This is the second in a series of articles by our Guest Contributor Barry Tomalin.

Making culture happen in the English language classroom - culture article - guest writers

In my first article for this intercultural forum I outlined why we needed to rethink the teaching of culture in ELT and put forward arguments for treating culture as a 5th language skill. This second article looks at teaching the cultural agenda in more detail and explores possible avenues of thinking in the following areas:

  • Where does culture fit? What discipline does it belong to?
  • Is there such a thing as a cultural curriculum or a cultural syllabus? When should we introduce the teaching of culture in ELT? Whose culture should we be teaching and what should we teach at what level?
  • How do materials address the issue of culture and is it adequate?
  • What are the best audio, text and visual aids for the teaching of culture?
  • What kind of methodology is best suited to the teaching of cultures at different levels?
  • What kinds of activities lend themselves to learning about and appreciating other cultures?

These points should give us all plenty to think about and discuss. So here are a few thoughts of my own to stimulate discussion.

Where does culture fit? What discipline does culture belong to?
Culture has many mothers – academic disciplines that have influenced its development. One is linguistics, which has provided the concepts of language analysis that are the basis of inter-cultural communication. Another is psychology, that has provided many of the concepts we use in understanding people’s motivation and behaviour. Two other disciplines, sociology and anthropology, have both influenced our study of behaviour and also the influences that form social values in different communities.

So we can say that cultural awareness is an interdisciplinary subject that draws on the resources of a variety of humanistic disciplines to profile the aptitudes and skills required to understand and work successfully in another culture. To my mind, the skills of cultural awareness are part of the newly developed subject of emotional intelligence, created by psychologist Daniel Goleman at Harvard University. However, you may well identify other ‘mothers’ and other antecedents and other homes for the study of cultural awareness or cultural competence.

Culture in the curriculum
Once you have discussed the roots of culture then you can search for its appearance in the curriculum. The Council of Europe Common European Framework for Reference (CEFR) has no section for culture but several cultural references spread through its examples. Pretty much all textbooks at secondary level and upwards now have a cultural syllabus and many primary ELT books make room for a ‘culture spot’ or ‘cultural corner’. My concern in such resources is that the syllabus is really ‘tacked on’ to the topic area of the textbook unit and has no real consistency of development as a skills set on its own.

One writer, Simon Greenall, who has an informed interest in this subject, has tried to tackle the cultural agenda in his Macmillan textbook ‘People like Us’. Simon chooses other cultures as his subject. But should we be teaching a specific culture? For example, British or US culture. If so, why exclude Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, Singapore or Indian culture, all of whom have English medium instruction, as do some other countries.
When should we introduce culture in English language teaching? Do students need to understand basic English before they begin looking at culture and if so what level are we talking about? Is it A1, A2, or B1 or even B2 according to the CEFR (Council of Europe Framework of Reference)? It would be good to have your views and your experience.

Cultural materials
Culture tends to be relegated to a specific section in textbooks or to be the subject of readers. Yet you could argue that every photo, drawing, reading package and dialogue is the subject not just of linguistic exploitation but of cultural discussion and debate.

Nowadays our textbooks contain print, audio, CDROM and DVD components and even dedicated websites. Are these better avenues for teaching cultural awareness and if so what should we be putting in them? Teachers of Professional English often complain about the lack of ‘critical incident methodology’ video material which highlights key areas of misunderstanding between cultures and presents them for discussion. We should exchange our recommendations on materials. I’ll gladly share mine if you’ll share yours.

An important question is how can we best incorporate cultural material in our teaching materials? Should we provide more cultural input in our ELT textbooks or should we ‘deculturalise’ our textbooks to give them the widest application?

The issue of de-coupling English language from cultural assumptions and background is a longstanding debate in ELT. Once again it would be good to know what you think.

Cultural methodology
How should we teach cultural awareness? Should we be teaching it as a special slot, such as a culture corner or culture spot in the lesson, or should each lesson seek to contain a cultural awareness skill that students develop through working through the textbook and associated materials? Should we be teaching the skills of identifying culturally significant information, how to research cultural information and how to develop cultural skills?
Should we have lectures and presentations where we tell our students what they need to know? Should we be using task-based learning and discovery techniques to help our students learn for themselves? Are some methods more appropriate than others for teachers who are not native-speakers (and may be less familiar with the culture) or have large classes of sixty or more students?

In other words, when do you include culture in your lessons and how do you teach it? What methodology works for you?

