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Culturally sensitive instructional practices for African-American learners with disabilities.

* American public schools have traditionally used a monolithic model of instruction, in which the organization of teaching, learning, and performance is compatible with the social structure of the dominant culture (Tharp, 1989). This traditional model, which is also adopted in the field of special education, emphasizes three patterns of cognitive functioning: (1) analysis of academic tasks, (2) the establishment of sequential learning objectives based on each task analysis, and (3) direct instruction of individual task components (Cummins, 1984). According to Tharp, teachers tend to expect that all students will learn based on these traditional patterns of cognitive functioning and instructional practices. The truth is, however, only learners whose cognitive functioning corresponds to these patterns are likely to succeed. Tharp and others (Cummins; Poplin, 1988) have asserted that many African-American, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian-American learners have difficulty with traditional patterns of cognitive functioning because the patterns ignore the impact culture has on language, learning, and thinking.

Despite the pervasive literature asserting that culture and language affect learning (Banks, 1981; Boykin, 1982; Hale-Benson, 1986; Hilliard, 1989; Piestrup, 1973; Tharp, 1989; Villegas, 1991), most special education teachers continue to plan instruction and activities based on their students' disabilities, with little consideration given to the diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the students (Almanza & Mosley, 1980; Clark-Johnson, 1988; Cummins, 1984). In view of the disproportionate over representation of culturally and linguistically diverse learners in special education classes, we cannot ignore the impact that culture and language have on learners' cognitive styles.

The goal of public education must be the same for all, that is, to help students achieve their fullest potential. The crucial question is, however, How can this task be best accomplished for African-American learners with disabilities? This article identifies effective teaching, learning, and performance strategies that are compatible with the social/cultural background of African'American learners (with or without disabilities). First, I examine six theoretical assumptions about culturally sensitive instructional practices. Second, I review the literature showing the relationship between affective, culturally sensitive instructional practices and high academic achievement among African-American learners. Last, I recommend ways to organize teaching, learning, and performance to be compatible with the social structure of African-American students with disabilities.


Educators must consider culture and language when they plan instruction and develop activities for students from diverse backgrounds. The following assumptions undergird recommendations for culturally sensitive instructional practices.

Assumption I: Quality instruction should incorporate resources from the learner's environments outside the school parameters. The learner's immediate cultural environment is the home and the local community (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). In this environment, the learner interacts and develops language and interrelationship skills that may challenge the school culture.

Cultural-difference theory attributes the academic problems of culturally and linguistically diverse students to the discontinuity between home and school. Discontinuity exists in relation to differences in dialects (Piestrup, 1973) and in cognitive styles (Almanza & Mosley, 1980; Cummins, 1984) when the method of instruction is incompatible with the cognitive and interactive styles of culturally and linguistically diverse learners. The solution to cultural discontinuity between home and school is not necessarily having the school replicate every cultural condition of the home and community (Villegas, 1991 ), but rather requiring teachers to adapt and infuse cultural variables in their interactions with African-American learners and in their instructional practices.

Assumption 2: Special education should not be the primary solution for African-American learners whose cognitive and behavioral patterns are incompatible with schools' monocultural instructional methods. Chinn and Hughes (1988) reported that of all ethnic groups, African-Americans were the most represented in special education programs, and African-American males were the most overrepresented in classes for students with behavior disorders and mental retardation. Traditional instructional methods tend to be unrelated to or incompatible with the experiences of culturally and linguistically diverse learners. Consequently, Tharp (1989) and others (Cummins, 1984; Poplin, 1988) found that many African-American, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian-American learners are much less successful in regular education programs than are white-American learners.

