Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Culturally Responsive Language and Literacy Enrichment for Native American Children

As part of our recognition of Native American Heritage Month, we asked Diane Loeb to discuss her IES-funded research on culturally responsive language and literacy enrichment for Native American children.

Development of language and exposure to early literacy is critical to a child’s academic success. Speaking and listening skills are necessary to navigate learning at every level of school. According to NCES, American Indians/Alaska Native populations have the highest percentage of students who receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. There continues to be a significant need for Native American speech-language pathologists and audiologists, culturally sensitive assessment tools, and intervention approaches.

In 2006, I had the privilege to work with ten Native American college students who were recruited to the University of Kansas for the speech-language pathology and audiology master’s program. The students were from tribes across the country and varied greatly in their undergraduate preparation and world experiences. One thing that they had in common is that they wanted to make a difference in the lives of others—in particular, those who needed help with their speech, language, hearing skills, and related difficulties. As a result of working with these amazing students, I learned about their families, their customs, and their dreams. I also became painfully aware of the historical trauma Native Americans experience as a result of genocide, colonialism, and racism. In the twentieth century, Native Americans were sent to boarding schools and deprived of their language, culture, and their family.

As the students advanced in their academic studies and clinical work, it became clear to me that there were very few resources for identifying and intervening with language delay and language disorder. Under- and over-identification for special education services were highly possible due to our lack of understanding of Native American history, level of family assimilation, and inter-tribal differences. Although there were a handful of articles related to conducting assessments, very few studies addressed culturally sensitive and responsive intervention, where children’s cultural values and beliefs, experiences, and how they learn guide the assessment and intervention. The lack of culturally responsive tools for Native Americans propelled me to write an IES-funded grant proposal designed to implement culturally authentic intervention designed to be meaningful, sensitive, and respectful of Native American culture.

As a result of the IES grant we received, we developed a culturally based language and vocabulary intervention for Native American kindergarten children at risk for speech and language impairment, as well as a training program for teachers and speech-language pathologists. Language and literacy lessons were based on positive stories about Native Americans in storybooks and storytelling was taught through the venue of shared reading. Native American adults from the Native American school we were working with examined our materials to ensure that our activities were in line with the values and beliefs of the participating children. Pilot testing suggested that students made gains in literacy and language skills following intervention. 

My colleague, Grace McConnell, and I recently published an in-depth analysis of the narratives produced by the children in our initial studies. We found distinct trends in narrative structure and evaluative comments depending on student age and whether there were visual supports. What we found highlights the importance of culturally responsive language and literacy interventions for Native American children. There remains a great need for these interventions. From my work, I have learned several important lessons that may be useful to current and future researchers. The three most salient to me are

  • Include members of the tribe with whom you are working as part of the process of developing assessments and interventions for children who are Native American. This helps to ensure that your assessments and interventions are culturally sensitive.
  • Develop authentic materials that are culturally relevant, sensitive, and meaningful. We found several books with positive cultural lessons, such as respecting the earth, working together, and harmony with others and nature.
  • Remember that tribes can differ substantially from one another and that families may differ regarding cultural values and beliefs within a given tribe. When we designed literacy and language units around Native American storybooks, they often were related to specific tribes (such as Navajo or Apache). This gave us the opportunity to discuss different tribes in various parts of the country and for the children to learn about and compare their own customs and beliefs with another tribe. Students also learned about different family practices within their own tribe by sharing their family experiences with other children.

Following my work with Native American students and children, I pursued grant and research opportunities focused on the development of children born preterm of all races/ethnicities. I am working with neonatologists and nurses on studies to improve the developmental outcomes of children born preterm. Approximately 25% of children born preterm are later diagnosed with language delay or language disorder. I am currently designing NICU interventions to facilitate language, cognitive, motor, and social interaction skills that support academic success. A future goal is to focus my intervention work with Native American infants born preterm and their families. Providing facilitation of language and literacy early in development for these at-risk infants may be key for their later academic success.

