Culturally Responsive Teaching in Special Education

Elementary age students in special education classes and/or dyslexia intervention deserve access to the highest quality literary resources and culturally relevant classroom experiences. Young students with special needs must have the opportunity to experience multi-modal learning formats in positive, safe, and supportive environments. School leaders and classroom teachers need to provide culturally responsive and bias free experiences to increase the learning potential for all students with disabilities (SWD). 

SWD who experience inclusive and culturally relevant text integrated with their core content in print, digital, audio, and visual formats are more likely to become successful readers and learners. Much of the leveled texts used for literacy, math, science, and social studies instruction on elementary campuses in the United States not culturally diverse or representative of the student population for which it is used.

When working to promote culturally responsive and diverse literacy learning practices for our students with disabilities, educators need to start from within. As educators, we need to become introspective about our own culture, background, and unconscious bias while working to make our classroom more diverse for our young learners. “Conscious self-awareness builds on other aspects of cultural responsiveness, in particular, sociocultural consciousness (Villegas and Lucas, 2002), when individuals are aware of and recognize their own biases, prejudices, and stereotypes” (Bennett in press).

As educators, when we become more aware of our own bias and cultural differences, we must then consider how our own culture is intertwined with the cultural diversity of our students and families. Doing this work can provide a strong foundation for developing cultural responsiveness and inclusiveness for the families of our students with disabilities. As a result, students and families feel safe, healthy, and supported. Students who feel safe and accepted in their classroom by their teachers will likely becomes more successful readers and learners.

“As of 2011, more than 50% of the U.S. population younger than 1 year of age is from what is considered to be a minority background, or non-White” (Census Bureau 2009, 2012). Our communities are becoming more diverse, so our schools and classrooms should mirror that diversity, especially in special education classrooms, in both a physical way and as an over-arching educational theme. Culturally responsive teaching in special education specifically (CRT) “ requires teachers, or Critically Responsive Educators (CREs), to hold high expectations and believe all students can succeed; scaffold instruction and meet individual students’ needs; have conscious awareness of self and other cultures; and recognize that teaching is flexible and fluid, not rigid and static” (Grant and Ladson-Billings 1997; Ladson-Billings 1995, 2014) (Bennett et al., 2018).

This understanding that teaching is a fluid process is critical for all educators to grasp as we work to make our classrooms a place of diversity and safety while respecting our own cultural experiences and honoring those of our students. We can do this when we work to include diverse and culturally relevant text within literacy lessons, math, science and social studies content.

Students with special needs can thrive when they feel that their learning opportunities are safe for risk taking and when they are accepted in their classroom because their teacher has provided culturally relevant resources to promote their learning. I consider my own growth as an educator of students with learning disabilities. I remember the leveled readers I was given as a beginning special education teacher and thinking about how they were not representative of the experiences and cultural backgrounds of the students I served in my classroom.

As a young teacher, I felt stuck, because I wanted to support my students in their goal to become a fluent reader but was only able to answer questions about what snow was, or what a sled was. The majority of my students were from a low socio-economic area and were Caucasian, Latinx, and African American. Many of my students had never left the county or state, so they did could not grasp what snow was, or a sled, or snow boots. This particular lesson point was culturally irrelevant and had no context for them as young learners.

Since these were the days before you could pull up a You Tube video in your classroom Smart Board to show the students an example, all I could do was explain to them the weather, the temperature, and ecology of the area that had the snow from memories I had of visiting a state in the winter. This experience was a defining moment for me in my career.  As I realized that when elementary students with disabilities are learning to read and use phonics when they have no context or prior knowledge or an experience to draw from, it can be extremely difficult for them to achieve success without some type of concrete prior knowledge.

This is especially true especially for students with learning disabilities because so often, drawing upon an experience or prior knowledge helps them improve their reading and learning. It could be totally irrelevant for a student with dyslexia or a reading learning disability to learn the word “snow” for the /s/ sound as a key word when the child doesn’t know what snow is or has never experienced it.

SWD need to have culturally diverse and relevant learning resources to support their learning and growth as teachers work to close the gap for their students. Perhaps communities should harness resources to support and close the gap for schools and classrooms that need diverse resources for their students with special needs. Gay writes,

“Some elements of the cultures of diverse ethnic groups are more important for teachers to know than are others. These are the ones that have direct implications for teaching and learning. They include values, communication styles, learning styles, contributions, social problems, and levels of ethnic identity development and affiliation” (Gay, 1994) (Gay, 2004).

Cultural responsiveness not only in literacy and core content classroom material is critical for student success. Educators must take time to be aware of their students’ varying culture, background and experiences so that they can adapt their learning opportunities accordingly. In addition, teachers must first start with identifying their own cultural or experiential implicit bias and practicing removing it so that they can become effective and culturally responsive educators and serve their students well.

“Accessible learning environments that provide opportunity for robust, literacy-rich experiences, interactivity, and exploration of thought should be inclusive of teachers, students, families, and communities” (ILA, 2019).  When a classroom has success with their culturally responsive literacy and learning practices, powerful ripple effects will occur not only for the child, but also the child’s family, school family, and community at large.

When a community embraces the importance of a culturally responsive classroom and school environment, everyone can benefit. All children in general and special education can grow into community members that respects their diversity, learning, and cultural differences and this will pay dividends for success in their future.


Ahmed, K. S. (2019). Being A “Bridge Builder”: A Literacy Teacher Educator Negotiates the Divide between University-promoted Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and District-mandated Curriculum. Literacy Research & Instruction, 58(4), 211–231.

Gay, G. (2002) Culturally responsive teaching in special education for ethnically diverse students: Setting the stage, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 15:6, 613-629, DOI: 10.1080/0951839022000014349

Peairson, S., Haynes, C., Johnson, C., Bergquist, C., & Krinhop, K. (2014). Education of Children with Disabilities: Voices from Around the World. Journal of Applied Research on Children, 5(2), 1–26.

Right to Supportive Learning Environments and High-Quality Resources (2019). International Literacy Association.