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Effective Comprehension Strategies in a Culturally Responsive Environment on the Navajo Reservation: A Preliminary Inquiry


Leslie Marlow

Duane Inman


Because of linguistic and cultural differences, Native American students often find themselves at a disadvantage in contemporary English language based classroom instruction since they may speak and think in their native language, or a non-standard English, and have a lack of schema related to the basals and texts with which they must work in the school setting.  The gap between family and community culture and school culture complicates the instruction students receive and the manner in which they process the information (Reyhner, 2001).  Further, the emphasis of NCLB researched programs has not considered significant Native American populations and therefore causes a disparity between the population being served and the strategies and methods being used with Native students (National Indian Education Association Legislative Summit, 2005). In the southwest, each Native American tribe has unique educational issues related to their specific cultural beliefs, geographical environments, and socio-economic circumstances. The purpose of this investigation was to engage in a preliminary examination of reading strategies used in specific, targeted Navajo schools in order to begin developing a better understanding of effective instructional methods used in the school of one specific Northwest Native American tribe. 


Background: Socio-economic and Geographic Considerations


The Navajo (Dine¢) Nation, regarded by the US government as the most economically disadvantaged US Indian tribe, consists of a population of approximately 300,000.  By Navajo law, to be a tribal member an individual must be at least one-quarter Navajo (Indian Country Extension, 2008).  Approximately 175,000 Navajo live on the Navajo Reservation (US Census Bureau from Navajo Division of Economic Development, 2000), 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, larger than the states of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts combined.


Geographically, the Navajo Nation is arid to semi-arid with the annual precipitation in most areas being fewer than 10 inches. The area is known for having very cold winters and very hot summers, with an annual average temperature of about 40¼F to 55¼F. Climatic patterns vary from south to north and generally, the Navajo lands lie outside the typical major pathways of winter and summer moisture-bearing air masses. Winter moisture comes infrequently. Summers are generally hot, with infrequent rainfall. Precipitation in is low to moderate in the early winter, increasing in February and March, and then drops off quickly into April. May through June is very dry throughout the region.  Many Navajo still live in wood-heated housing, with little or no access to running water and/or electricity (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2007;Tohatchi Elementary School, personal communication, May 2007).


The Navajo society and economy have been continually evolving since the Navajo first arrived in the Southwest. The Navajo have depended on a combination of farming, animal husbandry, and the sale of various craft products. Historically, the raising of sheep and goats has provided substantial quantities of meat and milk, as well as hides, wool, and lambs that were exchanged for manufactured goods at any of the numerous trading posts throughout the Navajo country. Beginning in the early 1900s, a few Navajo were employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and by off-reservation towns and ranches, but income from these outside sources did not become a significant part of the Navajo economy until around 1950. Families traditionally have exclusive use rights to agricultural land as long as they actually farm it; if it lies uncultivated for more than two years another family may take possession. All rangeland, however, is treated as common and collective property of the whole community and is unfenced.


In the traditional Navajo economy there was a rigid division between male and female tasks. For example, farming and the care of horses were male activities; weaving and most household tasks were female activities. More recently, however, both genders have collaborated in lambing, shearing, and herding activities, and both men and women are now heavily involved in wage earning. Although males play the dominant roles in Navajo ritual activities, the Navajo Nation is a matriarchal society (S. Dooley, personal communication, May 2007).


Today, although the more traditional farming and livestock economies are maintained throughout the reservation, mineral production and lumbering are main sources of income on the Navajo Reservation, along with tourism and the selling of Navajo crafts such as rugs, weavings, baskets, pottery and silver and turquoise jewelry. Most Navajo trade has been funneled through the trading posts, which resemble old country general stores. Clothing, household goods, bedding, and most of the other material needs of the Navajo are supplied in exchange for livestock products or, more recently, are sold. Traditionally, most Navajo families lived on credit for much of the year, paying off their accounts with wool in the spring and with lambs in the fall. Over 56% of the Navajo live below the poverty level, the highest poverty rate in the US, with a median family income of $11,885 and a per capita income of $6,217 (Indian Country Extension, 2008).


