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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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.
The debrief involves eliciting what they know and correcting misconceptions, to the limit of my own knowledge.
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.
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,
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.
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:
Again, it is aimed more at the business English teaching community, but could be of interest to anyone involved in teaching.
Thanks for the very useful link you gave teachers Bob.
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
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
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  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
I strongly agree with your ideas.Would u plz do me a favour?If u have some related articles would u plz send them for me?
Hello, sometimes I do share different cultural perspectives with my students. However, I find that I'm the only person who is interested in those stories. I wonder how I could make it real to my students? (I have also tried to show them some links and videos, but the responses are not as expected). My students are mostly adults~
Thanks if anyone could provide me the best solution~
Very resourceful article indeed. I learnt a number of things from reading it.
With rapid globalization and citizens who live and work in many countries throughout their lives, develop cultural awareness can help someone appreciate and respect other cultures and therefore more successfully blend with their surroundings. Globabliazation demands us to be culturally aware. Even in English speaking nations, there are subtle differences in accent, sentence structure,spelling and grammar in India, Singapore, UK, Australia and the US.
First of all, people tend to go through three stages when interacting wth other cultures. First is the denial of difference -which can lead to embarrasing situations-, then the acceptance of difference, and finally the valuing of difference.
Then there's the intellectual and emphatic understanding. Inetllectual understanding can be a list of do's and don'ts. Emphatic understanding involves understand the others' history, too. All in all, we can never fully know about another culture but our own. This way we can see ourselves and understand our behaviour when dealing with other cultures.
Perhaps and ironicaly it would be a good idea to ask students to talk about their cuture to better understand others.
I find teaching culture is a largely debatable topic since not any teacher can do it.
If we take the example of the EFL context, teaching culture is part and parcel, however many teachers still not aware that teaching culture is part of ELT. Teachers tend to forget to mention culture in their classes or maybe because they lack information about the taget culture and sometimes are not even aware of the microcultures that make their own culture. So, all these arguments make it a difficult task. I think teachers need trainings in order to develop their cultural awareness as well as to become interculturally competent: to believe that no culture is superior or better than the other and that we have to accept and respect each others differences.
Teaching culture is teaching both similarities and differences of both cultures.
When I read the previous article - Culture-the fifth language skill - I started to think about its methodology. I felt very reliefed when I saw the subtitle Cultrual Methodology because I guess we tend to love ready things to save time, mainly. In fact, it was very good for me to reflect upon the things I've done in terms of teaching culture and to think about new possibilities. First, I believe we should not necessarily have a 'place' to set culture to be taught since each class is singular and most of it depend on the group you are teaching. But there is no problem if the material brings such a 'place'. I believe it's important or even essential to teach culture and it may vary according to the context of teaching.
I think that it may not always be necessary to teach culture directly as culture. Often we polarize this issue to an unnecessary extent. I remember taking Japanese class in high school and once a semester we had "culture day" during which we would go to the home economics kitchens and bake some really terrible versions of good Japanese cuisine. Culture in our young minds was a sort of treat that we only received when we had time, all the rest of the curriculum was devoted to grinding seemingly endless amounts of vocabulary and grammar.
On the other hand we have many textbooks that seem to be entirely devoted to explaining the various differences between cultures and which can often have the negative effect of creating or enforcing social stereotypes.
I think that we can infuse culture education while we teach specific skills. For example, I work at a small English school in Japan and many of my students are learning English for business reasons, or because they plan to live in an English speaking country at some time. One of the skills that I emphasize is developing, sharing, and arguing your opinions.
Many Japanese students are rather hesitant to share, or argue their opinions. In Japan there is a strong cultural desire to maintain harmony between groups and to not disturb the water. But among people in the west, especially younger Americans, it is quite opposite. This skill is not only important linguistically, but culturally. In the west, we have the tendency to regard someone who does not have strong, well-developed, or articulately expressed opinions as being either uneducated or very shy. Therefore there is a sort of cultural stigma against those who do not make their thoughts, ideas, and opinions known.
So as we teach an important skill, we are giving them important cultural training.
Introducing culture and development of materials with local context is essential in my opinion when teaching local immigrants and refugees. Observation of learners indicates a definite raise in motivation when they can recognise a local relevance to their learning. Introducing general English textbooks in comparison with developed materials using target language with a local context is in my opinion a demotivator. Any class where I have introduced a topic with direct local context has raised immediate interest and instant communication with the learners.
Thanks a lot for your "Making culture happen in the English language classroom " article..
I love this discussion as I focus on the teaching intercultural content in EFL classroom. However, until now I still confused about what kind of intercultural content should be taught and how that suitable for the secondary school student.
I have idea to using internet as a tool in teaching Intecultural content, perhaps it could help teachers to provide varities of resources of cultural content. As we know that, internet is an attractive media in teaching and perhaps can enhance the students skills.
We are teacher students from Denmark and would like to comment on which culture we should teach.
We think that teaching UK/US culture is essential because the pupils have to choose which accent they want to adapt. Furthermore the pupils interact with the two cultures all the time and therefore we find it important for them to understand the cultures.
However we also think that other English speaking countries should be dealth with later on in order to increase the knowledge and awareness of these countries and cultures.
Good morning Barry
We are four student teachers from Denmark. Having read your articles we have been inspired by your view of cultural language teaching. Especially, we have discussed the question of which cultural skills schools should teach to every student. One could answer the question simply by saying: As much culture as possible. Every teacher knows that we can only do so much. Therefore it is most important to evoke the students curiosity and give them tools to decode the different cultural layers, and give them strategies they can use to learn about cultures on their own.
We have a few ideas as to how we should approach the matter of understanding cultures:
1. Compare a new cultural subject to your current cultural knowledge, both the values and linguistic behavior.
2. Using alot of video and audio to immerse students in a different culture.
We hope to hear what you think of our train of thought, and how would you elaborate on our discussion?
Born in London, living in Canada for 40 years, I have been an ESL Coach for 8 years. I don't know how you can teach English without reference to culture - especially in conversation classes/groups. We start off with memories of our first day in Canada (always good to laugh about our first winter day!), talk about food, special holidays - at home and here, special events, life events, sports, and so on....and comparing home with their new home. All very natural. We've introduced elements of Indigenous culture (prepared by Indigenous people) as this is an important part of where we live and likely quite new to newcomers.
While "easier" in conversation classes, we also use this approach in our writing classes, where an element of grammer will be introduced and discussed and then the learners will apply that to "something": preparing food, shopping, festivities, etc., all using examples from their home culture and from what they are learning here.
To me, with this approach we integrate/embed culture into languagbe learning as well as possible. I'm interested in learning other approaches.