Teaching the Culturally-Disadvantaged and Underprivileged Student

Marsha Cope, Ann Lemon, Ben Mace, Vincent Simone, and Jon Tait

The culturally disadvantaged student poses the single greatest challenge to any system of education. The reason for this is fairly straight-forward: an individual who lacks intellectual stimulation as a child will invariably struggle in school with the arts of language. Without a sufficient foundation in speaking, reading and writing skills, a student simply does not have the tools for a successful education in any of the disciplines. Furthermore, without early experiences of success at learning, a student will become increasingly frustrated with academic difficulty and failure, and will develop low self-esteem in general and vis-a-vis the educational system in particular, will ultimately alienate himself from, and be alienated by, the school. As we have seen, the label "culturally disadvantaged" includes many demographic groups, constituting an impressive array of potentially challenged, and challenging students. If educators fail to address the disadvantages of these students, the system fails significantly.

As one would expect, identifying the problem is much easier than identifying its solutions. There are, however, a few salient points that can serve as guidelines in the development of curriculum. We must first recognize that many students lack the kinds of experiences that generate ideas about which they can talk and write. In light of this experiential deficiency, educators need to provide rich experiences for their students, taking into account the differences in interest needs. Second, as disadvantaged children often have poorly-developed verbal patterns, teachers should minimize the emphasis on mechanics in the early and middle grades, and focus instead on the development of ideas. Third, many of the weaknesses that students suffer in the language arts stem from inadequate social interaction with verbally mature individuals. Any curriculum should therefore provide ample opportunities for students to successfully use reasonably "correct" English in all its forms.

Our research of underprivileged youth shows that their difficulties in school derive from two sources: (1) a language deficit that creates a gap between the teachers and written texts which communicate in standard English and students who are used to communicating in non-standard English, and (2) what we term the involvement gap. The involvement gap is a gradual (and sometimes not so gradual) distancing between what the student perceives as his or her relevant life experiences and what is taking place inside the school. These two problems are interrelated in that they both are simultaneously a cause and effect of a basic lack of informative cultural communication between school and student.

The language deficit hampers the development of high-level cognitive analytical abilities because the student is pigeon-holed at the "remedial" level and spends the majority of his/her time learning grammar. Teachers, not wanting to be reading tutors when they signed on as literature teachers, tend to assign a trivial reading curriculum. The students experience frustration in having their assignment harshly cut up for inappropriate language use and more importantly in not being able to follow the flow of ideas in the classroom.

The involvement gap is probably the more intractable of the two in part because many of the most negative influences are beyond the scope of the classroom curriculum. The basic problem is a lack of positive intercourse with the school environment. Studies of high and low achieving students about to enter a new school shows that the high achievers primarily express academic fears: that the work will be hard and they will not succeed. Lower achieving students, particularly those within the marginalized groups being discussed here almost invariably express social concerns, primarily those associated with student-teacher relationships ( i.e. the students fear that the teachers will not accept them as full members of the class or seek out meaningful dialog with them and they hence will be increasingly relegated to sitting at the back, dispassionately watching class go by. Studies have shown that the typical classroom environment tends to (and is intended to) mirror the interactive milieu of a typical middle class home (very different from a typical lower class home) hence the student finds himself in an environment he does not fully understand but is expected to fit into. The dialog the student gleans his information about school (and hence his attitude) tends then to come from other students and since the class system is as much a social system as anything else the distancing process is carried on from one class to the next.

To illustrate the more specific problems among underprivileged students and in order to find a common solution, we chose to examine the differing needs of three demographic groups found in the North Carolina educational system; Latinos, Appalachian Whites and African-Americans. By addressing each of these groups individually, we seek an approach to teaching that will help bridge the involvement and language gap between poor-performing students and their more successful peers. More specifically, we believe that if literary texts are chosen properly and tailored for particular interest needs, literature can perform a number of important functions. Most significantly, it can ignite students' curiosities by revealing a larger, and more culturally diverse world to them. Literature can also partially mitigate experiential deficits of disadvantaged children by allowing them to experience vicariously what lies beyond their immediate circumstances. This should include exposure to the individual's and other's cultural heritage, the beginnings of a civic education and an understanding of social etiquette. Another concern that can be addressed by writing workshops in literature classes is the language gap, which is most effectively lessened by a high level of student interaction monitored by the teacher.

Latinos are the first group of our examination who exemplify problems derived from the involvement and language gaps. Sadly enough, introducing literature and the art of writing to any student is a delicate process for teachers. Therefore, students who come from homes where English is a second language are particularly at risk. Writing and reading a language that is not enforced within their "ecoculture" (Delgado-Gaitan 1) becomes a problem and teachers do not have the extra time to sit and help those students one-on-one. Concha Delgado-Gaitan states that "cultural differences account for a large part of poor school achievement."

