Reading and the Native American Learner Research Report

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Reading and the Native American Learner
Research Report

Reading and the Native American Learner

Research Report

Dr. Terry Bergeson

State Superintendent of Public Instruction

Andrew Griffin, Ed.D.


Higher Education, Community Outreach,

and Staff Development
Denny Hurtado, Program Supervisor

Indian Education/Title I Program

This material available in alternative format upon request. Contact Curriculum and Assessment, 360/753-3449, TTY 360/664-3631. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction complies with all federal and state rules and regulations and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, age, or marital status.

June 2000

This report was prepared by:
Joe St. Charles, M.P.A.

Magda Costantino, Ph.D.

The Evergreen Center for Educational Improvement

The Evergreen State College

In collaboration with the

Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

Office of Indian Education
With special thanks to the following reviewers:
Diane Brewer

Sally Brownfield

William Demmert

Roy DeBoer

R. Joseph Hoptowit

Mike Jetty

Acknowledgement to Lynne Adair for her assistance with the project.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Executive Summary 3

The History of American Indian Education 8

Sources of Educational Difficulties 12

Among American Indian Students 12

Cultural Difference Theory 12

The Macrostructural Explanation 16

Indian English 20

Implications for Teachers 24

Adapting Instruction to Support a Broad 24

Range of Learning Styles 24

Minimizing Sociolinguistic Discontinuities 28

Addressing Oppositional Identity 30

Intrinsic Motivation 35

American Indian Student Silence 37

Parental Involvement 38

American Indian Students and Reading 42

Reading 42

Risk Factors for Developing Reading Difficulties 43

Language Development and Reading Instruction 44

Reading Comprehension 51

Developing Standard English Skills 53

Conclusion 55

An Overview of the History of Federal-Indian Policy and the Legal Relationship Between Indian Tribes 60

and the U.S. Government 60

The History of Political and Legal Relations Between American Indian Tribes and the U.S. Government 60

The Legal and Political Status of American Indians 70

and Tribal Governments 70

References 77


The academic achievement of all children is of utmost importance to educators and communities alike. Tremendous improvements have been made in many aspects of our educational system. However, much remains to be accomplished. This is particularly true in regard to American Indian and Alaskan Native children. As Reyes (1998) notes, “Despite 25 years of Indian education, nationwide achievement levels [of Indian children] continue to be low and dropout rates continue to be high” (p.2).

Following the first two administrations of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) test in 1997 and 1998, concern was expressed over the low scores among the different groups of children of color enrolled in public schools and among Native American children in particular. In response to such concerns, this document was created as a resource for mainstream teachers regarding what current research suggests are the most appropriate methods for meeting the educational needs of American Indian and Alaskan Native children in the public schools, as well as to provide pertinent background information on the historical and sociopolitical relationships between American Indian tribes and the U.S. government (of which public schools are representatives). This document is intended as a supplement to Research Into Practice: An Overview of Reading Research for Washington State, published by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (1998a), and these documents should be considered together. American Indian and Alaskan Native children go through the same stages in their language, cognitive, and psychological development as all children, and, like all other children, need loving, supportive, challenging, rich, and culturally appropriate learning environments.1

As a resource for teachers, the focus of this document is limited to those aspects of education that are influenced by parent and teacher decision making, as opposed to those aspects that are largely under the control of school administrators or educational policymakers. Hence, although we address issues such as the instructional implications of American Indian and Alaskan Native students coming to school speaking varieties of “Indian English,” we do not address other important issues such as the benefits of instituting educational programs involving language renewal for Native American students who are not fluent in their ancestral languages, since the creation of such programs is primarily an administrative or policy decision (and therefore goes beyond the scope of this document).

It is important to note that this document does not focus on Native Americans generally, but instead focuses specifically on American Indians and Alaskan Natives (for the sake of brevity, we hereafter refer to both of these groups as “American Indians”). Our emphasis is on students descended from the indigenous peoples of North America and not on other Native American groups such as Native Hawaiians, Native Samoans, or Native Puerto Ricans. Although much of our work may be applicable to students from these latter groups, we have not systematically investigated this possibility.

