Appreciating Cultural, Linguistic, and Experiential Differences4

In efforts to support effective use of talk and argument in the classroom, it is important to remember that scientific language is, to some extent, foreign for all students. There are no native speakers of science. In addition, all students are shaped by their cultural backgrounds, and those backgrounds affect how they learn science and communicate in the science classroom. Today’s students come from a variety of cultural backgrounds and have different ways of behaving, thinking, and interpreting the world, and they interact differently with the communities and institutions that they encounter in their everyday lives. Children both shape and are shaped by their cultural practices and traditions, so that the relationships between culture and personal belief are fluid and complex.

In addition, people’s experiences and histories vary, and a person’s ability to negotiate change across cultures and settings may be affected by their history. Thus, teachers’ and students’ personal cultural experiences have implications for how they learn to talk and act in classrooms generally, and this will have implications for how they experience scientific talk and argumentation. Cultural diversity is important to recognize, because classrooms are not neutral settings. They too are imbued with social and cultural norms and expectations. These norms and expectations are often unstated, which can make it difficult for some students to understand what those norms and expectations are. This observation will become even more relevant over time, as the demographics of the United States continue to shift, and classrooms become even more diverse than they are today.

How does a teacher create the conditions that allow all children—despite their cultural, linguistic, or experiential differences—the same access to classroom conversations and to be held accountable to the same high levels of academic rigor in their talk, reasoning, and representations?

A good place to start is with some important principles and ideas that research in a variety of fields has shown to be true. Regardless of their race, culture, or socioeconomic status, all children, unless they have severe mental disabilities, have well-developed ways of telling stories, giving accounts, providing reasons, making arguments, and providing evidence. Similarly, all children have the capability to think abstractly about situations, concepts, and even about language itself.

With very few exceptions, children come to school as adept language learners and language users. Linguists have shown definitively that all such children

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