Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, No.2, 251-255
Published Online April 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 251
Bicultural Literacy Curriculum
Yer J. Thao
Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Graduate School of Education, Portland S ta t e U n i v e rsity,
Portland, USA
Received August 24th, 2011; revised October 4th, 2011; accepted October 30th, 2011
This article examines the literacy issues in public school in the United States, and points out that current
programs do not have a meaningful cultural connection to bicultural and bilingual students. The findings
indicate that literacy must become part of bicultural and bilingual students’ reality in order to empower
them. The pedagogical content of literacy must acknowledge bicultural and bilingual students’ culture so
they can make connections to learning literacy. In order to help bicultural and bilingual students acquire
the necessary academic skills to succeed on high-stakes tests that are demanded by No Child Left Behind
Law, public schools need to infuse home culture literacy as part of literacy programs and practices.
Keywords: Language Education; Multicultural Education; Cultural Literacy; Literacy Empowerment;
Bicultural and Bilingual Education
Literacy becomes a meaningful construct to the degree that it
is viewed as a set of practices that functions to either power or
disempower people (Freire & Macedo, 1987: p. 141).
Literacy has a very important role in the public school-to
give power to bicultural and bilingual students, so they can
maintain a sense of cultural, language, and identity balance
between their home culture and the dominant culture. Bicultural
and bilingual students have struggled to make a connection
through public school literacy programs that have been washed
to remove cultural identity. Increasingly, bicultural and bilin-
gual students are being labeled as illiterate and tracked into
lower level academic classes. Often they are placed into reme-
dial English reading and writing for their language arts class.
Due to these students being tracked into other low academic
classes they are not prepared for college, which would give
them an opportunity to succeed in life. In addition, bicultural
and bilingual students face discrimination when they try to
enter college and/or to get employment. Colleges and employ-
ers use academic records to determine who will be accepted.
Therefore, they view bicultural and bilingual students as lack-
ing the academic skills to perform in college or to fulfill their
employment responsibilities in reading and written communi-
cation. Darder (1991) points out that through public education
bicultural students are often being blamed as lacking the neces-
sary intelligence and they have no motivation to learn even if
they were given the opportunities.
Educators need to understand that children who are learning
the English language tend to have greater trouble with reading
and writing English, because the types of literacy found in the
public school too often have no representation of their lives as
bicultural and bilingual students. Literacy programs too often
do not succeed in teaching bicultural and bilingual students to
think critically in academic language, which is the basic expec-
tation for monolingual and monocultural students. Most litera-
ture in the pubic school builds on the cultural values of the
Westerner, European/American middle class tradition and does
not reflect the language, norms, rituals, symbols, skills, behave-
iors, beliefs, and values of bicultural and bilingual students.
Critical literacy theorist Cadiero-Kaplan (2004) states, “The
curriculum of cultural literacy reflects an ideology based in the
Western traditions and as such attempts to control not only the
spaces where knowledge is produced, but to make a certain
core knowledge legitimate” (p. 8). The purpose of this article is
to discuss issues in literacy in public schools in the United
States, and to point out that the current programs do not make a
meaningful cultural connections to bicultural and bilingual stu-
Literacy in the public school’s classrooms for bicultural and
bilingual students is mostly geared toward an English transi-
tional curriculum where students learn the basic skills of listen-
ing, speaking, reading, and writing in English. It does not pre-
pare bicultural and bilingual students to move onto a higher
critical thinking literacy level. English transitional curriculum
lacks relevance to the students who find no cultural connection
to this type of literacy. They find that it has no sense of em-
powerment. Bicultural and bilingual students spend a great deal
of time drilling the proper English grammar rules, and reading
materials to reinforce these grammar structures. This type of
literacy provides bilingual and bicultural students with very
little motivation in reading and writing, when the materials give
them no encouragement in connecting with home culture stories.