Cultural Beliefs


In order to fully understand what cultural and social difference affect Navajo studentsÕ comprehension in the classroom, one must have a general knowledge of the Navajo. However, the social and cultural organization of the Navajo tribe is quite extensive and one of the least well understood. Few people outside of the Navajo know very much about tribal social mores and customs and personal conduct among the Navajo that differs from that of other Native American tribes as well as other cultures (Witherspoon, 1996).  For example, historically, the Navajo people have a kinship system that follows the lineage of the women. K'ˇ—the Navajo kinship system—is the strength of the People and keeps the Navajo people together. Navajo is a matrilineal society. Each Navajo belongs to four different, unrelated clans. Each person belongs to the mother's clan, is born for the father's clan, and has maternal and paternal grandfathers' clans. Traditionally, the Navajo were forbidden to marry into the first two clans; today they are still strongly discouraged from doing so. K'ˇ also extends to the natural world and the gods. The People are always among relatives.  Just these differences from mainstream American can lead to misunderstandings of relationships and conceptual connections in schools (;


Terry Nichols, a Supervisory Park Ranger at Hubbell Trading Post (Manchester & Manchester, 1993) compiled generalizations about the Navajo cultural and social structure during her many years working on the reservation.  While still not all encompassing regarding cultural aspects of the Navajo, her observations revealed that the Navajo feel their way of life is perfectly adequate. Vocally loud and extroverted behavior by a Navajo member may be considered overly aggressive conduct, although many Navajo expect this behavior from non-Native Americans and they may not be annoyed or disconcerted by it.  However, the Navajo are characterized as reserved, quiet, gentle and not outspoken. Older people are deferred to, treated with respect and not ignored. At social gatherings, with food and drink available, if one is quiet and reserved, friendly and smiling, opportunities for some sort of communication should arise.

Many traditional Navajo customs are taught when children are quite small, including, historically, that white people are not to be trusted. Some such Navajo remain and are detached and cautious until they can see, possibly after years of observation, that a non-Navajo may be trustworthy.  To the Navajo, unless a person has made arrangements to remain on the reservation for an extended period of time, all are considered visitors who will very likely be here just a short time. They will be pleased if, during the time one is one the reservation, they come to understand something of their approach to life.



Navajo Nation Schools


The educational system for the Navajo schools has been run through a mixture of contract, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and public schools (such as the Gallup-McKinley School District) serving the reservation. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) supports 184 schools serving 46,600 students in 23 states. Most of the BIA schools, and many of the public schools on the reservation, are located in remote areas that are further isolated by their limited access to information technologies. Census Bureau statistics rank most BIA school communities as severely economically impoverished (Zehr, M. 2007).


The Navajo Nation recently identified and made efforts to address the inconsistencies between home and school culture for the Dine¢. In 2005 the Navajo Nation passed the Navajo Sovereignty in Education Act in order, among other things, to established the Navajo Nation Board of Education and the Navajo Nation Department of Dine« Education.  Purposes of this act included:

(1)           the establishment of instructional content and achievement standards for schools to include the consolidation of the standards of the three states overlapping in the Navajo Nation with those of the Navajo Nation for Navajo language and cultural knowledge and

(2)           the development of a written standards-based curriculum to be founded on the needs of the students served and the cultural values and individual interests of Navajo students, focused on full knowledge of basic skills including reading . . . , with instructional strategies that reflect best research and evidence based practices, and inclusive of both English Language and Navajo Language skills and knowledge of not only American but also Navajo cultures (Navajo Nation Council, 2005).


In contrast, public school districts comply with NCLB requirements focusing on assessment and accountability. However, many teachers in these schools attempt to integrate Navajo culture as an integral part of the daily curriculum. Inclusion of the High Scope K-3+ Model that promotes students as active participants in their own learning and intervention through whole language, phonics and writing supports required reading implementation programs (Gallup-McKinley County Public Schools, 2007).


Reading Comprehension and Culture


Often, Native American students have been among the lowest scoring students on standardized reading tests or arenÕt reported at the school level, the most left out among any contemporary United States racial group (Blankenship, D. 2006). The high poverty level of most Navajo families precludes inclusion of print rich home environments, thereby causing these students to be at a disadvantage when attending school.  Insights into the comprehension strategies and methodologies that are culturally relevant may help alleviate this problem for native students and can be applicable for other cultural groups experiencing similar difficulties.