Assumption 3: African-American learners' differences should not be perceived as genetic deficiencies but, rather, as sources of strength. The notion that minority learners' low achievement is due to genetic intelligence deficiencies has been disputed throughout the literature (e.g., Feuerstein, 1979; Mercer, 1973; Villegas, 1991). According to Steinberg (1983), there is great diversity in a culture's conception of intelligence. He explains: "People's personal experiences in various cultures almost invariably suggest that what is adaptive and 'intelligent' in one culture can be maladaptive and even 'unintelligent' in another culture" (p. 8). Thus, people's experiences within a culture formulate their definition of intelligence. Without an understanding of various cultures, well-meaning teachers may ignore cultural definitions that are peculiar to the learners' cultural backgrounds.

Assumption 4: Culturally sensitive teachers will identify and build on tire learner's strengths and interests. Poplin's (1988) theory of constructivism/holism lends support to this assumption. This theory suggests that a learner's context for learning begins with what is currently known. Hence, special education teachers must develop a knowledge of learners' cultures and must design meaningful experiences around what learners know rather than what learners do not know.

Assumption 5: Language and dialectical differences are important cultural influences that affect communication and interaction between the teacher and learner (Piestrup, 1973; Poplin, 1988; Tharp, 1989). The required language in the school may differ from that used in the home---or may be the same (language) but differ in the way it is used (Villegas, 1991). Hence, language activities presented in the classroom may generate many different interpretations based on how the learner views the world. Teachers who lack cross-cultural sensitivity may view the responses of culturally and linguistically diverse learners as "wrong" and academically incompetent. The question then becomes, What use is prior experience to learners whose established ways of using language and making sense of the world are deemed unacceptable or prohibited by the classroom?

Assumption 6: Culturally sensitive instruction should be integrated with activities that provide learners opportunities to learn and practice new skills. The constructivist theory posits that learning is a process in which new meanings are created by the learner within the context of his or her current knowledge (Poplin, 1988). If a new experience is unrelated to a learner's developmental levels, interests, and problems, the learner will naturally reject and ignore the information. Teachers must understand the importance of knowing their learners' interests, hobbies, music, and so forth.

When learners are provided many opportunities to negotiate their cultural background, interests, and cognitive styles in the learning environment, they are more inclined to experience academic success. The following review of literature explores the cultural values and practices of African Americans, the effect these values and practices have on the cognitive and interactive styles of African-American learners, and the characteristics of effective teachers of AfricanAmerican learners.


A review of 23 years of research shows some common cultural values of African Americans and the effect these values have on the learning and interactive styles of African-American learners. Further, an examination of teaching practices used with African-American students delineates certain teacher attitudes, perceptions, and interactive styles that have successfully facilitated continuity between the school and home and community environments.

African-American Child-Rearing Practices

In a study examining child-rearing practices of white families and African-American families, Young (1970) found that white children were more object-oriented, having available to them as infants numerous manipulative objects and discovery properties. Conversely, African-American children were person-oriented. As infants, they were held by their mothers or another family member most of the time, and few objects were given to them. When African-American infants reached for an object or felt a surface, their attention was immediately redirected to the person holding them, thereby reducing the value of material objects. Similarly, Lewis (1975) and Dougherty (1978) observed extensive interaction among African-American family members and infants involving touching, kissing, and holding the baby's hands.

Young (1970) observed other interactive techniques between African-American mothers and their children. For example, a "contest" style of speech was used between the mothers and children in which they "volleyed" rhythmically, and the children were taught to be assertive and to develop their individual styles. African-American mothers gave directions for household chores in a "call-and-response" pattern, an interactive style found in some African-American churches (Lein, 1975) and in some African-American music (Hale-Benson, 1986).

Other African-American values regarding child rearing included the value of strictness and the expectation that children assume responsibility early (Bartz & Levine, 1978). African-American parents also valued creative functioning in their children; that is, they were not immediately frustrated by their children's "typical" childhood behavior and encouraged its development (Greathouse, Gomez, & Wurster, 1988).

Engram (1982) found that African-American children were also socialized early regarding the realities of racism and poverty in society and told they must be twice as good if they were to succeed. In summary, researchers have found that child-rearing practices help form and shape the child's view of self and how he or she fits in the world. These practices also serve to establish the cognitive and interactive characteristics of learners.