When bicultural and bilingual students do not read at the grade
level standard they often are labeled as being at risk of not
knowing how to read and speak properly in the English lan-
guage. Therefore, they end up being placed in remedial literacy
The ideology of US public school literacy has been to edu-
cate students to read and write only in English, with the notion
of assimilating bicultural and bilingual students into the West-
ern culture and tradition. For the most part public school liter-
acy has not encouraged students to maintain their home culture
and language. Instead, it continues to dismantle students’ heri-
tage and family values. The federally mandated law, No Child
Left Behind Act in 2001, is a good example of the way literacy
is used as a tool to build children’s reading and writing skills in
English but not in the students’ home languages. This No Child
Left Behind Act clearly explains that public school literacy
programs should reflect only the cultural values of the Euro-
Americans and drive for English only. This federal law clearly
stated that if a student’s reading scores fail to meet the state’s
benchmark 2 years in a row then this student needs to be trans-
fer to a different school district or the reading program needs to
be improve (US Department of Education, 2004). The law spe-
cifically targets only the low income and minority commu-
nities. The hidden message behind this federal law is that in
order to close the achievement gap for low income and minority
students, they must be forced to give up their cultural norms
and social values. With this policy design, these students will
be taught in the culture of schools, which mainly reflects the
middle class Euro-American culture. It says to our diverse stu-
dents and parents that schools have no interest invested in
cross-cultural perspectives.
Public schools continue to be a more difficult learning envi-
ronment for bicultural and bilingual students, and continue to
disempower them. The No Child Left Behind law forces bicul-
tural and bilingual students to divorce their heritage, family and
community by requiring public schools to measure their educa-
tional outcomes with high-stakes standardized tests. Without
the incorporation of students’ culture and language into the
reading and writing programs in the public school, bicultural
and bilingual students will be singled out by high-stakes tests.
Spring (2004) argues, “High-stakes standardized tests given in
elementary, middle, and high schools represent only a single
culture. Given to all students, test questions should not be based
on knowledge known only to students in a minority culture”
(pp. 122-123).
With the implementation of the No Child Left Behind law,
bicultural and bilingual students will continue to be alienated
and left behind through literacy education in schools that do not
value the cultural knowledge that they bring from home. In her
research, Olsen (1996) found that the cultural norms of public
school are a cause of isolation for immigrant students in the
high school campus. Therefore, if literacy in the public school
continues to treat bicultural and bilingual students like foreign-
ers and do not infuse the cultural values of these students, and
then bicultural and bilingual students will continue to be mar-
ginalized in the public school system. They will be single out in
the US public education without having a culture identity.
We strongly assert that public school literacy should em-
power bicultural and bilingual students by helping them to rec-
ognize their heritage, language, and cultural values, as well as
allowing them to have voices in the schools. Powell (1999)
contends that counterhegemonic language must be established
in the classroom in order for students to have their voices heard.
Macedo (1994) argues the same point that teachers need to
encourage students to have an open dialogue and daily contacts
in a language and culture with which the students are familiar.
He states, “Without the cultivation of their native language, and
robbed of the opportunity for reflection and critical thinking,
linguistic-minority students find themselves unable to re-create
their culture and history” (p. 135).
Several researchers in The Skin That We Speak, edited by
Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy, pointed out the impor-
tance of Ebonics in the Oakland Unified School District, Cali-
fornia. These researchers argue that an individual should never
feel a sense of inferiority, as often imparted by teachers, when
using either formal English or a dialectal language of intimacy
(Delpit & Dowdy, 2002). In the 1996 California debate about
Ebonics, the Oakland school board decided to recognize the
language variety spoken by African Americans. The Linguistic
Society of America Resolution on the Oakland “Ebonics” issue,
written about the decision of the Oakland school board, affirms
that it “is linguistically and pedagogically sound” to “recognize
the vernacular of African American students in teaching them
Standard English” (Delpit & Dowdy, 2002: p. 224). This means
that Oakland Unified School District uses teaching the language
of literacy in Ebonics to African American students as a direct
and relevant reflection of the students’ cultural history. Accepting
Ebonics in Oakland Unified School District create a commit-
ment to connect culture and language of Black/African American
students. Respect for the home language must always be part of
the literacy curricula in the public sch ool (Ada & Campoy, 1998;
Degado-Gaitan, 1990, 1994; Dyc, 1994; McLaughlin, 1994).