Diane Loeb at Diane_Loeb@Baylor.edu is the Martin Family Endowed Chair of Communication Sciences and Disorders and Department Chair at Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She is a first-generation college graduate. This research was conducted while she was an Associate Professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS.

This guest blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council, and Amy Sussman (Amy.Sussman@ed.gov), NCSER Program Officer.

Introducing the IES Listening and Learning Series

Over the last few months, staff from the National Center for Education Research, the National Center for Special Education Research, and the Standards and Review Office have partnered to increase our awareness of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility issues (DEIA) in the IES-grant making process. The goal is to broaden participation of institutions and researchers who apply for and receive IES grants, increase the diversity of IES panel reviewers, and encourage culturally responsive research across our grant competitions.

Based on feedback from our December 2020 technical working group Increasing Diversity and Representation of IES-funded Education Researchers, we are hosting a series of Listening and Learning sessions with researchers and other stakeholder groups. The first session, How Can the Institute of Education Sciences Support HBCU Applicants, was held during HBCU Week in partnership with the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity through Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We discussed lessons learned in our DEIA blog update and used this feedback to develop an HBCU-specific presentation of IES funding opportunities for HBCU Research and Innovation Week.

Over the next few months, IES will hold additional virtual Listening and Learning sessions, including Leveraging the Voices of Persons with Disabilities in Education Research. Unless specified, these sessions will be open to the public and will require registration. More information about the sessions and registration links will be available on the IES website. If you have questions about the events or would like to schedule one specific to your community, please contact IESVirtualTA@ed.gov.

Listening and Learning Sessions:‚Äč

  • Leveraging Hispanic Voices in Education Research – December 6, 2021 at 1 pm ET. Hosted jointly with the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics.
  • Leveraging Black Voices in Education Research – December 9, 2021 at 2 pm ET. Hosted jointly with the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Black Americans.
  • Leveraging Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Voices in Education Research – January 18, 2022 at 2:30pm ET. Hosted jointly with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.
  • Leveraging Native American and Alaska Native Voices in Education Research – Date to be determined. Hosted jointly with the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Native Americans and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities.
  • Leveraging the Voices of Persons with Disabilities in Education Research – Date to be determined.

 

Supporting Native Students and Conducting Research with Tribal Communities: An Interview with Nia Gregory, Executive Director of Education of the Wilton Rancheria Tribe

The Pathways to the Education Sciences Program was designed to inspire students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in doctoral study to pursue careers in education research. Pathways Alumna, Nia Gregory, is currently the Executive Director of Education of the Wilton Rancheria Tribe. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we asked Director Gregory, who is of Cherokee and Yuchi descent, to discuss her career journey. This is what she shared with us.

How did you become interested in a career in education?

Honestly, it was a long journey to where I am. I changed my major three times in undergrad from nursing to microbiology and then finishing with my bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies with a concentration in Native American studies. I was so disappointed with the lack of access to nursing programs and the increase of unhealthy competition; I had a perfect GPA and TEAS test scores, but I was denied for 3 years! That’s a long time for someone without many resources to stay in school. I switched to microbiology with the intent to teach. However, this was the first time I experienced how chilly the climate can be for women in the science fields. I felt that no matter how great I did, my professors gave credit to my male counterparts. Then, I took an elective class with the Department of Ethnic Studies, and I fell in love with the inclusion, transparency, and truth of it all. Never had I experienced the privilege of being taught my own history by people who represented my culture. I realized that I wanted to be that representation for others; I wanted to work towards correcting the narrative for Native peoples.

How did participation in the Pathways to the Education Sciences training program at California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento State) shape your career journey?

