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Students in New Zealand classrooms today vary widely in cultural background, ethnicity, and language. This diversity has implications for our literacy programmes and teaching practices. Because each student’s literacy learning is grounded in the culture of their family and community, teachers need to become aware of the literacy practices of local families and to know how language is used in their students’ homes.
Diversity encompasses many characteristics, including ethnicity, socio-economic background, home language, gender, special needs, disability, and giftedness. But, for the purpose of this book, it refers to culturally and linguistically diverse populations in schools. Some children come from a background of rich oral-language traditions and have a wealth of expertise, for example, in storytelling, to draw upon. Many are accustomed to using computers extensively. Some are new learners of English from homes where a language other than English is spoken. Some come from backgrounds where they are not expected to initiate a discussion with an adult (such as a teacher), to offer an opinion, or to comment critically on a piece of writing. Some are not in New Zealand by choice, for example, students who have been refugees and who may have memories of traumatic experiences.
Knowing about each student’s cultural and linguistic background helps the teacher to recognise the strengths and challenges that diversity brings to their classroom and to plan for and meet individual and group needs. The teacher may, for instance, decide to place some students in small groups to experience student-led discussions in order to enhance their confidence as speakers of English. Teachers can also encourage small-group discussions in students’ first languages, to support understanding.
Individual students from similar cultural and linguistic backgrounds can differ greatly in the knowledge and background of experience that they bring to the classroom. Research suggests that generalisations about groups of students, especially assumptions about “preferred learning styles”, can disadvantage some students or groups of students by limiting their learning opportunities. In a class that is a true community of learners, cultural and linguistic diversity offers potential for valuable learning by the teacher and all the students.
The term culture is used in this book to refer to the understandings and formal and informal ways of doing things that a student’s family and community share. A student’s cultural background does not necessarily relate to their ethnicity.