Culture and Language (Preview)

Part 1: Intro & Objectives

What does culture have to do with it? Have to do with it? (Do you hear Tina Turner’s tune?) Well, teachers have figured out that it’s really important to understand how cultural and linguistic backgrounds influence instruction. This is true for teachers as well as students. The first step is to know yourself as a cultural being.

Once you become self-aware of your cultural backgrounds, it’s easier to get to know others’ cultural backgrounds. So this lesson does not include a real world case involving someone else. Instead, the real world case is YOU! Take some time to ask yourself some important self-reflective questions. Don’t miss the “Culture Quilt” activity in the “Give it a Try!” section–it is a great way to begin the conversation about culture.

This lesson will help mentors to:

  • Examine their own cultural values, beliefs, and ways of doing things
  • Understand how culture impacts teaching practices
  • Examine ways of providing culturally responsive instruction
  • Understand the meaning and importance of linguistic code-switching
  • Consider ways to create an inclusive classroom for students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds

Part 2: Real World Case

If you have a front-facing camera on your phone or computer, turn it on. (Or a mirror will do!) This real world case is about you. Before you can begin to consider another’s cultural and linguistic background, you need to consider your own. Your own cultural and linguistic lens shades how you see others. So it’s important to know yourself as a cultural being before you try to analyze others’ cultural selves.

You can start by asking yourself these questions. If you want, do this as a partner interview with another teacher.

  • What do you think culture is?
  • What would you consider your own cultural background to be?
  • If we tell you that culture includes not only national, racial, and ethnic identities (as most people assume), but also religious, familial, regional, and professional identities (among others), how might that change your responses to the two previous questions?
  • What is your first language?
  • Have you ever learned to speak, read, or listen to other languages?
  • What is your opinion about what language should be spoken in the classroom?
  • Are there variations of this language that you believe should or should not be welcome in the classroom?
  • How might you express these opinions through your words and/or actions?
  • How do you think culture and language influence your classroom instruction?

Part 3: Building Knowledge

Due to copyright law, several readings cannot be hosted on this site. However, we encourage you to ask for assistance locating materials from your library media specialist. Many library services are freely available to educators.

Teaching Cultural Competence

“Knowing that new teachers need support and providing such support are two very different things…Culture is a complex concept, and few teachers have an opportunity to learn about it,” Gloria Ladson-Billings wrote in 2001. Since then, many researchers and educators have written about how to teach wiht cultural competence. Rethinking Schools provides access to a wealth of knowledge about how to teach with cultural competence in their online archives. We highly recommend the folowing issues to to get your reading list started: 29(1), 28(3), and 27(1).

Ladson-Billings, G. (2001). Teaching and cultural competence: What does it take to be a successful teacher in a diverse classroom? Rethinking Schools Online. Retrieved August 21, 2010 from Rethinking Schools Online.

Note: Requires subscription.

View Article

NOTE: Required reading

The Culturally Responsive Teacher

The authors examine a new way of looking at teaching that is grounded in understanding the role of culture and language in learning. They emphasize the need for teachers to gather information about their students’ lives, hold affirming views toward diversity, use instructional strategies that help students build connections between their lives in and out of school, and advocate for all students.

Villegas, Anna Maria & Lucas, Tamara (2007). The culturally responsive teacher. Educational Leadership, 64(6), 28-33.

Note: Requires Subscription

View Article

NOTE: Required Reading

Phases of Language Acquisition

This is an overview of the phases for the acquisition of language. There’s a “Give it a Try!” activity associated with this overview.

Robertson, & Ford, (2008). Language acquisition: An overview. Retrieved from

View Article
NOTE: Required reading

What’s the difference between social and academic English?

Many educators are meeting the needs of an increasing population of English language learners. One way they’re meeting those students’ needs is by focusing on building both social and academic English. This website from Reading Rockets (sponsored by WETA and funded by the U.S. Department of Education) emphasizes the difference between social and academic English, highlights the stages of English proficiency, and shares ways to support students in developing both their social and academic English.

