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Institute of Education Sciences

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:

  • 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.

Celebrating Hispanic Heritage in Education

Hispanic Heritage Month was celebrated from September 15 to October 15 this year. There was much to be thankful for, but also much work still to do. In our work at the Center for the Success of ELs (CSEL), an IES funded National Research and Development Center, our team is diligently working to clarify issues related to English learner (EL) classification and achievement, as well as the special challenges brought on by the pandemic, and to identify future challenges to which we must turn our attention.

Proper Accounting for ELs and their Achievement

The linguistic diversity of our student population is remarkable. Over 300 languages other than English are spoken in U.S. homes with Spanish by far the most common. Although many student and school factors influence time to English proficiency, we do not celebrate often enough the significant accomplishments of these language minority students, including those who enter school as proficient English speakers, but especially those who achieve proficiency in English through their hard work in school and that of their teachers and families.  Many students with Hispanic heritage who are designated as language minority students enter U.S. schools in kindergarten fully proficient in English and are never designated as ELs within the school system. Many more who are initially designated as ELs become proficient in English within 3-5 years of entering US schools.

Our persistent focus on those students not yet proficient in English has merit. Focus placed on students during this stage of their development can improve progress towards English proficiency and student outcomes when students receive access to appropriate instruction and supports that afford access to grade level content. However, to focus exclusively on the achievement of students who are not yet proficient in English fails to recognize the temporary nature of this stage of development for most ELs. This skews our understanding of the achievement of ELs and undermines student efforts toward educational attainment and school efforts to foster that development. This deficit orientation in accounting and reporting creates an aura of inferiority that is at once unwarranted, unhelpful, and unnecessary.

Reclassification Should be Celebrated

Excluding reclassified students from analyses of EL achievement presents a misleading picture and ignores countless individual successes. Numerous studies, including work funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and IES within our group, have found that ELs who have attained proficiency in English perform at least as well as peers who were never designated as ELs. In fact, this comparability appears to be present for many ELs who remain classified as ELs but are scoring in the top performance band of the English proficiency test. The same cannot be said for students who have not yet achieved high levels of English proficiency.

The significant accomplishments of our ELs receive too little attention in our reports and conversations about education. Unfortunately, this statement is true for Hispanic students as well as for students from the hundreds of other language backgrounds who populate our diverse schools. This year, as schools and districts announce their valedictorians, college bound students, rising elementary and middle school students and other academic accomplishments, we should take note of how many of these students began school as ELs and celebrate their success—an outcome achieved by the hard work of teachers and students.

New and Unprecedented Challenges for EL Education

"This is the worst educational crisis ever seen in the region, and we are worried that there could be serious and lasting consequences for a whole generation, especially for the most vulnerable sectors."  Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, World Bank VP for Latin America and the Caribbean

Despite these successes and our general optimism for the post-pandemic educational system, there are significant challenges on the horizon as we consider educational practices for ELs. In March 2021, UNICEF estimated that total and partial school closures in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) had left approximately 114 million students in the region without face-to-face schooling. The impact of these school closures is particularly devastating in a region in which the majority of students did not achieve basic proficiency in reading, math, and writing prior to the pandemic. The World Bank estimates that as many as 71% of lower secondary education students in the region may not achieve basic levels of reading proficiency following this pandemic. Their educational risk is further compounded by twin crises of violence and poverty across the region.

This regional crisis is already felt in U.S. schools. Immigration data document a sharp increase in the number of families and unaccompanied minors from Latin America entering the US this past spring. This fall and beyond, U.S. schools will face the challenge of meeting the educational and social emotional needs of these at-risk immigrant youth but must do so with limited guidance from the research community on effective educational programs for newcomer English learners. Previous research with students who entered schools at a young age as ELs may not reliably generalize to students arriving at an older age following the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the pandemic and other socio-political challenges, many newcomers have interrupted formal educations, speak very little or no English on school entry, and may demonstrate academic weaknesses in their native language. A significant number are fleeing crises of violence and poverty with related psychological trauma that impacts learning.

Fortunately, this critical gap in research is explicitly acknowledged in the most recent Request for Applications for the National Center for Special Education Research, who set aside their research funding for the current year to specifically address educational challenges linked to the pandemic. Meeting the critical need for evidence-based strategies to ensure successful outcomes for newcomer ELs at significant educational risk will require everyone’s best efforts. The LAC region was disrupted more than any other region on the globe, experiencing the world’s longest school closures and inconsistent or non-existent remote learning options in the context of the deepest recession in decades. The learning loss resulting from this pandemic-related disruption is likely to be deep and pervasive, increasing school dropout and negatively impacting wellness and mental health.  

As we take stock and celebrate the joy and enrichment that Hispanic heritage brings to everyone in the US, regardless of their own heritage, let us commit to doing all we can to ensure the academic success and socio-emotional health of our ELs in the United States.  In doing so, let’s also keep in mind that these students willingly face many challenges in pursuit of their own American Dream, and their success in this pursuit benefits us all. 