My Personal Experiences with Literacy in
American Public School
Historically American public schools use literacy to encour-
age bicultural and bilingual students to carry on Western ideas,
language, and culture. Literature in some public school’s class-
rooms still reflect only the white European American middle
class culture and its reality. Without multicultural and multi-
lingual literacy, the school system ignores and undermines
students’ traditional beliefs, cultural and social values, and
learning preferences. For example, public school teachers who
are reluctant reexamine their teaching curriculum and materials,
and have a strong belief that school will not include other cul-
tural content but only white European middle class culture. This
traditional practice causes many hardships to bilingual and
bicultural students. McLaren (1998) states, “Literacy becomes a
weapon that can be used against those groups who are ‘cultur-
ally illiterate,’ whose social class, race, or gender renders their
own experiences and stories as too unimportant to be worthy of
investigation” (p. 181). McLaren’s statement describes the
school experience I had in the United States, where my Mong
culture and language was not recognized in the classroom. I
began school in the US in adolescence, without any prior edu-
cational experience with European culture. I had emigrated
from Southeast Asia with my mother and siblings as a result of
the US, CIA Secret Wa r in Laos. I had a negat ive experie nce in
school making a connection from my culture to the cultural
literacy in which my teachers taught me. I felt like some of the
teachers were culturally blind and indifferent. They remained
ignorant of my culture and perhaps unwillingly attempted to
replace my culture with theirs. Cummins (1996) notes that the
teachers who see their role as replacing or subtracting students’
primary language and culture results in that assimilation of
students to the dominant culture.
Furthermore, I witnessed in the American public school that
literacy functioned to replace many important values of my
culture and language. For example, at home I was having a
difficult time understanding what my mother was saying and
unable to do of the simple tasks she requests. I felt like I was
completely disconnected from my cultural worldview through
the type of literacy education I received in the public school.
Powell (1999) states, “For literacy to be transformative, oral
and written language must have personal relevancy for students.
They must be able to see themselves in written and oral texts;
they must believe that language has meaning for them” (p. 100).
Through my elementary, junior high and high school education
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
I discovered that the literature and history taught traditional
Western stories and cultural values. The literacy I studied
tended to explain the important values of written culture, of
Western stories, but not the oral culture and Eastern narratives,
the culture with which I was most familiar. Freire and Macedo
(1987) describe oral literacy in the United States by giving an
example that, “Literacy’s oral dimension is important even if it
takes in a culture like that of the United States, whose memory
is preponderantly written, not oral like that of Africa” (p. 50).
Dyc (1994) states if Native American cultures and traditions are
taught, they become a threat and create conflict with a school
system based on Western European ideologies and values.
Dyc’s research describes the problem that parents and stu-
dents who have strong ties with an oral culture currently strug-
gle with in this society. A few years ago, I did a study with the
Mong students in northern California and I found that they used
their written literacy skills they learned in schools to challenge
their oral literacy values (Thao, 2003). My research revealed
that intensive literacy encouraged work of the school Mong
children to lose interest in their oral culture. Si mila rly , McLaugh-
lin (1994) reported that critical literacy caused tremendous pain
and suffering for Navajo and other American Indian children.
These children were put into English only boarding schools as
early as age seven, without speaking a word in English. These
children were isolated from their culture, stories, language,
family and community. Currently many schools continue to
suppress the Indian’s culture and their indigenous stories. Ex-
ample of Navajo historical, the long walk of Pocahontas story
claimed by literature and Disney, vilified Indians except Poca-
hontas who was a “good Indian” and a heroine of Euro-
Americans. Chief Roy Crazy Horse (1998) explained the truth
about Pocahontas, “was a nickname meaning ‘the naughty one’
or ‘spoiled child,’ her real name was Matoaka” (p. 129). Poca-
hontas actually had a sad ending: “In 1612 at the age of 17,
Pocahontas was treacherously taken prisoner by the English
while she was on a social visit and was held hostage at James-
town for over a year” (Chief Roy Crazy Horse, 1998: p. 130).
