Making culture happen in the English language classroom

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

A group of young learners in a classroom with different flags and a globe

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?


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.

Read the first article in this series here: Culture – the fifth language skill


Submitted by Gerry Burger-M… on Thu, 05/21/2020 - 21:10

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. 

Submitted by cherrymp on Fri, 10/10/2008 - 09:00

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.

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight