Creating Culturally Dynamic Materials for Rural Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Exceptional Students

Creating Culturally Dynamic Materials for Rural Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Exceptional Students

Peterson, Patricia J


In order to provide culturally appropriate instructional materials for rural Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Exceptional (CLDE) students, a variety of culturally dynamic methods and materials have been developed for teachers of Mexican-American and Native American CLDE students in rural areas of Arizona. The instructional materials that are described can be easily adapted for use with other rural CLDE populations by changing the native language and native culture frame of reference to match those of the rural students in the local community.

Most of the teachers who relocate to teach in rural and remote areas are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the challenges of the rural multicultural classroom and rarely stay long (Heimbecker, Medina, Peterson, Redsteer, & Prater, 2002; Peterson, Medina, Gilmer, Prater, & Stemmler, 2002). The recruitment and retention of rural special educators prepared to serve Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Exceptional (CLDE) students is particularly difficult. Special education teachers who work with CLDE students have an added challenge of finding culturally appropriate materials (Cloud, 2002). Cloud, Genesee, and Hamayan (2000) note the challenge of matching instructional and assessment approaches with the process of second-language learning to facilitate instruction for English Language Learners. Baca and Cervantes (2004) reviewed the research and found one of the key factors that determines the degree to which the needs of CLDE children are met is the preparation or lack of preparation of teachers to be responsive to the unique needs of these students and to be more sensitive to their cultural heritage. The area of curriculum and instruction materials is directly affected by culture (Garcia & Malkin, 1993). The contents of instructional materials as well as the instructional strategies must be presented in culturally appropriate ways (Bruns & Fowler, 1999; Patterson, 1996). In the past, instructional materials have not drawn from the cultural and linguistic experiences relevant to multicultural exceptional children; instead the categories of exceptionality have been regarded as the basic variable for curriculum differentiation (Gollnick & Chinn, 2002).

According to the Arizona Department of Education (2001), language and dialectical difference add to the difficulty of providing personnel development opportunities, especially in rural and remote areas where recruiting and maintaining quality personnel is a constant concern. When special educators from traditional university programs are hired in rural areas with high concentrations of CLDE children, these teachers have little or no specialized training in best practice in curriculum and methods for Hispanic and Native American children and adolescents (Eigenberger, Sealander, Peterson, Shellady, & Prater, 2001; Heimbecker et al. 2002; Peterson et al. 2002). The availability of teacher training materials and textbooks whose focus is on multicultural exceptional children is inadequately represented or virtually non-existent when compared to the percent of special education curriculum programs (Dean, Salend, & Taylor, 1993; Garcia & Malkin, 1993; Gollnick & Chinn, 2002; Salend, Dorney, & Mazo, 1997).

Developing Rural Culturally Dynamic Classrooms

There is a great need for all teachers to create culturally dynamic classrooms to provide an active, stimulating environment in which rural students with disabilities can learn. It is important for teachers to develop strategies and curriculum materials which focus on the strengths of CLDE students’ rich language and cultural heritage. For example, teachers of rural CLDE students should capitalize on Native American and Hispanic children’s ability to see things artistically and visually. An easy adaptation is to use manipulatives and pair academics with visual-kinesthetic-tactile activities such as reading and then drawing about a story or content lesson. In rural Arizona, special education teachers implement ideas such as providing a print-and picture-rich classroom including a variety of colorful and descriptive regional maps, Navajo and English alphabet trains, the Four Sacred Mountains of the Navajo, Native American artwork, and Hopi and Navajo Clan charts. Teachers use Navajo, Hopi, Apache, and Spanish conversational language to the greatest extent possible and encourage students to speak their native languages. In culturally dynamic classrooms, teachers also observe cultural do’s and don’t’s to the maximum extent possible such as not bringing snakes into a classroom with Navajo children and practicing appropriate cultural behavior during a solar eclipse. In traditional Navajo culture, persons should not inhale the odor of a snake, touch any part of a snake, or watch a snake eating or mating. The belief is that any contamination caused by snakes will cause skin rashes, sores, and digestive problems. During an eclipse of the sun, the belief is that all activities should cease and that looking at the eclipse could cause the person to become blind. Interdisciplinary units can be developed on cultural areas which do not involve taboos such as creating a thematic unit on traditional rural Native American or Hispanic dwellings with themes such as Adaptation, Community, Culture, and Diversity. The teacher can modify the assignment to promote success by having a student complete an assessment orally rather than through writing to honor the oral traditions of the culture. Overall, teachers should plan instruction which focus on the abilities rather than the disabilities of the students by integrating their academic abilities, native language background, and cultural experiences into reading, math, social studies, and science.