Some Characteristics of African-American Learners

The emotional and social characteristics of African-American learners and their families have important implications for teacher-student relationships. Silverstein and Krate (1975) classified over half of the African-American students they studied as being "ambivalent." They explained that these students needed--and sought rather aggressively-teacher attention, nurturance, and acceptance. Students needed constant encouragement, recognition, warmth, and reassurance to continue participating in the class activities. However, when positive attention and affirmation were not given, students often became frustrated, angry, and disruptive.

Regarding African-American students' motivation and interests, Silberman (1970) reported that observers were struck by the liveliness and eagerness demonstrated by African-American learners in the early grades and by their passivity and apathy in the later grades. Lefevre (1966) reported that by the fifth grade, African-American students had become cynical and preoccupied with blatant attempts to confound the constrictions of the traditional instructional environment. Boykin (1982) explained that African-American learners were not inherently apathetic and cynical, but inherently eager and had become "turned off' by the nature of their school experiences. Many African-American children are exposed to high-energy, fast-paced home environments, where there is simultaneous variable stimulation (e.g., televisions and music playing simultaneously and people talking and moving in and about the home freely). Hence, low-energy, monolithic environments (as seen in many traditional school environments) are less stimulating.

In 1982, Boykin studied the effects of task variability on African-American and white students. Each learner's home stimulation level was assessed, based on the total number of adults and children in the home, total number of rooms in the home, and the total number of televisions, radios, and stereos. Findings indicated that African-American students experienced home environments higher in stimulation than did white students. Further, the difference in home environment was reflected in differential responsiveness to variability in task presentation format. African-American learners' performance was markedly better in the more varied condition than when there was less variability. White learners' performance was not affected by task variability.

Rohwer and Harris (1975) also studied task variability of African-American and white students-specifically, the effects of teaching prose by using multimedia variations. Again, the results indicated that the performance of AfricanAmerican learners when using multimedia, especially oral plus visual media, was greater than when using single media. The performance of white learners generally was not affected when combined or single media were used.

Some Characteristics of Effective Teachers of African-American Learners

Teacher attitudes and perceptions both effect and moderate learners' academic achievement. According to Villegas (1991), an effective teacher has the ability to create meaningful and successful learning activities that take into consideration the learner's culture and background experiences.

Researchers examining teacher-student interactions found that affective-oriented teachers were more successful than task-oriented teachers in improving African-American students' academic achievement (Collins & Tamarkin, 1982; Cureton, 1978; Dillon, 1989; St. John, 1971). Affective-oriented teachers were described as being kind, optimistic, understanding, adaptable, and warm. They also were group conscious, cooperative, and sociocentric.

In a microethnographic study, Dillon (1989) found that effective teachers were"affective" and were successful in bridging home and school cultures. These teachers were able to create learning environments that were open and risk free; they planned and structured activities that met the interests and needs of the students.

Instructional planning should also incorporate small groups. According to Hale-Benson (1986), this practice provides African-American learners the human interaction they are familiar with in their families. Hale-Benson has encouraged teachers to incorporate peer- and cross-age grouping and cooperative learning groups in instructional planning.

Research on cooperative learning in the classroom showed that small, heterogeneous-ability groups working together on learning tasks and activities were particularly effective for AfricanAmerican learners (Slavin & Madden, 1979; Slavin & Oickle, 1981). For example, Slavin and Oickle found that cooperative learning groups made significantly greater gains in academic achievement than did nonteam classes, largely because of the outstanding gains made by African-American learners.

Effective teachers also bridge African-American students' home and school cultures by using stimulus variety, greater verve, and verbal interaction. Piestrup (1973) identified varied techniques that were effective when teaching reading to African-American first graders who spoke a Black English dialect. Results revealed that when teachers used a culturally sensitive approach, African-American children demonstrated a high proficiency level. That is, the teacher spoke rhythmically, varied intonation, and engaged in verbal interplay with the learners. Similarly, Delpit (1988) observed a teacher successfully integrating today's learners' music (e.g., rap) into a lesson that included very complex science factors.

