7 Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies and Instructional Practices

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As educators, we want students to be excited to learn and engaged in the work. But many students are disconnected or turned off to education because they don’t see school as related to who they are and the world they inhabit. That’s where culturally responsive teaching strategies come into play. These are part of an approach that uses the experiences and strengths of a diverse student body to make school more relevant, and it’s backed by research that shows that people learn most successfully when new information is linked to what they already know.

The concept of culturally responsive teaching was introduced by education scholars Gloria Ladson-Billings and Geneva Gay. It incorporates attributes and knowledge from each student’s cultural background into instructional strategies and curricula in order to improve educational outcomes. A key element is a learning environment that values the strengths students bring into classrooms, rather than focusing on deficits. Students are encouraged to use familiar ways of speaking, thinking, knowing, and analyzing in order to learn new content and ideas.

By creating a conducive learning environment, offering relevant content, and using culturally responsive teaching practices in your pedagogy, you can help students make connections between their lives in the world and their lives at school that will increase their engagement and improve outcomes.

What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

Culturally responsive teaching depends on a learning environment that affirms our students and helps them feel included, validated, valued, and safe. The following elements are crucial:

  • A fundamental belief in the ability of all students to learn. Educators must have high expectations for every student, accompanied by a set of positive attitudes about them.
  • A wide range of curricular content. Education scholar Rudine Sims Bishop suggests that in the English language arts classroom, literature should provide “mirrors and windows” for all children. In other words, students should have access to characters that look like them and settings that look like their communities. In other disciplines, they should read texts or consult resources that help them learn about others’ worlds.
  • Dynamic instruction. Students learn in a multitude of ways, so teaching strategies should be dynamic and diverse. Students should have whole-group instruction, paired activities, and small group activities that require them to share, discuss, disagree, and think individually and collectively. Students should be allowed a multitude of ways to participate and demonstrate mastery of content.
  • Community involvement. Parents, caregivers, grandparents, and community members should be asked to share stories, give historical overviews of a community, offer supports, and provide cultural bridges between the larger community and the school community.
CHECKLIST: The Elements of Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Recognizes the rich and varied cultural wealth, knowledge, and skills of diverse students
  • Seeks to develop dynamic teaching practices and multicultural content, with multiple means of assessment
  • Nurtures students’ academic, social, emotional, cultural, psychological, and physiological well-being
  • Involves support and input from parents, caregivers, grandparents, and community members
  • Puts learning in context for students who can connect a topic to their current lives or community

7 Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies

Culturally responsive teaching is multi-faceted. It’s not focused solely on curriculum materials or on one instructional approach, and it can’t be achieved by following a set of prescriptive steps or how-tos. But the following practices can help you create a more culturally relevant classroom.

  1. Activate students' prior knowledge. This might include asking students what they know about a particular concept and connecting that to the lesson you’re introducing. For example, before you begin a story about a character adjusting to life in the U.S., you might ask students to think about when they’ve encountered a new environment.
  2. Make learning contextual. When discussing a text or primary source that is from or about another time, place, or culture, encourage students to connect it to their lives or the current moment. Try asking questions such as: “What do you think Anne Frank would say if she were here today?”
  3. Consider your classroom setup. One way to communicate to students that they matter is to ensure they are reflected in the classroom environment. Ask yourself: Are there authors of different races visible in the classroom? Is the LGBTQ+ community represented? Are different languages and countries displayed? Are people with disabilities seen?
  4. Form relationships. Connecting to students as people is vital to culturally responsive instruction. Learning about students’ interests, likes, dislikes, family members, and aspirations are all ways to build relationships. And remember to share about yourself. The best relationships are mutual, built on transparency and trust.
  5. Discuss social and political issues. Help students discuss and learn about current issues that are germane to them, including immigration, community-police relations, environmental concerns, women’s rights, and race relations. The goal is not to tell students what to think, but to teach them how to become informed and engage in respectful dialogue.
  6. Tap into students’ cultural capital. Seek ways for students to use and share the skills, knowledge, and strengths they bring to the classroom. Give students opportunities to respond to literature in a variety of ways and to help each other do so. If students speak more than one language, allow them to use languages other than English and, when possible (and without putting them on the spot), to share vocabulary.
  7. Incorporate popular culture. Connect the music, movies, and other media students are interested into the content of the classroom. For some students, video games, fashion, or sports are automatic ways to grab their attention and connect to their interests.

In classrooms where culturally responsive education is practiced, we often see an increase in students’ effort and a rise in participation. Most importantly, we see students grow as learners. Our ultimate goal is to create cultural democracies in our classrooms, where students are continually interacting with a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and realities, and where every student feels respected, important, and proud.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Learn more about HMH Social Studies, which presents the rich, endlessly inventive story of our world, challenging students to dig deep into the past.

Further explore culturally responsive teaching in the English language arts classroom by attending this edWeb webinar on Tuesday, May 11 , 2021 at 5 PM ET, featuring ICLE's Tyrone Howard and HMH's Whitney Young.

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