Conclusion
When we discuss the teaching of cultural awareness as a skill as opposed to teaching cultural information, we have to consider a number of issues, such as the curriculum, the materials and the methodology. The challenge is to initiate a debate on what and how to teach to help develop our children as international citizens of the world, using English and other languages as their lingua franca.

There’s plenty to talk about from the ‘high ground’ of theory to the ‘low ground’ of what to do in the classroom, both really important. Once again, I really look forward to meeting you on the Internet.

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Comments

To a large extent, the Cultural Sensitisation sessions that i have been a part of, were all presentations on what a learner ought to know about the other culture. This is largely because the instructor is trying to lay hands on information that is not first hand. The difficulty is, it doesn't register most of the times. And, even as one makes the presentation, the fact that the audience will remember only what they learn by themselves, looms large. This is not very helpful to the presenter or the audience.

On the other hand, I think activity based learning (self-learning) method will help. But what kind of activities? how to monitor?

Hi Angela,

I'm absolutely convinced that to teach anything successfully, you have to find out what the student knows and is interested in finding out.

Therefore, I always follow the learning cycle of

* activity

* debrief

*implementation

ACTIVITY

The activity can be finding what the students know. To do this I do the activity described in BLOG 10 Synergies and differences.  This allows me to find out what the students think about a topic.

DEBRIEF

The debrief involves eliciting what they know and correcting misconceptions, to the limit of my own knowledge.

IMPLEMENTATION

The implementation phase involves asking the class how what they have learned has changed their image of the English speaking culture and what they might do differnetly as a result.

I find the challenge is to find the activities that will involve the class but using a task based learning approach means that we can use even the textbook more interactively.

By the way, presentations have a role but even these can be turned into activities. See BLOG 11.

I hope that's useful and to hear from you again soon.

Regards,

Barry

 

 

 

 

Thank you Mr Tomalin for offering more perspectives on the fifth skill of culture. You've made us understand that the issue is not that too plain. Following are my takes on the issues you raised.

In my opinion textbook writers can lead the way by incorporating culture awareness raising material. They can also supplement the material through various platforms, print as well as electronic. I think so keeping in mind the issue I raised in response to your first article. For a native speaker issues of culture come without any effort. For a non-native teacher it won't. S/he might be aware of culture in terms of their own language context but need not be in the English context. Therefore, if textbook writers can offer some guidelines in terms of a teachers' handbook it'll be of great help to many English teachers from the third world countries.

On the question of methodology- I personally prefer task based activities where the learners work their way up in understanding the culture through worksheets and other assignments. The teacher can facilitate and complement leaners' efforts. Understanding another's customs and traditions and comparing and contrasting that with one's own can lead to a better understanding of the world cultures. 

But the big question remains- which culture are we going to compare and contrast with since English is no more owned by any particular country. One way out is to think in terms of the text and decide which culture is taken as the parent culture in it and take the culture discussion forward. These days English textbooks, especially those used in India, use texts written by writers belonging to various diaspora. There could be writers from Latin American countries, Middle East, Russia, etc apart from the regular English and American writers. All of them are brought together at one place using the medium of English. Because of this, a teacher cannot be expected to have such a range of cultural knowledge. It is here that the textbook writer as well as the publisher can be of some use. They can research and include some cultural notes which can be later taken up by the teacher. If teachers can use discussion forums available online to share and seek issues related to culture there won't be any end to the exploration which they can undertake. 

Culture in itself is vast. A concerted effort from various sides- textbook writers, publishers, teachers, netizens, etc- is what is needed to take it to the classrooms. Solo efforts here and there will be of limited reach.

Thank you Mr Cherry, for the very interesting issues you raise. let me number them and deal with them one by one.

1 I agree that non-native speakers have a harder time of it than natives of the country.

However, you can only do what you can do. You will always know more than most of your students and your job is to help them become aware of significant differences and to kep yourself up to date as best you can.

2 Modern textbooks can help, as can activity books and readers. Don't just look at the reading texts but look also at headlines, at social sight signs, drawings and photographs and train your students to look out for things which may be different from their own experience and which may have cultural significance.

3 I agree entirely that task based learning is the best way to initiate discussion of cultural issues. If you see my answer to Angela Daniel, TBL is really the activity phase of the cultural lesson.  The problem is how to find activities that exploit the textbook and I'll be addressing that in my teaching tip blogs this month. Have a look. They are labelled by number. So far we are up to number 10.

