Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Pedagogy for Language Learners

Fall 2019

By Maggie Schoon

In an increasingly multicultural and international climate, there is an acute need for culturally and linguistically responsive pedagogy in independent schools.
Culturally responsive pedagogy, according to Gloria Ladson-Billings,
empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural and historical referents to convey knowledge, to impart skills, and to change attitudes. Teachers practicing culturally relevant teaching know how to support learning in these students by consciously creating social interactions to help them meet the criteria of academic success, cultural competence, and critical consciousness.1

Another definition comes from Geneva Gay who says that culturally responsive pedagogy is
the use of cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to, and effective for, them. It teaches to and through the strengths of these students. It is culturally validating and affirming.2

Culturally responsive teaching has been developed by other notables such as Dr. Sharroky Hollie, director of the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning (CCRTL). CCRTL seeks to help schools and teachers validate and affirm a child’s home culture and language while bridging and building them toward school norms (this idea is called VABB for “validate/affirm and build/bridge”).3 There are many considerations for independent schools, which focus on reconciling the culture and language goals of the school with the diverse population of students who seek a unique educational environment.

Home Culture, School Culture, and Cultural Immersion

In the iceberg concept of culture, there is a difference between what is visible above the surface (e.g., food, dress, language) and what is invisible or below the surface (e.g., interpersonal communication norms, child-rearing practices, concept of time, facial expressions). The rings of culture described by Dr. Hollie include ethnic culture, orientation, nationality, class, religion, gender, and age.4 Educators need to look at the disconnect between a student’s cultural identity and the expectations in an academic setting. The recent trend toward more socio-emotional learning can help in the process of validating and affirming who the child is and how his or her uniqueness can serve the child’s education rather than be a barrier to it.

In traditional schools, teachers are expected to mitigate the expectations and norms of a child’s home culture and substitute school norms. For example, at home a family might practice verbal overlap with others at the dinner table, but at school we wait for our turn to speak. At home, we might avoid eye contact with adults, but at school we are encouraged to use direct eye contact. Culture is not only food and clothing, the visible part of the iceberg, but also communication styles, interpersonal relationships, and underlying social practices—the invisible part of the iceberg under the surface.

Independent schools whose goal is language and cultural immersion have another dimension to keep in mind—how we immerse students in the target culture while still honoring the home culture and the school culture or country. For example, at Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley, a French immersion school in California, students are often navigating three or more cultures. At this international school, the backgrounds of the parent population comprise over 50 nationalities. One student might have parents originally from Kenya and thus be immersed in that culture at home, eating African food and using varying communication styles. But he lives in California and plays with American friends. He attends Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley and participates in both the French and the American cultures, celebrating Halloween and Mardi Gras. A goal of the school is to produce bicultural students who understand and appreciate the richness of French culture, its norms, food, literature, art, and other facets of its culture, but, at the same time, validating and affirming the child’s home culture and the school’s setting in the United States. This type of situation presents a unique challenge for multicultural international and immersion independent schools.

Home Language, School Language, and Language Immersion

In the same way that we look at cultural diversity, we need to also consider the multiple languages that children are exposed to. Many children speak one language at home with their parents or grandparents and learn English only at school. In bilingual schools, there are two languages of instruction. For example, a student at Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley might speak Swahili with his parents and grandparents at home, speak English at school with his American teacher and friends, and speak French with his French teacher and during extracurricular classes.

Independent language immersion schools need to reflect on how they can immerse students in the languages of instruction at school and continue to validate and affirm a child’s home language. At Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley, we hold an annual World Celebration Day where the different backgrounds of our families are honored with festive food, games, and dancing. This celebration affirms the visible parts of the iceberg, but we also strive to be intentional about the invisible home culture of our students. We use community circles as a way to celebrate the many languages students know or are learning and also as a tool to build relationships with others. Adults model the positive growth mindset of being language learners. We also invite parents to come share their language or culture with the class throughout the school year in order to learn more about the home culture of each child. Besides celebrating cultural differences, our staff has had courageous conversations about how to combat implicit bias and societal racism and sexism in our school community.

Prestige Languages vs. Marginalized Languages and Indigenous Languages

Public schools that are practicing culturally and linguistically responsive instruction need to think carefully about how they are treating English versus languages of lower prestige. For example, many Mexican immigrants are not valued for their Spanish language. The goal of some American schools is to emphasize the teaching of English, considering it the foremost prerequisite for a child’s academic success in the United States. However, research shows that students are more successful when their native language is maintained, and they are provided with a gradual transition to the learning of English.5 This is why outcomes for English language learners are better in transitional programs or dual-language programs than in total immersion.

