talks about how she inspired a culturally diverse group of 150 students. Children from differing ethnicity, cultural backgrounds and poor socio-economical status, she was able to turn them from kid's in gangs with little to no hope of continued education past grade 9, into students believing they were worthwhile, and that school was achievable for a better life outcome. Most of her students even went onto finish high school, and some even went onto college. Gruell followed them up each year and continued teaching them from 14 years old and into college because of the bond they had formed. Gruell got to know her students backgrounds even though her own upbringing was one of privilege, she did activities such as making her students stand on a line, and step backwards if the question didn't relate to them, this allowed all students to see and realise that they were not alone in the world, and that many other students were in a very similar circumstance to them. Gruell got to know who she was teaching, understand why she was teaching them and how she could get through to these kids about the importance of education. The best and most effective pedagogical strategy to help teach from a humanist perspective is to know your students story, their background, things they relate to, and what is of interest to them, than programs can be created that will impact children and create a real difference (Gruell, 2012).

In conclusion life is full of challenges, by creating classrooms where students participate in their own learning direction, provides problem solving skills and decision making practices. Cultural diversity is not an ugly word, nor should it be seen as problematic for teaches. Schools need to address added teacher learning support of culture related issues, so that educators feel comfortable, and can manage the flow of classrooms when students present with varying skill levels. Teachers need to keep an open mind about teaching styles and practices, such as socio-cultural, behaviourist and constructivist theories in order to engage students most effectively and individually in their development. Educators also need to understand the importance of getting to know who they are teaching, to form positive bonds with, respect and trust that children of early childhood age are innately good, and just want to know that they are doing okay, than and only then can educators make and create real difference in the lives of students.


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