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Culturally Responsive Strategies for English Learners

Collectivist Strategies for Long-Term English Learners

Every school district across the country is acutely aware that English learner populations are growing rapidly. Often when I hear educators talk about needs of English learners, they have a tendency to focus on newcomer immigrant students. Yes, their language needs are important, but we also have to address the urgent needs of “L-TELs,” or long-term English learners. They are those students who have attended U.S. schools all their lives, but have neither achieved high levels of academic English language proficiency or deep content knowledge to succeed in the mainstream academic program.

According to Margarita Caledrón and Liliana Minaya-Rowe, in Preventing Long-Term English Learners, point out that unlike newcomers, long-term ELs may have been born in the U.S. but speak another primary language at home. Either way, there is a high probability that both the newcomer English learner or native born English learner will become L-TELs if we don’t figure out how to help them develop a rich vocabulary and academic language skills

In most academic settings, long-term English learners are often overlooked because of their unique language challenges—on the surface their social language skills are well developed so they seem high functioning in terms of language production, but their academic language and discourse skills are extremely weak, resulting in low academic performance when they are asked to operate at the higher end of Bloom’s taxonomy with analysis and synthesis. The question is: How do we accelerate learning for L-TELs so that they both build background knowledge and achieve academic language proficiency?

Culturally responsive teaching is the ideal vehicle to help address this challenge. Why? Rather than being a “program” for boosting self-esteem, culturally responsive teaching is a powerful approach for delivering instruction in a way that grows students’ brainpower so that they can accelerate their own learning.

In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, I help educators reframe CRT as a powerful approach that can reverse the downward spiral for long-term English learners by leveraging culture as a way to reduce anxiety about language production and as a way to provide a “cognitive scaffold” to help students process the content or “chew” on it so that they are building understanding at the same time they are improving language production. It starts with understanding that when we use the word “culture” in CRT we start with collectivism as the cultural foundation of many ELs. Collectivism focuses on interdependence and working together as a community of learners that is a key way of being, behaving and seeing the world.

Here are three ways to leverage collectivism to support long-term ELs make progress:

  1. Calm the brain to get into the learning zone

Neuroscience helps us understand what’s going on in the brain when ELs get anxious about language production. When anxious, the brain produces lots of the stress hormone, cortisol which shuts down the brain’s prefrontal cortex where learning happens. But collectivist practices that promote social connection produce oxytocin—the bonding hormone. Oxytocin helps reduce anxiety and cortisol so the learning can flow.  Start class with a quick community building activity like a pair share or a social game.

  1. Give them something to talk about by making cultural context to make content relevant

Make students want to talk. To do this, use one of the four possible ways to make content culturally responsive—contextualize it. To contextualize content, organize the unit or lesson around an issue important to them or their community. The key is to not try to guess, but to let students be your co-creators. For example, if you are studying the water cycle in science, organize the content around the politics of water (think Flint, Michigan) or the deep cultural value of “water is life” (Think the Dakota Access Pipeline).  When content is relevant for students and they already have some schema around it, they are primed to have something to say about the topic. That’s what it means to make content culturally responsive.

  1. Get them to “chew” their words. Use cultural learning tools to help with active information processing.

Because long term ELs have good social command of social English, scaffold academic language by using the “talk and word play” cultural learning tool to help them build their vocabulary and word knowledge. Word play can take the form of your own home-grown math or social studies version of a popular word game like Taboo or Scrabble. In collectivist cultures, there’s a strong oral tradition that has been used to aid learning. Use this tendency to use discussion, story, and games to help with language production.

In addition, try using collectivist structures to help students learn to move across the three common language registers: social or “street” register, business register, and academic register during lessons. Using “talk” or discussion in this way is at the heart of making instruction more culturally responsive.


Learn how to use culturally responsive teaching to re-ignite authentic student engagement by using the cultural values and cues that resonate with students! In this webinar, Zaretta Hammond discusses the neuroscience of culturally based learning and ways to provide more culturally responsive instruction.

Written by

Zaretta Hammond is a former classroom English teacher who has been doing instructional design, school coaching, and professional development around the issues of equity, literacy, and culturally responsive teaching for the past 18 years.  She teaches as a lecturer at St. Mary’s College’s Kalmanovitz School of in Moraga, California. She is the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain (2015). 

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