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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
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
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
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 cannot
handle more than one complex task, but because they cannot 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
Another group of candidates for underprivileged and poor-performing students are AfricanAmericans. 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 culturallydisadvantaged 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 culturallydisadvantaged 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.