Reading and the Native American Learner Research Report

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Background Knowledge

The definitions of reading and reading comprehension have been changed many times over the last few decades. Currently, one of the most widely excepted theories of reading defines reading comprehension as an interactive process between the reader and the text, and suggests that appropriate or sufficient background knowledge for understanding the text is a crucial factor in reading comprehension (Adams and Collins, 1979; Carrell, 1983a, 1983b, 1983c; Carrell and Wallace, 1983; Rumelhart, 1977; etc. as cited in Carrell, 1984). Research in the area of background knowledge is called schema theory, and forms the foundation of the reader-centered, psycholinguistic processing model of reading.42 According to this theory, reading comprehension becomes efficient if the reader is able to relate the written material to his or her own prior experience or knowledge of structures, called schemata (Adams and Collins, 1979; Rumelhart, 1980; as cited in Carrell and Eisterhold, 1983).

The process of constructing meaning is universal for all readers regardless of their racial or cultural background. The difference, however, lies in what the readers bring to the reading task. The cultural background of minority students is often different from the culture embedded in the reading material they encounter in school. 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 (Carrell and Eisterhold, 1983).

Educators who work with linguistic and cultural minorities are urged to find appropriate ways to minimize cultural conflicts and sociolinguistic interference in order to maximize comprehension (Carrell and Eisterhold, 1983).43 Some effective strategies suggested by Pearce (1992) include:

  • Encouraging students to read a variety of books for pleasure.

  • “Preparing” students for reading through brainstorming.

  • Categorizing main concepts and discussing these concepts

with students to activate the appropriate schema.

  • Introducing different active reading strategies.

  • Integrating reading with language arts in order to deepen

student understanding of the main concepts.

  • Asking questions that focus on the comprehension process

and thus develop metacognition.44

  • Providing active and deliberate vocabulary instruction.

Another very important aspect of reading comprehension is vocabulary. Snow et al. (1998) claim that children entering kindergarten are expected to have a vocabulary of several thousand words and state that “there is a well-documented link between vocabulary size and early reading ability” (p.47). Significantly, Snow et al. argue that one possible reason for this link between vocabulary size and early reading ability may be that when formal reading instruction begins, a limited vocabulary may impede a child’s level of achievement of phonemic awareness45 for spoken words, which is necessary for fluent decoding of written words. According to this theory, early reading ability is contingent on vocabulary size rather than age or general developmental level.

In the OSPI publication Research Into Practice: An Overview of Reading Research for Washington State (OSPI, 1998a), the issue of vocabulary is defined as follows:

Vocabulary words are the labels for the concepts and topics in a reader’s background knowledge and are thought to play a central role in comprehension (McNeil, 1992). When a reader encounters a word in a text, word associations that allow meaning to be created are activated (McNeil, 1992) and meaning is constructed. Vocabulary is acquired (1) through wide and varied reading; (2) from exposure to language in school, at home, in the community; and (3) from explicit vocabulary instruction (Alvermann and Phelps, 1998)…. In planning vocabulary instruction, it is important for teachers to consider that words (1) have many different meanings that are context-dependent, (2) are constantly being redefined as readers increase their background knowledge, and (3) should be learned as parts of conceptual frameworks or networks of ideas (McNeil, 1992).46 (p.7)
White, Graves and Slater (1990) conducted comparison studies of vocabulary growth among three groups of children from first through fourth grade. The groups were each composed of students from one of three schools: a white suburban school; an inner-city, predominantly African-American school where students spoke an English dialect; and a semi-rural school with dialect speaking, economically disadvantaged Asian Pacific students. The vocabulary size of first graders in these three groups ranged from 5,000 words for the white students, to 3,500 for the urban students, to 2,500 for the Asian Pacific students. In spite of intensive vocabulary and decoding instruction, the “vocabulary gap” never closed (although the students in all three groups increased their vocabulary sizes considerably). White, et al., maintain that this vocabulary gap reflects a differing knowledge of word meaning that is engendered by the different experiences of majority and minority children. According to White et al., “Both at home and in school, the dialect speaking students . . . were likely to have heard and used different words than the standard-English-speaking students from [the white suburban school]” (p.288).47 This implies that, because vocabulary size is so critical to reading ability, it is crucial that dialect speakers and ethnic minority students (including American Indian students) are helped to close this gap by being immersed in language learning experiences that provide optimal conditions for building the English vocabulary necessary for the domain of school (Payne, 1988).
Developing Standard English Skills
The list of challenges to young readers described by Snow et al. (1998) includes several categories applicable to American Indian students. In addition to the socio-political challenges mentioned in previous sections, there are challenges that are socio-linguistic in nature, such as limited opportunities for language and developmental skills enrichment during preschool years (Indian Nations at Risk Task Force, 1991) and speaking a variety of Indian English at home and in their communities (as discussed in Section III of this document).