The mentors in the program and the work experience gave me a clearer vision of how I could support Native students in the future. It also helped me prepare for graduate school and keep me on track. My mentor, Heidi Sarabia, made sure I was passionate about my research, which I carry with me today. She also taught me different aspects of the research process, including the IRB process, which gave me the confidence to conduct research during my graduate studies. As part of the Pathways program, we also had internship opportunities, where I was able to see the wonderful work that the College of Education at Sacramento State was doing. I learned many skills with this internship with the Capitol Education Institute under the amazing leadership of Pia Wong. I was also able to pick up an exceptionally valuable skill through Pathways Director Jana Noel’s grant writing workshop. However, I couldn’t help the Native community directly in that position. I decided I wanted to work closer with Native youth, so I applied for a position at Wilton Rancheria’s Department of Education.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered, and how did you overcome the challenge?

Geez, it’s hard to pick just one! For a long time, it felt like every challenge was piling up, and barriers were getting higher. I was overwhelmed having to navigate college alone with limited resources. I dropped out of college and felt so defeated. I have always struggled with my mental health; regulating medications for bipolar disorder is exceptionally tiring. It wasn’t necessarily a specific tangible thing rather than a long slump. I wasn’t medically regulated, and I wasn’t treating myself or those around me well. In 2016, I took care of my father and watched him quickly decline and slip away from me. When he passed, it hit me hard, and I felt lost and knew I needed to make some moves. I decided to go back to school. Returning to college a bit older and more mature was a great experience. All in all, it took me 9 years to finish my undergraduate degree, but I’m grateful I was able to experience college in a healthier mindset with a wider worldview.

As the Executive Director of Education for the Wilton Rancheria Tribe, what advice would you give education researchers who wish to work with tribal communities?

The Native community is reasonably wary of researchers, especially research coming from outside of the community. So being transparent about your intention with data collection and interest in our community is key. Recognize that the community is not a subject of study, and it is not the community’s responsibility to aid in their research. As an educator, I feel it’s important to correct the erasure narrative of indigenous peoples in this country. However, I also feel it is not Tribal communities’ responsibility to catch people up to speed on the Native American experience. If somebody wishes to work with a Tribal community, they should take the time to learn about that community before reaching out to Tribes. I would also recommend going through a Tribal government or Tribal sponsored program. Recognize that you may be turned down, and the correct response is to graciously accept that. Be patient because forming this connection and trust takes time. Like my momma says, “your urgency is not my emergency.” I would also like to leave readers with a resource, a book by Devon A Mihesuah, So You Want to Write About American Indians?

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of Native American students and researchers?

I know it sounds very simple, but by making space. Not just for the individual but for the worldview of Native people. When I was in graduate school, I struggled with getting books and literature from Native authors in our university library. I was advocating for a Native student space on top of correcting professors when they were blatantly continuing the erasure narrative of Native peoples. Sometimes, good intentions aren’t enough. Educators of all stages of learning need cultural competency training. We are often an asterisk or marked as “other” or often “too few to include” in data and graphs. Even well-intentioned research on race and ethnicity is exclusive and doesn’t make space for the Native community.

What advice would you give Native American students and scholars who wish to pursue a career in education research?

That it’s okay to be mad but use that to turn it into passion. I was frustrated for so long with trying to find information or fighting a system that only values certain sources. Also, know that there are people out there that know the barriers you are facing. I have reached out to Native authors and researchers, and of all the people I have contacted responded with empathy and provided me with resources. Don’t feel like you need to reinvent the wheel; reach out to Native educators and fellow students. Take Native studies courses. Get involved in a Native club for support. Talk to your professors. I cannot stress that enough!

Remember that your work will help the next generation, and then work for seven generations ahead. You are a living embodiment of what it means to resist and be resilient. You are your ancestors’ dreams come true.

All my relations


Nia Gregory is the Executive Director of Education of the Wilton Rancheria Tribe and focuses on the promotion of academic excellence of the Tribe.

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. As part of our Native American Heritage Month blog series, we are focusing on Native American researchers and fellows, as well as researchers that focus on the education of Native American students.

This guest blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program.