In a two and a half year study of second-grade Chicano students, Delgado-Gaitan found that "the classroom literacy experience for Spanish speaking students revealed that novice readers were taught differently than advanced readers." Delgado-Gaitan goes on to say that the advanced readers received more instruction in critical thinking, and the novice readers received more rote, drill, and memorization. The difference in these two types of instruction does not show itself until the students are older and the novice readers have problems with critical thinking because they were never introduced to it earlier. Also, according to Delgado-Gaitan, the teachers assumed that the advanced readers received more reinforcement from their parents than the novice readers did. The study, however, showed that parents of both types of students reinforced their children equally. Therefore, this information shows that underprivileged students are restricted in the type of instruction they receive.

Another study conducted by Alice Shipman-Campbell polls sixty one Latino students. The results show that more than seventy five percent of the group had never been exposed to culturally diverse works of literature, nor had they been exposed to literature that included the topics of gender or race. Conversely, by reading works by authors from their own background, Latino students were able to "discover their connectedness to each other, to the universe, and to the necessity for success in school and in life" (Shipman-Campbell 1).

Latino students who speak English as a second language are at a great disadvantage because they are not able to speak, read or write their primary language. Spanish speaking students need teachers to have a more culturally diverse approach to teaching so that they can learn at the same pace as other students. Teachers can teach them by introducing critical thinking skills at an earlier age, and introducing works of literature relatively close to their cultural background. If Latino students learn material in this fashion, then they will receive a better education and possibly have a better future.

Like Latinos, Appalachian Whites come to schools already cognitively challenged, thus people believe combining writing and literature will put them even further behind. This is a misconception. They arrive at school with a very different background than other students. It is these diverse backgrounds that constitute problems from the beginning of their education. Sue Goldstein comments that "Educators face no greater challenge than improving the academic odds for the economically disadvantaged... because they are at the greatest risk for failure" (High Risk 1).

One problem of Appalachian Whites is that their different dialect causes obstacles, and thus difficulties for them in class, because they may not understand the teacher's standard English. Jimmie Cook stated that "Only three [Appalachian students] out of ten finish high school, compared to five out of ten African-Americans and seven out of ten non-Appalachian Whites" (54). This statistic is directly related to the problem of different dialects spoken by students and teachers.

Another common problem of Appalachian Whites and their economically-disadvantaged peers, is the frustration that arises from a lack of interest or knowledge. Many rural children do not share the same experiences as the "typical" student. This produces frustration when a teacher asks the child to write about his/her summer vacation, for example. Most of these students coming from low-income families, may not have gone on a summer vacation. This frustrates the student because he/she lacks knowledge about this particular subject. Obviously, students from low-income or culturally diverse families are at a real disadvantage: not because they can not handle more than one complex task, but because they can not identify with certain activities.

The variety of problems that arise in a literature classroom can be tackled with the introduction of writing workshops. For instance, to help ease problems caused by dialect, the teacher may have his/her students write a response to a topic that will be prominent in their next reading. After the student has completed the writing assignment, the teacher can have a mini-conference with this student. Here the student and teacher can go over words that are part of the child's specific dialect but that have a different meaning in standard English (Cook 54). Providing the student with alternative meanings will help him/her in the future when he/she encounters particular words again. Now that the student has at least a partial understanding of some words in standard English, he/she will be better able to read and comprehend the piece of literature that goes along with the writing assignment.

The problem of the frustrated student can also be resolved through incorporating writing in a literature class. Specifically, the teacher's role in a class like this is to assure that topics of writing and novels or stories can be related to all students, including the culturally diverse and those from low-income families. For example, a teacher would not want to assign a book and/or a writing assignment about a tennis player. This would definitely lose students' interest or frustrate the student who has never heard of tennis. A teacher could, however, assign a novel about hopes and dreams since all children can relate to that. Or perhaps a novel that touches on the problems that every teenager faces could be assigned, such as Catcher in the Rye. After all, many studies have been done to prove "that children respond better to writing instruction that is connected more explicitly to the world they know.." (Knapp & Needles 347). With the integration of writing in a literature class, writing assignments could be used as a tool to apply knowledge learned through the writing to a story or novel that would otherwise frustrate the students. Also, this technique could be a lot more interesting for students and encourage reading, as well as writing.

Another group of candidates for underprivileged and poor-performing students are African-Americans. As with other groups coming from environments other than middle class suburbia, underprivileged African-Americans can easily become alienated within their own classroom, feeling out of touch not only linguistically, but also subject-wise. The objective, therefore, is to establish a system of teaching that will bring these underprivileged and poor-performing students from a state of alienation and resignation to one of motivation and academic achievement, recognizing that this can only be achieved when done in a manner that accepts their diversity.

The first and foremost assumption to be made is that underprivileged African-Americans are potentially strong students, despite their past performance in school. While this may seem obvious, it is clear that the attitude and the expectations of the teacher are essential to his/her efficacy. The reason for the immobility of poor-performing students in the academic world appears to be the failure of lower classes not only to propel participating students to their appropriate level, but also to instill in the students a sense of the possibility of mobility. For instance, the research done by Georgia Garcia, notes that

quantitative comparisons of African-American and Anglo (non-Hispanic white)... achievement suggest that differential achievement between races may be due more to instructional time and curricular coverage than aptitude, race, or socioeconomic status and also that qualitative comparison of... instruction in five schools from contrasting social-class communities revealed that students in the low-income schools received instruction that emphasized rote learning, low expectations, and little decision making; whereas, students in the high-income schools received instruction that emphasized process-oriented learning, high expectations, and a high level of student decision making(2-3).

