Skip to content

Culturally responsive teaching: What you need to know

By Educators Team at Understood

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is a research-based approach that makes meaningful connections between what students learn in school and their cultures, languages, and life experiences. These connections help students access rigorous curriculum, develop higher-level academic skills, and see the relevance between what they learn at school and their lives.

Our brains are wired to make connections. It’s easier for our brains to learn and store information when we have a hook to hang it on. That hook is background knowledge. Students bring this knowledge to the classroom every day, including their culture, language, and life experiences. 

When we acknowledge this background knowledge as assets and tap into it, we create an optimal environment for learning. But for students of color, (ELLs), and other underserved student populations, those assets are often overlooked and underutilized. As a result, we miss the chance to use them to support rigorous learning. (See recent work by Zaretta Hammond for the neuroscience behind this.)

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) helps create environments, curricula, and instructional methods that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, and experiences of all students. When we do that, we raise the level of academic rigor for all learners. It also sends the message that educators value all students and that multiculturalism is an asset.

Why use culturally responsive teaching?

Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced the concept of culturally responsive teaching. She saw it as a way to maximize students’ academic achievement by integrating their cultural references in the classroom. Since then, a deep field of research has developed around CRT, including important work by leaders like Geneva Gay and Sonia Nieto. 

More schools are using CRT to best teach diverse student populations. They’re also finding it’s a powerful way to reach all students. Here’s why:

  • It raises expectations for all students. CRT moves schools away from approaching instruction with a deficit mindset. (A deficit mindset would focus on what a student can’t do.) Instead, CRT identifies students’ assets and uses them to create rigorous, student-centered instruction. This is especially important for students from underserved groups whose skills are often underestimated.

Underserved students may face implicit bias because of their race, culture, or language. (Implicit bias means the unconscious attitudes or stereotypes we all hold.) As a result, these students are often overrepresented in special education. Other times, their needs may go undetected. They’re also often underrepresented in gifted education. By using an assets mindset, schools are less likely to misidentify students for special education. At the same time, schools better identify and serve students who may have learning and thinking differences. 

  • It helps students feel valued and empowered. With CRT, students tie their learning to their cultures, experiences, interests, and the issues that impact their lives. When students see themselves represented in the curriculum, they feel like they belong. They’re more likely to develop the trust it takes to build a relationship with a teacher. Brain science tells us that this sense of belonging makes learning easier and builds students’ self-confidence.

  • It builds cultural competence. CRT gives students a chance to learn from an inclusive curriculum. It helps both you and your students understand different perspectives, appreciate others’ strengths, and build empathy . CRT can also help you reflect on how your own identity and experiences impact your attitudes and teaching practices. 

  • It works well with UDL. Culturally responsive teaching and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) work together to create equitable learning for all students. Both approaches include the use of students’ backgrounds and high expectations in the classroom. Both create instruction that engages students with student needs in mind. 

  • It supports SEL. CRT helps you get to know your students. When you plan social-emotional learning (SEL) lessons, you can use that knowledge to make sure your lessons value your students. By pairing SEL with CRT, you can also help students navigate multiple contexts both inside and outside of school.

What does culturally responsive teaching look like?

CRT is not a strategy or a program. It’s not a single lesson on a cultural tradition or a heritage celebration. CRT is a rich, intentional approach woven into every aspect of your teaching. 

Consider this example:  A researcher led a small group of African American elementary students in reading Walter Dean Myers’ biography of Malcolm X. During the reading, students engaged in rich discussions.

They shared deep background knowledge, connected to the text, and empathized with the characters. They used complex comprehension strategies and talked about vocabulary. They also insisted on reading parts of the book aloud with the researcher. While the students’ teachers knew of and liked the book, they had hesitated to use it or discuss Malcolm X with their class. The researcher’s work showed the teachers the power of tapping into their students’ background knowledge. 

For a video example of CRT in action, watch this clip from Edutopia. Think about these questions as you watch: 

  • How are the students’ lives, cultures, and experiences reflected in the environment, curriculum, and instruction?

  • What signs do you see of high expectations and rigor?

  • What are some takeaways you could apply to your teaching?

How do I put culturally responsive teaching into practice?

Think of CRT as a lens — a new pair of glasses to enhance your vision as you teach. To put CRT into practice, follow the four ideas below. And remember, it’s OK to start small as you figure out what works for you and your students.

1. Identify students’ assets.

Strengths: Reflect on your students’ strengths and whether you’ve considered them as strengths before. Ask yourself:

  • What are some of the individual strengths your students have?

  • Are there shared strengths across groups of students? 

  • What are your students’ talents, skills, and responsibilities outside of school?

Student interests: Finding out your students’ interests is a great way to build relationships. Their interests can also help guide your instruction. You can collect this information through: 

  • Questionnaires , surveys, and conversations with students and families

  • Conversations with other colleagues who know the students

  • Paying attention to the topics or activities that students find most engaging

Funds of knowledge: All students bring funds of knowledge to the classroom. That includes their own background knowledge, experiences, and skills needed to navigate their day. 

  • Take a look at this funds of knowledge matrix to brainstorm similar examples from your students.

  • Learn about highlights from students’ cultures, such as historical figures, accomplishments, and awards.