Many students such as the Navajo, who come to school with dual language exposure or ability and whose cultural background is not that of mainstream America, are at a disadvantage when attempting to read and comprehend the material that is generally provided in the school setting.  WalkerÕs 1990 study indicated that classroom teachers often consider inferences made by students from various cultural backgrounds incorrect. According to Block and Pressley (2002), five primary conditions negatively impact a studentÕs comprehension if that student identifies with a different cultural background or language from that of the school environment: (1) differences in that which should be attended to, ignored, or unnecessary while reading, (2) misguided understandings due to a different conceptual framework, (3) cause and effect sequences can differ, thus evoking a different type of response, (4) symbolism may be different, and (5) expectations of what is typical in a particular circumstance or environment.  Within the Navajo culture, concepts such as male and female roles, perceived disrespect toward adults, the needs of the community being more important than that of the individual, clothing and jewelry importance and the symbolism of things such as colors or land formations could cause students to infer meaning in non-Native text that would be incorrect.


Subjects and Methodology


In May 2007, the authors visited four schools located in middle/northwest Arizona and New Mexico within 15-30 miles from Gallup New Mexico, serving approximately 99% Native American populations.  While all schools were located on the Navajo Reservation, one was a residential school, one was under the auspices of the Gallup-McKinley school district and the others were Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.  With the exception of the residential school, students attending all schools were bused from remote areas to the schools each day, with the travel time to and from schools taking one to two hours each way.  Approximately 95% of the teachers interviewed during classroom visits were Native American, with the remaining 5% being Anglo, Philipino, African American and Hispanic. Informal observations and discussions with teachers and principals were conducted in classes for grades K-8, with data gathered through observation, interviews, and photographs, focusing on four question sets in the context of teaching comprehension:  (1) Is a variety of childrenÕs literature used in the classroom?  If so, for what purpose is it used?  What are some examples of what are considered to be ŅgoodÓ literature for use in the classroom?  (2) What type of more formal reading instruction appears to be most beneficial to use with the students?  (3) What place does vocabulary development have in the classroom?  (4) Of what importance is the integration of language skills in content areas in addition to reading?




The responses of the teachers and principals from among the various schools were consistent with one another, were supported by the variety of activities in which students were engaged in each classroom, and addressed the focus questions of the project.  Additionally, student work samples throughout each of the schools supported the information provided by the teachers and principals.


Literature use:  Is a variety of childrenÕs literature used in the classroom?  If so, for what purpose is it used?  What are some examples of what are considered to be ŅgoodÓ literature for use in the classroom?   

Children and adolescent literature use was prevalent within the visited classrooms.  Fiction and non-fiction about various cultures was used to encourage students to see other peopleÕs stories and history and then compare these to their own. Culturally diverse and sensitive childrenÕs literature was used to enhance studentsÕ learning and teachersÕ instruction and served as a vehicle for creating lessons to suit the needs of the individual students.  Culturally relevant literature was also a vehicle incorporated throughout the curriculum to encourage readers, to share vicariously the emotions, experiences, and aspirations of those from their own and other cultural groups as well as promote social and cultural values.  Examples of culturally relevant literature used to promote comprehension experiences and integrative content included People, Navajo Indians, Annie and the Old One, DonÕt Call Me Pig! The Unbreakable Code, and Songs of Shiprock Fair.


Shared Reading: What type of more formal reading instruction appears to be most beneficial to use with the students?   

Shared reading of material in the native language as well as in English allowed students to focus on the pictures and the text to make predictions and to generate meaning. Beginning with a 'picture walk', the teacher guided students through a preview of the story, asking questions to elicit words and phrases, in both languages, that were used in the text. The book was then read to students and predictions were checked against the text. Repeated readings of the book were reported to occur over several days.  Further comprehension of the stories such as The Story of Despereaux, Dear Children of the Earth, PabloÕs Tree and Anansi and the Moss Covered Rock took place through questioning and discussion of each story, character analysis, retelling boards, story grammar analysis, (setting, theme, characters, problem, solution), and sequencing illustrations. Activities occurred in large and small group settings with authentic texts rather than basal readers.  Additional shared reading experiences took place through use of self-constructed, dual language stories by students and teachers and student created materials, based on the stories and history of the Navajo people.