Garcia also recommends that teachers view their curriculum critically. For example, the teacher ought not to say that " `No way could my kids handle [reading] The Yearling'"(Garcia 10) simply because that book has been predesignated by someone as too advanced a book for a lower class; this all falls under having high expectations. An option might be to give students the chance to choose books and writing subjects on their own. Similar to assigning a novel that touches on common experiences of children, letting a student pick out his reading assignment ensures a higher level of interest, and therefore helps to bridge the involvement gap.

Also, because poor-performing African-American students are often cited as becoming frustrated and quitting on the pretext that there is no reason for them to complete assignments (Thompson), it is important to not only allow these students choices in the subject matter of their work so that they may explore their own background, but it is essential, especially in teaching writing, to facilitate a substantial amount of cooperative work, including peer editing. When a teacher learns to sit down and encourages the student to express his thoughts, he/she is empowering that student with confidence and decision-making ability. Likewise, the process approach to teaching grammar, in which students write often but do not study grammar formally, is advocated not only because peer-editing is an essential part of this approach and will help lessen the language gap between students, but also because it keeps students' interest and prevents frustration, giving them a greater sense of self-direction (Holden).

In our earlier statement of the problems facing all underprivileged and/or culturally-disadvantaged students, we determined two sources of problem: (1) language deficits and (2) involvement gaps. As we have shown, whereas the placement of students in low-level classes is due mainly to the first source, the perpetuation of students in these classes is provoked by the second source, which is largely a problem of traditional teaching methods.

We believe that while each of our three identified groups of poor-performing students have unique backgrounds, the difficulties of all three groups can be rectified by teaching writing and reading in a manner that emphasizes cooperation, student empowerment, and celebration of diversity. Choice of literature is the foundation of this approach, and is expected to set the tone of a multicultural curriculum. Classroom activities focusing on the students, rather than the teacher, is another important facet of the suggested approach. Students should be given as much self-determination as possible in the choice of their assignments, and all assignments should be reviewed in peer-editing groups where individual problems can be more easily addressed. Silent reading as well as reading out loud is important. Finally, expectations for students are to be high, in a hope that students will gain confidence and overcome the frustration that being culturally-disadvantaged can cause. By adhering to these general principles, problems caused by low language skills and experiential deficiencies can be more effectively tackled.


The goal of our proposed curriculum is to maximize participation on the part of the students and also to maximize time spent in class. The curriculum will be kept challenging without making unrealistic expectations about the students' attention spans for English literature. Hopefully, by the year's end, the students' interest in literature as well as their ability with vocabulary and grammar will have expanded substantially.

The course will consist in the fall semester of a series of one to three week units focusing on a particular short piece of narrative fiction. The class will be broken down into reading groups which, barring the discretionary power of the teacher to deal with disruptiveness and the like, will be unchanging for the entire year. The class will read the narrative silently in class at the beginning of the first week. The time lengths and hence ultimately the actual number of units is deliberately kept flexible because the class seeks to adhere to the principal that the class will not move on until all students have to the best of their ability completed each evolution. The faster readers should be assigned to helping those who are having difficulty. After the piece has been read the unit will proceed on with from one to three in-class writing assignments to be done individually and then discussed and worked on within the reading group. Students will be required periodically to read their work aloud to the class and then submit to publish discussion by the members of his/her reading group. Grammar workshops will take the form of reading groups correcting a given member's written work with tutorial leadership selected by the teacher with mistakes marked but not explained. Later on in the year, students can take home previous written assignments and revise them for credit.

Works Cited

Cook, Jimmie. "A Mountain Legacy: Children of Appalachia Gain Pride

in Their Heritage and History." Teaching Tolerance 5 (1996): 52-59.

Delgado-Gaitan, Concha. Volume 4, Number 1. Education, UC DAVIS

ERIC 1996.

Garcia, Georgia Earnest et al. "Reading Instruction and Educational

Opportunity at the Middle School Level." Technical Report No. 622.

Center for the Study of Reading, Urbana, Illinois, ERIC 1995.

"High-Risk Parents versus the Schools: An Unnecessary War."

Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center 1991: 1-26.

Holden, Michael. "Effectiveness of Two Approaches to Teaching Writing in

Improving Students' Knowledge of English Grammar." ERIC 1994.

Knapp, Michael S. and Needles, Margaret C. "Teaching Writing to Children

Who are Underserved." Journal of Educational Psychology 86 (1994):


Shipman-Campbell, Alice. "Increasing Secondary African-American and Latino

Students' Opportunities to Critically Read, Think, and Write about

Cultural and Gender Diverse Literature." ERIC 1997.

Thompson, Bernida. "Motivating African-American Middle School Boys

Toward Excellence Through High Interest And Activity Africentric

Lessons." Nova University, ERIC 1992.