The following examples of teacher-made materials demonstrate that it is easy to adapt an effective teaching strategy or material to fit the culture, language, and community experience of the CLDE child. This will not only enrich and enhance the CLDE child’s learning and self concept, but it will also enrich the instruction of all rural students. In order to provide culturally appropriate materials for rural CLDE students, a variety of culturally dynamic methods and materials have been developed for Mexican-American and Native American CLDE students in rural areas in Arizona. The materials which are described could be easily adapted for use with other rural CLDE populations by changing the native language and native culture frame of reference to match those of the students in the local community.

CLDE Teacher-made Materials

Native American Folktales

The teacher gives brief background information on Native American traditions. Then the teacher reads a Native American folk tale out loud to the students, explains the five elements of the story, and discusses each one thoroughly. The elements to discuss are: 1. Setting, 2. Characters, 3. Beginning of Story, 4. Middle of Story, and 5. End of Story. While discussing these components with the students, the teacher uses an overhead of a hand and explains to the students that each finger on the hand represents the setting, characters, beginning, middle, and end of story. Once the teacher has discussed an element, he/ she writes down the student’s response on the appropriate finger. The teacher next introduces other Native American folktales that will be read individually by the students. The books presented should all be focused on the same concept, take up the same reading time, and provide different students with different reading levels. For each folktale, the students will use the visual “hand” format to identify the five elements of setting, characters, beginning, middle, and end of story.

Cultural Word Bank

The Word Bank procedure (Sealander, Bell, Akin-Little, Shade, Peterson, & Prater, 2000) involves putting words on index cards. When the student correctly identifies the word on three consecutive days, then the word can be put into the student’s personal word bank. The teacher should use words from the CLDE student’s cultural background and community environment in both English and the native language, depending on which language or languages the child is learning. For example a Navajo child might have the words hogan, Dine, sheep, mutton, clan, and Mother Earth in his/her bank of word cards. These words would then be used in content lessons, creative writing, spelling, and math activities to bring them into the child’s frame of reference and reinforce decoding and comprehension

Matching Pictures to Descriptive Phrases

This is a good technique for assisting students in reading comprehension and involves cutting pictures from newspapers and magazines or drawing pictures and pasting them on individual file cards. Next a descriptive phrase related to each picture representing something from the student’s culture and linguistic background is pasted on a file card, and the student matches the pictures with the descriptions. A Mexican-American child might have pictures of a pinata, outdoor market, mother making tortillas, or the Three Kings which would be matched with descriptive sentences for each picture in English and Spanish. This could then be converted into a “Concentration” game to include visual memory skills as well as reading.

Creating Bilingual Books with the Language Experience Approach

Through the Language Experience Approach, the CLDE child becomes an active participant in the learning process. The child dictates stories about real life experiences such as field trips, family celebrations, shopping at the grocery store, and traveling to visit relatives. The stories and experiences relate to the CLDE student’s native language and cultural background. A Mexican-American child might tell a story about making a pinata for her sister’s birthday party. The teacher writes the child’s story on chart paper. The teacher and child read back the story together. The story could be told and written in Spanish and also retold and written in English. Picture books can be easily made by the child to illustrate significant parts of the bilingual story.