4 Culture IS vast and I agree we are no longer dealing just with UK or US culture, although these are still the main focus of interest. I would suggest we distinguish between English or part English speaking cultures, such as the US and the countries of the British Commonwealth and writing using English as a medium of communication by members of non-English speaking cultures, represented in translation.

Your state English curriculum should give some guidance as to which communities you should focus on as a teacher and the authorised textbooks should be following those guidance.

5 Finally, I think your solo efforts as a teacher of English are ultimately what really matters. Your personal enthusiasm about other countries and cultures is what will inspire your students and give them an enquiring and non-judgemental attitude to other cultures. Power to the teacher, Mr Cherry!

Hoe to hear from you again,

Regards,

Barry Tomalin

 

Hi Barry,

I'm an English teacher in the state of Bahia (Brazil). The discussion on teaching culture insterests me a lot, but I have a hard time applying the cultural component in my classes, because I teach beginners and I don't know how to teach culture in my classes, since I don't have proficient students in the English language. Is it a problem to use their mother tongue to discuss about culture? What about the language, where does it fit in? What kind of activities should I use to develop the intercultural competence?

Hope to hear from you soon.

Nair Domigues

Hi everyone

I hope you might find this link useful - it's to a blog entry by Carl Dowse which includes a video of Barry Tomalin talking about new training materials he is producing, as part of the Diverse Europe at Work (DEW) project:

carl-dowse.blogspot.ro/2009/04/test.html

Again, it is aimed more at the business English teaching community, but could be of interest to anyone involved in teaching.

Rob

Hi Barry !

The  questions raised in your article   were often on my mind .  I sometimes use the books : People like us    and People    like us, too.  I often asked this question  : What about other countries ? On the other  hand I think when teaching a  foreign language , culture  supposes something else .

The problem is L1  interference when students have ready models of phrases and sentences in their native language and try to use the same structure  in English  which hinders communication, frustrates it  and makes it sometimes impossible . I have  noticed  that this problem gets  worse when teaching adults. I might be mistaken but I think teaching culture has something to do with these problems

Neli  Kukhaleishvili

In the second of his articles, Barry Tomalin asked a number of questions, including the following: When should we introduce culture in English language teaching? Do students need to understand basic English before they begin looking at culture and if so what level are we talking about? Is it A1, A2, or B1 or even B2 according to the CEFR [Council of Europe Framework of Reference]?

I may be able to contribute a few points in relation to these questions. Firstly, let me explain that I work as a teacher-developer in the GCC region; my teachers are undertaking an in-service BA TESOL degree. The course includes a module on the teaching of English as an International Language, which includes the concept of interculturality and developing intercultural awareness. Some of the teachers have chosen to complete their module assignment in the form of a project reporting on the teaching of interculturality in their schools. As their tutor, I have had the opportunity to observe classroom lessons that have had an intercultural dimension.

