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Center for Instructional Support

Supporting Culturally and Linguistically Sustaining Practices

Across Massachusetts, our student population is becoming increasingly diverse. Our education system is steeped in norms, traditions, and a lens that too often do not reflect and may not be supportive of this diversity. All students, families, and communities should have access to schools that believe this diversity is an asset and reflect, include, and sustain their cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Below, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) provides our definition of culturally and linguistically sustaining practices and their importance in our schools and classrooms. Further guidance will provide examples and resources to support this work.

In keeping with DESE's Educational Vision, the goal of this work is to "support students to thrive by creating affirming environments where students feel seen, engage in deeper learning, and are held to high expectations with targeted support"; to realize this vision, educators must have the mindset, knowledge, and capacity to serve all students well, particularly students from historically underserved groups and communities. In order to be highly effective, educators must develop an authentic understanding of the students and adults in their school communities, ensure that their students' experiences in school are affirming of who they are and what they bring to the school community, and unpack how their own culture impacts their worldview and approach.

Culturally and linguistically sustaining practices are essential for all students in the classroom, regardless of their background, culture, or identity. All students benefit from an approach that is intended to meet the needs of diverse learners; from expanded cultural competence and sociopolitical consciousness; and from explicit instruction in the functions of language.

DESE's Educational Vision refers explicitly to culturally and linguistically sustaining practices, positioning these as essential to achieve the vision. As a foundational step towards the long-term goal of culturally and linguistically sustaining learning environments, in 2023-2025, DESE will focus on promoting culturally responsive learning environments that are also linguistically sustaining.

What are culturally responsive learning environments?

Culturally responsive learning environments are where culture and identity are viewed as assets and valuable resources, including students' race, ethnicity, or linguistic assets, among other characteristics. When what is being taught is "situated within the lived experiences and frames of reference for students, they are more personally meaningful, have higher interest appeal, and are learned more easily and thoroughly" (Gay, 2000). Educators should promote a school and classroom environment that is not only respectful of all cultures, but one that leverages student culture to improve and deepen learning. Culturally Responsive Teaching "should connect in-school learning to out-of-school living; promote educational equity and excellence; create community among individuals from different cultural, social, and ethnic backgrounds; and develop students' agency, efficacy, and empowerment" (Gay, 2013).

What are linguistically sustaining practices?

Like culturally sustaining practices, linguistically sustaining practices (Lucas, 2010) promote multilingualism as an asset and honor the linguistic resources students bring to the classroom.

In order to build linguistically sustaining learning environments, educators must get to know their students by understanding their linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Linguistically sustaining practices (Lucas, 2010) rely on a research-based understanding of how students acquire language, including but not limited to an understanding of language acquisition as a socially-mediated process; of distinguishing conversational proficiency from academic proficiency; of the impact of an affective filter on learning; and of the importance of utilizing language skills in one's home language when learning a second language.

Leveraging their understanding of their students and the process of language acquisition, educators unpack the language expectations embedded in classroom tasks and design scaffolds and explicit language instruction that provide all students access to rigorous content. Language is taught through content, and language is used and developed in many ways in a classroom: "to interpret and present different perspectives, build awareness of relationships, and affirm their identities (WIDA Guiding Principles of Language development, citing Cummins, 2001; Esteban-Guitart & Moll, 2014; May, 2013, Nieto, 2010)."

What are culturally sustaining practices?

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (Paris, 2017) and Linguistically Sustaining Practices (Lucas, 2010) build on prior culturally-affirming, asset-based pedagogical theory and research including Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1994) and Culturally Responsive Teaching (Gay, 2000) that work to further educational justice for students who have been historically underserved and marginalized.

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy:

  1. (1) Affirms and values students' cultures, prior experiences, and linguistic resources to make learning more relevant and effective, while building community and developing student agency.

  2. (2) Promotes teaching and learning principles of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy of academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical awareness; a framework that "not only addresses student achievement but also helps students to accept and affirm their cultural identity while developing critical perspectives that challenge inequities that schools (and other institutions) perpetuate" (Ladson-Billings, 1995).

  3. (3) Values multilingualism as an asset and honors multilingual learners' languages to be leveraged, learned, and sustained through meaningful engagement in activities that are valued in their homes, schools, and communities.

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy calls for schools as places that should be "sustaining—rather than eradicating—the cultural ways of being of communities of color" through:

  • Critical centering on dynamic community languages, valued practices, and knowledges
  • Student and community agency and input
  • Content and instruction that acknowledges the histories of racial, ethnic, and linguistic communities
  • Contending with internalized oppressions, and
  • Educators to be able to "curricularize" (or adapt curriculum to) those learning settings.

"Being and becoming a culturally sustaining educator is dynamic; it's about critically learning with community; it's about, together, sustaining who youth and communities are and want to be; and it's about doing all of that with respect and love" (Paris & Alim interview, 2017).

Works Cited
  1. Ferlazzo, L., Paris P., Alim, H.S. (2017). Author Interview: 'Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies'. Education Week. Author Interview: 'Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies' (Opinion) (

  2. Gay, G. (2013). Teaching To and Through Cultural Diversity. Curriculum Inquiry, 43(1), 48–70.

  3. Gay, G. (2018). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice (Multicultural Education Series) 3rd Edition. Teachers College Press.

  4. Lucas, T., Villegas, A. M. (2010). The Missing Piece in Teacher Education: The Preparation of Linguistically Responsive Teachers. Teachers College Record, 112(14), 297–318.

  5. Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 1–12.

  6. Paris, D. (2017). Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World (Language and Literacy Series). Teachers College Press.

  7. WIDA Consortium. (2019). WIDA Guiding Principles of Language Development. University of Wisconsin. WIDA Guiding Principles of Language Development (

Resources for Professional Development

1 Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, 1998; Martin Linsky & Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership on the Line, 2002.

Last Updated: February 27, 2023

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