This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here and 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 Hispanic Heritage Month blog series, we are focusing on Hispanic researchers and fellows, as well as researchers that focus on the education of Hispanic students.

David J. Francis is the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair of Quantitative Methods in the Department of Psychology at the University of University. He is also the Director of the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics (TIMES) and the Director of the IES-funded Center for the Success of English Learners National Research and Development Center.

Jeremy Miciak is an associate research professor at the University of Houston in the Department of Psychology and at the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics (TIMES). He is also a co-investigator on the IES-funded Center for the Success of English Learners National Research and Development Center.

Produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and Helyn Kim (Helyn.Kim@ed.gov), Program Officer at the National Center for Education Research for the ELs portfolio.

Disability Research Informed by Researcher’s Experience as a Person with a Visual Impairment: An Interview with Dr. Rosenblum

As part of our recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), we asked IES-funded researcher L. Penny Rosenblum how having a disability impacted the development of her career as a special education researcher.

As a person with a visual impairment, how have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?

Photo of L. Penny Rosenblum, PhD I have a congenital visual impairment, so I have had low vision all my life. When I began my undergraduate studies, I quickly realized that I wanted to become a teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI). Once I began work, I came to the realization that I could have a larger and more sustaining impact on the education of students with visual impairments if I prepared TVIs. After earning my doctorate, I first was faculty at Florida State University and then at the University of Arizona. The combination of my own experiences as a child and adult with a visual impairment coupled with my experiences teaching children and then preparing TVIs worked together to shape my research agenda.

What got you interested in a career in special education research?

During my master’s program at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, I was hired to enter data for a research study. I saw a pattern in the data others had not noticed and I shared this observation with the lead researcher and his doctoral students. This was a pivotal moment for me and sparked an interest in research. When I began my doctoral program and started to learn more about research methods and how outcomes can be used to shape intervention and policy, I was hooked!

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

As a researcher, the biggest challenge is funding. I was funded by “soft money” (funding through external sources) at the University of Arizona for 2 decades, the last 7.5 of which were primarily with funding from NCSER. During my career in academia, colleagues and I spent countless hours writing grants. I wish there were more efficient mechanisms to fund research so that researchers can spend more time engaged in research and less time chasing dollars to do research.

How does your research contribute to a better understanding of how to support students with disabilities?

I engage in research that directly impacts students with visual impairments. I was privileged to serve as a project director for two related NCSER projects: AnimalWatch-VI Suite: A comprehensive program for increasing access to science and math for students with visual impairments and An Intervention to Provide Youth with Visual Impairments with Strategies to Access Graphical Information in Math Word Problems. Through these projects we developed materials to support students at the middle school math level to build their skills with the ultimate goal of having more students with visual impairments enter STEM careers. More specifically, the first project developed and tested an instructional program that teaches students with visual impairment computation, fractions, and variables and expressions through solving math word problems embedded in an environmental science context; the second one developed and tested a program to teach students to locate and understand information in graphics that accompany math problems using tactile graphics and accessible image descriptions. I am proud that the materials we developed are available through the American Printing House for the Blind. Our two apps are available at no cost!

In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to improve the career outcomes of students with disabilities?

We live in a digital world and until we have addressed the issue of universal access, students with visual impairments will continue to be at a disadvantage. If you’re at a disadvantage in K-12 education, then you’re not going to be as well prepared as others for post-secondary education and employment. I’d like to see research funding that addresses access issues and the development of technologies and tools to level the playing field for all students.

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers with disabilities?

Mentorship is so important to me. I have been fortunate in my journey to have some amazing mentors, including Dr. Carole R. Beal who was a principal investigator on the two NCSER-funded projects described above. Dr. Beal was always willing to discuss accommodations I needed due to my visual impairment and to work with me to find solutions. She mentored me in research methodology and professional writing. Researchers, whether they have a disability or not, need to mentor the next generation. I think this is even more important if an emerging scholar has a disability or is from another marginalized group.

What advice would you give to emerging scholars with disabilities who are pursuing a career in education research?

When I think about advice, I again immediately go back to mentorship. I encourage emerging scholars to seek out mentors, both with and without disabilities and in and outside their professional field. I also think it is important to seek out and take advantage of opportunities that come your way, and not wait for someone to come to you. The more networking you can do, the more doors that will open for you. If you’re passionate about your field and your work, people will quickly look beyond your disability and focus on your commitment and skills as a researcher.

L. Penny Rosenblum, PhD is the owner of Vision for Independence, LLC. She has more than 35 years of experience in the field of visual impairment.

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. This NDEAM blog post was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and NCER Program Officer, and Amy Sussman (Amy.Sussman@ed.gov), NCSER Program Officer. See this related NDEAM blog post by NCSER Program Officer Akilah Swinton Nelson (Akilah.Nelson@ed.gov) for information about IES Research on improving career readiness and employment outcomes for students with disabilities.