NOTE: This is a summary drawn from another website that is an excellent resource for teachers and parents who want to learn more about English learning and bilingual/biliteracy education, called Colorín Colorado:

View Article
NOTE: Required reading

Code-switching and Ebonics

As you begin to delve into cultural differences, one difference you might come up with is dialect and language differences. Delpit highlights the difference in discourse style and language use by African American students. She provides educators with practical ways they can make the study of language diversity a part of the curriculum.

Delpit, L. (1997). The real ebonics debate: What should teachers do? Retrieved from

View Article
NOTE: Required reading

Code-switching Tips

Helping children to know how to communicate in Standard English is often a school priority; however, teachers also know the value of maintaining and valuing home languages and dialects that are non-Standard. When should a teacher correct a child’s language? When should a teacher accept a child’s language? These are real questions that many teachers grapple with as they encounter children from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Wheeler provides linguistic insight into venacular language and offers strategies to lead students through a critical-thinking process to help them understand and apply the rules of Standard English grammar.

Wheeler, R. (2008). Becoming adept at code switching. Educational Leadership, 64(7), 54-58.

View Article
NOTE: Required reading

Our experts have plenty to tell about how teachers can attend to their own cultural and linguistic lenses, address biases, and reach out to engage students of all backgrounds. Listen (and watch) as they share what it means to be a culturally competent and culturally responsive teacher.

Joyce King, Ph.D.

Visit Expert’s Website

Joyce King, Ph.D. knows a lot about how individual beliefs and values influence teaching practices. She gives some practical advice about how to make sure that stereotyping and biases don’t get in the way of good instruction. Dr. King is an expert in this area, having published many articles and books on culture and teaching.

Watch as Joyce King shares the principles of culturally relevant pedagogy and explain why it is important. She also explains what is meant by cultural competency and give examples of what culturally relevant pedagogy looks like in the classroom. Continue watching as Joyce shares what mentors can do to directly address stereotypes and biases.

Steven Athanases, Ph.D.

Visit Expert’s Website

Steven Athanases, Ph.D., co-authored Mentors in the Making: Developing New Leaders for New Teachers with Betty Achinstein (another expert contributor to Dr. Athanases is a Professor at the University of California in Davis and conducts research on educational equity and teacher education.

Steve shares the importance of new teachers exploring their own cultural and linguistic experiences as well as questions they should ask themselves related to culturally and linguistically diverse students. Next, you’ll hear his advice to mentors on ways to help new teachers manage diversity during their first year of teaching. He mentions James Banks’ five domains of multicultural education–Can you describe all five after you watch this? What can new teachers to do ensure that they’re addressing all learners?

Maria Fránquiz

Visit Expert’s Website

Maria E. Fránquiz is the Dean of the College of Education at the University of Utah. Having written and edited several books and articles about English and dual language learners, she is an award-winning researcher and scholar on language learning.

Maria Fránquiz shares about the importance of academic language support and informal assessments. She tells about code-switching—when speakers (and writers) express themselves by mixing two languages or dialects together. She ends by talking about sharing children’s and young adult literature—it’s a great way to guide students (and teachers) to understand differences in culture and language.

By now, you’re probably understanding culture to mean “A shared set of beliefs, attitudes, and behavior that are characteristic of a particular social group or organization.” The first two “Give it a Try!” activities will help you to understand how your own cultural lens shapes your mentoring and your teaching.

The third activity is a good one to do with your mentee as a way to synthesize and communicate your knowledge about language acquisition, Finally, the fourth activity can be a useful learning experience and demonstration of your cultural competency and critical thinking. Try this last one with a peer or new teacher–the discussions are guaranteed to be fruitful!

ACTIVITY 1: Self-Analysis of Diversity Issues and Implications


ACTIVITY 2: Culture Quilt

Making Culture Quilts is an activity that can be shared within a class of adult learners and with children. The activity is a great way for participants to consider their own cultural backgrounds, share their backgrounds with others, and begin the conversation about culture. A culture quilt can be made from anything–paper is usually the easiest but feel free to get creative here!