It is also important to note that although we have attempted to provide information that is applicable to American Indian students generally, these students should not be considered a homogenous group. Although there are often many social and cultural similarities between tribes, each tribal community possesses a unique culture and history. Furthermore, individual American Indians may be affiliated with a federally recognized tribe, a state-recognized tribe, or a tribe that lacks formal recognition by the federal government or a state;2 they may also fail to affiliate with any American Indian group. Although many live on or near tribal reservations, a large portion live in urban areas. American Indian students also vary in their degree of acculturation with regard to mainstream society and in those personal characteristics that are variable among all children.

This document is divided into five sections. In the first section we discuss the history of U.S. governmental involvement in American Indian education, a history which strongly influences how some American Indians view schools today. In the second section we discuss what current research and theory suggests are the primary reasons for the relatively low level of academic success among American Indian students. In the third section we provide a brief discussion of the nonstandard forms of English spoken by many American Indians today. We then address, in the fourth section, the classroom implications of the preceding sections for teachers; focused on are ways in which teachers can better meet the needs and support the abilities of the American Indian students in their classrooms. Finally, in the fifth section, we specifically address issues of reading instruction in regard to American Indian students. This document also includes an addendum that provides an overview of the history of political and legal relations between the United States government and American Indians as well as a discussion of the special legal and political status of American Indians and tribal governments.

Executive Summary

This document is intended as a resource for mainstream teachers. It provides a summary of current research on effective ways for teachers to more fully meet the educational needs of American Indian children attending public schools. The following is an overview of the research findings reported in this document:

  • In Washington State, as well as on a national level, American Indian elementary and secondary school students, as a group, have a relatively low level of academic success.

  • Although a number of theories have been put forth as to the reason for the relatively low level of academic success among American Indians and other minority groups, two theories currently hold particularly wide acceptance among educational researchers and theorists: cultural difference theory and the macrostructural explanation.

  • According to cultural difference theory, the relatively low level of academic success among minority students in the United States (including American Indian students) results from discontinuities between the cultures and languages of these students’ homes and communities and the culture and language of mainstream American society and the public schools. According to this theory, minority students come from backgrounds that equip them with linguistic, cognitive, and interactional styles that are not fully supported by typical public schools, which are instead usually structured to support those styles common to white, middle class students. It is believed that these discontinuities often result in systematic and recurrent miscommunication in the classroom, as well as a failure to acknowledge and build upon the knowledge and abilities that minority students bring with them to school.

  • The macrostructural explanation suggests that although discontinuities in linguistic, cognitive, and interactional styles may present challenges to minority students, cultural difference theory is inadequate because it fails to explain why some minority groups in the United States are relatively academically successful despite the fact that members of these groups encounter such discontinuities in their educational experiences. According to the macrostructural explanation, American Indians, African Americans, and other groups that were brought into American society through colonization, conquest, or slavery (termed involuntary minorities) have greater difficulty than other minority groups in overcoming barriers to academic success such as discontinuities between their home and school experiences, as well as discriminatory treatment in school and the larger society. This is due to the perceptions of involuntary minority groups regarding how society, or any particular domain or institution within society, works and their respective understandings of their places in that working order. It is suggested that involuntary minority groups tend to interpret the social, economic, and political barriers they face in the United States as permanent and institutionalized discrimination perpetuated against them by members of the “dominant” societal group and by dominant-group-controlled institutions such as schools. Consequently, although members of involuntary minority groups frequently emphasize the importance of education in the achievement of economic or social success, this verbal endorsement often belies a serious educational commitment because they view education as providing few extrinsic rewards (such as better future employment opportunities) since the societal barriers they face are perceived as intractable. In addition, American Indians and other involuntary minorities tend to respond to discriminatory treatment by the dominant group, including historical attempts at forced assimilation into mainstream culture in the case of American Indians, by developing an oppositional identity in relation to the dominant group. Within this oppositional identity, cultural and language differences are considered symbols of group identity that should be maintained. (These symbols support a sense of collective or social identity in a minority group and help the group cope under conditions of subordination.) Oppositional identities negatively influence school success because involuntary minorities do not make a clear distinction between what needs to be learned in order to succeed academically, such as the standard language and the standard behavior practices of the school, and the values, behaviors, and other characteristics of the dominant societal group (which may be seen as the cultural traits of their “oppressors”). Hence, learning the standard language and behavior practices of the school are viewed as detrimental to the minority groups’ own culture, language and identity, which in turn leads to resistance (whether conscious or unconscious) or ambivalence toward school learning.