Honoring Native American Language and Culture: Supporting Native American Students in Our Schools

As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, we want to recognize the rich and diverse traditions, linguistic backgrounds, and cultural heritages that American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students bring to classrooms. Indigenous knowledge can enrich perspectives of all students and educators. Despite their many strengths, AI/AN students tend to lag behind their peers on academic assessments. For instance, as reported in the Condition of Education 2020, on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), AI/AN students consistently score lower in reading and math and have lower graduation rates and the highest high school drop-out rates relative to their peers.

To close this achievement gap and support AI/AN students in their academic success, the AI/AN community has recommended integrating Native Language and Culture (NLC) into instruction. However, some studies have found a negative association between use of NLC and AI/AN student outcomes. In this guest blog, Dr. Claudia Vincent discusses her IES-funded study, which aims to obtain nuanced understanding of the construct of NLC and its relation to AI/AN student learning and achievement in school. 

With IES funding from 2014 to 2017, our team of researchers at the University of Oregon worked with data from the National Indian Education Study (NIES) to operationalize Native Language and Culture (NLC) in schools from different viewpoints (student, teacher, school administrator) and examine the relationship between use of NLC and student academic and behavioral outcomes. Here’s what we learned from our study.

NLC is multi-dimensional and means different things to students, teachers, and administrators.

For students, NLC meant direct contact with AI/AN people as well as access to instructional material providing information about AI/AN traditions, languages, and history. For teachers, most of whom are not of AI/AN descent, NLC meant use of AI/AN traditions, history, and issues in academic instruction and access to materials and resources reflecting those traditions, history, and issues. For administrators, NLC meant involvement of local AI/AN people in the school, the school’s ability to provide instruction in AI/AN culture, and the school’s ability to provide instruction in AI/AN languages.

The multi-faceted nature of NLC suggests that different NLC practices likely benefit different students differently in different contexts. Our exploration of the relationship between the use of NLC as defined by the NIES data and student academic outcomes as measured by NAEP data provided insight into the contextual variables affecting the benefits of NLC. First, implementation of recommended NLC practices is rare overall. AI/AN teachers speaking Native language(s) and teaching in classrooms with high AI/AN enrollment located in schools employing AI/AN teachers and staff implement the recommended practices more often. Second, NLC benefitted math achievement most for those AI/AN students whose families identified strongly with AI/AN traditions and customs and who attended schools with high AI/AN enrollment.

These findings suggest that alignment between school and home cultures can promote the achievement of AI/AN students, but that NLC might be less beneficial, or even detrimental, for students who do not have a strong AI/AN identity, or who attend schools with low AI/AN enrollment. In the latter context, NLC in the classroom might be associated with stereotype threat, meaning that AI/AN students might perform lower when negative biases about their ethnic backgrounds are more prominent.

While our data analyses provided important insights into the many dimensions of NLC and its relation to AI/AN student success, the lived experiences of our advisory board members brought our findings to life. In addition to our research team, our study was guided by an advisory board consisting of AI/AN scholars and community members representing the Cherokee Nation, the Choctaw Nation, the Yakama Nation, the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, and Oglala Lakota descendancy. Their contributions were instrumental in providing context to our findings. For example, the board suggested that providing students with access to AI/AN people might be most beneficial if teachers create an inclusive and welcoming environment where visitors and their contributions to educational experiences are clearly honored. Similarly, a classroom visit from an AI/AN guest should be linked to broader instructional goals to prevent tokenization of AI/AN culture. Teachers should feel comfortable and supported in challenging the dominant cultural narrative in their school by questioning content of textbooks in order to encourage their students to think critically about the cultural context of their education. 

AI/AN students represent a highly diverse group who bring critical perspectives to our classrooms. Promoting learning environments where they can succeed would benefit not only AI/AN students but enrich the educational experiences of all students.  


This post is part of our Native American Heritage Month blog series, In the first post, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shared NCES findings on the learning experiences of AI/AN students throughout their education careers.

Dr. Claudia Vincent is a Research Associate in the Center for Equity Promotion, College of Education at the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on identifying and developing solutions for persistent racial/ethnic disparities in discipline and academic achievement.

This guest blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and Emily Doolittle (Emily.Doolittle@ed.gov), NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research.