Cultural Literacy: Educating Students from Diverse Ethnic, Cultural and Linguistic Backgrounds

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 21–22, 2014

University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Classrooms in America are becoming increasingly diverse, especially in large metropolitan cities such as New York City. This diversity comes in several layers, such as ethnic, cultural, linguistic, social, economic and otherwise, as represented by the students served in our school system. This diversity of the student body vastly outruns the diversity of educators, including administrators, teachers and staff. Thus a challenge for many schools and teachers in particular is “how to teach students who don’t look like you” (Davis 2006), speak like you, live like you, or who have different experiences than your own. Henry Giroux (1993, 2007) suggests “border crossing” as a way for teachers and students to crisscross borders in an effort to become knowledgeable about each other and enhance the teaching and learning experience. Therefore he refers to teachers as cultural workers.

For Giroux (1993, 26-7):

The central concern is the importance of challenging, remapping and re-negotiating those boundaries of knowledge that claim the status of master narratives, fixed identities and an objective representation of reality. Thus educators and cultural workers must be engaged in the unlearning of their own privilege so that they learn to listen to that other constituency and to speak in such a way that one will be taken seriously by that other constituency.

Marshall (2004, 37) adds a more reflective perspective in which teachers see themselves as “cultural beings.” As such, they should “recognize that their own culturally influenced ways of being have a significant impact on the overall teaching and learning process. Hence, in the study of cultural diversity; it is important to recognize that teachers have cultural backgrounds too.”

This leads to the consideration of culturally relevant teaching (Ladson-Billings 1991, 236):

Culturally relevant teaching refers to the kind of teaching that allows minority (and poor) youngsters access to, and success in, school knowledge via their own culture; helps them to recognize and celebrate that culture, and empowers students so that they are able to critically examine educational content and process and ask what its role is in creating a democratic and multicultural society. . . . Culturally relevant teachers are those who have specific conceptions about themselves and others, the kinds of classroom/community social relations they promote and the significance of knowledge in the classroom that they relate to these issues of student culture and educational critique. . . . These teachers believe that success is possible for each student and a part of that success is helping students to make connections between themselves and their community, national, ethnic, and global identities.

Similarly, according to Irvine and Armento (2001, 4):

Culturally responsive pedagogy is used interchangeably with several terms such as culturally responsible, culturally appropriate, culturally congruent, culturally compatible, culturally relevant and multicultural to describe a variety of effective approaches in culturally diverse classrooms. These terms all imply that teachers should be responsive to their students by incorporating elements of the students’ culture in their teaching. . . . The teaching effectiveness research literature informs us that a responsive teacher is sensitive to the needs, interests, learning preferences and abilities of their students. Responsive teachers do not blindly follow one teaching method or use the same teaching methods and materials for all students. Instead these teachers modify their knowledge and training and paying attention to classroom contexts and to individual student needs and experiences. In addition, culturally responsive teachers spend considerable classroom and non-classroom time developing a personal relationship with students.

Why Is Culturally Relevant/Responsive Pedagogy Important?

Today’s diverse classrooms are experiencing increasingly large numbers of diverse students from various ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds with diverse skills and abilities. As pointed out by Edwards (2008):

Many teachers find themselves ill-prepared to comprehend the multiple cultures that students bring to the classroom, let alone bring dignity and respect for those cultures. They are taught subject matter, but not what to do when the subject matter does not pertain to the life experiences of the students. Teacher education programs rarely prepare teachers to make education meaningful to diverse groups of students.

As a result, according to Meidl and Meidl (2011), research has indicated that students from racial and ethnic-minority backgrounds do not perform as well academically as their mainstream peers. This becomes evident in the disparity of the “achievement gap,” as identified in the No Child Left behind Act (2001).

This makes culturally relevant/responsive pedagogy imperative to the closing of the achievement gap. In addition, learning to value differences in perspective, languages, cultures, physical appearances, and so forth, offers opportunities to expand inquiry learning, critical thinking, and problem solving (Schmidt and Ma 2006).

What Is Cultural Literacy?

Cultural literacy has been defined as the “knowledge of history, contributions, and perspectives of different cultural groups including one’s own group, necessary for understanding of reading, writing, and other media” ( Coined by E.D. Hirsch, the term refers to “the ability to understand and participate fluently in a given culture” (Wikipedia). According to Hirsch, Kett, and Trefil (1987), “cultural literacy” is “the network of information that all competent readers possess. It is the background information stored in their minds that enables them to take up a newspaper and read it with an adequate level of comprehension, getting the point, grasping the implications, relating what they read to the unstated context which alone gives meaning to what they read.” Hirsch’s focus is on learners and their background knowledge; he considered cultural literacy to be a new insight neglected by current approaches to teaching literacy. “We can only raise our reading and writing skills significantly,” he argues, “by consciously redefining and extending our cultural literacy” (1983). Hirsch’s perspective on cultural literacy certainly has implications for K-12 schooling as well as teacher education programs.

In the context of a graduate class in a literacy and cognition program, cultural literacy focuses on preparing teachers in educating students from diverse ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds. This requires culturally relevant/responsive teaching, which includes both teaching and learning experiences that engage teachers as well as students in opportunities to become border crossers as they develop shared understandings from cultural, political, instructional, and social perspectives. The goal of the course is to examine a variety of approaches, instructional strategies, and activities that integrate knowledge and experience drawn from diverse cultural backgrounds, and that deepen and broaden student understanding of the global context of learning.

