Demystifying Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Practices — Mar & Luz, LLC (2022)


As Donald Schön (1983) states “The need for public learning carries with it the need for a second kind of learning. If government is to learn to solve new problems, it must also learn to create the systems for doing so and discard the structures and mechanisms which grew-up around old problems” (109). Despite support of culturally and linguistically appropriate disability evaluation practices in the research, field recommended guidelines, and legislation, a culture of standardized test dependency has infiltrated the system by which school practitioners conduct disability evaluations. The old saying is,if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.When it comes to conducting appropriate disability evaluations, the system does in fact, appear to be broken.

Solutions that purportedly work are often taken for granted (Schein, 2010). Standardized scores appear to resolve the problem of limited time capacity for school practitioners, since tests are quick and efficient to administer and score (Arias & Friberg, 2017). Decisions are also deceptively easy to make since scores alone can suffice for service eligibility. Standardized scores have also served to address the problem of communication, since these scores represent a common understood language among different disciplines (Arias & Friberg, 2017). Not much more is needed between an administrator and a psychologist, for example, to understand what level of services a student will qualify for when a standardized score is the deciding factor. Also, standardized scores have come to work for maintaining control of subordinates by minimizing variance based on clinical judgment (Arias & Friberg, 2017).

Standardized score based disability evaluations, however, have historically over identified students who are culturally and/or linguistically diverse (Grossman, 1995; Restrepo, 1998; Hart & Risley, (1999); August & Shanahan, 2006; Ravitch, 2014). Therefore, we can no longer view standardized scores as a viable solution, when they are, in fact, a big part of the problem.

Currently, no commercially available standardized disability tool is considered acceptably accurate in identifying a disorder on its own for all subgroups (Dollagahan & Horner, 2011). More alarming, standardized assessments are inconsistent in the accurate diagnoses of a disability for all children across all subgroups (Dollagahan & Horner, 2011). Further, legislation has made it clear that the use of standardized assessments for identifying disabilities is not necessary nor sufficient in the identification of a disability and/or appropriate identification of required treatment or services (IDEA, 2004). When cultural and linguistic variables prevent a standardized test from measuring what it is intended to measure, it is no longer valid for that profile of a student (AER, APA, NCME, 2014; Geva & Wiener, 2015; ASHA; 2016).

Over reliance on standardized scores has resulted in disproportionate representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students identified as having a disability across New York State and an increase in all students across all subgroups being identified for special education services (NYSED, 2016). The use of standardized scores to make service decisions has also created a misallocation of appropriate and required treatments. Meaning. that we are inaccurately matching the students’ needs to the treatments provided.

If the only two options are either special education placement or general education placement without other supports, then disproportionality will continue to grow. To address this phenomena, educators are encouraged to implement a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) and individualized Response to Intervention (RtI) system to reach a broader audience of learners who are differently abled. In sum, we want to create systems that are responsive to the true needs of each child. Since disproportionality at the school level impacts the greater sociopolitical and socioeconomic arena, this will enable our WHY, which is to ensure equitable outcomes for all students in school and beyond!

HOW do we do this?
Let’s start with some clarifying points

Response to Intervention (RtI) is not just forstudents at-risk.Tier 1 is how we support all students.

RtI is not the sole responsibility of general education; it is the responsibility of all staff. If a student needs to address goals that are related to English as a New Language (ENL), speech and language pathology, or psychological fields of expertise, this intervening help can be provided without the identification of a disability within a culturally and linguistically responsive RtI/Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) structure. Further, new research has found that even if an English Language Learner (ELL) doesn’t qualify for ENL services as measured by the New York State Identification Test for English Language Learners (NYSITELL), if ENL services are provided, they may positively influence students’ academic achievement in later grades and help close the achievement gap of ELLs vs. Non-ELLs (Shin, 2017).

Just because a student has met the expanding or commanding level on the New York State language proficiency test doesn’t mean that they have automatically acquired all the pre-requisite knowledge, skills, and content needed to be at grade level expectations. This means they have developed a foundational set of Standard American English (SAE) skills and vocabulary to better access the curriculum in English. They may still need to continue to develop more Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALPs) and pre-requisite skills to be at grade level curriculum expectations in SAE (Durandisse, M. C., 2013).

A student does not necessarily fit into one RtI/MTSS Tier across the board and a student cannot be identified as a Tier, for example: “Nicholas is a Tier 3 student.” This would be inaccurate since Tiers represent levels of services and children can fall on any level of service at one time. For example, Nicholas may be receiving Tier 3 services for ELA instruction and Tier 1 services for mathematics instruction.

A double dose of a reading program, such as Fundations, is not RtI. Reading programs may not target a student’s actual needs and therefore shouldn’t be a set protocol within an RTIsystem. Rather it can be one tool that may be used where and when appropriate.