Given that standard English is the language of instruction in American public schools and given the concern of educators and many American Indian communities about the difficulties that many American Indian students are experiencing in public schools, a primary task that educators face is to provide instruction that strengthens American Indian students’ oral and written standard English skills.48 As the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force (1991) notes, “Learning standard English is essential for school success” (p.14). Strengthening American Indian students’ standard English skills will inevitably lead to improving their academic standing and to increasing their educational opportunities.

The issue of standard English language instruction to dialect speakers is widely discussed in the literature,49 and several researchers suggest strategies for approaching this task. Leap (1992), for example, urges educators to “revise considerably their instructional materials, classroom practice, testing procedures, and evaluating activities” (p.150). He also asks educators to recognize that “the characteristics that separate Indian English from other forms of classroom usage are not indicators of language deficiency but grow out of differences between standard usage and traditions of English language usage that have considerable time, depth, and cultural significance within the students’ home community” (p.150). In fact, as noted in Section III of this document, Leap argues that the differences between standard English and Indian English varieties derive, in large part, from the latter’s close association with their speakers’ ancestral language traditions. Leap also argues that these Indian English varieties serve valuable purposes in the speech communities in which they are used, especially in American Indian communities in which Indian English is the only “Indian-related” language still spoken, and because of this some members of these communities may “want to retain control over a nonstandard, community-based English code, and … might be reluctant for fluency in standard English to replace such language knowledge” (Leap, 1992, p.146). Due to such issues, it is important that teachers recognize that the intent of instruction focused on strengthening the standard English skills of American Indian students should be to provide them with access to the language of the classroom and that teachers not erroneously assume that these children need, or should be expected, to change language patterns for use outside of the classroom.

Cleary and Peacock (1998) write about the lack of awareness of Indian English, or “rez talk,” among many teachers. They express their concern with some teachers’ attitudes toward the students’ language and their continuous focus on “correcting errors:”

Some [American Indian] students can become resistant to literacy acts if they are continually corrected without understanding why they make mistakes. They interpret the blizzard of corrections as criticism of their intelligence when, in reality, intelligence has little to do with why teachers correct them. (p.180)50
They continue:
The power of the dominant society is at once the most subtle and the most discriminating (in the worst sense of the word) when it comes to language use. Teachers who correct their [American Indian] students without being aware of the toll of correction on the self-esteem are perhaps as unintentionally harmful as the teachers who make no attempt to give their students explicit explanations of why they make mistakes in their writing. Without these explanations, students cannot understand an important means of their own oppression, and they cannot understand the power that standard language can give them in the dominant culture. (p.183)
Cleary and Peacock (1998) provide an example of how to teach Indian English speakers standard English for use in academic writing while attempting to avoid casting these students’ home language in a negative light.
Instead of a list of “mistakes,” [a teacher can have his or her] students keep a “Grammar Log,” with the heading “Home Language” in one column and “Written Language” in another to set up the explicit comparison. This less pejorative way of labeling language might allow students to begin to see the differences in dialects without feeling criticized for their written use of the oral language they would use at home. It is important for students and teachers to see this home language as a strength rather than as a deficit. (p.182)51
Leap (1992) recommends that classroom activities that require Indian students to renounce their Indian speech should be avoided. Students should be encouraged to master the standard English without “sacrificing control over their Indian English tradition” (p.151). He suggests that teachers broaden their perspectives on language use, promote diversity, encourage eloquence, and target instruction toward the areas of students’ language need. The instruction should combine the skills that the students already have with targeted new standard English language knowledge.


Current research suggests that the relatively low level of academic success among American Indian elementary and secondary school students, as a group, is largely the result of discontinuities between the cultures and languages of these students’ homes and communities and the language and culture of mainstream classrooms. American Indian students also tend to perceive academic success as offering few extrinsic rewards, and they are likely to view learning much of what is necessary to succeed academically (such as the standard language and the standard behavior practices of the school) as detrimental to their own language, culture, and identity. Mainstream teachers of American Indian children can help students meet these challenges by:

  • Becoming participants in their American Indian students’ communities and learning about the norms of behavior and language use that these students are taught in their homes and communities.

  • Taking steps to minimize the difficulties arising from discontinuities between their own culturally-derived assumptions about appropriate language use and the culturally-derived assumptions of their American Indian students.

  • Gaining a thorough understanding of the unique cultural and historical perspective of their American Indian students’ communities.

  • Introducing a curriculum that (1) reflects a balanced, multicultural focus that integrates the contemporary, historical, and cultural perspectives of Native Americans; (2) includes a focus on local and regional American Indian communities; and (3) is consciously utilized to foster intercultural harmony in the school.

