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.