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Improving Results for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students
Research Connections
Fall 2000

Promising Strategies that Support Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students with Disabilities

"Featuring the child's culture in a story gives them something familiar to relate to and to connect to other learnings."

Jennifer Christianson, Teacher
North St. Paul Head Start

Following are examples of how researchers— with OSEP support— discovering strategies to improve achievement results for culturally and linguistically diverse students with special needs.

Early Intervention: Making the Curriculum Relevant

Incongruity between the content of a traditional curriculum and the lives and histories of children of color has been a consistent research theme. Susan Fowler, Dean at the University of Illinois, and her colleague Beverly Lewman in the Department of Special Education have developed and are assessing the impact of a culturally appropriate preschool curriculum.

SPARK— stands for Skills Promoted through Arts, Reading, and Knowledge— a preschool creative arts curriculum for teachers of young children with developmental delays or at risk of developing delays. It is based on stories and resources from many cultural and ethnic traditions. "SPARK is a literacy-based culturally sensitive curriculum that provides opportunities for preschool children to achieve developmental and school readiness skills by actively attending to stories and by participating in activities based on music, art, and drama," Fowler describes. "It allows teachers to promote the learning needs of children at a variety of levels, which makes it appropriate for use in inclusive settings or in self-contained ones."

The SPARK curriculum requires one hour each day. There are 25 units, with 100 story telling activities, 100 art activities, 100 music activities, 100 make-believe activities, and 25 closure activities. Activities are organized around a pre-literacy program of repeated, collaborative story reading. Each unit takes one week to complete and is based on a story that the teacher reads to the children every day of the week. According to Fowler, "It is important for the teacher to read (or to tell) the unit story every day. Repetition of the story helps children become more aware of the language patterns and general themes used in the story, become involved in the discussion, relate the story to their own experiences, develop recall skills, and learn to predict what will happen next."

"English vocabulary is emphasized, but when a student does not understand English, a bilingual aide or teacher interprets in the child's home language, and, as needed, audiotapes the stories in the child's home language," Fowler tells us. "Staff members report that the curriculum helps students who speak English as a second language learn English faster than students who were not exposed to the curriculum."

SPARK in Action

Thus far the SPARK curriculum has been field-tested with over 6,000 children and their families in several states. Children represent diverse backgrounds, including African American, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, and Euro-American.

Jacqui Kirkpatrick, supervisor of the early childhood special education program in Calcasieu Parish, LA, brought the curriculum to her district because she wanted an approach that gave teachers more structure, was developmentally appropriate, and that was engaging and meaningful for children. "The SPARK curriculum provided a way for teachers and paraprofessionals to develop a consistent approach to their instruction," Kirkpatrick tells us. "The repetitive teaching component was particularly attractive to teachers because they saw results."

Lisa Booth, a preschool teacher in Calcasieu Parish, LA, was very pleased with the approach. "I have a diverse group of children, including a child with severe developmental disabilities and children with speech delays. The stories and the activities allowed all of the children to learn together as a group." For example, Booth explained that art activities can be equalizers for children. "All children can participate in music and art activities -they can all be successful." Booth also found the repetition of stories and the use of familiar things in the stories to be particularly useful in helping children learn the concepts. "Children loved hearing the stories over and over. The repetition helped them be more involved in the story so they could develop prediction and recall, and engage in reflections."

Kirkpatrick offers the following advice to administrators considering implementing the curriculum with their staff. " Start with a pilot group and provide them with a lot of support." Among the variety of supports Kirkpatrick found useful were

  • Train the paraprofessionals with the teachers.
  • Arrange for ongoing small group meetings for teachers.
  • Reinforce teachers and provide ongoing attention.
  • Launch the implementation immediately after training.
  • Handle the costs for materials.
  • Develop a plan for organizing and storing materials.
  • Encourage teachers to keep a log on parent involvement.

Redleaf Press (651-641-6609) plans to publish the SPARK Curriculum in Fall 2001.

Instruction: Building Upon Students' Strengths

With OSEP support, researcher Robert Jimenez has been studying the literacy strengths and difficulties faced by language minority students with learning disabilities in grades 4 to 6 and developing instructional interventions for them. "I was motivated by the fact that Latino children are performing below where they should, given their ability," Jimenez explains. "But I was particularly interested in those students who had language learning difficulties plus poor literacy instruction, and who were learning disabled."

Jimenez has been researching strategies that facilitate literacy in these children. "I first looked at Latino students who were high performing and identified the strategies that they used," Jimenez explains. "We then looked at low-performing students and found that less successful bilingual readers view their two languages as separate and unrelated, and they often see their non-English language backgrounds as detrimental."

The goal is to help low-performing students think and behave more like successful bilingual readers. For Jimenez, this means helping low-performing bilingual readers to understand the relationship between the Spanish and English-language literacy systems. "It is particularly important to help students transfer or apply their literacy knowledge and abilities from one language to another," Jimenez asserts. "They need to learn how to strategically implement this knowledge in a timely manner while reading, and they need to learn well-defined strategies for confronting unknown words or unfamiliar expressions in English."

