Leveraging Culturally Relevant Education for Diverse Learners and ELL

Culturally relevant education (CRE) is an approach that leverages the culture, worldview, and personal experiences of the learner in the learning process; it works to empower and motivate (Aronson & Laughter, 2016).

Diverse Learners are students who come from ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse backgrounds, including communities of lower socioeconomic conditions (ASCD, 1992). The Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD) includes international students, learners from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, mature students, and learners with disabilities in their definition (AHEAD, 2017).

In the United States, CRE has the potential to bolster student achievement in populations with student achievement gaps when compared with White learners (Bowman, Comer, & Johns, 2018). This method can also be used in EFL environments to connect new knowledge with personal experiences. Even though research into CRE has been promising, it has been marginalized by the establishment in favor of standardized curriculums (Sleeter, 2012).

As someone who’s taught in Thailand, Spain, and Vietnam using a CRE approach, I encourage its use in K-12 classrooms as well as EFL contexts abroad. This article will cover the implications and best practices of CRE for Diverse Learners and English Language Learners (ELL) in an EFL environment.

First, let’s review Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Differentiated Instruction.

UDL is a framework for instructional activities based on multiple ways to increase learner engagement, representation, and action/expression (AHEAD, 2017). This meshes well with CRE, in contrast with the idea of conformity within the one-size-fits-all curriculum, which does not take diverse learners into account.

Another strategy that leverages student-centered activities is Differentiated Instruction (DI), which is responsive to learners and utilize a variety of instructional strategies (Loeser, 2019). There is also much emphasis put on formative assessments to inform the type of approach taken in personalizing instruction for diverse learners. This includes anything from informal checks during classtime or formal quizzes to gauge ongoing understanding in order to personalize learning.

But all students obviously don’t have the same educational opportunities and resources. How can we address the student achievement gap?

Bowman, Comer, and Jonhs (2018) give recommendations for addressing the achievement gap between African Americans and other groups through a focus on culture which includes an understanding that effective education educates the whole person rather than judging education based on test scores.

Ford (2015) presents aspects of an intentionally inviting learning environment that may translate into positive outcomes for diverse learners in gifted settings. The complexity of creating what Ford (2015) would term an intentionally inviting atmosphere for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse learners (CLD) includes multiple stakeholders, both educators and family members, is described by Doran (2015) within the UDL framework.

Can CRE improve standardized test scores? I think so. Here’s why:

By focusing on the culture of the learner through culturally relevant curriculum, teachers can develop and implement plans based on individual students’ needs. Pane, Steiner, Baird, and Hamilton (2015) found that personalized learning approaches (CRE, UDL, DI, etc.) are positively linked with student achievement; schools in their study who adopted the approach went from underperforming to performing at or above national standards. That’s promising data!

DI and CRE both work toward creating a student-centered learning environment. They are both student-centered instructional approaches because of their focus on collaboration in small-group and whole-class activities, active participation, and student-led activities.

Let’s dig some more into formative assessments and how DI and CRE help create a truly student-centered classroom.
Lupoli (2017) offers three strategies to gauge student understanding in terms of learning objectives: formative checks at the beginning of class focusing on the previous and current day’s topic, short check-ins to engage all learners in a critical thinking or problem-solving activity during the lesson, and an end-of-class check-in based on the current day’s topic.

Ongoing formative assessments allow teachers to adjust their instructional strategies to better engage learners and work toward mastery of understanding. Performing these checks, or other types of formative assessments can inform if the learning activity is student-centered based on the results. Check-ins that utilize higher-order thinking, yet are grounded in real-life, authentic situations can engage learners and positively impact student achievement.

What can all of this look like in the classroom? Mind maps!

Concept mapping is a visual representation of connections and relationships, which connects with a learning style I have typically found to be more effective and engaging than plain text. Concept mapping can be used as a formative assessment to check for understanding and a way to consolidate content visually. Games and simulations further provide accommodation as students can be grouped together and allow for peer-mentoring and guidance.

