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Walking in both worlds: How native language preservation benefits Native American English learners

Southwest | August 28, 2020
Walking in both worlds: How native language preservation benefits Native American English learners

By Lacy Wood and Leslie Nail | August 28, 2020

Research shows that supporting native language acquisition can help improve English language acquisition and development among English learner students, including Native American English learners.1 This connection is especially relevant in New Mexico, where there are 23 federally recognized tribes, pueblos, and nations; 32 districts or charter schools identified as Native-serving institutions; and 33,000 Native American students, 27 percent of whom identify as English learner students.

Working with members of our Southwest English Learners Research Partnership in New Mexico, REL Southwest has produced a new mini-documentary. The mini-doc features three New Mexico educators discussing opportunities, challenges, and strategies that support instruction of Native American English learner students and how those strategies also support preservation of indigenous languages and culture:

  • Tiffany S. Lee, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Native American Studies Department at the University of New Mexico (UNM). Lee is Diné (Navajo) and Lakota.
  • Christine Sims, Ph.D., from Acoma Pueblo, is an associate professor in the Department of Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies at UNM. She also serves as director of UNM’s American Indian Language Policy Research and Teacher Training Center.
  • Laurie Smith is an English Language Arts instructor at Zuni High School in Zuni, New Mexico. She is a member of the Sicangu Oyate on Rosebud in South Dakota.

Dr. Lee and Dr. Sims describe an accelerated language shift, the disappearance of native languages across successive generations in indigenous communities in New Mexico and across the country. This makes the current generation of students crucial to the preservation of indigenous languages. Lee points out that Native American students today come to school speaking not their heritage language, but a “community English . . . influenced by their native language, families, and their heritage.” Supporting these students in native language acquisition can help them develop cognitive and metalinguistic skills that transfer to learning academic English or other languages and to learning to think in different ways. At the same time, the practice helps sustain the cultural heritage of tribal nations.

The position of Native American students with strong cultural connections to tribal communities who are striving for academic success within the U.S. education system gives rise to the title of the mini-doc, Walking in Both Worlds: Native American Students and Language Acquisition.

Importance of engaging with communities

Sims advises that educators “need to be aware of . . . the critical nature of native language maintenance” so they can “fully appreciate some of the current efforts that are going on to bring these languages into school settings.” What are some of the strategies and efforts needed to successfully bring teaching of native languages into school settings? How are New Mexico schools meeting this challenge?

Success in creating these opportunities depends on districts and schools working with tribal communities and tribal leaders, as well as ensuring families are part of that work. Educators must reach out to the community to understand cultural context and to forge equitable partnerships between communities and schools.

“Know your students,” says high school teacher Smith, and create an environment that reflects their heritage cultures. Smith served on the New Mexico Public Education Department’s (NMPED’s) American Indian English Learners Task Force, which created a framework to develop culturally and linguistically responsive instruction (CLRI) for Native American English learners. The framework creates a pathway for teachers to practice CLRI and reflects the value of community stakeholders in supporting these students.

Professional development is also key. Dr. Sims emphasizes the importance of this question: “How do we inform educators, especially those who are non-Native, about best practices and things that we know from good bilingual research, but also things that we know about our own communities here in New Mexico?”

Takeaways for educators

In addition to the insights presented about the New Mexico context, the mini-doc concludes with the following summary of promising research-based strategies to help educators and administrators in any state support Native American students with language acquisition.

  • Training and Professional Development. Offer professional development on CLRI and the impact of language loss and language shift.2
  • Instruction. Create learning environments reflective of students’ unique cultural and linguistic identity.3
  • Focus on Biliteracy. See language immersion and indigenous language development together as a way to support students’ English language development and overall academic success.4
  • Family and Community Engagement. Consult and collaborate with tribal leadership on research, policy, and native language instruction.5

Development of REL Southwest’s Walking in Both Worlds mini-doc was an important project of our Southwest English Learners Research Partnership in New Mexico. Within the broader scope of its work to improve educational outcomes for English learner students, this partnership has a special focus on the state’s Native American English learner students. The partnership is working to achieve the following:

  • Increased state and local education agency (district) understanding of effective culturally responsive instructional practices and resources for Native American English learner students.
  • Increased knowledge across local education agencies about this student group, related both to preserving their heritage languages and their English language development.
  • Improved understanding of Native American English learner students’ progress toward achieving English proficiency.
  • Targeted support for districts serving Native American English learner students.

REL Southwest looks forward to continued collaboration with our New Mexico partners: NMPED representatives, district and university educators and administrators, and professional organization staff. We share an awareness that now is a critical time to press forward in supporting indigenous communities and Native American English learner students.


1 McCarty & Nicholas, 2014; McCarty & Wyman, 2009.

2 Byrd, 2016; Castagno & Brayboy, 2008; McCarty & Nicholas, 2014.

3 Castagno & Brayboy, 2008; Hammond, 2014; Santamaria, 2009.

4 Francis, Lesaux, & August, 2006; McCarty & Wyman, 2009.

5 Beesley et al., 2012; McCarty & Nicholas, 2014.


Beesley, A. D., Mackety, D., Cicchinelli, L. F., Shebby, S., Rainey, J., & Cherasaro, T. (2012). Profiles of partnerships between tribal education departments and local education agencies (REL 2012–137). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Central.

Byrd, C. M. (2016). Does culturally relevant teaching work? An examination from student perspectives. SAGE Open, 6(3), 1–10.

Castagno, A. E., & Brayboy, B. M. J. (2008). Culturally responsive schooling for indigenous youth: A review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 941–993.

Francis, D., Lesaux, N., & August, D. (2006). Language of instruction. In D. August & T. Shanahan (Eds.), Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth (pp. 365–413). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

McCarty, T. L., & Nicholas, S. E. (2014). Reclaiming Indigenous languages: A reconsideration of the roles and responsibilities of schools. Review of Research in Education, 38(1), 106–136.   

McCarty, T. L., & Wyman, L. T. (2009). Indigenous youth and bilingualism: Theory, research and praxis. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 8(5), 279–290.

Santamaria, L. J. (2009). Culturally responsive differentiated instruction: Narrowing gaps between best pedagogical practices benefiting all learners. Teachers College Record, 111(1), 214–247.

This work was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) under contract 91990018C0002, administered by American Institutes for Research. The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.


Lacy Wood

Lacy Wood
Dissemination Task Lead

Leslie Nail

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