Progress monitoring of sight words isn’t always appropriate. We have to be data driven and strategic in what we are targeting and monitoring. Sight words are not an indicator of depth of word knowledge and students who have limited exposure to SAE because of Socio-Economic Status (SES), exposure to a different dialect of English, or another language, may be lacking a depth of words within our expectations of SAE knowledge limiting their access to content comprehension, specifically CALPs. That is the deeper meaning of the word and how it applies to content areas outside of social situations. Therefore, focusing on memorization of sight words may be wasted effort for such students. We also know through research that semantic measures show a truer understanding of what a student knows and are a stronger indicator of potential for word learning. . Semantic measures are highly correlated with language ability unlike current measures of vocabulary which are focused on labeling rather than cognition.

If a student doesn’t meet a linguistically and culturally biased standard, like SAE standards, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a disability. The bigger question is: Did the student learn exactly what they were taught? This would demonstrate their ability to learn given exposure and opportunity. If they learned the grammatical rules and vocabulary within a different dialect of English that would also demonstrate ability to learn given exposure and opportunity. If they learned a broken form of Spanish or broken English, for example, because that is exactly what they were exposed to, that again is the ability to learn given exposure.

WHAT does Culturally and Linguistically appropriate Tier 1 look like (in a Nut Shell):

At Tier 1, culturally and linguistically appropriate instruction for all students would include, foundationally, the following:

  1. Learning Objectives with Language Objectives: Language objectives may be classroom-wide and/or specific students may have their own individualized language objective.


The classroom learning objective may be: The students will be able to identify the information needed to solve a word problem.

The classroom language objective may be: The student will be able to verbally describe the steps needed to solve the word problem to their partner.

The individual language objective for a specific student may be: The student will be able to identify and define the key words in the word problem using their personal dictionary.

2. Vocabulary focused lessons: Research shows us that the academic gap is essentially a vocabulary gap (Carlo, et al., 2004). Lessons should include instruction and engagement with 2-3 high-impact vocabulary words per lesson. High-impact words are words that canbe used outside of the lesson, in a variety of contexts, which increase the understanding of the concept at hand. Words like complex, identify, flexible...these words are also identified astier-two vocabulary words(not to be confused with RtI tiers).

3. Understanding and focus on Basic Interpersonal Communication System (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALPs): The CALPs level words should not be confused for only being complex or higher-level vocabulary words. Almost every word has a BICS and CALPs definition that may be a barrier to a student’s understanding. For example, the wordturncan be understood as the physical act of turning around whereas it is different when we say things like at theturn of the century(Thomas & Collier, 1997). Therefore, the wordturnhas a BICS and CALPs definition. This is why a focus on the depth of word knowledge can provide access to the curriculum for all students.

Keep in mind that the level of BICS and CALPs across two languages can vary based on the situation, context, and content depending on exposure levels. Many times a student can present with splintered skills. Such as, understanding the wordcombinein math but not how it pertains to a lesson in English Language Arts (ELA) or vise-versa. Or, the student may understand words in the social context and not how it translates in the classroom. Depth of word knowledge is needed to adapt meanings to fit different contexts. Research tells us that non-native speakers with no prior schooling in their first language may take up to 10 years to develop CALPs level in a new language whereas ELLs who have had prior schooling in the first language may take anywhere from 3-7 years to develop CALPs (Thomas & Collier, 1997).

When trying to determine why a student is falling behind your expectations take into consideration the student’s unique profile and ask the following bigger question:

What prerequisite skills/knowledge would the student need in order to meet this expectation that they may have not yet been exposed to? Then start there, because we can’t expect what we have yet to teach. That level of consideration will help you adapt your level of services, and may help you achieve your WHY, specifically, ensuring equitable outcomes for all students!


American Educational Research (AER), American Psychological Association (APA), and National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME), (2014). Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. American Educational Research Association. Washington, DC: Publisher.

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (n.d.). Bilingual Service Delivery (Practice Portal).

Arias, G. & Friberg, J. (2017). Bilingual language assessment: Contemporary versus recommended practice in American schools. Language Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 48, 1-15.

August, D., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwan, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Carlo, M., August, D., & McLaughlin, B., Snow, C., Dressler, C., Lippman, D., Lively, T., & White, C. (2004). Closing the gap: Addressing the vocabulary needs of English language learners in bilingual and mainstream classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 39(2), 188–206.

Durandisse, M. C. (2013). The effect of English language proficiency and acculturation on the woodcock-Johnson tests of cognitive abilities, third edition performance: in Haitian-Creole sample. (Doctoral Dissertation).

Grossman, H. (1995). Special education in a diverse society. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H Brookes Publishing Co.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (2004), Publication No. 108-446. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

New York State Education Department (2015). New York State Systematic Improvement Plan Report. Retrieved from http://

Ravitch, D. (2014). Reign of Error. New York, NY: Vintage Books. Rawlinson, R. (2011). A mind shaped by poverty: 10 things educators

should know. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, Inc.
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Hearing Research, 41, 1398-1411.
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