In summary, many African-American learners are reared in people-focused families and communities where human interaction and simultaneous stimulus variability are highly valued. Therefore, effective teachers of African-American students, with or without disabilities, will develop a repertoire of instructional practices that involve cultural aspects that are valued by these students and that will enhance their development. Teaching and learning should be compatible with the cultural characteristics of African-American learners with disabilities.


The literature reviewed previously suggests that the following instructional strategies are effective with African-American learners: task variability; culturally sensitive teacher-student interaction; and social learning in peer groups, cross-age groups, and cooperative learning groups. Researchers' findings, however, should be viewed not as rigid prescriptions, but as suggestions for guiding instructional decisions for African-American learners with disabilities. To be effective, educators must exercise their freedom to adapt instruction to meet the needs of local circumstances and individual students.

Stimulus Variability

Stimulus variability includes varying the format of instruction presentation and increasing the classroom energy. Many African-American students prefer a faster pace, with techniques that incorporate body movement.

Greater Verve and Rhythm. Variety in instruction provides the spirit and enthusiasm for learning. When instructional strategies facilitate stimulus variety, using combinations of oral, print, and visual media, African-American students perform better (Boykin, 1982; Rohwer & Harris, 1975). Instructional activities should include music, singing, and movement. For example, teachers can vary instructional activities to incorporate different media (e.g., film, filmstrip, transparencies, and pictures), instructional materials, and study locations. Teachers can also use multimedia test materials.

Verbal Interaction. Through verbal activities, teachers can encourage learners to treat the text material orally. Motivation increases when teachers encourage the use of many expressive, creative activities (Collins & Tamarkin, 1982). Such activities could include rap (Delpit, 1988), choral reading (Collins & Tamarkin; Young, 1970), chants, and responsive reading (Piestrup, 1973).

Divergent Thinking. A method of problem solving, divergent thinking requires students to think in ways that differ from conventional thinking and problem solving (Boykin, 1982; Poplin, 1988). Teachers should provide experiences for students to explore various ways of arriving at a particular solution. These experiences include activities that require brainstorming, open-ended responses, and critical thinking. Learners need to practice making conjectures, gathering evidence, and building arguments to defend or refute their conjectures. The teacher's responsibility is to help students realize they have the power to make sense of a new question or problem situation. This can be accomplished by allowing students the opportunity to gather information about what they will study and to draw from information they already have in their cultural backgrounds. Teachers may also find it helpful to connect problems and activities to other subject areas of interest to the African-American learner (Boykin, 1982; Poplin, 1988; Tharp, 1989).

Teachers' Interactions With African-American Learners

Research reveals that interacting with African-American learners may require teachers to model affective behavior (e.g., affirming, giving positive reinforcements, etc.) (Collins & Tamarkin, 1982; Dillon, 1989; St. John, 1971).

Use of Dialect. Teachers may at times integrate aspects of the Black English dialect into their conversations with African-American learners, for example, "jive talkin' ," which is based on African-American improvisation of the English language. This form of interaction should be used only by those educators who have established a rapport with learners; otherwise this form of interaction could be perceived as condescending. Teachers should inform African-American learners that although the Black English dialect is useful in their home and community environment, it is not accepted in all environments. Nevertheless, when the teacher uses the learner's dialect from time to time, the learner may be more inclined to engage in tasks he or she might otherwise reject (Collins & Tamarkin, 1982; Villegas, 1991).

Presenting Real-WorM Tasks. Teachers should include activities that are realistic to the African-American learners' cultural environment (i.e., school, home, and community). Teachers should become familiar with African-American culture and integrate learners' real-life experiences in instructional materials, resources, and techniques (Boykin, 1982; Gay, 1978; Hale-Benson, 1986; Poplin, 1988; Tharp, 1989).

