5 – Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Jayden Smith


In 1971, Canada adopted multiculturism as an official policy (Prokopchuk, ECUR 415, Module 3, 2017). This policy was created to be inclusive of all people of various cultural backgrounds living in Canada. According to the SaskCulture  website, culture is dynamic; it is more than ethnicity and religion and includes all “symbolic forms and the everyday practices through which people express and experience meaning” (ECUR 415, Module 3).

Saskatchewan has been growing in diversity since 2008 due to a dramatic increase in immigration (ECUR 415, Module 2). In order to maintain and grow the population of the province, Saskatchewan sponsors skilled immigrant workers to move to Canada and become citizens through the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (ECUR 415, Module 2; Anderson & Tilbury, 2014, p. 88). In response to rapid growth of diverse languages and cultures in Canada, there is an increased need for teaching practices that are culturally responsive.  Culturally responsive pedagogy is defined as “teaching that integrates a student’s background knowledge and prior home and community experiences into the curriculum and the teaching and learning experiences that take place in the classroom (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013, p. 2).

I believe that culturally responsive pedagogy is an approach to instruction that is essential for teachers to adopt all over Canada because not only is cultural inclusiveness a part of the Canadian identity, but the rapid growth of diversity in Canada means that soon every school in the country will have students from multiple cultural or language backgrounds. Having attended a small rural school, I failed to recognize the obligation that schools have to ensure that all students feel safe, included, and accepting of diversity. This paper argues that schools and teachers need to use culturally responsive pedagogy to create welcoming classrooms, dispel cultural assumptions, embrace linguistic diversity, and support diverse strategies.

Welcome Procedures

The school is often the first public building a new family visits and is the first impression newcomer families have of their new community (ECUR 415 Module 2). The first step to culturally responsive pedagogy is to create an inclusive environment. The reception of new students and families is a crucial step for implementing culturally responsive pedagogy to help newcomer families feel welcome. The reception process begins when a new family comes to the school or established welcome center for an initial assessment (ECUR 415, Module 2). To help make new families feel welcome, schools and welcome centers can anticipate language needs by having EAL specialists and counselors either on staff or available. Schools and school divisions should also have translated material and interpreters available to help bridge the language divide (ECUR 415, Module 2).

In her book Language and Learning in Multilingual Classrooms: A Practical Approach, Elizabeth Coelho (2012) recommends that at the outset of initial assessment, students be asked specifically how they want their name to appear on class lists and official school records, and what name they would be liked to be called in class (p. 23). Schools cannot ask for only a first and last name since there are different cultural practices for names around the world (p. 23). Discussing with the family their name preferences helps the family feel welcome and respected. When conducting the initial assessment, student’s diverse knowledge background should also be included. Schools should ask students about all the subjects taught in their previous school and not assume that the only subjects taught are the ones taught in North American schools (p. 28). Coelho  stresses that schools should not privilege their system and knowledge over other types of knowledge that students have experienced in their prior schooling (p. 28). Welcoming students and families by presenting the school as a diverse learning environment is an important part of culturally responsive pedagogy. Coelho also recommends that schools have bulletin boards and posters in an array of languages (p. 21). By creating such an environment, students see that diverse languages are valued.

Cultural Assumptions

In the book Look at Me when I Talk to You by Helmer and Eddy (2012), the authors describe culture using Jim Cummins’ iceberg model, which is also known as the Common Underlying Proficiency or CUP Theory (p. 33; ECUR 415, Module 3). There are many elements to culture and each person identifies with several different cultures at once. The top of the iceberg represents the visible aspects such as preference in music, dress, and food (p. 89). The bottom and much larger part of the iceberg represents the invisible aspects of cultural such as status designations, communication patterns, and body language (p. 89). Helmer and Eddy  bring attention to the fact that so little of someone’s culture is visible and therefore assumptions should not be made based on their language practices (p. 89). They also indicate that teachers must be aware of possible cultural differences that may affect students and their attempts to create a communicative relationship in the classroom (p. 35).

Using culturally responsive pedagogy, teachers can critically examine cultural differences and plan ways to deliver effective instruction. For example, believing two students will work well together because they share a home language is problematic (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 35) These students could be from two different areas of a country that share vastly different views, or the students could be of different gender and feel uncomfortable working together (p. 35-37).