Vocabulary Development: What place does vocabulary development have in the classroom?

Automatic recognition of words is necessary for reading comprehension. Language experiences in which reading, writing, listening and speaking were practiced through a thematic approach appeared to be an efficient way of ensuring word repetition and reinforcement.  Vocabulary building activities, also related to concept building, engaged students in organizing information or words according to concepts or topics. As learners read and talked about a topic, a schema of related concepts, and hence words, was built and reinforced.  A print-rich environment existed in all of the schools visited, with English, Dine« and Spanish being used with functional labeling, word walls, and student work.


Integration:  Of what importance is the integration of language skills in content areas in addition to reading?

ŅThematic learning is a process closer to the way the human brain is naturally designed best to learnÓ was a quote posted in the teacher workroom at one of the visited schools, and seemed to summarize the belief system of the majority of teachers of the visited classrooms.  The use of thematic instruction, focusing on the Navajo culture, provides valuable focus in terms of demonstrating coherent connections among disciplines that allows for a transfer of learning from one context to another, helping students understand how and why to apply certain concepts, and helping students to grasp the relation of content to process.  Traditional and historical aspects of the Navajo and non-Navajo cultures, family, agriculture, government, clothing, housing and society, combined with indigenous language study provided a link with more mainstream America.  Some examples of literature used to effectively contribute to integration included Latkes, Latkes, Good to Eat (food experiences and cultural comparisons), Who Took the Cookies from the Cookie Jar? (Math and problem solving), Kites (Asian cultural comparisons), The Unbreakable Code (Navajo/WWII history) and Building a Bridge (Navajo/Anglo cooperation).


A constant ŅthemeÓ that was evident throughout the observations of classrooms and discussions with teachers and principals was that of storytelling and oral language as part of the overall curriculum. Storytelling is part of the oral tradition of the Navajo and its use helps students maintain tradition and language.  Storytelling allows students to communicate values, language, memories, ethics and philosophy, while at the same time allowing for discussions to promote comprehension. In one of the three schools, one hour each morning was dedicated to oral language use, alternating between Standard English usage, native language usage, and storytelling techniques.  Both of the other schools incorporated oral language activities in native language and English within the context of other content areas and included Spanish as an additional language option.  Oral language activities began with focus on the social environment, talking about the day before, student concerns, the community and sports.  Emphasized during activities were dual language acquisition, team building and social skills, The latter two were deemed of particular importance as, culturally, the Navajo tend to be a reticent people, focusing more on listening in group situations than in talking.




The lack of understanding due to differences in culture, development, family, or experience can cause major disconnects when attempting to understand narrative and/or expository text.  Teachers therefore must offset these difficulties and promote effective reading strategies through direct explanation of the strategy as well as scaffolding (gradual release of responsibility) and consideration of culture in order to support independent reading and elimination of misunderstood concepts.  In order for strategies to be effective, learning must be made personally relevant for individual students.  This, then, fulfills the Dine« belief that ŅÉfirm grounding of native students in their indigenous cultural heritage and language is a fundamentally sound pre-requisite to well developed and culturally healthy students.Ó (Office of Dine« Culture, Language, and Community Service, 2007).


The core questions used as parameters of this investigation yielded basic information regarding types of comprehension strategies used and provided a basis for continued study with other Navajo schools as well as schools of other native populations.  There are certain practices that teachers of Native students can utilize in order to promote a greater understanding of the characteristics unique to specific Native studentsÕ environment.  Teachers must examine strategies and instructional methodologies which have been demonstrated to be effective in promoting comprehension within culturally responsive Native American/Dine¢ schools, focusing on those aspects which can lessen the disparity between community and school culture, and setting up a circumstance in which students can use schema to better understand the disparity.  Finally, outside agencies must develop better awareness of the Native American/Dine¢ teacherÕs approach to teaching reading comprehension to Native students and encourage the integration of cultural schema within the context of reading.









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Miles, M. (1985). Annie and the old one. NY: Little, Brown Young Readers.

Mora, P. (1994). PabloÕs tree. NY: Simon and Schuster.

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Schimmel, S. (1994). Dear children of the earth. Minnetonka, MN: NorthWord Books for Young Readers.

Spier, P. (1980). People. NY: Doubleday Book for Young Readers.

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