An ethnographic study of classroom help with language minority students

Carmen Iris Mercado, Fordham University


The purpose of this study was to describe perceptions of help and procedures employed to help students with instructional content in three public elementary school classrooms in New York City. Students were primarily Hispanic and Asian fourth and fifth graders; teachers were Puerto Rican females with classroom experience. An ethnographic approach was used to gather information during the 1984-1985 school year. Data were derived from videotapes of classroom activities during five nonconsecutive days; field notes on in- and out-of-school activities; interviews; and examination of participant products. Macro- and micro-analysis of videotaped interaction were used to detect patterns and facilitate the formulation of hunches, which were tested against other sources of data. Data summaries and transcriptions were also developed for this purpose. Findings suggest that help was both a general procedure as well as an interactional event. Teachers helped their students to participate socially as well as with answers. However, sometimes teachers and students had different perceptions of help. The data suggested the following influences on the accomplishment of help: (1) Although interaction was characterized by a norm of help, this was in conflict as academic achievement was always an individual accomplishment. (2) The help norm may have prompted students to initiate interchanges over the content of instruction. (3) Accomplishing help required the negotiation of meaning, a difficult endeavor. For teachers, the negotiation of meaning was influenced by perceived pressures (1) to show that they "knew," (2) to "cover content," and (3) to deal with the unexpected. Few students engaged in negotiating meaning. (4) When teachers helped students to correct "wrong" answers, it sometimes had negative social and academic consequences. It made some students embarrassed or nervous and reluctant to participate. (5) To obtain assistance, students had to know rules, which varied with the context. Teachers typically gave help during lessons, but not all students preferred assistance at this time. (6) Gender-based and individual differences were evident. Males tended to solicit information about instructional content; females showed greater concern about the completion of tasks. Some students depended on teachers, other did not want to "bother" them. While insightful, these findings require further investigation as this was an exploratory study.

Subject Area

Curricula|Teaching|Educational sociology|Bilingual education|Multicultural education

Recommended Citation

Mercado, Carmen Iris, "An ethnographic study of classroom help with language minority students" (1988). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8821958.