Here are some examples of differentiation that I’ve used in the past:

• A group presentation about how learners celebrate religious holidays and carry out religious practices, compared and contrasted with traditional Thai Buddhist approaches studied.

• Allowing for optionality of choice in content to be assessed; learners chose a meditation technique they wanted to be assessed on through practice and a written or oral examination.

• Allowing for optionality of choice in assessment type in a higher-education literature course; learners chose between sitting for an examination, writing a paper, or creating a portfolio.

 Integration: CLIL

DI is a strategy to give learners the support they need when they need it. Integrating the curriculum involves combining learning outcomes from different disciplines to form a more holistic learning experience. Each subject area can be strengthened through authentic tasks.

I also taught Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) courses at a bilingual, secondary school during my time in Spain. I integrated EFL goals in physical education, civics and government, and technology classes.

The context and pedagogy I was implementing are what Coyle (2010) would describe as a subject syllabus adapted to teach from a new perspective in strengthening foreign language skills.
To do this I also utilized an understanding by design (UbD) approach. I accommodated for both the lesson objectives for the subject content area and the English language learning (ELL) objectives within the big ideas, essential questions, and enduring understandings (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Next, the assessments were mapped out to best identify how understanding could be assessed followed by learning activities to support the competencies and skills needed to complete the performance assessment task; this is a backward-approach to curricular design.
One example was a module in a civics and government course where we explored the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. I included pre-lesson work where students would have access to the text and content I compiled. We used discussion-based problems and media as a class, and small groups, in order to map out our thought processes and support our ideas using a variety of resources. I also included an art project where learners created a mosaic illustrating a chosen concept from the document that resonated with them, as well as writing an artist statement that explained the ideas behind it and its conception.

Learners reacted positively to my focus on culture, as we compared and contrasted examples in Spain and the United States. Pedagogically, I treated them as experts to explain their cultural practices and Spanish society and tried to create an environment of support and value. I included individual, small-group, and large-group learning activities. I believe I could improve this module, if taught again, by offering up more diverse forms of learning activities and assessments to give learners the optionality of choice.

Writing is WAC?

Want to encourage literacy throughout disciplines? Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) is for you!

WAC is an instructional strategy to encourage literacy throughout learners’ academic careers and subjects. Writing to learn (WTL) and writing in the discipline (WID) are two WAC strategies that aim to facilitate learner thought processing and introduce learners to text types, respectively (Saulnier, 2014). Within WTL and WID there are differentiated, dynamic approaches educators can take in personalizing instruction.

This infographic shows how writing can be encouraged among different disciplines (WeAreTeachers, 2020).



Next up: classroom management!

DI and CRE are based on the values of inclusion, equality, and equity, yet research has rarely combined the study of both under a comprehensive framework (Valiandes, Neophytou & Hajisoteriou, 2018; Santamaria, 2009). Both approaches focus on the individual learner and building rapport between students, teachers, and parents. Identifying learning activities and management techniques for CLD could be viewed as an activity within both DI and CRE.

My preferred management technique is varying the way I communicate with students, especially through humor. Larson, Pas, Bradshaw, Rosenberg, and Day-Vines (2018) identified this as one practice that CRE can manage student behavior. The authors found significant correlations between CRT and ‘proactive behavior management and positive student behaviors’ (p. 163).

Did you know that humor has been positively correlated with content retention (Garner, 2006)?!

While teaching in the Thai university system, I often grouped students together based on their abilities and provided extension and support as needed. I used humor as a way to engage students in the lesson, as I found it a culturally relevant approach that Thai teachers regularly employ. In my teaching practice in Thailand, if students weren’t smiling and having a good time then I wasn’t doing something right. I used this approach during 3.5-hour block lessons where students would become distracted and chatty, even when providing more active learning activities.

