Supporting Immigrant Students' Understanding of U.S. Culture through Children's Literature

By Akrofi, Amma K.; Swafford, Jeanne et al. | Childhood Education, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Supporting Immigrant Students' Understanding of U.S. Culture through Children's Literature


Akrofi, Amma K., Swafford, Jeanne, Janisch, Carole, Liu, Xiaoming, Durrington, Vance, Childhood Education


How could I, as me, meet these new people? How would I have to change? What of me was superficial and might be sacrificed, and what need I keep to remain my self?

--T. E. Lawrence (Cited in Clayton, 2003, p. 134)

We begin this article with what we believe is an implicit endorsement of an integration orientation toward acculturation. This orientation would suggest that students in our classrooms who are immigrants hold on to aspects of their ethnic culture while, at the same time, beginning to associate themselves with the dominant culture. The ability to make these associations presumes practices on the part of classroom teachers that will enable students to understand multiple aspects of the dominant culture. These aspects move beyond explicit culture and on to the less immediately discernible forms of culture.

Literature may be used to help students understand the implicit nature of culture. Inspired by such scholars as Clayton (1996, 2003) and based on a content analysis of 134 books, we identify and describe a sample of children's literature that can serve to portray aspects of American culture for immigrant students' integration into their new schools. Literature can help them "meet these new people" in their classrooms, learn the expectations of their classmates and their teacher, and generally learn to adapt to their new culture. Although we may have opted to consider the many dimensions of culture, the culture of schooling is our focus.

The term "immigrant students" in this article refers to students from all parts of the world who have recently immigrated to the United States (Lowery, 2000) and are in 1st through 4th grade. Such immigrant students also tend to be English language learners (ELLs). Although cultural diversity exists among this group, one factor that unites them is their lack of socialization or acculturation into U.S. society (Clayton, 2003). While we concur that they should be provided with children's literature that is "immigrant-sensitive" (Lowery, 2000, p. 3) to their diverse cultures, we also believe they would benefit from reading literature that will promote their understanding of their new culture.

In the following sections, we first present the theoretical ideas underlying the notion of acculturation. We particularly note Clayton's (2003) discussion of the importance of immigrant students' cultural adjustment and describe her delineation of the culture's implicit categories needed by immigrant students in order to enhance their school and academic success. These became the basis for our selection and analysis of children's literature books. Second, we briefly discuss our own understandings and stances regarding Clayton's cultural categories. An explanation of how we identified books that include indicators of the cultural categories follows. We continue with summaries of sample books and identify the aspects of culture they entail. Finally, we conclude with recommendations for classroom instruction.

Theoretical Framework

The project was guided by two areas of inquiry: 1) cross-cultural adaptation as proposed by Berry (1980) and Kim (2001), and 2) literature in the teaching of culture to ELLs (Pugh, 1989). Berry, Kim, and Boski's (1988) acculturation model identified four psychological orientations that focus on how an individual sees himself in relation to his ethnic culture and the dominant culture: a separation, marginalization, assimilation, or integration orientation. According to Berry and his colleagues (1988), separation is when the individual attempts to preserve his ethnic culture and maintain only minimal or no contact with the dominant culture. Marginalization occurs when the individual sees his own ethnic culture as inferior while at the same time lacking the ability to participate in the dominant culture, thus losing his identity and feeling alienated. Assimilation is when the individual rejects his own ethnic culture and detaches himself from other members of that culture in order to become part of the dominant culture. …

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