In addition, assumption can hinder students’ understanding of their schoolwork. Coelho (2012) notes that a student with excellent math skills and a basic understanding of math concepts can still do poorly on an assignment, if the questions assume that the student is familiar with its cultural context. For example, a new student from Syria may not be familiar with hockey and will struggle to answer a question that depends on knowledge of the sport. Such cultural assumptions can cause the student to feel confused and alienated by the subject matter (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 35).

Assumptions can be made, not just by students, but by parents as well. The North American school system is not identical to other school systems in the world. Helmer and Eddy (2012) note that newcomer students may not be receptive to the level of group discussion expected Canadian schools (p. 61) Through group discussions, students are invited to engage in learning and critique ideas. However, newcomer students and their parents might perceive this as laziness on the part of the teacher (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 61). Also, group projects may feel academically dishonest to some students who are used to classrooms where they only work individually. There are often varying views on the amounts of homework students should receive as well (p. 66) Students in North America receive less than the desired amount compared to Asian countries where students are expected to have between three to five hours of homework every night (p. 67). This difference in views can lead parents and students to assume that the education their children are receiving is inferior (p. 67). Helmer and Eddy (2012) suggest that teachers tackle assumptions by building bridges (p.69), starting with the similarities between the teacher and the newcomer family, and building a relationship from there. Limiting assumptions about a student’s culture, assumptions on what students know, and accommodating student’s and their family’s assumptions of education are ways to teach with culturally responsive pedagogy.

Linguistic Diversity

In the past, students coming to Canada were encouraged to stop using their first language completely, when they started school (Coelho, 2012, p. 195). It was believed that dropping the first language and focusing on English was the best way for students to catch up to their English-speaking peers (p. 195). Canadian researcher Jim Cummins referred to this idea as the monolingual principle (ECUR 415, Module 3). Today’s research proves that linguistic diversity is an asset to students (Coelho, 2012, p. 195). Bilingualism enhances students’ cognitive abilities as well as offers them more economic opportunities in the future (p. 195). Linguistically diverse schools that encourage and embrace EAL students’ multiple languages can also teach students to appreciate diversity and embrace different cultures (p. 195). Part of culturally responsive pedagogy involves encouraging students to build on their L1 as well as their English. Creating an environment where students feel like their linguistic diversity is respected and encouraged will benefit all students greatly by teaching them to value bilingualism. Students can suffer negative effects to their learning and self-confidence if they feel like their L1 is a negative quality (p. 196). The student’s L1 is not only a component of their identity and source of pride but is also necessary for growing their English abilities (p. 196-197). Experts have warned that students who drop their L1 while learning an additional language may not be efficient enough in either language to accomplish tasks (p. 198). For schools today to adopt culturally responsive pedagogy, students should not only be using their first language at home but also using their L1 to build their English in school.

The monolingual principle still influences Saskatchewan schools today. English is encouraged in schools and students are instructed to use it as the language of learning (Sterzuk & Nelson, 2016, p. 379). Sterzuk and Nelson (2016) argue in their article “Nobody Told Me They Didn’t Speak English!” Teach Language Views and Student Linguistic Repertories in Hutterite Colony Schools in Canada that “the goals [of the monolingual principle] are to keep student’s languages separate and to develop fluency in English” (p. 379). Even though students are no longer being pushed to drop their L1 students are still encouraged to stop using it while they are at school to develop their English. According to Sterzuk and Nelson, this concept ignores “students’ potential to become bilingual or multilingual, teachers miss the opportunity to build on the home languages and the cultural practices of the student as strengths” (p. 379). An example of this situation is in Saskatchewan Hutterite schools. Hutterite children receive an English only education despite being multilingual (p. 379). Despite the difficulty of balancing a vast array of different language in mainstream classrooms, schools can begin to limit the effect of the monolingual principle by bringing in different languages and cultures into their classroom to reflect the diversity of the school. Culturally responsive pedagogy encourages teachers to adapt and include the diversity of their students to the classroom environment. It not only has a positive effect on the EAL students of the school but on the English-speakers as well.