  • Adapting their teaching styles and methods of instruction so that a broad range of learning styles is supported.

  • Focusing on the intrinsic motivation of students toward school learning.

  • Fostering warm interpersonal relationships with American Indian students.

  • Facilitating strong, positive collaboration between the homes of American Indian students and the school.

Because reading ability plays such a significant role in the academic success of students, teachers of American Indian children should also be particularly concerned with reading-related issues. Teachers must be adept in all the teaching strategies required for effective reading instruction. In addition, teachers providing reading instruction to American Indian students must pay special attention to:

  • Oral language development, including the building of standard English skills.

  • Using culturally appropriate and relevant instructional materials.

  • Establishing a classroom environment that is respectful of the linguistic, social and cultural heritage of American Indian students.

  • Utilizing a curriculum that capitalizes on the background knowledge and experience students bring with them to school.


An Overview of the History of Federal-Indian Policy and the Legal Relationship Between Indian Tribes
and the U.S. Government

Regrettably, many Americans lack a sophisticated understanding of either the history of Indian/non-Indian relations in this country or the place American Indian tribes occupy in the United States’ system of government. In light of this fact, this addendum provides information in regard to these areas. In the first section of this addendum, the history of political and legal relations between the United States government and American Indian tribes is addressed. In the second section, the special legal and political status of American Indians and tribal governments is discussed.

The History of Political and Legal Relations Between American Indian Tribes and the U.S. Government
Although the federal government’s policy toward American Indians has shifted over time, as a whole it has been marked by a “... total lack of Indian involvement or consent in its formulation” (Pevar, 1992, p.2) and, until recently, has resembled a slow but constant attempt to either relegate American Indian communities to small tracts of undesirable land and/or destroy them through assimilation. This trend took a somewhat positive turn with the passing of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, but in no way did this act represent a complete reversal of the federal government’s policy of assimilation. In fact, it was not until the presidential campaign of 1960 that the true beginning of a clear reversal of federal-Indian policy began (Utter, 1993). Since the 1960s, American Indians have been able to begin rebuilding their communities somewhat free of external aggression.

The development of federal-Indian policy can be categorized into six successive eras (Deloria, 1985; Pevar, 1992; Swinomish, 1991; Utter, 1993). These eras are:

  • Tribal Independence (Pre–1828).

  • Removal and Relocation (1828–1887).

  • Assimilation and Allotment (1887–1934).

  • Reorganization (1934–1945).

  • Termination (1945–1960).

  • Self-Determination (Post–1960).

In this section we provide an overview of each of these periods, with a particular focus on the impact of federal-Indian policy on American Indian communities.

Tribal Independence (Pre-1828)
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, more than 400 independent nations were prospering in what is now the United States (Pevar, 1992).52 During America’s colonial period, some Europeans believed that the indigenous peoples that comprised these nations were without rights and that the supposed superiority of European religion and “civilization” gave colonial powers a natural right to rule over them. However, the predominant view was one that respected tribes as sovereign nations. Colonial powers, it was held, could lay claim to American Indian lands through a legal canon known as the doctrine of discovery, but that such a claim was only valid against other colonial powers, not against indigenous peoples (Cadwalader and Deloria, 1984; Grossman, 1979; Shattuck and Norgren, 1991; Wilkinson, 1987).

However, this “... recognition of native sovereignty in the Americas was not entirely a matter of altruism … [The American Indians’] aid, or at least their tolerance, was often essential to the pre-colonial fur traders and, later, to the survival of colonial settlements” (Grossman, 1979, p.3). In addition, colonial powers neither wanted to expend the resources necessary for hostile policies toward American Indians nor to alienate tribes to the advantage of rival colonial powers. Nevertheless, despite the concerns of their mother countries, colonists often

sought more immediate gains, particularly Indian lands which blocked their paths of expansion.… [In fact, this] tension between mother countries and colonists is an abiding theme in colonial history and contributed much to the eventual independence movements of the colonists. (Grossman, 1979, p.3)
Nonetheless, and perhaps not surprisingly, once the U.S. won its independence the concerns of these colonial powers were internalized by the new government. “Not wishing to maintain a standing army and wishing to conserve the nation’s resources, the first six Presidents of the United States ... generally pursued a policy of conciliation and peace toward Indian tribes” (Grossman, 1979, p.4). Pevar (1992) notes that prior to 1828,
the United States government regarded Indian tribes as having the same status as foreign nations and every effort was made to obtain their allegiance. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in 1832, “[t]he early journals of Congress exhibit the most anxious desire to conciliate the Indian nations.… The most strenuous exertions were made to procure those supplies on which Indian friendships were supposed to depend; and everything which might excite hostility was avoided.” The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, ratified by Congress in 1789, declared: “The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards Indians; their land and property shall never be taken from them without their consent.” (Pevar, 1992, p.3)
In keeping with this policy, early Presidents recognized tribal sovereignty in treaties and even sent military aid to protect tribes against frontiersmen. Congress respected this sovereignty as well and enacted legislation (such as the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790) intended to regulate traders and frontiersmen for the protection of tribes. As Grossman (1979) notes,
The federal government of the new nation replaced the colonial mother country as the protector of the Indian tribes and Article I, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution - the “commerce clause” - recognized this by placing full power over Indian affairs in Congress, denying such power to the states. (p.4)