Independent schools need to be mindful of how they perceive and treat their languages of instruction versus students’ home languages that might be marginalized or indigenous languages. At Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley, the languages of instruction are French and English, two high-prestige world languages. Are students getting the message that these two languages are more important than a language they speak at home, whether that be Arabic, Turkish, or an African dialect? This is the question we must ask and the reason why so many indigenous languages are in peril today. All schools should examine their responsiveness to students who speak African American Language (AAL), also known as African American Vernacular English. Contrary to some beliefs that this dialect is “broken English,” it’s actually a language with its own vocabulary and grammatical rules that are based on many West African languages. Research shows that teachers who validate and affirm a student’s use of AAL while building and bridging him or her to also acquire academic English are more successful than teachers who seek to eradicate a student’s use of AAL.6 This approach is known as a linguistic awareness, comparative analysis, or Language Affirmation Program.

Mindset vs. Skillset

When teachers are learning about culturally and linguistically responsive instruction, there are two categories to consider: mindset and skillset. Mindset refers to the teachers’ set of beliefs around diverse cultures and languages. Teachers need to accept that systematic racism and sexism (and other -isms) exist in our society and be open to learning ways to combat them. Teachers also need to be aware of their own unconscious bias and work at how to unravel that bias. One exercise is not letting your first thought be your last thought but reflecting on how bias creeps into our daily existence.

Skillset refers to the pedagogical practices that help teachers become culturally and linguistically responsive in their classrooms. These pragmatic practices can only be useful and fully implemented when teachers also have the mindset to become more responsive. Skillset practices for teachers who receive training through CCRTL revolve around VABBing (validating, affirming, building, and bridging). Teachers should validate and affirm a child’s home language and culture while building and bridging him or her toward school norms that will foster academic success.

Pedagogical Practices

Many of the best pedagogical practices in culturally and linguistically responsive teaching (CLR) are also best practices for all students, even those who are not culturally or linguistically diverse. These practices center around engaging students and building and bridging them from their own language and sources of knowledge to academic norms. Varying response protocols instead of relying on traditional hand-raising can increase engagement. Increasing movement, student interaction, and discussion are also strategies for student engagement. Classroom strategies such as choral response, think pair share, numbered heads together, musical shares, and corners can help students increase engagement and participation. Hollie’s Strategies for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning is a step-by-step guide to responsive pedagogical practices.

These CLR strategies can help us VABB with students. For example, we can validate and affirm their need for movement while also building and bridging them toward expectations for sitting quietly at certain times of the day. We can validate and affirm their need for student interaction while building and bridging them toward academic language by providing sentence stems for these discussions.

Working with an instructional coach can be an effective way for teachers to learn and implement responsive practices. At Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley, the instructional coach works with teachers to provide demo lessons and observations around responsive practices and strategies to foster language acquisition.

Who Are the Underserved in Independent Schools?

One of the tasks for schools that wish to institute responsive practices is to identify which students are underserved in the current academic setting. This is especially important for independent schools. Do independent schools want to be elite institutions that do not reflect the diversity of the United States? Or do independent schools want to encourage unique and excellent education experiences for many kinds of students, including students of color, students from varying socio-economic backgrounds, and students of linguistic diversity?

Which students are underserved in your school communities, and what data do you use to determine this? Disaggregating data is a vital piece in discovering who is underserved. Once these student population subgroups are identified, the work begins to discover how to be more responsive to their needs and improve academic outcomes.


Independent schools have an obligation in the 21st century to examine how they can become culturally and linguistically responsive. Language immersion schools must be especially mindful of their educational model. The goal of all schools is to provide a differentiated and responsive education for all students so they can achieve success.


  • Gay, Geneva. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Teachers College Press, 2000.
  • Hollie, Sharroky. Strategies for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning. Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Education, 2015.
  • Ladson-Billings, Gloria. The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.


  • Gloria Ladson-Billings, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1994).
  • Geneva Gay, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice (New York: Teachers College Press, 2000).
  • Sharroky Hollie, Strategies for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning (Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Education, 2015).
  • Ibid.
  • Jay P. Greene, “A Meta-Analysis of the Rossell and Baker Review of Bilingual Education Research,” Bilingual Research Journal 21 (1997), pp. 103-122. Kellie Rolstad, Kate Mahoney, and Gene V. Glass, “The Big Picture: A Meta-Analysis of Program Effectiveness Research on English Language Learners,” Educational Policy 19 (2005), pp. 572-594; online at Robert E. Slavin and Alan Cheung, “A Synthesis of Research on Language of Reading Instruction for English Language Learners,” Review of Educational Research 75 (2005), pp. 247-281. Ann C. Willig, “A Meta-Analysis of Selected Studies on the Effectiveness of Bilingual Education,” Review of Educational Research 55 (1985), pp. 269-317.
  • Doug Cummings, “A Different Approach to Teaching Language,” The Atlanta Constitution, January 9, 1997, p. B1. Henry H. Parker and Marilyn I. Crist, Teaching Minorities to Play the Corporate Language Game (Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience and Students in Transition, University of South Carolina, 1995). Hanni U. Taylor, Standard English, Black English, and Bidialectalism (New York: Peter Lang, 1989).
Maggie Schoon

Maggie Schoon ([email protected]) is a curriculum coordinator and instructional coach at Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley in Berkeley, California.