Cultural Heritage Books

Using Cultural Heritage Books (Sealander et al. 2000) is another effective way to directly involve CLDE students in their school activities. This approach incorporates a natural way for CLDE students to find books that represent their own cultural heritage, customs, beliefs, and language. These books are now available in two languages such as Navajo/English, Hopi/English, or Spanish/ English with beautiful illustrations to accompany the narrative depicting cultural history, customs, and events familiar to the CLDE student.

Culturally Dynamic Autobiography and Timeline

Sealander et al. (2000) also suggest having students create a picture autobiography and timeline which includes the child’s birthdate, family, friends, important events, favorite books, goals, and special activities. The CLDE student creates this timeline/ autobiographical picture of himself/herself in the native language or using important words in the native language with a special focus on events significant in his/her culture. A Navajo child could depict spending the summer at a sheep camp with his/her grandmother herding sheep, going to a puberty ceremony for his/her sister, and building a hogan for family or clan members.

Self-correcting Bilingual Vowel or Consonant Wheels

The teacher develops a Vowel or Consonant Wheel using a large circle of cardboard for the base. A smaller circle of cardboard is fastened with a brad in the center of the larger circle. Pictures of functional words in either culturally appropriate native language content areas, social studies/science, or ESL curriculum are glued to the outside of the larger circle. Then the initial or final consonant or vowel is pasted on the inside portion of the larger circle next to the picture. The smaller circle has a cut out square “window” covered by a paper flap. Students say the vowel, final or initial consonant, or whole word and move the wheel down to check their answers by lifting the flap. Separate wheels can be developed in English and the native language or both words can appear under the flap on one bilingual wheel.

Egg Carton Learning Centers

For egg carton math, colors, or letters learning centers, the teacher uses an egg carton to have children count beans into the appropriate numbers in the egg compartments, put colored objects in to match the colors on compartment, or match beginning letters to objects on the bottom of egg carton. This activity uses culturally relevant picture words, counting in native language, and content area words in English and the native language. This can be adapted to almost any content, but the idea is utilizing a novel item (egg carton) to use at centers or individual egg cartons for each child. It is especially useful in math, counting by 2’s, 5’s, in each compartment. This is may result in more effective on-task behavior than using paper and pencil worksheets.

Shoebox Math

To create this material, the teacher puts colored strips of tape (red and blue) on a shoebox and number 1 -24 under each strip. Red strips are used for even numbers and blue for odd numbers. The teacher puts red strips of tape on 12 clothespins and blue strips of tape on 12 clothespins. Children count and say the even numbers in English and the native language as they clip red clothespins to these numbers on the shoebox. They do the same with the odd numbers and the blue clothespins. Next, the teacher can glue a “flag” with a problem on several other clothespin. Students clip the problem (2 + 2) to the correct answer (4) on the shoebox and can self-correct by lifting a flap and looking at the problems written for each number or a partner can check answers on an answer sheet. The students can time themselves on how fast they can count in each language, do odd’s and even’s, count by 2’s, 5’s, etc. to lead into multiplication. The teacher could also develop file cards with story problems in English and the native language, and the students could clip the “Maria story” to the corrent answer on the shoebox. This manipulative activity also strengthens the hand muscles used for fine motor skills such as handwriting, encourages the use of English and the native language, and provides an alternative to worksheets.

Cut up Comics

Initially, the teacher pastes a comic strip on a piece of cardboard and has students read the story together. The teacher can use comics in the native language, use very basic stories such as Peanuts with only a few English words in each frame, or use pictures of culturally relevant activities and have the students sequence and write or explain the story that would go with the pictures. Next the teacher can cut apart all the squares of the comic strip and have students put the correct sequence back together. Students can work together and discuss why the pictures go in a certain order. Then for more critical thinking, they can be asked to put it together in a “silly “sequence and explain or write out why it doesn’t make sense to put it in that order. All of these activities can be done in English or in the native language to nurture language development.

