K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

View this page in context

Bridging Spanish language barriers in Southern schools
These articles provide background on Latino immigrants in North Carolina, administrative challenges in binational education, and strategies through which teachers can build on what Latino students bring to their classrooms to create a learning environment that meets the needs of all students.
Page 2.3

Learn more

Related pages

  • Keys to success for English language learners: Tips that any teacher in any classroom can use to help ESL students learn the curriculum while learning English.
  • Making reading passages comprehensible for English language learners: English language learners can read the same content-area material as their peers, but they may need special help. Teachers can make difficult reading comprehensible by building vocabulary, decoding difficult syntax, and teaching background knowledge.
  • Teach what you love: Stephen Mullaney works as a half-time ESL resource teacher/half-time second grade language arts teacher at Club Boulevard Elementary in Durham. This article focuses on his advice for teachers working with ESL students.

Related topics


Please read our disclaimer for lesson plans.


The text of this page is copyright ©2008. See terms of use. Images and other media may be licensed separately; see captions for more information and read the fine print.

The benefits of unstructured playtime for the socio/emotional development of pre-K children are well documented. Unfortunately, in the case of students who are learning English, play is often sacrificed for second language instruction that is more structured and teacher initiated. Many believe that play requires all participants to have a roughly equal foundation in a common language. On the contrary, unstructured playtime fosters social and cultural connections between culturally diverse student groups with varied proficiency in a shared language. In addition, it has the dual advantage of inspiring young children to practice and improve second language proficiency in a non-isolating and non-threatening fashion. As stated by Mari Riojas-Cortéz, “[Play is] particularly important for teachers who [seek] ways to implement culture in their curriculum, because teachers can use the children’s funds of knowledge to help them in the development of school related skills such as language and literacy.”1 Indeed, teachers are the key component in enriching play experiences that benefit both native English speakers and second language learners.

How is cultural diversity reflected through play?

From a developmental standpoint, there are many facets of play common across cultures. Motor play is a primary example, which includes functional, rough and tumble, pretend, games with rules, teasing, and rituals. Socio-dramatic play is also a cross cultural characteristic.

It’s very important to understand that while all children reach similar developmental milestones, how those milestones are reflected during play differs between cultures. If this point is not recognized, understood and respected by caregivers, it impedes connections between diverse groups of children during play scenarios. As aptly detailed by Jeffrey Trawick-Smith in his book, Early Childhood Development: a Multicultural Perspective, “Interactions of children of a particular cultural group may be misinterpreted by those who do not understand that culture’s unique traditions or interpersonal characteristics.”2 Particularly when working with very young children who are not developmentally ready to acknowledge ideas that differ from their own, it is essential that teachers assist them in understanding and respecting cultural play variances.

The most readily apparent facets of Mexican culture seen in play include the following:

  • Action and rhythmicity. Trawick-Smith explains that high amounts of movement are a “central part of child rearing and family communication.”3 Even for Anglo children, many of whom learn best with their whole bodies, the need to move is often misinterpreted and stigmatized as hyperactivity. As a result, these children are often automatically slated for ADD evaluation. It’s easy to see how children from cultures like Mexico which value movement in child rearing are at risk for stereotyping in American early childhood settings that emphasize “walking feet” and “quiet voices.”
  • Children assume more household responsibly. It is common for Mexican children to assume more household and childrearing jobs as young as five or six years of age, as it is crucial to family survival that both parents work. This is quite different from two income American families, where childrearing is often left to paid caregivers. The resulting socio-dramatic “work-play” episodes reflect the importance of cooperation and unity between nuclear and extended families in raising children in Mexican culture, since caring for babies and young toddlers involves older siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
  • The importance of respeto. Play among Mexican children reflects what Guadalupe Valdés describes as the unwavering respect for one’s elders and teachers. Respeto also emphasizes the importance of growing up to be an honest, hardworking and respectful member of family and community.4
  • The value of education. Riojas-Cortéz argues, “Contrary to the stereotype of Mexican-American value of education, these children [show] through their play that their families in fact value education. Children’s socio-dramatic play episodes about the value of education [include] doing homework, going to the library, and role playing school.”5