While teaching Thai Buddhism at a local secondary school, I would use humor to call students out who were on their phones or talking; I would address a few questions to them repetitively, sometimes using comical Thai, which the classroom enjoyed, and then would continue asking concept-checking questions to the entire class. I not only used this management technique when behaviors needed correcting but also a way to begin and end a lesson.

Check out this handy infographic (scroll down for all pages) I created as an overview:

Managing Differentiated Classrooms


Let’s not forget about incorporating technology…

I started my teaching career in higher education in Southeast Asia. I found the best way to integrate technology was to first assess how students used technology. Even though the university was located in a village near the Thai-Burmese border, almost all students had smartphones with a reliable data network.

Even when the internet went down for over a month on campus, internet data was still available. That being said, the physical resources needed for technology integration was largely absent from the campus. In fact, my capstone project for a Master’s degree focused on the current state of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) on campus and recommendations.

Because 100% of learners in my courses had Facebook accounts, I created groups for each course, where I would link all online resources, instigate a discussion, and create a space where learners could ask and answer questions organically. Because of the physical limitations present, technology integration was largely asynchronous and out-of-class.

I contrast this experience with teaching Thai Buddhism in an affluent high school setting in a medium-sized city. Because learners were more tech-savvy and had access to more resources, I could integrate expectations of technology use in projects. The physical resources allowed for smartboard use, televisions and projectors within classrooms, and laptops for both students and faculty use. Technology integration was both synchronous and asynchronous in-and-out-of-class.

Benefits of incorporating technology for CLD learners

In my educational context, the student population is homogenous, Vietnamese. CLD learners are Vietnamese EFL learners because the Eurocentric textbooks used in English language education don’t take learner culture, language, or past experiences into account (Nunez-Pardo, 2018). Lopez-Estrada, Rodriguez, and Bonet (2019) explored meaningful technology integration for second language learning and teaching. All of the references below were found in Exploring Perspectives, Negotiating Computer-mediated Landscapes, and Integrating Technology in Linguistically and Culturally-diverse Learning Spaces (Lopez-Estrada, Rodriguez, and Bonet, 2019).

• Blogging contributes to writing performance (Arslana & Sahin-Kizilb, 2010)
• Collaborative learning activities utilizing computers encourage language acquisition and use (Hsieh, 2017)
• Integration of culture, language, and content (Warschauer & Meskill, 2000)
• Technology integration can increase student motivation and engagement (Billings & Mathison, 2012)
• Encourages academic achievement and language acquisition (Billings & Mathison, 2012)
• Leverages ‘authentic, practical and meaningful contexts, which are considered to be at the core of effective language learning (Ban, Jin, Summers & Eisenhower, 2012)
• Technology encourages more of a collaborative role of the educator rather than the “teacher as an expert” model (Eaton, 2010)

Challenges and how they can be addressed to ensure benefits among diverse students

• Students need training to use technology (Winke, Goertler & Amuzie, 2010)
• Students can get frustrated if proper training is not provided (Mims, et al., 2006)
Educators and administrators can create trainings as collaborative projects so that learners can learn by doing with a low-stakes group project.

• There may be a fear of change on the instructor’s side; they need training and pedagogical support to transition into utilizing technology (Stepp-Greany, 2002)
• Technology competency is needed from instructors (Mims, et al., 2006)
• ‘Technology-enhanced  lessons  require  practice  and  demand  the  development  of  certain  skills  where  learning  is  a  process’  (Gronseth et al., 2010)
• Lack of professional development in terms of effective technology use to increase language acquisition for pre- and in-service second language educators (Mims et al., 2006)
Professional learning communities can be implemented among staff members to ensure that technology and pedagogy are in alignment with meeting learning objectives.

• Resource investment of time, money, and school infrastructure (Warschauer & Meskill, 2000)
A long-term solution is needed to increase resources.