Including a People Focus. Person-to-person interaction is a learning-style preference of many African-American learners (Collins & Tamarkin, 1982; Cureton, 1978; Dillon, 1989; Dougherty, 1978; Young, 1970). This characteristic has implications for how teachers interact with African-American students with disabilities and how instruction is planned and implemented. As mentioned previously, for example, African-American students may benefit from small-group work (Cureton, 1978; HaleBenson, 1986; Slavin & Oickle, 1981)and peer tutoring (Hale-Benson, 1986). Other examples include selecting reading textbooks and materials that include credible young people with whom African-American learners, of either gender, can relate (Franklin & Mickel, in press). Materials may emphasize the student's lifestyle, values, motives, speech, and mannerisms (see also Boykin, 1982; Piestrup, 1973; Poplin, 1988; Tharp, 1989; Villegas, 1991). Teachers should also examine instructional materials carefully to ensure that the materials selected include African Americans, as well as other ethnic groups (Franklin & Mickel).

Grouping Patterns

Instructional activities for small groups can be organized to allow students to work together. This means that the room will not always be quiet, and some students may even be off task at times. Nevertheless, students need to have opportunities to work on problem situations together and to talk about ways of doing an activity or finding a solution to the problem. Further, this method gives students a chance to stimulate others' thinking and to realize that there may be many methods of accomplishing a task. Group activities also encourage social growth and cross-racial friendships.

Cooperative Learning. In this instructional strategy, students work together in teams. Specific methods include Student Team Learning, Jigsaw, Group Investigation, and Learning Together (Slavin & Madden, 1979; Slavin & Oickle, 1981). Teachers divide the class into small, heterogeneous-ability groups in which each member is expected to contribute to an assigned task, and each group should work cooperatively on assigned, content-related tasks.

Peer/Cross-Age Grouping. In these groups, students of the same or different age work together informally. Learners in such groups may be working on different assignments (Hale-Benson, 1986).

Peer Tutoring. This person-to-person interaction fosters helping relationships between learners (Hale-Benson, 1986). In this technique, the teacher encourages learners to tutor each other and problem solve together as part of a small group (e.g., a cooperative group or peer or crossage grouping).

To connect culturally with African-American learners' home and community, effective special education teachers may use stimulus variability, affective methods of interaction, and variable grouping patterns. Teachers must be especially mindful of these practices when they systematically plan successful learning experiences for African-American learners with disabilities. Although some of these instructional practices appear in the effective teaching literature, recognition and understanding of a learner's culture will expand the teacher's range of practices.


The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC, 1978) has strongly urged special educators to develop sensitivity, awareness, and insight into the needs of learners from diverse ethnic and cultural groups. As part of this initiative, this article has provided a review of the literature relating to African-American culture and its influence on the learner. This research has suggested culturally sensitive instructional practices, with specific suggestions for the instruction of African-American students with disabilities. The inclusion of these or similar practices in curriculum and instruction may enhance the learning experiences of African-American students with disabilities.


Almanza, H.P., & Mosley, W.J. (1980). Curriculum adaptation and modifications for culturally diverse handicapped children. Exceptional Children, 46, 608 - 614.

Banks, J.A. (1981). Multiethnic education: Theory and practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Bartz, K., & Levine, E. (1978). Childrearing by Black parents: A description and comparison to Anglo and Chicano parents. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 40, 709-719.

Boykin, A.W. (1982). Task variability and the performance of Black and White children: Vervistic explorations. Journal of Black Studies, 12(4), 469-485.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Chinn, P.C., & Hughes, S. (1988, October). Representation of ethnic minorities in special education for the mentally retarded and learning disabled. In L. Olion (Chair), Reaching new horizons. Symposium conducted at The Council for Exceptional Children Symposia on the Education of Culturally Diverse Exceptional Children, Denver.

Clark-Johnson, G. (1988). Special focus: Black children. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 20(4), 46-47.