These facts about Pocahontas were not revealed to our children
in schools. Bicultural and bilingual students continue to receive
a curriculum in the public school, which hides their culture,
similar to the early days for Native American students.
My own junior high and high school literacy experience was
terrible. I studied through the meritocry system that perpetuates
the cultural capital of white middle class European-American. I
did not remember studying anything about multicultural litera-
ture until I was in graduate school. The literature I read in high
school like, “Romeo and Juliet, Scarlet Letter, etc.” were boring.
I did not find these stories to be interesting. I could find no
connection with the story. I read a lot of William Shakespeare
and Mark Twain’s work, but they wrote about the culture of
Europeans. I knew nothing about the culture of European
Americans but I had no choice. I had to force myself to read
this literature in order to earn the grade I wanted in class.
Literacy gives people the ability to use written language ef-
fectively, both to glean meaning from text and to produce one’s
own text (Ada & Campoy, 1998). However, most literacy
found in United States public schools educates bicultural and
bilingual students not to discover the true meaning about them-
selves but mostly about others. It is an educational system edu-
cating bicultural and bilingual students about Euro-Americans’
meritocracy and their superiority. Schools should provide a
relevant literacy curriculum to bridge the gap for bicultural and
bilingual students to understand cross-culture values as well as
make sense of cultural differences. Goodman, Goodman and
Flores (1984) concluded their research on literacy and biliteracy
issues for reading and writing in bilingual education:
If school is relevant, if its curriculum and goals are consis-
tent with the functional needs of the pupils, if it accepts their
language and culture and builds on it, then children will re-
spond to school and grow. But if the school is irrelevant and
insensitive, the pupils will only make whatever minimal ac-
commodations they can to its demands (p. 41).
Ada and Campoy (1999) argue, “If the curriculum and school
practices and discussions do not incorporate the knowledge of
their families and the richness of their home culture, students’
own self-image is threatened” (p. 3). A study by Seda, Liguori
and Seda (1999) supports that if teachers implement curriculum
engaging the English as a Second Language (ESL) students’
prior knowledge, then ESL students’ critical thinking skills in
readings and writings are improved. This is an excellent tool.
Cummins (1996) states, “Prior knowledge represents one cen-
tral aspect of what students bring to the learning situation that
makes input more context-embedded and comprehensible” (p.
Jiménez and Gersten (1999) did a study of two Latina/o
teachers in Southern California, who were improving literacy
instruction in the classroom. They found that these two teachers
utilized a variety of literacy experiences to help their students
with literacy. They role-played, utilized cultural response liter-
acy, and modeled every lesson they intended to teach for their
students. These teachers devoted lots of their time to the stu-
dents and the students’ cultures. This study concludes that
teachers, “had successfully negotiated the educational system,
maintained and nurtured their Latina/Latino identity, and were
currently implementing classroom practices that include stu-
dents’ language and culture” (p. 296). Cummins (1996) asserts
that in order for culturally diverse students to be academically
successful they must develop a sense of self identify through
learning. Public school’s literacy should foster bicultural and
bilingual students to maintain a strong identity, to motivate
them in reading and writing. For example, as a bicultural and
bilingual student, I found it is less difficult for me to write a
paper or read a story connected to my cultural reality than to
write or read a topic about a cultural reality I am not familiar
with. I believe this is true for many non-European students in
public schools.
Literacy Programs Is a Cultural Invasion
Literacy not only creates problems in the school, but also
generates major issues at home for bicultural and bilingual
students. The cultural literacy in the public school becomes a
threatening force and a cultural invasion at most bicultural and
bilingual homes. Often bicultural and bilingual students directly
apply what they learn in school to their everyday home life. For
example, the Mong bicultural and bilingual students tend to
replace their parents’ culture and language with the literacy
knowledge and skills of public school (Thao, 2003). Most bi-
cultural and bilingual students refuse to speak, read and write in
their heritage language because they need to continue to prac-
tice public school’s literacy at home so they can do well in
school. This leaves little room for bicultural and bilingual stu-
dents to learn their own culture and language literacy at home.
