Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students


Image retrieved from





A culturally and linguistically diverse student is an individual who comes from a home environment where a language other than English is spoken and whose cultural values and background may differ from the mainstream culture. Today, students may also be referred to and labeled by different terms, such as limited English proficient (LEP), language minority student, or English-language learner (ELL). 


The U.S. population has been becoming increasingly more diverse over the past two decades.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2007), in 1980, 23.1 million people spoke a language other than English at home, compared to 55.4 million people in 2007 (a 140 percent increase, during which the U.S. population grew 34 percent). Today, nearly one-fifth of Americans live in a household in which a language other than English is spoken. (Garcia, 2002, p.8) 



What does a culturally and linguistically diverse student "look like" in the classroom?


In the 2009-10 consolidated state performance report from the U.S. Department of Education, Florida alone has 260,202 LEP students represented in our public schools.  Culturally and linguistically diverse students can be found in any type of classroom.  They come from a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, and may speak a variety of languages.  In Florida, the five most common languages spoken are Spanish/Castilian, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Vietnamese, and French. (FL State Performance Report, U.S. Dept. of Education)  Educators should become familiar with the languages and cultures of the students they teach.  Although a student may appear uninterested or antisocial it may be because they have come from a different background and what is acceptable in our culture may be quite different in theirs.  With this understanding, we will be better able to help our students adapt into the classroom environment and our cultural norms.



Culture is a complex concept. It shapes how we see ourselves, the world, and other people. Culture has been often compared to an iceberg.  An iceberg has a small section visible above the waterline with a larger section visible below the waterline.  Similar to the iceberg, culture has some aspects that are observable, such as general behaviors and practices, and others that are simply suspected or learned as the understanding one has of a culture grows.   


"The portion of an iceberg which is visible above water is only a small piece of a much larger whole"


Retrieved from



Why do teachers need to know about culturally and linguistically diverse students?


It is projected that non-Anglo-American and Hispanic enrollment will grow to approximately 70 percent of total school enrollment by 2026. And at this time, nearly 25 percent of students will come from homes in which English is not the primary language spoken (Garcia, 2002, p.62)  As schools become more diverse, it is important that teachers, administrators, and other professionals are aware and trained to teach and meet the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students. They must be flexible and persistent in their efforts to help others overcome language and cultural barriers to learning, and help both their mainstream American as well as diverse students appreciate the opportunity they have to learn from each other.  The goal should be to help culturally and linguistically diverse students become bilingual so they can have access to two languages and cultures.   It is very important for culturally and linguistically diverse students to keep their home language, culture or traditions, which is part of who they are.  Creating an open environment and integrating the student’s culture into lessons or classroom activities can help the student maintain their culture, as well as raise cultural awareness for the whole class.  If culturally and linguistically diverse students feel their language and culture is accepted by their peers they may feel more comfortable embracing it and not jump only into the mainstream American culture.


Educators should learn as much as possible about their students’ language, educational and cultural background.  By learning about cultural and linguistic differences, teachers will be able to be more responsive to the child’s emotional and instructional needs. Teachers need to think differently about the students in today’s classrooms, which are very different from the students in the classrooms of the past.  “In order to educate them, we must first educate ourselves about who they are and what they need to succeed.  Thinking differently involves viewing these students in new ways that may contradict conventional notions.” (Garcia, 2002, p.285)


At the same time, educators of culturally and linguistically diverse students should always include the children's L1. Children can only learn to communicate in their L2 if they have well-developed communication skills in their L1. Krashen's monitor hypothesis emphasizes that children apply their L1 knowledge to learn their L2 more easily. Therefore, educators must help their students' to build upon their prior language knowledge. In other words, they need to allow learners to arrange new knowledge based upon previously acquired L1 mental frameworks. Thus, educators must help their students to make connections with what they have already learned (Garcia, 2002).


Teachers should also try to reach out to parents of culturally and linguistically diverse students to promote parental involvement.  By understanding the life experiences and cultural values of culturally and linguistically diverse families, teachers may be able to address with ease topics such as homework, participation in school-wide meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and parental involvement in school activities.  