Unfortunately however, few of these laws were enforced, “... particularly those which might have discouraged settlers from moving west-ward. The government consistently overlooked the forcible and illegal taking of Indian land” (Pevar, 1992, p.3). This disregard for the taking of American Indian land was due to the fact that the U.S. government’s policy was motivated predominantly by political expediency; it was meant only to restrain and govern the advance of European Americans, not to prevent that advance forever. Even those who recognized tribal sovereignty as matter of principle, such as Thomas Jefferson, conceded the inevitability of white expansion and the engulfment of America’s Indian population (Grossman, 1979).

Removal and Relocation (1828–1887)
With victories over Great Britain in 1783 and 1815, the accompanying defeat of the eastern tribes in the War of 1812, and the displacement of Spain from Florida in 1819, the pressures on the United States from rival powers were greatly diminished. Subsequently, with less need to foster amiable relations with American Indian tribes and more reason to clear them from land desired for national expansion, the federal government’s Indian policy began to become one of American Indian removal (Fritz, 1963; Minugh, Morris, and Ryser, 1989; Prucha, 1985; Shattuck and Norgren, 1991). With the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828, what had already become an unspoken policy of removing eastern tribes to the West became a publicly stated goal.

Two years after Jackson’s election, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This act led to the relocation of the eastern tribes to the “Great American Desert,” which, it was thought, would never be desirable for European American settlement (Fritz, 1963). “Through the alteration of persuasion and force, the removal policy resulted in the transportation of the bulk of the eastern tribes beyond the Mississippi River and their establishment on the edge of the Great Plains” (Fritz, 1963, p.17). However, although these tribes were moved to areas that were promised to them in perpetuity, continued U.S. expansion soon destroyed these agreements. Many tribes, first relocated to Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin, were soon forced to move even farther west to the Oklahoma Indian Territory. With the discovery of gold in California in 1848, which brought thousands of settlers to the West and heightened the desire for American Indian land, the removal policy became increasingly untenable for the U.S. government (Shattuck and Norgren, 1991). The United States’ answer was to press a formal system of reservations upon the tribes. These reservations were to provide “a means of isolating Indians from the base and violent elements of white society while ‘good people from Christian missions could teach an appreciation for agriculture, manufacture, and the English language’” (Shattuck and Norgren, 1991, p.82).

At the same time that the land base of American Indians was being eroded, the federal government began to undermine their status as sovereign nations as well. Although tribal communities had been considered sovereign while willing to sell land to the United States,
when tribes began to realize that no cession - no matter how large or how “final” - would ever end white demands for more land, they resisted further cessions, and the happy marriage of political convenience and legal principle broke asunder. (Shattuck and Norgren, 1991, p.113)
In an effort to reconcile legal precedent with American expansionist interests, the Supreme Court began to recast tribes as “limited” sovereignties (Minugh, et al., 1989; Ryser, 1992; Shattuck and Norgren, 1991; Wilkinson, 1987). According to this concept, although American Indians held title to the land they occupied and had a right to self-government, their retention of these rights was at the discretion of the federal government.

The rationale at first provided for this recasting of tribes as limited sovereignties was that tribes had had their sovereignty diminished by virtue of being “discovered,”53 as well as by being conquered by the U.S. But by the end of the 1800s, the Supreme Court would state that tribal sovereignty had been diminished due to tribal “weakness” in relation to the United States (Cadwalader and Deloria, 1984; O’Brian, 1986; Ryser, 1992; Shattuck and Norgren, 1991). Using as justification the federal government’s promise to protect these weaker entities in its treaties with them, the Court recast the federal government’s relation to tribes from one of equality to that of a guardian to her wards (Cadwalader and Deloria, 1984; Minugh, et al., 1989; O’Brian, 1986 Ryser, 1992; Shattuck and Norgren, 1991). As the American Indians’ trustee, “the federal government not only assumed the authority to interfere with internal tribal affairs but also asserted the right to dispose of tribal property as it chose” (Shattuck and Norgren, 1991, p.115).

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