  • Although many American Indians are fluent speakers of what is commonly considered to be standard English, the first language learned by two-thirds of American Indian youth today is Indian English. The term Indian English refers to the broad category of English dialects used by American Indians that do not conform in certain ways to standard English. The varieties of Indian English often differ from standard English in aspects of grammar, phonology, semantics, and rules of discourse. However, they are nonetheless well-ordered and highly structured languages that reflect the linguistic competencies that must underlie all languages.

  • The numerous varieties of Indian English serve valuable purposes in the speech communities in which they are used, even among individuals who speak their ancestral language, standard English, or both. Indian English fluency is a way of reinforcing one’s cultural identity for many American Indians, and it is of particular importance where Indian English is the only Indian-related language tradition that has been maintained in a community or the only such language tradition that older community members have been willing to pass on to the younger generation. Under such circumstances, Indian English fluency becomes a highly valued social skill, and the nonstandard aspects of the Indian English variety take on an even greater cultural significance.

  • Research in the area of cultural difference theory suggests that many American Indian students in the public schools experience a discontinuity between the learning styles they come to school with and the learning styles that are supported and rewarded in typical U.S. classrooms. Teachers may be able to facilitate better the learning of all students by adapting their teaching styles and methods of instruction so that a broad range of learning styles is supported. In doing so, both American Indian students and non-Indian students can be provided with familiar, comfortable, and successful experiences while also being exposed to learning in new ways. Classroom modifications that support the range of student learning styles include, but are not limited to, (1) supplementing traditional forms of instruction with cooperative learning strategies, (2) providing multisensory instruction, and (3) increasing the holistic emphasis in student learning.

  • Research in the area of cultural difference theory also suggests that many American Indian students in the public schools face a discontinuity between the varieties of English that they speak and the types of English spoken by their non-Indian peers and teachers. Teachers should take steps to minimize the difficulties arising from such sociolinguistic discontinuities, starting with an effort to learn about the languages and cultures of their American Indian students’ communities. This process should help to provide teachers with insight into the culturally derived assumptions that their American Indian students bring with them to the classroom about what constitutes appropriate language use as well as how these assumptions differ from their own. This insight can be used to recognize the sources of the miscommunication that often occurs between American Indian students and their teachers, which, in and of itself, may reduce the degree of miscommunication. Teachers can also use such insight to modify instruction so that it presents fewer difficulties for their American Indian students.

  • The macrostructural explanation for the relatively low level of academic success among American Indians suggests that by reducing the degree to which American Indian students view success in school as detrimental to their own culture, language and identity, the academic success of these students can be increased. An important method for reducing the degree to which American Indian students view school success in this manner is for the curriculum to reflect a balanced, multicultural focus that integrates the contemporary, historical, and cultural perspectives of American Indians. Such a curriculum should not simply incorporate a generalized consideration of American Indians, but it should include a focus on local and regional American Indian communities. It should also be consciously utilized to foster intercultural harmony in the school.

  • The macrostructural explanation also suggests that it is important for teachers to focus on the intrinsic motivation of American Indian students toward school learning. Ways of increasing the intrinsic motivation of American Indian students include (1) providing a multicultural curriculum; (2) providing instruction that is sensitive to both sociolinguistic differences and diverse learning styles; (3) increasing the curriculum’s personal relevance to the students by contextualizing instruction in the learners’ experience or previous knowledge; (4) giving students a choice in how and what they learn; (5) connecting academic endeavors to real purposes valued by the students; (6) generating products for real audiences; and (7) replacing passive teaching methods with active learning in which students are encouraged to interact with peers, teachers, and their environment and in which students are encouraged to be active participants in their educations.