Jimenez is investigating a number of strategies. One is the metacognitive awareness of reading strategies. Low performing readers often have naive conceptions about the purpose of reading. For example, students from language-minority backgrounds often pursue finishing the task as their primary objective and believe that reading is synonymous with decoding and pronunciation of isolated words. Jimenez supports explicit instruction of strategic reading processes, including how to access what students know in their primary language. Strategies that successful bilingual readers share with successful monolingual readers include making inferences, drawing conclusions, integrating prior knowledge into ongoing meaning construction, and asking questions when comprehension breaks down. In addition, Jimenez has identified some strategies that he suspects may be indicative of a bilingual schema for reading. Jimenez provides the following example. Searching for vocabulary is a reading strategy that draws on the native-language strength of Spanish-English bilingual students. When students are confronted with unfamiliar vocabulary, they check to see whether they know a related word in their own language. Related bilingual reading strategies include translating, transferring information across languages, and reflecting on text either in Spanish or English. "These are strategies that help low performing bilingual students improve comprehension, but they also appear to be indicators of a fairly well developed Spanish-English bilingual scheme for reading," Jimenez adds. "We need to let students know that they are okay, that being bilingual is not a problem - in fact, it has advantages," Jimenez asserts.

Seeing Results in the Classroom

"I think that all my students achieved success, at varying degrees, of course." For fifth grade teacher Esperanza Villarreal-Ortiz, Jimenez' approach resulted in many successes. All, with the exception of one student were Mexican or Mexican Americans. Most were from monolingual households, and most were receiving some sort of school assistance. Some students were in the bilingual program for over 8 years, some were new arrivals, and some students were transitioning out of the bilingual classroom. Villarreal-Ortiz offers this example. "I remember one student had very few language skills in either language. One day, I asked the students to illustrate what I had read. I was so surprised at this boy's understanding and artistic talent. While he was not able to verbalize his understanding, he was able to illustrate his understanding of both languages. Once he knew I understood him, he began to take more risks in communication, particularly in the small group settings of literature circles."

According to Villarreal-Ortiz it can be difficult to implement the strategies with students if the district leadership does not accept the basic premises. "Generally, most bilingual teachers are taught not to use both English and Spanish in the same sentence or thought patterns. So, for example, I should not say, 'Come on, vamonos a la tienda.' This is called code switching and many professionals believe it is wrong to use it. However, Robert's research validated something that I intuitively knew— second language learners find themselves doing this quite often. You know this to be true if you grew up in Texas where Spanish and English are often spoken by both Anglos and Latinos. They code switch all of the time. For my students, code switching allowed them to feel comfortable trying out their second language. It further substantiated their confidence in taking the necessary risks for learning."

Family Involvement: Respecting Diverse Backgrounds

Several years ago, the Highland Park School District in Michigan received support from OSEP to develop a demonstration model that provided a community-based program focused on serving children with emotional disturbance in a culturally competent manner.

Today, the district fully funds the program, which provides wraparound services to middle school youngsters. Wraparound refers to an approach of surrounding the child and the family with a network of services in natural home, school, and community environments.

Family involvement is a key component of the Highland Park approach. "Throughout all aspects of the program, families are key team members," asserts LeVan Townsel, program director. "Families are involved in identifying supports and designing implementation plans for the services they and their child receive." According to Townsel, the success of the approach is based on an underlying core belief that families are not the source of their child's difficulty, but rather are partners in planning for their child's needs.

Program staff have learned much about being culturally sensitive when interacting with families. Townsel offers the following recommendations:

  • Take time to educate the family. Many families do not know what emotional disturbance means. They may not feel comfortable asking questions. In cases where they know about special education, they may view the process negatively.
  • Go to the family. Whenever possible, meet with the family in the home.
  • Arrange parent support groups. Help parents come together to support each other. Encourage them to develop advocacy skills.
  • Find out what the parent needs. Often times parents need support or an extra boost. Find out what might help them feel more confident.
  • Push for parent membership on school and community teams and boards. Parents should be given opportunities to contribute their expertise in ways that are not directly related to their own child.
  • Encourage parents to talk about their dreams for the child. Don't tell parents what is wrong with their situation. They already know.
  • Know the difference between the culture of the family and the economic situation that the family is in. It is important to understand how poverty affects families. For example, families may have experience working with welfare agencies who do business differently than schools. It is important to understand behaviors from many contexts and to take an integrated approach to understanding people.
  • Learn as much about the culture of the families with whom you are working as possible. Find out the values— they view disabilities and mental health issues.

Prior to the OSEP project, students in Highland Park had a 90 percent failure rate on the statewide assessment test; 65 percent of students at the middle school were expelled or suspended annually for behavioral infractions. At the end of the grant period, external evaluations showed significant student improvement, including a reduction of 75 percent in referrals out of classrooms for disruptive behavior.

Next: Views From the Field

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