• Lack of research into effective practices of integrating technology (Gronseth  et  al.,  2010; Kozma  &  Anderson,  2002; Leloup  &  Ponterio,  2003; Salaberry, 1996; Warschauer & Meskill, 2000)
More action research, and research studies in general, can be conducted to contribute to the discussion of effective practices in technology integration.

Research, research, research!

Don’t take my word for it. I also conducted research into a veteran teacher’s recommendations for effective instructional strategies.

I created a questionnaire to ask for advice from a Vietnamese-Australian educator. She was raised in Vietnam until the age of five when she immigrated to Australia. She still only speaks Vietnamese with the older generations of her family. She was an active educator in Australia for twelve years before moving to the United Kingdom to teach for an additional five years at the first- and second-grade levels. She now works in Vietnam as a teacher trainer.

Questions, questions, questions. This is what I wanted to know:

1. How do you foster learner knowledge of themselves?
2. How do you foster learner knowledge of others?
3. How do you ensure that learners work toward common objectives?
4. How do you enhance appreciation of diversity among cultures?
5. How do you enhance appreciation of similarities among cultures?
6. How do you ensure that learners cultivate empathy?
7. How do you ensure that learners cultivate cooperative behavior?
8. How do you ensure that learners respect other cultures?
9. How do you ensure that learners respect other values?
10. How do you ensure that learners resolve conflict through dialogue?

After conducting the face-to-face interview, I transcribed the recording and categorized each response as process-focused or product-focused using selective quotes that were representative of her answer. Here are the results:


Question Product-focused answer Process-focused answer
1. How do you foster learner knowledge of themselves? I administered projects where students had the chance to create artifacts that were about themselves. We engage children in metacognition.
2. How do you foster learner knowledge of others? I very often had the children participate in group activities that required them to think about the perspectives of others.
3. How do you ensure that learners work toward common objectives? I think this goes back to working in groups, when we have common class and group objectives, the children can see what they are contributing and what everyone else is contributing.
4. How do you enhance appreciation of diversity among cultures? We focus on cultural diversity in our discussions and projects. This is standardized in the curriculum.
5. How do you enhance appreciation of similarities among cultures? One example is when children create projects and present them…they connect the other culture to their own.
6. How do you ensure that learners cultivate empathy? With children, you have to call it out when it happens. Like once a difficult  kid reacted when his friend was kicked and I said, “That feeling that you have right now, that’s empathy”.
7. How do you ensure that learners cultivate cooperative behavior? When they create assignments in groups we can make sure that they are doing so in a cooperative manner.
8. How do you ensure that learners respect other cultures? It’s about giving examples and making connections. Kids aren’t naturally bigoted or close-minded, that’s something that is taught from adults.
9. How do you ensure that learners respect other values? Again, this goes back to making connections every day. It’s about constantly bringing this up when appropriate to underline that we are, and aren’t, so different from each other.
10. How do you ensure that learners resolve conflict through dialogue? I would usually have a sit with them and we talk it out…we would involve the parents if needed, but always we tried to have them work it out with us there.


I put together this document as a brief overview of creating a CRE classroom:

Best Practices for Novice Teachers


Action Research Proposal

Action research is a combination of theory and practice where educators work toward solving a problematic situation in an iterative manner (Avison, Lau, Myers, and Nielsen, 1999). A problematic situation for diverse learners such as English language learners (ELL) is the efficacy of the curriculum and instructional strategies in contributing toward understanding content. The purpose of my action research study proposal is to explore teacher perceptions of strategies and efficacy in teaching diverse learners.

Within this framework, differentiating lesson content to match learning styles and allow for multimodal instructional strategies provide greater support towards deep learning. In order to successfully implement multimodal strategies for diverse learners, identifying the perceptions about, and implementation of, multimodal strategies are key. In this way, teachers can clarify misunderstandings of multimodal strategies and re-educate themselves in best practices within the field.

Here’s a little presentation I put together that combines the interview I conducted with my action research proposal:



To conclude:

I hope this has been an informative, helpful journey that influences how you see education and the role of culture, best practices in teaching diverse learners, and some takeaways that you can implement right away.

