Motivating Diverse Learners to Read

Learning to read well can be both incredibly challenging and rewarding for any student, but can be especially daunting for diverse learners. These are students with language backgrounds other than English as well as racial and ethnic backgrounds other than middle class and white. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 10.8 million children aged 5-17 in the US spoke a language other than English in their home in 2008. And, according to Census data highlighting statistics for the 2010-2011 school year, more than 40% of K-12 students were nonwhite or Hispanic and these figures are expected to grow. In fact, nonwhite or Hispanic students are projected to represent the majority of the student population by 2023.

Additionally, the number of English-language learners (ELL) enrolled in public schools increased from 3.5 million to 5.3 million (an increase of 51%) from 1997 to 2008. Compared with native English-speaking peers, language minority students on average have lower reading performance in English. ELLs often need a different approach than their English-speaking peers to improve literacy skills. Parents and teachers can work together to help develop and improve literacy skills and empower minority students to actively engage in text reading, writing and verbal communication.

Tips for Teachers to Help Students Succeed

Motivating diverse students to read and improve their literacy engagement poses unique challenges and opportunities for teachers. Through our hands-on research within the Minnesota Center for Reading Research (MCRR), we’ve observed several effective approaches teachers can take in a classroom with diverse students, including:

  • Facilitate candid and reflective dialogue with students on their experiences learning English and bring this insight into classroom content
  • Show students you are willing to question your own assumptions, learn from them and respect the perspectives they bring to the classroom
  • Be flexible to try new teaching methods that might resonate more with students rather than assume the students are at fault for not learning
  • Incorporate texts that are culturally relevant to engage students in active discussions about common problems they may experience and can relate to

It is helpful for teachers to create opportunities for frequent interaction and dialogue with parents. This helps develop a better understanding of your students so you can build on that knowledge to successfully motivate them to connect with literature. For example, we’ve seen schools that host a grandparent’s day or family literacy night to help integrate families into the school system in a positive way.

What Can Parents Do?

Positive parental involvement has a meaningful impact on diverse students’ success in school when parents get involved in their children’s education through open communication with teachers. They can provide vital insight into a child’s learning style, and discover how home and social environments can contribute to reading comprehension and language development. In addition, parents should talk with their child to learn about their experiences in school, help them make sense of what’s going on and find ways to connect home and school.

Learn more about the mission of MCRR and the research we conduct to support teachers as they learn to effectively teach children and youth from diverse backgrounds to become competent readers.

–Lori Helman, Co-Director of the Minnesota Center for Reading Research (MCRR)
–Yolanda Majors, Associate Director for Adolescent Literacy & Learning

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Lori Helman

About the Author

Lori Helman, Ph.D.

  • MCRR Co-Director
  • College of Education and Human Development (CEHD)
  • Curriculum and Instruction
  • University of Minnesota
  • Associate professor of literacy education
Yolanda Majors

About the Author

Yolanda Majors, Ph.D.

  • MCRR Associate Director for Adolescent Literacy & Learning
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • Curriculum & Instruction
  • University of Minnesota
  • Visiting Associate Professor of English Education

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6 thoughts on “Motivating Diverse Learners to Read”

  1. Ronnie Kennett says:

    Thank you for sharing your insights in developing a culturally competent classroom. I think your overall theme of the importance of communication between teachers and students as well as teachers and parents is a must for a successful multicultural learning experience. I look forward to reading more articles pertaining to creating a culturally responsive classroom in the future.

  2. Sharon Robinson says:

    I enjoyed reading your article on developing an effective way of teaching a diverse classroom. I am a Transition to Teaching student and enrolled in a class pertaining to multicultural education. We have read a lot of articles and participated in various discussions all of which stem around what you have listed. You sum up the concept in a clear concise manner that has helped me put my responsibilities as an effective teacher into better perspective. I believe parental involvement is a must, but what do you do if they child’s parents do not speak English? How can they assist their child at home in developing stronger literacy skills if they themselves do not speak and/or read the language? I had a child in my preschool class and this was precisely the problem we encountered. We worked so hard with him at school to get him to understand, speak and learn the English language, but as soon as his parents picked him up, no English was spoken. I am just curious how to handle something of that nature. Thank you!

    1. Lori Helman says:

      Thanks for your comments and participation in this dialogue. We are glad that you are thinking deeply about how to interact with your students’ families. You bring up a good question and one that many teachers wonder about: How can families help their children’s academic development if they themselves speak a language other than English. There is more and more research on this topic, and it is very hopeful. The foundational idea is this- families help children develop socio-emotionally, help children gain motivation for reading and writing, help them practice what they are learning in school, and help them learn their home language and the concepts that go hand-in-hand with advancing language. It does not matter what language the families use at home- all of the above skills can be supported through the family’s home language. Research is showing that talking with children and responding to their questions can lead to outcomes that are similarly powerful as reading books to them. Parents who can’t read or speak English should be encouraged to sing, talk, and tell stories to their children in the language they feel most comfortable in. In this way, children learn new words and new ideas and will (it is hoped) someday develop bilingual skills. Perhaps your emergent bilingual students are still picking up a lot of new words in English at school. If you could send home visuals of some of the content you are working with, family members could talk about and discuss these things in their home language and the next day at school children will be even more involved because they have had an opportunity to have a discussion on the topic in their home language. Always encourage parents to use their home language with their children. When they are told to “only use English” they will most likely limit their verbal interactions, and that would be disastrous to the child’s progress.

      You are right to sense that children need lots of opportunities to practice a new language so they can become fluent. For this reason, make sure that when the children are at school there is lots of conversation, partner sharing, singing, choral reading, etc. going on. They will not learn much by just sitting and listening all the time. Between a language-rich and engaging English environment at school, and supportive families actively using the home language at other times, children will certainly develop rich understandings of the world and attach meaningful language to their wide-ranging understandings of people and the world.

  3. Kelsey says:

    I enjoyed reading your tips about improving success with diverse students. I think it is very important for a teacher to have open communication with all of their students, but especially with diverse students. It is important to understand the way a child learns, as well as his or her home environment to determine what the child is interested or used to. Providing open communication also shows the child that he has an advocate in the classroom.

  4. Veritas Bennett says:

    I am currently in the Indiana Wesleyan Transition to Teaching program for secondary education, and I appreciate your tip on engaging students with culturally relevant texts, to stimulate classroom discussions. Also, as a parent, I appreciate teachers who are interested in knowing about my child’s home environment and catering to her specific learning style. Thanks for your insight.

    1. CEHD says:

      Thank you for reading our Vision 2020 blog.

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