In this process the cultural literacy of the home is devalued.
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Because of the nature of public school literacy, bicultural and
bilingual students place a high priority on the school culture
and not on their home culture. Those students who are willing
to make this adjustment will do well in school, but not do well
in socializing with their home culture. Those students who have
difficulty accepting this change will become failures in their
school, but maintain a strong social cultural root. Devine (1994)
asserts, “Minority-group members who adjust to the dominant
definition of literacy may suffer severe social and personal
displacement; those who are unwilling or unable to make this
adjustment may well suffer literacy failure” (p. 234). The stu-
dents who accept the school culture bring that culture to be
their home culture and it overwhelms their home culture and
creates conflict at home.
Due to a lack of home language and culture promoted in the
public school setting bicultural and bilingual students often
refused to speak their home language both at home and at
school because they do not want to be identified as different at
school. Ada and Campoy (1998) state that the Spanish-speaking
students have to give up their Spanish to learn English to avoid
being stigmatized and identified as an English as a second lan-
guage learner. Bicultural and bilingual parents and students
encounter this literacy crisis every day at school and at home.
My study with the Mong children in northern California shows
that the culture of school suddenly empowered the Mong stu-
dents to challenge their parents’ authority at home. Mong chil-
dren give less respect to their parents and their cultural values
because of what these Mong students gain from school. I con-
cluded from this study that in order to empower the Mong stu-
dents both the teachers and Mong parents need to work col-
laboratively with one another (Thao, 2003).
Bicultural and Bilingual Literacy
Literacy in the public school needs to have a connection with
bicultural and bilingual students. Literacy programs need to
bounce between the students’ home culture and school culture.
This way, reading and writing materials would not be a threat to
the students. Delgado-Gaitan (1990) argues that literacy in and
out school can be understood within the concept of cultural
empowerment. Schools must provide literacy programs that
allow bicultural and bilingual parents to teach their children
their native culture and primary language, thus empowering
them to have deeper knowledge of literacy, and of the reality of
both cultures. When I was teaching in a public school, I had an
after-school Mong literacy program to teach Mong history,
stories, folktales, legends, reading and writing to Mong children
(Thao, 2003). The Mong parents ran this Mong literacy pro-
gram. It was a very effective program. Many Mong children did
very well in school and in the after-school program. The pro-
gram empowered Mong parents and children to learn Mong and
English literacy together. Freire and Macedo (1987) argue that
an effective literacy program should be based on the rationale
that rooted in the students’ culture as well as their native lan-
guage. They stated, “The failure to base a literacy program on
the native language means that oppositional forces can neutral-
ize the efforts of educators and political leaders to achieve de-
colonization of mind” (p. 151).
Paratore, Melzi and Krol-Sinclair (1999) studied family lit-
eracy involving immigrant parents and children. They found
that immigrant parents and children benefit greatly from family
literacy programs. One literacy program they called the Inter-
generational Literacy Project, supported many immigrant par-
ents and students to engage in literacy. This literacy project also
helped parents and students to make a smooth transition be-
tween home and school. Paratore, Melzi and Krol-Sinclair
(1999) state that the purpose of family literacy is to share liter-
acy activities and to share learning. For example, Parlier Uni-
fied School District in California successfully proved in three
consecutive years that the district’s Family English Literacy
Program (FELP) helps the Spanish-speaking students to im-
prove their abilities in reading, speaking and listening (BEOut-
reach, 1992). The program opens its door to the parents to fa-
cilitate and assist their children’s education using Spanish lit-
erature and story telling. BEOutreach (1992) concluded this
study by saying that teaching family literacy brings meaningful
literacy to the Spanish-speaking students and parents.
