Culturally-Responsive Approaches for Working with Somali Children

 by  a guest blogger Sirad Shirdon, a Somali scholar

Sirad is sharing with us what it means to be a culturally responsive educator when working with Somali children and families.

1. Becoming culturally responsive educators

Somali parents are attempting to educate their children with a backdrop of discrimination targeted towards Muslims, English language learners, Black students and immigrants and refugees (Bigelow, 2010). As Vygotsky stressed it is important that we connect children’s social worlds to the classroom, as this will be a means of enhancing children’s learning. A starting point for this would be to develop a strong relationship with Somali children’s parents. As Moll et al.(1992) encouraged us to do, as educators we should position ourselves as learners and seek to learn from students and their families about their home cultures. A starting point is for the responsive educator to critically self-analyze for any potential biases. Following that, educators can seek to critically learn about our families and their cultures via our students’ families and communities. Not Fox News. Not MSNBC. But our families. Learn about Somalia, Islam and other key components of Somali culture. Learn about the community and their various centers. Have some tea and do some shopping at the local Somali mall.  This will give you the tools to bring those funds of knowledge into the classroom. By connecting students’ social worlds, you will be able to provide more meaningful language and literacy instruction.

2. Promoting Somali parent’s involvement in children’s schooling

Somali parents are incredible advocates for their children, but often do not know how to effectively participate in their child’s schooling. Some Somali parents are intimidated to engage with their children’s schooling due to differing cultural norms about teaching, which position educators as the exclusive teachers of children.  Consequently, some Somali parents believe it is overstepping to be proactive in communicating with a child’s teacher. The responsive teacher can position him/herself as a student of Somali culture, asking parents how teaching and learning takes place in the Somali context. Based on this knowledge, the teacher can teach families about education in the American context. With this knowledge, parents will feel empowered to be proactive in their child’s learning.

3. Promoting cultural responsiveness through dual language books

Research has shown that utilizing dual language books in the classroom can improve the motivation, interest and family involvement of culturally diverse children in the classroom (Naqvi, R., Thorne, K., Pfitscher, C., Nordstokke, D. & McKeogh, A., 2013). Dual language books validate student’s cultural identities, and are ways of validating and sustaining the cultural knowledge, and experiences of your students and their families. These books also demonstrate the importance and utility in using orality as a bridge to promote children’s literacy, given that many Somali-English books are based on popular Somali folktales. The Minnesota Humanities Center has developed a series of Somali-English books for children which can be accessed at

4. Connecting orality to children’s literacy development

somali folktales
Four Somali Folktales Read in Somali and English/Sheekoy, Sheeko, Sheeko Xariira

When advising Somali parents about best ways to support children’s literacy at home, I build from families existing strengths, which includes orality. Research has shown that the development of a strong first language will facilitate the child’s learning of the second language (Genesee, F., Geva, E., Dressler, C., & Kamil, M. L., 2008). Using the Somali culture as a framework, I encourage mothers to increase children’s language exposure by singing Somali lullabies to their children, and sharing stories. One cultural activity that connects very well to dialogic reading, is the oral storytelling activity of sheeko sheeko. In sheeko sheeko, the mother starts the exchange with her child by saying “sheeko, sheeko”. The child responds: sheeko xariir (what’s the story?). The mother and child go back and forth and build a story, made up of Somali rhymes. These cultural activities provide me with a foundation to explain the importance of other dialogic activities, most notably reading. For mothers who cannot read in English, I encourage them to create stories from the pictures and point to letters and words, to increase the child’s print awareness. With a strong first language, the child will be able to more easily transfer those skills to learning to speak and read in English.

5.  Advocating for appropriate assessments to prevent over-identification of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education

Increasingly, more minority students are being referred to special education due to a language difference. Whether students are English language learners, or speak African American English or Spanglish, special education teams with little awareness for the numerous types of Englishes spoken in the United States are labeling minority children with having a language delay. It is important that the culturally responsive educator is able to advocate for culturally valid assessments for minority children.   As English language learners, Somali students have not been immune to the effects of over-identification in special education.   Standardized assessments have been found to be biased against culturally and linguistically diverse children (Saenz & Huer, 2003). It is important that special education teams have an understanding for the various dialects of English and are able to use assessments tools which are more valid with multicultural students. These include but are not limited to dynamic assessment, narrative assessments, and parent report.


Bigelow, M. (2010). Mogadishu on the Mississippi: language, racialized identity, and education in a new land. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell

Genesee, F., Geva, E., Dressler, C., & Kamil, M. L. ( 2008). Cross-linguistic relationships in second-language learners. In D. August & T. Shanahan (Eds.), Developing reading and writing in second-language learners : lessons from the report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth (61-93). New York: Routledge.

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D. & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching. Theoryinto Practice, 31(2), pp.132-141

Naqvi, R., Thorne, K., Pfitscher, C., Nordstokke, D. & McKeogh, A. (2013). Reading dual language books: improving early literacy skills in linguistically diverse classrooms. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 11(1), pp. 3-15

Saenz, T. & Huer, M. (2003). Testing strategies involving least biased language assessment of bilingual children. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 24(4), pp.184-193

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society: the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Sirad Shirdon (@SomaliLiteracy) is a PhD student in Language, Education & Society at the Ohio State University and a licensed Speech Language Pathologist.   Her research interests center on the early childhood education of immigrant and refugee communities, particularly in the areas  of language, literacy, school readiness and special education.  She is currently working on her dissertation which will look at how Somali families with special needs children understand and navigate school readiness.  She describes herself as first and foremost an activist and community member, and is passionate about producing research which empowers culturally and linguistically diverse communities.    As a part of her commitment to the Somali communities in the United States and globally, she recently co-funded the Somali Literacy Project ( .  The initiative seeks to educate Somali families about school readiness, literacy and disability as well as informing professionals who work with Somali families about how to provide culturally responsive care and education for Somali children.  


7 thoughts on “Culturally-Responsive Approaches for Working with Somali Children

  1. I love interacting with Dr Shirdon on Twitter. She has been a great encouragement for my work. I’m especially excited about her desire to build “culturally and linguistically diverse communities.” Thanks for featuring her!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I bet you interacted in Somali with her to practice your Somali, right?

      I was humbled that in her bio, she states that she is “passionate about producing research which empowers culturally and linguistically diverse communities”. I find that to be a very honorable goal. I feel honored to have connected with her via social media.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent examples for how all parents, including those who do not yet have literacy, can participate in their children’s education.


  3. Thank you so much for sharing this educational ideas with all of us. I been in american public school since i come to America at age 15. First think, I was placed in freshman in high school and one of the most difficult part of that was i had no previous knowledge at all of English. Most of my knowledge i gain from Madarsa. Right know all i am trying to do is improve my English and gain a valuable Job in the workforce to help my family here and back home.. You did a great job and thank you for sharing the cultural sensitive with the people who are not expose to Somali cultural. good job sister.


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