Collins, M. & Tamarkin, C. (1982). Marva Collins' way. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher.

Council for Exceptional Children. (1978). Minorities position policy statements. Exceptional Children, 45, 57-64,

Cummins, J. (1984). Bilingual and special education: Issues in assessment and pedagogy. San Diego: College-Hill Press.

Cureton, G.O. (1978). Using a Black learning style. The Reading Teacher, 31, 751-756.

Delpit, L.D. ( 19 88). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people's children. Harvard Educational Review, 58(3), 280-297.

Dillon, D.R. (1989). Showing them that I want them to learn and that I care about who they are: A microethnography of the social organization of a secondary low-track English-reading classroom. American Educational Research Journal, 26(2), 227-259.

Dougherty, M.C. (1978). Becoming a woman in rural Black culture. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Engram, E. (1982). Science, myth, reality: The Black family in one-half century' of research. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Feuerstein, R. (1979). The dynamic assessment of retarded performers: The learning potential assessment device, theory, instruments and techniques. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Franklin, M.E., & Mickel, V. (in press). Are publishers of reading textbooks for intermediate-students sensitive to the learning characteristics of African'American students. SENGA: Sensitive to the Educational Needs of Growing Americans.

Gay, G. (1978). Multicultural preparation and teacher effectiveness in desegregated schools. Theory Into Practice, 11, 149-156.

Greathouse, B., Gomez, R., & Wurster, S. (1988). An investigation of Black and Hispanic parents' locus of control, childbearing attitudes and practices and degree of involvement in Head Start. Negro Educational Review, 39(1-2), 4-17.

Hale-Benson, J.E. (1986). Black children: Their roots, culture and learning styles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hilliard, A. (1989). Teachers and cultural styles in a pluralistic society. NEA Today, 7(6), 65-69.

Lefevre, C. (1966). Inner city schools: As the children see it. Elementary School Journal, 7, 8-15.

Lein, L. (1975). Black American migrant children: Their speech at home and school. Council on Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 6, 1-11.

Lewis, D.K. (1975). The Black family: Socialization and sex roles. Phylon, 36, 221-237.

Mercer, J. (1973). Labeling the mentally retarded. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press.

Piestrup, A. (1973). Black dialect interference and accommodation of reading instruction in first grade (Monograph No. 4). Berkeley, CA: University of California, Language Behavior Research Laboratory.

Poplin, M.S. (1988). Holistic/constructivist principles of the teaching/learning process: Implications for the field of learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 21(7), 401-416.

Rohwer, W.D., & Harris, W. (1975). Media effects on prose learning in two populations of children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 67, 651-657.

Silberman, C. (1970). Crisis in the classroom. New York: Vintage Books.

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Slavin, R.E., & Madden, N.A. (1979). School practices that improve race relations. American Educational Research Journal, 16, 169-180.

Slavin R.E., & Oickle, E. (1981). Effects of cooperative learning teams on student achievement and race relations: Treatment by race interactions. Sociology of Education, 54, 174-180.

Sternberg, R.J. (1983). Criteria for intellectual skills training. Educational Researcher, 12(2), 6-12.

St. John, N. (1971 ). Thirty-six teachers: Their characteristics and outcomes for Black and White pupils. American Educational Research Journal, 8, 635648.

Tharp, R.G. (1989). Psychocultural variables and constants: Effects on teaching and learning in schools. American Psychologist, 44(2), 349-359.

Villegas, A.M. (1991). Culturally responsive pedagogy for the 1990s and beyond (Trends and Issues Paper No. 6). Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Teacher Education.

Young, V.H. (1970). Family and childhood in a southern Georgia community. American Anthropologist, 72, 269-288.


MARY E. FRANKLIN (CEC #0011) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Early Childhood and Special Education at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Preparation of this manuscript was supported in part by the Urban University Program of the Ohio Board of Regents.
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Title Annotation:Issues in the Education of African-American Youth in Special Education Settings
Author:Franklin, Mary E.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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