Creative Checkers

The teacher covers a checkers board with clear Contac paper. Next, the teacher sticks Velcro dots on words in either English or the native language which are cut out of file cards. The bottoms of the Velcro dots are glued to the black squares on the checkers board, and the words are attached. When a student lands a checker on the square, he/she must correctly read the word in order to stay on the square. This could be used with math problems, synonyms, opposites, saying a word in English to match a picture on the square, or saying a sentence in English or the native language about the picture.

Lacing Yarn and Matching

The teacher punches holes on both sides of construction paper covered with clear plastic or Contac paper. On the left side the teacher puts upper case letters and on the right side put lower case. Tie yarn pieces about 18 inches long in different colors to holes on one side and have the child lace the yam into the matching hole (letter) on the opposite side. For CLDE students, the teacher uses culturally appropriate pictures and the sounds in the native language. Variations include use of English and native language to match letter with initial consonant sound of a picture, match ending sound of picture, sequence of steps in science experiments (numbers and pictures), or match math problems and answers. This also facilitates eye-hand coordination for handwriting and fine motor skills.


Culturally dynamic teacher-made materials which have been used effectively with rural CLDE students in Arizona can provide useful ideas for other special education teachers of rural culturally and linguistic diverse populations. Ultimately, it is the CLDE students themselves that enrich the instructional environment with their native language and cultural funds of knowledge. The match of culturally appropriate instructional materials with the linguistic and cultural backgrounds of the students is what can make the classroom culturally dynamic.


Arizona Department of Education (2001). State Improvement Grant Application, Phoenix, AZ: Author.

Baca, L., & Cervantes, H. (2004). The bilingual special education interface. (4th ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Bruns, D.A. & Fowler, S.A. (1999). Culturally sensitive transition plans. Teaching Exceptional Children, 31(5), 26-30.

Cloud, N. (2002). Culturally and linguistically responsive instructional planning. In A. Artilcs & A. Ortiz (Eds.), English language learners with special education needs: Identification, assessment, and instruction (pp. 107-132). McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Cloud, N., Genesee, F., & Hamayan, E. (2000). Dual language instruction: A handbook for enriched education. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Dean, A.V., Salend, S.J. & Taylor, L. (1993). Multicultural education: A challenge for special educators. Teaching Exceptional Children. 26 (1), 40-43.

Eigenberger, M., Sealander K., Peterson, P., Shellady, S., Prater, G. (Winter/Spring 2001). Challenges facing teacher educators in rural, remote and isolated areas: using what we know and what we have learned. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 20 (1/2), 13-21.

Garcia, S.B. & Malkin, D.H. (1993). Toward defining programs and services for culturally and linguistically diverse learners in special education. Teaching Exceptional Children, 26 (1), 52-58.

Gollnick, D.M. & Chinn, P. (2002). Multicultural education in a pluralistic society, (6th ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Heimbecker, C., Medina, C., Peterson, P., Redsteer, D., & Prater, G. (2002). Reaching American Indian special/elementary educators through a partnership with a Navajo Nation School District. Phi Delta Kappan, The Professional Journal for Education, 23, 373-378.

Patterson, C.H. (1996). Multicultural counseling: From diversity to universality. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74, 227-231.

Peterson, P., Medina, G., Gilmer, J., Prater, G., & Stemmler, K. (2002) Changing the face of teacher preparation: Developing rural exceptional-educators to address multicultural students. Journal of Borderwalking, 5, 53-64.

Salend, S., Dorney, J., & Mazo, M. (1997), The rules of bilingual special education in creating inclusive classrooms. Remedial and Special Education, 18(1), 54-62.

Sealander, K., Bell, R., Akin-Little, A., Shade, R., Peterson, P., & Prater, G. (2000). Practical suggestions for teachers and parents: A list of behavioral, social, and academic interventions and recommendations. The School Psychologist, 54 (1), 1-6.

Patricia J. Peterson

Box 5774

Northern Arizona University

Flagstaff, AZ 86011


Lela Montfort

Northern Arizona University

Copyright American Council on Rural Special Education Fall 2004

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved