How to Assess the Cultural Background & Experiences of ELL Students

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  • 0:00 What Is Cultural Background?
  • 1:19 Cultural Learning Strategies
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

When you assess English language learners, you usually concentrate on placing them at a specific language level. This lesson explores why and how you can go beyond language to include the cultural backgrounds and experiences of English learners.

What Is Cultural Background?

First, let's clarify what cultural background means. It includes the customs, language, traditions, religion, education, social, and economic factors that shape individuals and their sense of belonging in a specific society.

Now, let's meet Carlos. He's an English language learner (ELL) from Mexico who makes adequate progress with classwork, homework, and other assignments. However, Carlos keeps doing badly every time he takes a standardized test despite his progress everywhere else in his learning. Carlos' ELL teacher gives Carlos a new placement test to see if maybe the student is not at the right language level. The test confirms that Carlos is appropriately placed as far as language level goes.

What's missing here is assessing Carlos' cultural background. Something about it might be the reason for Carlos' issues with tests. This is only one example of why cultural background of ELLs is important. Cultural background of ELLs allows us to have a complete picture of a student's profile. This, in turn, allows us to better understand the academic performance of ELLs and take the respective action. Now, let's explore the available strategies to learn about ELLs' cultural background.

Cultural Learning Strategies

When teachers try to learn about the cultural background of our ELLs, the guiding principle to follow is not to stereotype. For instance, Carlos' teacher knows that he comes from Mexico, so she assumes his immigration situation is probably irregular, that his parents are poor and uneducated, and that they speak only Spanish. While this idea may or may not be accurate in many cases, in reality you can't know for sure what a student's cultural background is unless you take extensive professional measures to find out.

1. Get General Country Information

As ELL students come from diverse backgrounds, a second way to get to know about them is to do a quick search on the internet about their countries. What you want to know are facts. For example, Carlos' ELL teacher searches ''facts about Mexico,'' and she's surprised to learn that Mexicans have a lot of interesting traditions, food, and things in common with the United States, such as commerce deals, some religious holidays, and some national values.

Knowing facts about other countries helps teachers not only to open their minds to other cultures, but also to have an idea of the society from which their ELLs come. You can use information from the student's country of origin to include music, folktales, literature, and stories from students' countries to make them feel comfortable, but you need to be careful not to over generalize, since there are a lot of different traditions in these cultures that not everyone from those cultures celebrates.

2. Review Individual Students' Information

ELL teachers prepare their lessons based on language level. Usually, schools keep interesting demographics, family information, and a records file of previous education on each student, meaning students' past grades. This information is an important resource. For instance, when Carlos' ELL teacher reviews his file, she learns that Carlos was the best student in his class back home. Moreover, Carlos speaks a bit of French since his father is a diplomat and the family spent a year in France.

This information about his family and previous education helps the ELL teacher to have a different perspective on possible reasons why Carlos is not doing well on standardized tests. Clearly, the reason isn't Carlos' lack of commitment to studying or cognitive abilities. Now, Carlos' teacher will look into other possibilities.

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