  • Find out about local contributions in your students’ communities. (Your students and families may have examples to share.)

  • Avoid asking too many direct questions about families’ personal lives as you get to know them. Some families, especially immigrant families, may have concerns about sharing personal information with the school. As trust develops , they may be more willing to share. 

Culture and cultural values: You don’t need to become an expert on all cultural groups and languages. But you do need to understand your students’ cultural identities to build a positive classroom culture and create relevant learning opportunities. Learn about your students’ cultures, whether that’s a country on the other side of the globe or a neighborhood down the street.

It’s also important to think about how your own culture impacts your teaching practices. This reflection can help you develop a mindset that strengthens relationships with all students, including those from different backgrounds than your own. 

  • Give students frequent opportunities to share information about their lives and cultures. 

  • Look for ways to build bridges to students’ communities in thoughtful ways. Colleagues, family liaisons, families, and community members can help.

  • Remember that sometimes culture is harder to see, but no less significant. For example, some students might come from collectivist cultures that focus on the well-being of the group, not the individual. Think about how you might use group work to build upon the strengths of your students and the whole group.

Language: All students bring language assets and skills to the classroom. They may also have different styles of interaction and communication. 

  • Be mindful of the different communication styles, patterns, and norms that your students may use.

  • Bring a diverse range of poetry, music, or other forms of expression into the classroom on a regular basis. 

  • Learn about the language skills students bring to the classroom. For example: 

    • ELLs have bilingual skills that are often overlooked when they are evaluated only for their mastery of English. 

    • Some African American students regularly switch between dialects, a skill known as code-switching. This skill requires high levels of linguistic, social, cultural, and cognitive ability, but it often goes unnoticed. Talk about how this skill can help students navigate contexts in and out of school. Support them in using language that’s appropriate to each context.

2. Create a supportive classroom environment.

Develop authentic, caring relationships. Relationships establish trust and respect — crucial ingredients for learning.

  • Learn how to say students’ names correctly.

  • Give students chances to share what’s happening in their lives. Try using one-on-one chats, group discussions, or journals.

  • When possible, find ways to support students outside of the classroom, like at afterschool events. 

Create a welcoming classroom. Think about whether your classroom sends a message that students are welcome and that great things are possible for their learning. 

  • Look at your classroom walls. Ask yourself whether all of your students can find relatable visuals and props from a diverse range of fields and backgrounds. You can also involve students in setting up the classroom.

  • Think about whether all your students receive regular, authentic messages of affirmation. 

  • Include different kinds of diversity in your classroom materials. Think about ethnicity, language, ability, gender identity, and socioeconomic experiences. Watch out for materials that perpetuate stereotypes or insulting depictions of diverse communities.

3. Examine the curriculum.

Look for ways to increase and support rigor. Raising expectations is an important part of increasing academic achievement. 

Look for ways to increase relevance. As you get a better sense of your students’ life experiences, look for ways to connect them to the curriculum. 

  • Activate students’ background knowledge when introducing a new topic.

  • Use an inquiry-based learning approach that invites students to identify a question or a problem to solve.

  • Design research projects that allow students to focus on issues in their own community. 

  • Encourage students to present their work publicly. For instance, they could present to classmates, families, community members, or media.

4. Continue your own learning.

Explore resources to deepen your own understanding. CRT is a chance to reflect on your personal perspective. You can also use the CRT lens to learn about the broader forces that shape the lives of students.

  • Look for trustworthy, research-based examples of CRT across the curriculum that reflect the diverse student populations you serve. Start with this comprehensive list of resources from Colorín Colorado.

  • Consider finding a partner or mentor for shared discussion. You can also look for an online community of educators focused on this topic, like @equityinst.

How can I apply culturally responsive teaching to family partnerships?

Family partnerships are an essential part of culturally responsive teaching. Think about how to make your family outreach more culturally responsive by asking:

  • What strengths and interests can you identify among your students’ families? 

  • Is the school sending messages that all families are welcome at the school? Are there barriers to engaging families that you want to address?

  • How can you include families, regardless of language, in school activities?

How do I use culturally responsive teaching during distance learning?

  • Use online team-building activities where students share about themselves and their families. Give options so that students can decide what they’re comfortable sharing.

  • Plan lessons and projects around topics that are relevant to your students’ interests and cultures. Prepare for handling sensitive conversations about discrimination, racism, and oppression.

  • Provide visual or audio supports. Consider recording lessons so that ELLs can watch at their own pace.

  • Help students get access to technology or other services their family needs. Be prepared to provide materials like printouts and books that can be used when technology is unavailable.

  • Ask families when and how they prefer to communicate. Get to know what language resources are available for families of ELLs.

CRT is a shift in mindset that will not happen overnight. It requires a willingness to learn, be vulnerable, be flexible with instruction, and reflect. The path to CRT is a journey, but with practice and patience, it will benefit you and all of your students.

Lydia Breiseth (director of Colorín Colorado), Shivohn Garcia, PhD, (senior director of the Impact team at Understood), and Shaquala Butler ( Understood Teacher Fellow) contributed to this article. 


English language learner

Share Culturally responsive teaching: What you need to know

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Email
  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom

Share Culturally responsive teaching: What you need to know

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Email
  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom