In “Culturally Responsive Evidence-Based Practices with English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities: A Qualitative Case Study” Michael J. Orosco and Naheed A. Abdulrahim investigate the observational impact of culturally-responsive teaching within a bilingual special education classroom. Findings suggest that the use of culturally-relevant texts engaged students and also increased reading stamina and overall comprehension scores.
Keywords: bilingual, special education, culturally-responsive teaching
Background of the Study
Orosco & Abdulrahim’s study focused on the use of culturally responsive evidenced-based practices with English Language Learners (ELLs) with Learning Disabilities. The qualitative research question was “How does one teacher’s knowledge of culturally responsive pedagogy and evidence-based practices impact special education instruction?” and, further, “What does culturally responsive literacy instruction look like for ELLs within special education?” (Orosco & Abdulrahim, 2017, p. 29). The authors noted that evidence-based reading practices have been studied in depth since the 1990s but that this prior research had not examined the integration of these skills (vocabulary, reading strategies) with culturally and linguistically responsive texts. They suggest that this appears to be, in part, related to controversies over appropriate curricula for ELLs. The lack of study in this area is unfortunate, as many ELLs are often diagnosed as learning disabled and placed in special education environments due to weak reading skills (Orosco & Abdulrahim, 2017, p. 29). Importantly, the study found that the “success of special education with ELLs at the elementary education level may be dependent on how well the teacher integrates culturally responsive and evidence-based instruction with ELLs’ sociocultural needs” (Orosco & Abdulrahim, 2017, p. 28), with culturally responsive instruction being texts that are culturally relevant and comprehensible.
In this study, the researchers monitored and documented teaching within a social constructivist framework. The observed instructional sessions took place in a partial inclusion program based on small-group instruction in 30-45 minute blocks. Each of the student IEPs resulted from deficits in language and reading and were chosen based on significant reading comprehension challenges despite focused interventions. The teacher was qualitatively observed 15 times in 1-hour intervals over a 1-year period by a two-member bilingual research team with post-graduate credentials in bilingual education. These observations noted instructional engagement activities, the physical environment, and the influence of social factors. They then conducted a 30 minute pre-and post-interview with the educator to ascertain her personal perspectives about culturally responsive literacy instruction for her students. The observers noted that this dialogue served to confirm their own research findings.
The participating school was located in a large southwestern urban school district in which 93% of students were Hispanic, 66% of whom were ELLs. Further, the school was considered a high-poverty school. The observed educator was recommended by both the assistant superintendent of learning and the bilingual education coordinator as someone who had taught low SES Latino ELLs for 11 years and was previously evaluated as displaying strong teaching skills with evidence of annual increases in student reading achievement.
Further, the researchers reviewed lesson plans and classroom materials, along with student work. This data was analyzed “applying Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) three-step (open, theoretical, and constant comparative) analysis process” (Orosco & Abdulrahim, 2017, p. 33). They additionally triangulated the qualitative data through interactions with the participating educator to ensure complete agreement of the study’s findings.
Through this approach, the researchers concluded that culturally responsive instruction promoted Latino ELLs’ reading achievement, which was confirmed by standardized scores in language and literacy across three grade levels. The core component of the observed instruction was “a culturally relevant literature component” (Orosco & Abdulrahim, 2017, p.34). The participating educator explained that this approach allowed for identity affirmation “because [these students] often experienced the devaluation of their cultural, linguistic, and racial identity in American schooling” (Orosco & Abdulrahim, 2017, p. 35). The texts that were used presented familiar characters that related to identity development and, in turn, supported reading stamina, deepened understanding of story elements, and improved overall reading comprehension.
Critique of the Study
This study was well-designed in many ways. The simultaneous involvement of two researchers enhanced credibility of classroom observations, and the discussions with the educator ensured a solid understanding of the purpose and intent behind specific reading and text-based incorporation. However, it warrants a further investigation that includes a control demographic; would these students have performed as well on annual benchmarks if their educator had not already been highly-qualified and shown historically to elicit such results? That is, could an equally-skilled teacher work in the same manner with students with traditional texts and see similar gains? There is strong reason to assert that the student motivation did indeed stem from interest in the ‘identity-validating’ texts, but this motivation could potentially also be driven by texts related to personal interest.
It is also interesting to consider the social constructivist approach of the study, which “places more emphasis on the social environment as a facilitator of development and learning” (Schunk, 2016, p. 311). This study was conducted with a group of Latino students, who might have felt more comfortable discussing literature related to their identity within a homogenous setting. It is not clear that culturally-responsive texts would be similarly impactful in engaging students in a heterogeneous setting, especially since this technique might require a variety of different texts in a single classroom.
This study could potentially be generalized to other students who were not the participants of the study. The process and findings could easily be replicated in a similar setting. In fact, the findings themselves call for this approach to be utilized in various classroom situations for the purpose of meaningful change and increased achievement among marginalized groups. The article aptly explains the technical approach and related terminology, and provides easily understandable justifications for the methodology used.
The findings within Orosco & Abdulrahim’s study are impactful in that they suggest a way in which policy might need to be changed to reflect the necessary use of culturally-responsive texts in the classroom. Student-relevant texts and multicultural perspectives are certainly being encouraged within 21st century classrooms, but the traditional models and literature choices remain prevalent. These curriculum issues often take a back-seat compared to standardized testing debates; however, a strong correlation between practice and achievement could warrant increased attention to specific teaching practices stemming from such materials.
My own qualitative research question focuses on how teachers who utilized culturally-responsive texts in the classroom would describe student engagement. The educator participant in this study answered, “Using culturally relevant materials that covered topics and events that Latino ELLs had experienced or had an interest in helped to support their specific learning needs. Moreover, they became motivated to participate in challenging discussion, and activities contributed to their higher literacy achievement” (Orosco & Abdulrahim, 2017, p. 37). Thus, student engagement and motivation manifested as increased dialogue and oral contributions to the class. It is worthwhile to consider whether this motivation carried over into other coursework, which is to say whether the individual achievement that resulted from more active participation existed beyond tasks which were culturally-aligned. If success in an English class turned out to spur greater participation in a math class, this topic would be in even greater need of further research. The social constructivist framework of Orosco & Abdulrahim highlights the need to consider the social environment of a classroom in relation to any culturally responsive teaching techniques.
Orosco, Michael J.; Abdulrahim, Naheed A.. Culturally Responsive Evidence-based Practices with English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities: A Qualitative Case Study. Educational Borderlands: A Bilingual Journal, [S.1.], v. 1, p. 27-45, May 2017.
Schunk, D. H. (2016). Learning theories: An educational perspective – With access (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.