The role of culture in English learners’ school performance

Culture affects English learners’ academic achievement and language and literacy development in multiple ways. As language minority students, English learners come from cultural backgrounds that can be very different from school culture and from the home cultures of their native English speaking (NES) peers. This can cause a disconnect that impacts the process and outcomes of EL students’ education.

Educators of English learners need to familiarize themselves with the cultural backgrounds of their students, seeking reputable, unbiased resources and personal informants (e.g., community leaders) to learn about their home countries/regions and languages (we provide links to resources about different cultures in the section below). Educators sometimes divide culture into two major categories–Deep and Surface Culture. Surface Culture includes aspects of culture that are apparent, such as festivals, food, and folk dancing (by the way, they don’t all have to begin with the letter f!). Surface culture elements are often those that are emphasized in school and community events, but they are only the tip of the cultural iceberg. Below the surface looms Deep Culture, which is very emotionally charged. Deep culture elements are those that can cause conflict, such as body language/touching, nature of friendships, and concepts of time/punctuality. Part of becoming informed about the country/region, language, and culture of an EL student includes delving into deep culture differences to understand why the student and family might act in ways that are not considered appropriate in US school culture.

An important aspect of cultural background is how schooling is structured in the home country/region and the expectations parents and educators have for students at different ages and grade levels. Sometimes teachers believe that parents of ELs don’t care about their children’s education because they might not volunteer or attend school functions, but in some countries/regions, parents are not encouraged to be regularly involved in school events. Another contrast pertains to the type of instruction that is most commonly used. In some cultures, rote learning and memorization is the norm, so if a teacher expects an EL from those cultures to participate in cooperative learning activities, there may be a need for explanation and support for participation.

Another important cultural aspect about ELs that educators should be aware of is the process of cultural adjustment. When English learners immigrate to the US mainland, they are not only confronted by a new language but also a new culture. At first, the newness of the encounter might bring about feelings of excitement (this is sometimes referred to as the “Honeymoon” stage), but shortly thereafter the unavoidable misunderstandings, faux pas experiences, and conflicts begin. For example, in some cultures it is expected that if someone asks for an opinion, the opinion shared will be frank and honest. This means, that when someone asks a friend, “Do you like my new dress?” the friend might respond, “No, not really. It makes you look fat.” In a culture where “little white lies” are used to spare someone’s feelings, the response might be perceived as rude or uncaring. However, in the other culture, to respond dishonestly would be rude and uncaring. When English learners experience one or more of these confusing or even embarrassing events, they may move into a “culture shock” or even a “Hostility” stage, comparing everything in the new culture to its counterpart in their familiar culture. The rules or scripts that the ELs learned and mastered no longer apply in the new culture, and ELs might resent the differences. With the understanding and support that educators can provide, English learners then typically move to the Cultural Integration” stage, where they can begin to understand and accept cultural differences, even laughing at any faux pas incidences they are involved in. Lastly, they move to the “Home” stage, where they can move back and forth across cultural differences with ease.

The cultural diversity that English learners bring to US classrooms is a tremendous asset that outstanding educators embrace. The literature on culturally-responsive teaching (we are inspired by the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings in this area) and multicultural education (the work of James Banks is foundational in this field) encompasses the cultures of English learners and serves as a great framework for ensuring that their cultures are represented and celebrated in all aspects of schooling.