In particular, I have observed two lessons with mixed-ability groups of eleven-year old boys [in their fifth year of learning English] that set out to address the general aim of the ELT course used in the schools [to encourage the children to develop a positive attitude towards, and take an interest in, their own and different cultures and people]. These lessons illustrated some of the problems facing teachers of English when dealing with intercultural materials.The first lesson I observed had two main steps relating to intercultural awareness. There was a core reading and listening activity and a listening and reading for specific information follow-up activity. The first of these steps consisted of five fairly long passages on children from other countries, totalling approximately 650 words: there were texts on Amra from Mongolia, Manka from Tanzania, Ju Li from Beijing, and Steven from New York, as well as Mohammed and Rashid from the home culture. The texts were certainly pitched at above CEFR Basic User Level [A1 Breakthrough Level or A2 Waystage Level] and probably at CEFR B1 Threshold Level [PET or IELTS 4.0 to 4.5].The learners were expected to read these texts silently and listen to a cassette recording at the same time, which in itself is a fairly demanding activity. There was a clear discrepancy between their listening skills [slow] and their reading speeds [even slower]. Almost every boy in the class struggled with the silent reading: many were just pointing and pretending to read. They were unable to even begin to tackle the reading. They stumbled at even reading aloud single words and short phrases. They were unable to recognise some of the simplest words and were clearly deterred by the high proportion of unfamiliar lexical items. None of the learners volunteered answers to questions, and any answers were merely echo responses of the teacher’s prompts. The learners had no time to tackle the second [follow-up] activity and apparently lacked the language skills to do so anyway.In the second lesson I observed, the first step consisted of a think and read core activity based on a semi-authentic email text of 130 words from a boy living in Mexico to a local GCC boy. When asked, a few boys in the class thought it was a letter but none recognised it as an email. Eventually some boys recognised that the recipient was from the GCC and the sender was from Mexico but most needed to be told this. The boys had problems reading the text, which again seemed to be written at approximately CEFR B1 Threshold Level, and these problems seemed to prevent them engaging with the intercultural content. The activity was not successful basically because the learners did not really understand what to do and did not seem to understand the target text. It was beyond their skills. The second activity was a follow-up listening and reading comprehension activity which looked at specific details of the Mexican boy’s weekday routine. This was no more successful than the first activity.The problem in both instances was that the target learners were probably at best A2 Waystage Level and most seemed no more than A1 Breakthrough Level.It seems possible that these classroom materials may sometimes require a linguistic competence that learners do not in fact have. It seems to me that the intercultural content of such materials makes cognitive or conceptual demands of the learners, as the materials are essentially concerned with the intercultural contextualization of the target language and with the cultural concepts covered. When the learners are unable to cope with the more immediate language demands that face them, the cognitive demands go out the windowSupport for learners dealing with intercultural concepts and content can be provided by not only by contextualising the target language, but also by using familiar concepts to build on, using familiar topics and content to lead into the less familiar and the unfamiliar. Support may also be provided by adapting materials, which in practice tends to mean reducing and simplifying. However, this raises problems regarding over-simplification and trivialization, and possible stereotyping, of intercultural content; this could be misleading for the learners. It also raises questions about what might be called the subsidiarity of intercultural content: intercultural concepts are perhaps essentially broad-brush but non-stereotyped concepts that young learners at or barely beyond certain levels of development find hard to grasp. Perhaps intercultural awareness needs to be delayed until learners have attained a level of maturity that enables them to tackle the concepts [rather than loading their minds with trivial or specific or discrete examples]. For example, the underlying intercultural message received by learners in the first set of materials might be that all Mongolians dress and live like Amra, all Masai in Tanzania live in wooden huts, covered in mud, with grass roofs, and so on.

It was interesting [and I think significant] that when the second group of boys [30 in total] were subsequently asked to complete a self-assessment task based on the unit they had just completed, relatively few identified aspects related to intercultural awareness as significant. When asked how well they could do certain things, only 13 out of 30 felt they could understand and talk about their own and other people’s lives and read and write about their own and other people’s lives. Even fewer [9] felt that they could read and understand factual information about other people. When asked what they learnt in the course unit, only 17 boys said that they had learnt about foreign foods and clothes. When asked to identify things they would like to learn about, only 3 boys said they would like to learn about foreign food and clothes. All the other responses were not related to the intercultural content of the unit, which set out to look at other children in other parts of the world.

My conclusion is that the language level of learners may well affect the effectiveness of intercultural content in TESOL, although a lot more research needs to be carried out on this, and I cannot necessarily see that language level is more than one factor amongst others. I also wonder to what extent restricted geographical awareness and knowledge has a deleterious effect on intercultural content in TESOL. Perhaps the answer lies in a more integrated school curriculum, in which other subjects are taught thin which English is taught other subjects.

Thank you very much for nice article about the fifth skill of ELT “teaching culture”.

 I firmly believe that it’s really problematic to teach English without paying attention to cultural notes. Almost everyday I receive lots of complaints from teachers who fail to be successful with their teaching. When I try to find out what the problem is, I usually come up with the same answer “Students are not aware of cultural differences.” 

For instance, while I was observing a class I understood that the students were completely confused how to greet each other. The teacher had taught them the usual sentences people use in greetings but he had never mentioned the cultural differences. Or sometimes we have problems with proverbs. We have all these proverbs in Farsi, too but because of the cultural differences we use them in other forms. Students don’t get the real meaning of most proverbs unless we teach them why they say so.

 

In my opinion, it’s a good idea to teach cultural points before we start to work on a topic. We’d better ask them to work on projects. For example, you can ask them to find some information about different eating habits in different countries and then give lectures.

 

This has always worked for me for two reasons. Firstly, this type of activity is very enjoyable and students usually love it because they are doing a research and every body has something to say. Secondly, they are learning something new about other nations.

 

I usually advise them to get the information they need from the travel brochures, internet and cultural dictionaries.

Amir Abbass Ravayee

 

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