The purpose of this assignment is to give you the opportunity to explore your own culture as well as the cultures of the students you teach in order to develop as a culturally responsive teacher. There are three parts to this activity:

  1. Create your Culture Quilt* and share it with your fellow mentors. A quilt is a large covering stitched together from many smaller pieces of cloth. Similarly, a number of different characteristics define an individual’s culture. Construct your own culture quilt. Each of the sixteen boxes in the grid contains a question related to a specific aspect of culture. Column 1 is your family history; Column 2 is the cultural other; Column 3 is the cultural self–personal; and Column 4 is the cultural self—professional. On a standard piece of poster board, replicate the grid and fill in each square with a symbol (sentence, picture, drawing, poem, etc.) that answers the question with regard to your own life experience.
  1. Share your Culture Quilt with your students. Then, invite them to create their own individual Culture Quilts with the help of their families. You will need to modify the questions in the fourth column to “Cultural Self – Student. You may also modify other questions to make them more age-appropriate for your students. However, be sure NOT to change the intention of the question. Depending on the ages of your students, you might consider inviting a parent, relative or other caregiver to help the student present the Culture Quilt to the class.
  1. Reflection & Application. As your students share their Culture Quilts, use the opportunity to actively listen to and learn about them and their cultures. Take notes, if possible. After all your students have shared their Culture Quilts write up your reflections regarding insights you had about your students, the responses from the rest of the class, whether or not and how the assignment influenced the dynamics of your class. You might even want to note things you learned about individual students that surprised you and think through what caused you to be surprised. Finally, reflect upon ways that you might modify your teaching throughout the year in response to the cultural knowledge you have gained about your students.

*Culture Quilt created by J. J. Irvine and R. F. Williams based on:
Bennett, C. (1999). Comprehensive Multicultural Education: Theory and Practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Here’s a lesson plan for adapting this activity for students:

Culture Quilt Lesson Plan

Activity 3: Phases of Language Acquisition

Review Robertson, K. & Ford, K. (2008). Language acquisition: An overview. This is available on the Colorín Colorado website:

This article examines the stages of language acquisition, highlights instructional strategies for each stage and provides readers with recommendations for working with English Language Learners.

Create a matrix to summarize what you’ve learned about language acquisition that identifies the stages of language acquisition. You might want to review the Robertson and Ford overview and other readings. The matrix will begin something like this:

Part 4: Review & Reflect

Consider all you have learned about yourself in this lesson.

  • What is “culture” to you?
  • How is your cultural and linguistic background affecting your instruction?
  • How do you view your students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds?
  • How is your cultural and linguistic background affecting how you see your students?
  • What do researchers suggest as the best way to involve students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds?
  • What do researchers suggest as a way to engage students who may not speak English (including Standard English) as their first language? How can teachers assist in English learning? How can teachers support bilingual or multilingual development?
  • What do you know about yourself now that is different from before?
  • How will you change your approach to instruction?
  • How might you assist a new teacher in this kind of introspection?

Part 5: Glossary


A shared set of beliefs, attitudes, and behavior that are characteristic of a particular social group or organization.


A socially constructed category of people who share biologically transmitted traits that members of a society consider important.


A social category of people who share a common culture, such as a common language, a common religion, or common norms, customs, practices, and history.

differentiated instruction

A variety of techniques used to adapt instruction to the individual ability levels and learning styles of each student in the classroom.

English Learners/English Language Learners (ELs or ELLs)

Individuals who are in the process of transitioning from a home or native language to English or who are learning English as a second (or other) language.

Pull-Out Language Instruction Model

A trained professional pulls small groups of students who are learning English as a second language from general education classes. This is often used in the process of transitioning from a home or native language to English.

Push-In Language Instruction Model

A trained professional co-teaches with a general education(and/or special education) teacher and serves as support for students who are in the process of learning English.


An approach to educating children with special needs in which they are included in general education classrooms, with appropriate instructional aids and support services.

Multicultural Education

An approach to education that includes perspectives from and content about diverse groups, embraces diverse cognitive styles, and promotes equity in a diverse society.


Changing from one mode of speech to another as the situation demands, whether from one language to another or from one dialect of a language to another.


Cognitive academic language proficiency; key vocabulary words, terms and concepts associated with a particular topic being taught.


Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills; language skills needed to interact in social situations.

Back to: Mentoring New Teachers > 2. Responding to Diverse Learners