Literacy programs in the public schools need to be a two-way
learning process so the programs can help bicultural and bilin-
gual students maintain their native language and culture. Pro-
grams in which students learn to accommodate others’ cultures
and languages are most effective. The Parajo Valley Family
Literacy Project in Watsonville, California was an excellent
model (Ada, 1988; Cummins, 1996). This family literacy pro-
ject had a tremendous impact on the school district and the
Hispanic communi ty. Most familie s were migra nt farm workers.
This project created an open space and welcoming environment
in the school for Hispanic parents to be part of their children’s
literacy education. The children of the Hispanic families that
participated in the project made a big improvement in their
literacy skills and stayed in school (Ada, 1988; Delgado-Gaitan,
1990, 1994; Cummins, 1996; BEOutreach, 1992).
Literacy crises are rising in bicultural and bilingual students’
education in public schools. Today, we have a large number of
bicultural and bilingual students who have dropped out of
school, have become involved in gang activities, do not com-
pleted high school, and who are working for minimum wage
jobs because of literacy issues. Many students cannot read and
write at their grade level. These students are having trouble
meeting the standard requirements for graduation. It is time for
public school to consider infusing bicultural literacy as part of
the literacy program. This way, bicultural and bilingual students
will be learning material that makes sense to them and they will
be motivated to study, so they can graduate from high school,
go on to college, and obtain a better pay job.
Literature can motivate bicultural and bilingual students in
reading and writing. If a public school does not have appropri-
ate literature to teach to bicultural and bilingual students, then
literacy is no longer an interesting subject for students. There-
fore, bicultural and bilingual students will continue to feel that
schools do not prepare them to be a member of mainstream
society. Often, public school does not meet the needs of bicul-
tural and bilingual students, to help them maintain the balance
between their home and school cultures. The bicultural and
bilingual students mostly will be brain-washed to think that the
Euro-American cultures and traditions have the most values.
They will no longer know their own cultures, languages, and
histories. Most bicultural and bilingual students no longer feel
they have solid and respected identity. Their identity was lost,
ignored or taken away from them during the time they went
through school in our public educational system. Literacy
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should be the foundation to help bilingual and bicultural stu-
dents to have a strong relationship between home and school
culture values.
Public school’s literacy programs need to include students’
native languages and cultures. This way we can have effective
literacy programs to teach bicultural and bilingual students to
become literate. Jennings and Purves (1991) defined literacy as
a “student’s ability to read and understand both classical and
modern literature, and to be articulate and sophisticated in
written expression. Literacy is a survival skill in a complex
technological society—it is the ability to read and write func-
tionally in order to participate successfully in everyday life (on
the job, at home, and in leisure activities)” (p. 143). Giroux
(1988) states, “To be literate is not to be free; it is to be present
and active in the struggle for reclaiming one’s voice, history,
and future” (p. 155). This is very true for me because it is the
first step for bicultural and bilingual students to have the right
tools to make changes in this society and create an identity
sensitive to changes demanded by acculturations.
United States public school literacy programs need to em-
power bicultural and bilingual students to read, write and think
critically in their culture and in other cultures. Literacy must
become part of bicultural and bilingual students’ reality. Tea-
chers need to understand the implications of literacy programs
that make a connection to the student’s language and culture
reality in their classroom. They must commit to work with the
languages and cultural of the students, not against them in order
for students to be open to learning anything. To discredit a stu-
dent’s language and culture means to discredit the student.
Zanger (1994) states, “Student failure may be seen as a failure
of the social system to provide linguistic-minority students with
the appropriate social interactions necessary for literacy devel-
opment” (p. 172).
Therefore, I urge that teachers, as part of the educational in-
stitution, must advocate for multicultural and multilingual lit-
erature as part of the public school’s literacy culture. In order
for bicultural and bilingual students to succeed on high-stakes
tests that are demanded by the No Child Left Behind law, the
pedagogical content of literacy must acknowledge these stu-
dents and their culture. Public school literacy that focuses on
students’ heritage makes sense in their learning and this will
raise student achievement on state-mandated reading and writ-
ing tests. Incorporate multicultural and multilingual literacy in
public school to prepare our students for a growing and diverse
American society.
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