Cultural Competency for You and Your Students

Monday, April 13, 2015 -- Scott Sterling

It’s no secret that we’re entering the most multicultural period in the history of American education. Students who are considered English language learners (ELLs) will make up a quarter of the nation’s students by 2020. Correspondingly, the global economy means that it is increasingly common for individuals from all over the globe to be working together within the same company or team.

These realities call for what is referred to as cultural competence. The National Education Association defines it as “having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families.”

Teachers need to develop these abilities because of the increasingly multicultural makeup of their classrooms. Students need to develop these skills because of the global economy they will be eventually entering.

Here are some strategies that you can use in the classroom to help both your students and yourself grow cultural competency.

Diversity in materials

Connecting curricula to students’ own experiences and prior knowledge is critical for getting and keeping them engaged with the material, even when it becomes challenging. As classrooms become increasingly multicultural and students’ experiences grow more varied, utilizing classroom materials that reflect and celebrate that variety of experiences is key. Doing so also helps expose students to cultures other than their own, fostering a sense of respect and connection among all of the students in the classroom. Check out this collection of lesson plans and resources for Multiculturalism and Diversity from Scholastic for a great place to start building your library of inclusive classroom materials.

Nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication has been a go-to strategy among ELL teachers since the beginning, but it can also be implemented in mainstream classes. Look for materials that incorporate nonverbal content like pictures, symbols, and music. Even utilizing simple nonverbal cues in your classroom like applause and basic sign language can help  connect your students. Strategies like these also help prepare students for the global economy they will be a part of by equipping them with skills for overcoming language barriers.

Family involvement

In a multicultural classroom, your students’ families are one of the best resources you have for exposing all of your students to diverse cultures and perspectives. Every culture has distinct approaches to teaching, learning, and interacting. Offer opportunities for your students’ families to become involved in the classroom, such as class presentation days, volunteer time, or chances for family members to come in and speak about a specific career or experience. Not only will this expose your students to diverse perspectives, but it will also help family members feel more connected to their students’ education and empowered to take part in it.   

Multiple modalities

Working in multiple learning styles is something you should be doing anyway, but is is even more important in a multicultural classroom. Make use of materials in an assortment of media, such as print, audio, and video. Look for interactive resources that will engage students with a variety of learning styles both cognitively and visually—including students who are ELLs.  

Looking for more resources on effective teaching strategies for today’s multicultural classrooms? Check out this great article on Preparing for Cultural Diversity from Edutopia.

Want to find out how Edmentum can partner with your school or district to provide solutions for your ELL students? Read this fast fact sheet, or take a look our English Language Development Solutions.