Riojas-Cortéz emphasizes the importance of play to express the funds of knowledge that can bridge language barriers and encourage connections between students and teachers. However, Latino students are routinely given less time for play during the school day than their Anglo peers. There are several explanations for this trend:

  • Teachers sometimes take a deficit approach to the primary language of English language learners. Even in dual-language classrooms, children’s multilingual-ness can be perceived as an impediment to meaningful play. During play scenarios, normal elements of language acquisition such as code switching and the silent period can be misconstrued as evidence of developmental disability rather than functions of cultural variation. Riojas-Cortéz cites a quote from Garvey 6 that describes this problem:

    Descriptions of minority children’s play include adjectives like unimaginative, repetitive, simplistic, disconnected, dependent on objects and concrete…not far removed from descriptions of mentally retarded or autistic young children.7

  • Second language instruction doesn’t leave much time for play. It is not uncommon to pull children out for English language instruction at the expense of playtime. Circle time and other instructional methods can also restrict minority children (and native English speakers, for that matter), in less than optimal language enrichment because they are often entirely teacher directed.

How can teachers encourage social connections and language development through play?

There is a wealth of strategies that can be applied to diverse classrooms to promote play for all children regardless of their English proficiency or country of birth.

Strategies to promote language development through play

  • Become a keen observer of students’ play. Observation allows the teacher to hone into students’ zone of proximal development and employ scaffolding techniques to advance language competence without disrupting the play scenario.
  • Use scaffolding techniques. These include commenting on the child’s interests and wait for an appropriate response. It is crucial to respect a lengthy wait time as the child formulates his answer in his non-native language. It is also effective to ask open ended questions as the child plays — again, being sensitive to wait time. This encourages students to experiment and take risks with the English language. Also, respond to a child’s answer by adding a little more detail. This practice promotes language development in a contextual and non threatening manner.
  • Vocabulary development can happen during play. Play is the ideal context in which to introduce new vocabulary in a way that is personally relevant to the child.
  • Encourage the use of Spanish in the classroom and at home. Following up a child’s statement with “Repita…otra vez en español,” or, “Repeat again in Spanish,” enhances comprehension of the second language and retention of the first.

Strategies to promote social development through play

Cross cultural relationships arise from the social development inherent in play. Children’s diverse funds of knowledge intermingle during imaginary play. This shared knowledge leads to diversity acceptance that makes children, according to Trawick-Smith, “…more willing to enter into cross-cultural relationships.”8 The following strategies align with the Anti-Bias Curriculum guidelines provided by the State of North Carolina Department of Education:

  • Dramatic areas should represent places that are familiar across cultural lines such as “housekeeping,” the market, or a restaurant.
  • Real and tangible materials should be provided, such as props for a doctor’s office, play food for a market, or cups and plates for a kitchen, that are of interest to English language learners and native English students.
  • Teachers need to be ready to clarify cultural play variations for the children. This will foster understanding and acceptance between cultural groups. Included are cultural beliefs such as independence/dependence and individual/community dyads, the role of religion and spiritualism and goal attainment.
  • Teachers need to help clarify diverse communication styles for the children. These include play initiation cues, models of informality versus politeness or tact, and whether feelings and emotions are openly expressed or restrained.
  • Cultural variations in family and social structures will also require explanation by teachers. Family structure variations are illustrated during socio-dramatic play, as are views on child rearing including the child centered/adult centered dyad, gender expectations, view on discipline, moral education and respect for academic learning.
  • Encourage an environment that supports a mutual dialogue between teachers and students, and between students themselves. This atmosphere facilitates a culture-rich curriculum that reaches diverse student populations. Moreover, as Rojas-Cortéz reminds us, “it increases all kinds of socio/emotional environment.”9