The Graduate Course: Cultural Literacy

The cultural literacy course was designed for in-service teachers in the graduate program on literacy and cognition. Its focus is on (a) an examination of issues in literacy education from cultural, political, instructional, and social perspectives; (b) the relationship between home and school literacy; (c) a survey of critical issues in literacy development in different communities with special attention to cultural linguistic diversity and the strengths of various cultures; (d) connections to oral language, reading, writing, and children’s literature within a literacy framework that focuses on the learner’s cultural background and linguistic understanding; (e) an exploration of the ways that teachers, reading specialists, administrators, and teacher educators can provide efficient literacy instruction for students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds; and (f) an analysis of the pedagogical implications of the teacher’s role and impact upon diverse student learning, and in organizing and teaching literacy.

A central question in the teaching of this class is “How can teachers heighten their cultural awareness and pedagogical skills in order to provide quality teaching and learning experiences for students from increasingly diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds?” Therefore, in-service teachers are engaged in examining the growth of cultural diversity in their schools, understanding themselves as cultural beings, understanding the variety of ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds of students in their classes, and understanding the teacher’s role in motivating students and meeting their needs while validating their lived histories, experiences, and perspectives. In addition, practical activities engage teachers as border crossers and provide culturally relevant teaching and learning experiences for a diverse classroom.

Practical Experiences and Activities

Class experiences include the New York City museum mile event, as well as individual and group visits to specific cultural museums such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Asian American Arts Centre, El Museo del Barrio, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of the American Indian and other museums relevant to the cultural backgrounds of students in NYC classrooms. Other experiences include dining at cultural restaurants, and trips to cultural fairs in the community. These experiences provide opportunities to become knowledgeable about other cultures as well as help teachers to create activities that are culturally relevant in the teaching of literacy to diverse students in their classes. They use these experiences and the knowledge gained from them to prepare reading, writing, and presentation activities for their students. These activities are showcased in various formats, including cultural identity collage glogs, memory boxes, shadow boxes, and cultural scrapbooks and folders.

First, following the discussion of teachers as cultural beings, teachers are encouraged to create a cultural identity collage using This first began as an art project in which teachers used newspapers, magazines, pictures, and other art materials to express how they see themselves and how others see them, providing the opportunity for self-analysis and self-expression (“Vietnamese” 2004). It was then adapted using technology and led to the creation of identity glogs. Teachers download or upload pictures of events or things that help to describe their cultural heritage and create a glog that they present to the class. Cultural identity collage/glogs can be used by teachers and students to identify ways in which they share similar values and experiences as well as highlight some distinctive differences that make them unique and interesting individuals. Teachers can also create teaching and learning glogs with the help of students to demonstrate learning on a particular topic in any subject area.

Second, the memory box holds a collection of items highlighting some of the many important activities and symbols of a particular cultural group. Teachers can use the box to create hands-on learning activities as well as research projects.

Third, the cultural scrapbook is a product that teachers and/or students can create to display information on cultural events that might be part of a unit or follow-up activity.

A scrapbook about Mexico

Fourth, the shadow box is a box with a glass cover in which items can be displayed that summarize what students have learned about a given topic or unit of learning. The box presents pictures or objects that represent a cultural group or a cultural experience and can be used in language arts or social studies lessons.

A shadow box about Mexico

Fifth, the cultural folder can either be a folder or an envelope of written activities including puzzles or pictures related to a cultural group or topic being studied. Students are provided with instruction for completing these assignments following a reading, video, class trip, or activity.


The improvement of literacy instruction in our increasingly diverse classrooms should be the goal of any literacy program. However, the challenge of teaching students from diverse backgrounds requires teacher preparation in understanding a wide range of background-specific literacy experiences and needs. In this graduate-level cultural literacy class, the readings, discussions, experiences, and activities provide in-service teachers the opportunity to reflect on themselves and their students as part of a diverse learning community. This allows them to begin the process of border crossing. Secondly, it helps them to reflect on their pedagogical practices and begin to include more relevant, responsive pedagogy in addressing the needs of their diverse students. The activities designed in class (identity collage, memory box, shadow box, cultural scrapbook, and cultural folder) are then often employed by the teachers in their own classes as end-of-year projects. This gives them the opportunity to observe their students’ responses, especially in designing their own personal identity collages and sharing them with their classmates.


Davis, B.M. 2006. How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You: Culturally Relevant Teaching Strategies. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Delpit, L. 2006. Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflicts in the Classroom. New York: The New Press. “Cultural literacy.” Accessed January 26, 2015.

Edwards, P.A. 2008. Preparing Culturally Relevant Teachers. New York Reading First and Adolescent Literacy Conference, July 1.

Hirsch, Jr. E.D. 1983. “Cultural Literacy.” The American Scholar 52(2): 56-66.

Hirsch, Jr., E.D., J.F. Kett, and J.S. Trefil. 1987. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Irvine, J.J. and B.J. Armento. 2001. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Lesson Planning for Elementary and Middle Grades. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Ladson-Billings, G. 2009. The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. 2nd edition. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Marshall, P. (2002). Cultural Diversity in Our Schools. Belmont: Wadsworth /Thomson Learning.

Meidl, T. and C. Meidl. 2011. “Curriculum Integration and Adaptation: Individualizing Pedagogy for Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Students.” Current Issues in Education 14(1).

Schmidt, P.R. and W. Ma. 2006. 50 Literacy Strategies for Culturally Responsive Teaching, K-8. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

“Vietnamese Americans: Lessons in American History.” 2004. Teaching Tolerance 25.

Wikipedia contributors. 2014. “Cultural Literacy.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, December 24.

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