Below you can find the referenced resources to continue your exploration.


AHEAD. (2017, November 2). What is universal design for learning (UDL)? [Video file]. Retrieved fromhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGQ_7K35ysA

Aronson, B. & Laughter, J. (2016). The theory and practice of culturally relevant education: A synthesis of research across content areas. Review of Education Research, 86(1). https://doi.org/10.3102%2F0034654315582066

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (1992). Educating Everybody’s Children: Diverse Teaching Strategies for Diverse Learners, Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition.

Avison, D., Lau, F., Myers, M., & Nielsen, P. A. (1999). Action research. Communications of the ACM, 42(1). https://doi.org/10.1145/291469.291479

Bowman, B. T., Comer, J. P., & Johns, D. J. (2018). Addressing the African American Achievement Gap. YC: Young Children, 73(2), 14–23.

Coyle, D., P. Hood & D. Marsh (2010). CLIL. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wiggins, G. P., McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Doran, P. R. (2015). Language Accessibility in the Classroom: How UDL Can Promote Success for Linguistically Diverse Learners. Exceptionality Education International, 25(3), 1–12.

Ford, D. Y. (2015). Culturally Responsive Gifted Classrooms for Culturally Different Students. Gifted Child Today, 38(1), 67–69. https://doi.org/10.1177/1076217514556697

Garner, R. L. (2006). Humor in Pedagogy. College Teaching, 54(1), 177–180. https://doi.org/10.3200/CTCH.54.1.177-180.

Larson, K. E., Pas, E. T., Bradshaw, C. P., Rosenberg, M. S., Day-Vines, N. L., & Gregory, A. (2018). Examining how proactive management and culturally responsive teaching relate to student behavior: Implications for measurement and practice. School Psychology Review, 47(2), 153–166. https://doi.org/10.17105/SPR-2017-0070.V47-2

Loeser, J. W. (2019). Differentiated Instruction. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

López-Estrada, P., Rodríguez, P., & Bonet, M. (2019). Exploring Perspectives, Negotiating Computer-mediated Landscapes, and Integrating Technology in Linguistically and Culturally-diverse Learning Spaces. Revista Electrónica Educare, 23(2), 1-18. https://doi.org/10.15359/ree.23-2.20

Lupoli, C. (2017). I want it now! Three effective teaching strategies in an age where we want it all now. Leadership, 46(4), 20–22.

MacMeekin, M. (2020). 28 Student-centered instructional activities. Retrieved from https://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/28-student-centered-instructional-strategies/

Nunez-Pardo, A. (2018). The English textbook. Tension from an intercultural perspective. Gist Education and Learning Research Journal, 17, pp. 230-259.

Pane, J. F., Steiner, E. D., Baird, M. D., & Hamilton, L. S. (2015). Continued progress: Promising evidence on personalized learning. RAND Corporation. http://www.rand.org

Santamaria, L. J. (2009). Culturally responsive differentiated instruction: Narrowing gaps between best pedagogical practices benefiting all learners. Teachers College Record, 111(1), 214–247.

Saulnier, B. (2014). The application of writing across the curriculum (WAC) techniques in a systems analysis & design flipped classroom. Information Systems Education Journal, 14(4), 13-19.

Sleeter, C.E. (2012). Confronting the marginalization of culturally responsive pedagogy. Urban Education, 47(3). https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0042085911431472

Valiandes, S., Neophytou, L., & Hajisoteriou, C. (2018). Establishing a framework for blending intercultural education with differentiated instruction. Intercultural Education, 29(3), 379–398. https://doi.org/10.1080/14675986.2018.1441706

WeAreTeachers. (2020). You’ll Love this Writing Across The Curriculum Infographic. Retrieved from https://www.weareteachers.com/writing-across-the-curriculum-infographic/

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development ASCD.

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