Teaching Diverse Students

Matthew Feldmann

Challenges of Educating Cultural and Linguistically Diverse Students

English Language Learners: Culture, Equity and Language

Challenge 1: Assuring Accurate Assessments

The tools educators use to assess students are often biased, leading to disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities in special education. Assessments can also be dependent on the language used, making it difficult to assess the progress of English language learners (ELL) (Hallahan, Kaufman, & Pullen, 2015, p.54-55).

Possible Solutions

The use of curriculum based measurements, "direct and frequent samples of performance from the curriculum in which students are being instructed", is less biased and more useful than standardized testing (Hallahan, et al, 2015, p. 55). When standardized tests are used, testing accommodations should be used to reduce the bias inherent in the test. These could include translations, extra time, bilingual dictionaries, or other methods (Hallahan, et al, 2015, p. 55).

Challenge 2: Providing instruction to CLD students

Teachers must find ways to instruct students from all backgrounds. If the differences among students are ignored, students will not receive the appropriate instruction. However, if instruction is focused only on the needs of the individual student's subculture, the student may not progress in the skills needed for the more general subculture. For example, an ELL student taught only in her native language may not adequately learn English (Hallahan, et al, 2015, p. 56).

Possible Solutions

There are several strategies for improving instruction for ELL students. One approach is bilingual education. This involves teaching students in their native language while teaching English as a second subject, with the goal being to gradually transition students to all English instruction. For more information on this approach you can visit the National Association for Bilingual Education here: http://nabe.org/BilingualEducation. The other main approach is called the sheltered-English approach. This involves the students studying English for most of their school day until they are proficient. While the research is unclear on which of these methods is preferable, it is clear that whichever method is used is consistent, as switching from one to the other causes significant problems (Hallahan, et al, 2015 p. 59). Research has shown that two techniques work well to help ELL students. Classwide peer tutoring has been shown to be effective in helping students learn English more successfully. Also, comprehensive reading interventions can be helpful in teaching reading to non-English speakers (Hallahan, et al, 2015, p. 59-60).

Challenge 3: Classroom Management and Discipline

A diverse group of students can pose problems for teachers in managing their classrooms. The expectations of a teacher for her students behavior is often based on her background and doesn't take into account the differences in child rearing and expectations for behavior found in other subcultures (Hallahan, et al, 2015, p. 57).

Possible Solutions

Teachers should learn as much as possible about their students, their students families, and their students' cultural backgrounds. They should also be aware of their own background and ethocentricity and how this may bias them. This information should be taken into account when evaluating student behavior and when imposing discipline.

Challenge Four: Identifying Exceptional Learners

A cultural or linguistic difference can be a barrier to identifying students with special needs as well as gifted students. In many cases, a difference in behavior from what a teacher expects can be taken as a sign of a developmental issue when it is in fact a product of a difference in culture or the result of a student for whom English is a second language. For example, a student who seems overly shy and withdrawn could be having trouble with speaking English or come from a cultural background that values reticence and respect, or both (Bergesen, Wise, Gill, & Shureen, 1997, p. 11). These issues can lead to a disproportional representation of students from different ethnic groups in special education (Hallahan, et al, 52-53).

Possible Solutions

Two solutions mentioned above are also applicable to this challenge. First, assessments are key. Unbiased assessments must be found to ensure proper placement for students. Also, teachers should learn as much as possible about the cultural background of their students so they do no mistake a difference in culture or language for an exceptionality. Response to Intervention models, which focus on classroom instruction rather than testing and have several steps before special education intervention, can also be helpful in avoiding unnecessary placements for ELL or culturally diverse students (Hallahan, et al, p. 55-56).

Challenge 5: Communication with Parents.

Communication with a student's parents is a crucial aspect of teaching. Obviously a cultural difference and especially a language barrier can serve as impediments to effective communication between a teacher and a parent.

Possible Solutions

Again, a teacher should learn as much as possible about the cultural background of a student and her parents. This information can be used to more effectively tailor communication with parents. Also, the language proficiency of a student's parents must be ascertained. It is imperative that parents understand the communication coming from their child's teachers. If necessary a translator should be used to facilitate communication. This translator should be fluent in the language used, knowledgeable about the culture of the family, and professional. A family member of the student must not be used as the translator (Bergesen, et al, 1997, p. 23-24).


Bergensen, T, Wise, B.J., Gill, D., & Shureen, A. (1997). Evaluation and Assessment in Early Childhood Special Education: Children Who Are Culturally and Linguistically Diverse. Seattle, WA: The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Hallahan, D, Kauffman, J, Pullen, P. (2015) Exceptional Learners: An Introduction to Special Education. Boston, MA: Pearson.