  • Mainstream teachers are often presented with what to them is a confounding degree of silence from their American Indian students, especially among children in the upper grades. Depending on the particular classroom and students, this silence is probably a variable and complicated mixture of (1) student discomfort with classroom norms of behavior and language use that are incongruous with the norms they have learned in their homes and communities, (2) student conformity to their communities’ standards of etiquette regarding when it is appropriate to speak instead of conformity to the standards of mainstream classrooms, and (3) student resistance toward the school and teacher. Student resistance may result from student beliefs that school success is detrimental to their own cultures, languages, and identities. Among adolescents, resistance may also result from student perceptions that their teachers do not “care” about them.

  • In order to address American Indian student silence in the classroom, teachers should (1) learn about the norms of behavior and language use that students learn in their homes and communities and minimize the discontinuities these students experience in the classroom; (2) modify their classrooms in ways that reduce the degree to which American Indian students view success in school as detrimental to their own culture, language, and identity; and (3) provide adolescent students with increased individual attention and foster warm personal relationships with them.

  • Teachers should endeavor to facilitate strong collaboration between the homes of American Indian children and the school. Such collaboration should be an ongoing effort at outreach that focuses on positive contacts with homes and not simply crisis intervention or teacher reminders to parents to make sure their children study. A primary benefit of strong, positive collaboration between teachers and American Indian parents is the amelioration of parental perceptions that schools, as institutions controlled by the dominant societal group, lack legitimacy. Improving parental perceptions of schools will, in turn, make it easier for American Indian parents to teach their children effectively to accept, internalize, and follow the school rules and practices that lead to academic success.

  • In attempting to increase home/school collaboration, teachers should be sensitive to the numerous factors that can hinder American Indian parental involvement. In addition to parental suspicion of the schools that teachers represent and poor perceptions of school legitimacy, American Indian parents often face formidable cultural, linguistic and socioeconomic barriers to school involvement.

  • Teachers should endeavor to become participants in their American Indian students’ communities and to learn about the specific linguistic and cultural backgrounds of their students. Such knowledge is necessary in order to implement classroom modifications that better meet the educational needs of American Indian students.

  • On a group-wide level, American Indian children are at a relatively high risk of developing reading difficulties. In order to foster the reading development of their American Indian students, teachers should provide students with experiences within a culturally relevant and appropriate learning environment, with instructional materials mirroring the experiences and speaking vocabularies of early readers to the greatest extent possible. In addition, because of the well-documented link between vocabulary size and early reading ability, American Indian students should have numerous opportunities to develop their English vocabulary necessary for the domain of school.

  • Possessing appropriate background knowledge for understanding the content information presented in a text is a crucial factor in reading comprehension. However, the cultural background of American Indian students is often different from the culture embedded in the reading material they encounter in school, which can result in these students lacking the background knowledge needed to achieve high levels of reading comprehension. Therefore, it is important that teachers be particularly sensitive to reading problems that result from differences between students’ background knowledge and the implicit cultural knowledge that a text presupposes. Educators who work with American Indian students are urged to find appropriate ways to minimize cultural conflicts and interference in order to maximize comprehension. Some effective strategies include (1) encouraging students to read a variety of books for pleasure, (2) preparing students for reading through brainstorming, (3) categorizing main concepts and discussing these concepts with students, (4) introducing different active reading strategies, (5) integrating reading with language arts in order to deepen the understanding of the main concepts, (6) asking questions that focus on the comprehension process, and (7) providing active and deliberate vocabulary instruction.

  • Strengthening the standard English skills of American Indian students who lack a high level of standard English fluency is important in improving the academic standing of these students and to increasing their educational opportunities. Teachers should help those American Indian students who lack a high degree of standard English fluency to improve their standard English skills, while at the same time avoiding casting these students’ home language (whether this is a native language or a variety of Indian English) in a negative light. In providing instruction to improve standard English skills, it is important that teachers recognize that the intent of such instruction is simply to strengthen students’ standard English skills so that they have access to the language of the classroom; teachers should not erroneously assume that these children need, or should be expected, to change language patterns for use outside of the classroom.

Section I

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