Cultural Backgrounds

Foertsch (1998) describes children's cultural backgrounds as an important factor that influences how children learn to read:

"The match between cultural expectations for literacy and school expectations for literacy is crucial to the successful acquisition of reading. Children's experiences with literacy vary from culture to culture. In some cultures, for example, storytelling is highly valued over the use of print materials (Morrow, 1996). Research indicates that the types and forms of literacy practiced in some families--especially low-income, ethnic and cultural minority, and immigrant families--are largely incongruent with the literacy encountered in school (Heath, 1983; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988). This research identifies families as literate in ways defined by their culture and community. It also challenges assumptions about uniform definitions of literacy as well as about the concern of parents for their children's education (Chavkin, 1989; Snow, Barnes, Chandler, Goodman, & Hemphill, 1991).

Because oral language provides the foundation for written language acquisition, a mismatch between cultural expectations and school expectations for literacy can cause a lack of success for children learning to read in school. Because the U.S. population is increasing in diversity, children come to school with a wide variety of experiences with print (Hall, 1987). As student populations become more diverse, it becomes increasingly important that teachers be attentive to the cultural framework from which children operate. Teachers need to build upon children's experiences, values, and background knowledge to introduce them to more public forms of literacy.

Supporting positive connections between the home culture and school is crucial. Erickson (1993) and Erickson and Mohatt (1982) describe the importance of culturally responsive instruction as a way of providing for success for minority students. They suggest teachers use communication patterns responsive to or compatible with the norms, beliefs, and values of students' home cultures. Similarly, Gay (1988) reports that the variety of interests, aptitudes, motivations, experiences, and cultural conditioning determines how--not whether--students can or cannot learn. Gay suggests that the primary issue is for the school to provide what the child needs now, not to explain failure as the home's fault.

Research concerning the development of positive relationships among culture, language, and schooling includes Au and Mason's (1981, 1983) work with the Kamehameha Early Education Program (KEEP) to construct a curriculum that was attentive to the native language structures of Hawaiian children. Their research shows the importance of a match between native language and dominant language as key to moving children into successful literacy experiences. [Note: For more information on KEEP, refer to Kamehameha Early Education Program (KEEP).]

Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines' (1988) study of six inner-city families showed a great number and variety of early literacy experiences displayed within their everyday lives, but a mismatch between school expectations and the cultural expectations and interpretations of the family. Although rich reading and writing experiences were available to the children in their homes, school provided mainly workbook and drill-oriented experiences. This study points out the danger in global generalizations about the literacy needs of cultural and ethnic minority students who have low socioeconomic status." (p. 13)


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