What parents need to know about culturally and linguistically diverse students:

Being a parent of a culturally and linguistically diverse student can be challenging, and at times, overwhelming, especially if the parent is not able to fully communicate with teachers and school administrators in English.  Many times, their children are moved from classroom to classroom and possibly even a grade level in order to find where he/she “fits”.  Although school personnel need to effectively assess culturally and linguistically diverse students in order to properly place them with the needed resources, it is equally important that parents are involved and understand their rights as a parent.  They need to understand what resources are available and how to access them, and fully understand what the school expects of them as there may be differences in cultural views and expectations. Parents need to understand the various methods used when teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students, as well as understand grading procedures, and how to track their child’s achievement.  If there is a language barrier, the school should provide written materials in the parent’s native language if possible as well as a translator to ensure full understanding. 


Parental involvement is important as it provides a significant source of support for students and teachers. “Research and practice have both demonstrated that parent involvement is central to academic achievement: Schools that support meaningful parent involvement have higher levels of student achievement, improved school attendance, higher graduation rates, larger enrollment in post-secondary education and students with positive attitudes about school. Parent involvement can also help students be more engaged with school and motivated to work hard” (Harry & Waterman, 2008, p.4) Parents can be involved by ensuring the completion of homework, participating in teacher conferences and attending school-based parent meetings.


How does cultural and linguistic diversity concern students?


The assessment of culturally and linguistically diverse students is a concern as some students are being wrongly identified as “mentally retarded” and placed in special education programs.  It is true that language minority students do require different needs than mainstream American students but they are often only linguistic needs. The needs of an English-language learner (ELL) require attention to language development and placing a student in a special needs class can greatly hinder his or her success.  The student may fall behind in areas of academics and if the special needs teacher is not properly trained in teaching an ELL, there may be little benefit to the student.


English-language learners do not have the same needs as those with special needs and it is important that everyone involved in the assessment process is aware of the differences between LEP and special needs when assessing and placing culturally and linguistically diverse students.  Special needs students have a disability that may be psychological, medical or mental, in which the curriculum they receive has been altered from the general education in order to fit their individual learning needs. Teachers are trained to help students learn depending on the particular disability of the student. LEP students also require the help of teachers trained to meet their individual needs, which is communicating in the English language and adapting to American culture. LEP students do not have a disability that affects their ability to learn. One way to help these students is to place them in programs with specialized teachers where they can develop their English language skills while continuing to learn academic subjects.


Disproportionate Representation is a current problem facing today’s schools and children. Reducing the problem of disproportionate representation of diverse students in special education begins with teachers who are culturally aware and understand the differences between special needs and English language learners in order to guide students in the right direction. Children cannot be identified as disabled simply due to second language difficulties, ethnic, linguistic, or racial differences.  Oral-language- related factors do not qualify a student as having a disability. 


Effective Instruction of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students


It is very important to be aware of the diversity, background and individual learning style of each student and create a supportive environment where all students feel comfortable to speak, use the language, and ask questions.  A classroom filled with fun, creative, and meaningful lessons may be most successful by keeping students engaged and motivated.  Children often learn more when they are challenged by teachers who have high expectations for them.  When teachers show they have high expectations, they are showing their students that they have the ability to succeed. 


When teaching culturally and linguistically diverse learners, teachers need to be able to adapt the lessons as needed and should present the information clearly. Activities that promote cultural awareness for all students should be included whenever possible. To meet the needs of all students it is important that a variety of instructional strategies are used. Strategies best used when teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students include modeling, scaffolding techniques, the use of visuals, hands-on learning experiences, peer tutoring, and cooperative learning activities, among others. 





Supporting cultural and linguistic diversity in early childhood (Retrieved by


Further reading about culturally and linguistically diverse students


Artiles, A. J. & Harry, B. (2006). Addressing culturally and linguistically diverse student overrepresentation in special education: Guidelines for parents.National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems, 1-15.


Byrnes, D. A., & Cortez, D. (1992). Language diversity in the classroom. In M. Gardner, L. Martin & S. Sunderlin (Eds.), Common bonds: anti-bias teaching in a diverse society (pp. 73-87). Wheaton, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.


Garcia, E. (2002). Student cultural diversity: understanding and meeting the challenge. (3 ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.


Harry, B., & Waterman, R. (2008). Building collaboration between schools and parents of english language learners: Transcending barriers, creating opportunities.National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems, 1-23.


U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2010). Language Use in the United States: 2007 American community survey. Washington, D.C.


U.S. Department of Education (2009). Consolidated state performance report: parts I and II. Washington, D.C.