Making Space for Students’ Cultural and Linguistic Assets: A Case Study of Students from Less Commonly Spoken Language Backgrounds

Blog post by Samuel David, Mabindra Regmi
November 9, 2023

Center for Urban and Regional Affairs   (Minneapolis-St. Paul)

People are on the move. The forces of global commerce and connectivity have conspired with the disruptions of conflict and climate change to make this an era of human migration on a scale our world has not seen before. Here in the United States, as debates rage around border controls and immigration policies, our schools are at the forefront of the effort to effectively integrate culturally and linguistically diverse youth into the social fabric of America. Within the United States, Minnesota is poised to become a model for the development of approaches to foster students’ academic skills while acquiring the linguistic and cultural knowledge to participate in wider society. As Elaine Tarone described in her history of Minnesota’s multilingualism, our state has long been a place of linguistic and cultural contact, despite its lingering reputation as a bastion of homogeneous Mid-Western whiteness. Furthermore, concerns about persistent achievement gaps between students from different national, racial and language backgrounds are creating urgency around the search for policy solutions. In the past decade, education agencies have begun to prioritize policy planning for educational equity and access for English learners (ELs). The passage of the Learning English for Academic Proficiency and Success Act (LEAPS) in 2014 demonstrates the newfound focus on closing the achievement gap through comprehensive reforms aimed at improving academic English proficiency, grade-level content knowledge, and first language skill development. The Minnesota Department of Education (2019) also recognizes the incorporation of students’ home language in core instruction as one of seven evidence-based practices for supporting ELs’ development.

Despite these positive policy changes, evidence suggests that instructional practice in schools is slow to change in ways that positively affect student outcomes. What is needed now are models of effective instruction that build on Minnesota’s progressive educational policies to positively transform curriculum and instructional practice for EL students. In Tarone’s words, “Minnesota needs language learners to achieve high levels of English but also to maintain and develop their home languages to have a high level of bilingual competence — especially essential now in the 21st century’s globalized political scene and economy.” Our work is aimed at developing such models in collaboration with Minnesota teachers, with a specific focus on creating instructional approaches that allow students to use the languages that they know to more deeply engage with content knowledge and literacy skills.