Support Strategies

Researchers Jim Cummins and Elizabeth Coelho state that a student learning an additional language may need between five and seven years to catch up to the level of their peers (Prokopchuk, 2014, 82). In the article Supporting Strategies for English as an Additional Language (EAL) in PreK-12 Education, Prokopchuk (2014) states that for EAL learners to catch up they need “to move beyond conversational language toward academic language and this transition requires strategic, targeted support over time” (p. 82). Culturally responsive pedagogy has adapted to include support strategies for EAL students to continue to develop their L1. Prokopchuk also states that “languages are supported through ministry funding to heritage language schools, ministry-approved high school credit courses in various languages, and the availability of multilingual resources in the Saskatchewan Public Library System (p. 86). Coelho (2012) also recommends that schools create language and culture clubs that allow students to showcase and develop their cultural identities (p. 41). Culturally responsive pedagogy nurtures each student’s language and identity by creating support communities that represent diverse learners.


Culturally responsive pedagogy was designed to “move beyond the heroes and holidays approach” which schools previously used to celebrate diversity (ECUR 415, Module 3). Schools would hold an event that focused on one aspect of a culture’s identity such as food or clothing and celebrate for one day of the whole year (ECUR 415, Module 3). Culturally responsive pedagogy emerged out of a need to properly embrace and work alongside various cultures within one school. Today, culturally responsive pedagogy is needed more than ever with the vast growing diversity in Canada, including Saskatchewan. As members of the school, teachers have an obligation to help students develop their abilities and help EAL students find their identity as bilingual, which is a part of culturally responsive pedagogy. EAL students specifically need to feel that their linguistic and cultural diversity are assets.  With the increase of diversity, our schools could help foster students to be accepting of different cultures and world views which I believe is a necessity as globalization continues. The future will see more mingling of cultures than ever before and schools have the responsibility to teach students with culturally responsive pedagogy so that students navigate the world with their own culturally responsive beliefs and respect for the beliefs of others. I aspire to develop in my own teaching many aspects of culturally responsive pedagogy including the following: welcome procedures, cultural assumptions, linguistic diversity, and support strategies. I want to instill respect and acceptance of diversity in my students no matter the cultural makeup in the school or my classroom. Even in the increasingly rare classroom that contains only English speakers from one background, like the one I grew up in, students are still different. Jim Cummins’ iceberg model illustrates that there is so much more to a student than what appears on the surface, so I believe that every student should be treated without assumptions and with a culturally responsive pedagogy (ECUR 415, Module 3). Using materials, ideas, and perspectives within the classroom that are diverse is the best way to prepare students for life after high school and the globalization of the world.  That is why I plan to teach in my own classroom with a culturally responsive pedagogy and help the school I am employed in embrace diversity through school welcome procedures and support strategies that build on the languages and cultures of students in the classroom.



Anderson, L., & Tilbury, S. (2014) Initial intake and assessment of EAL learners. In Education Matters: The Journal of Teaching and Learning, 2(1), (pp. 88-94). Open Journal Systems.

Coelho, E. (2012). Language and learning in multilingual classrooms: A practical approach. North York, Ontario: Multilingual Matters.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). Culturally responsive pedagogy: Towards equity and inclusivity in Ontario schools. Monograph. In K-12 Capacity Building Series: Special Edition #35. Ontario Ministry of Education, Student Achievement Division. Retrieved from: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/CBS_ResponsivePed agogy.pdf

Helmer, S., & Eddy, C. (2012).  Look at me when I talk to you: EAL learners in non-EAL classrooms. Toronto, ON: Pippin Publishing.

Prokopchuk, N. (2014) Supporting strategies for English as an additional language (EAL) in PreK-12 Education. In Education Matters: The Journal of Teaching and Learning, 2(1), (81-87). Open Journal Systems.

Prokopchuk, N. (2017). ECUR 415: Current Issues in EAL. College of Education, University of Saskatchewan.

Sterzuk, A., & Nelson C.A. (2016). “Nobody told me they didn’t speak English!”: Teacher language views and student linguistic repertories in Hutterite colony schools in Canada. In Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 15(6), (376-388).