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Criteria for a good cultural training lesson

By Alex Case
Students tend to love talking about cultural differences, traditional festivals, travel information etc. in class, and textbooks are increasingly expanding from a focus on Britain and/ or the USA to include voices and information from all over the globe. As anyone who has tried a few of those lessons can tell you, however, not all […]

Students tend to love talking about cultural differences, traditional festivals, travel information etc. in class, and textbooks are increasingly expanding from a focus on Britain and/ or the USA to include voices and information from all over the globe. As anyone who has tried a few of those lessons can tell you, however, not all English lessons with a cultural training bent are created the same. Here are some tips on what to think about to make sure the lessons you choose or the lessons you create are good both as an English lesson and as a way of making students more aware of other countries.

A good English lesson including cross-cultural training:

1. Is stereotype busting
The danger of many lessons with the topic of cultural differences is that they reinforce stereotypes. This doesn’t have to be such a bad thing when it is just a starting point, is not too negative, and/ or is about a nationality that is not in a vulnerable position internationally or locally as it can help you simplify the content and so make it more manageable and memorable. Obviously, though, whilst keeping the lesson easy enough to fit in with the timing and language level of the class, we would prefer not to spread stereotypes at all. Ways of avoiding it include: stories of individual people or groups of people who break the national stereotype (e.g. Carlos Ghosn or Northern Italians); pointing out a few (harmless) untrue stereotypes that other people have of your students’ nationality; and giving statistics that show which stereotypes are true, partly true and untrue.

2. Has a clear language focus
Whilst students are often happy just to leave class knowing something about the world they didn’t before, if only for reasons of saving classroom time it is best to combine each lesson with a specific language point. Examples include Present Simple for leisure habits in a particular country, Present Continuous for what is happening in different time zones now, and the names of parts of the body for gestures around the world.

3. Is connected to countries students are interested in/will have contact with
Unfortunately, depending on the nationality and international outlook of your students the movement in textbooks away from stories of Olde England to stories of street children in Samarkand is just as likely to leave them thinking “Why should I care?” as it is to expand their outlook and make them feel part of an international community of EIL speakers. This is partly understandable, as suddenly realising that you have to find out about the whole world to become part of the “community of speakers of English as an International Language” is even more overwhelming than trying to become a speaker of British or American English. As well as not entirely abandoning the native speaker model as long as it helps students’ interest and motivation, you could also choose and adapt topics so that they tie in well with other relevant cultures such as the most rapidly growing economies, neighbouring countries etc.

4. Doesn’t oversimplify
Another difficulty of teaching lower level students about another culture is that the simplification of language can lead to the oversimplification of the information you are giving and therefore to stereotyping. Hedging language you can use at even low levels includes adverbs of frequency (“British people usually…”), simple conjunctions (“British people drink tea and they drink coffee”), and numbers (“Only 15% of English people have afternoon tea once a month”)

5. Doesn’t scare people off
A possible problem with teaching cultural topics is that by emphasizing the differences you can make foreign countries and foreign people seem inaccessible, mysterious, difficult to understand or even scary. Ways round this include emphasizing similarities (“Japanese people and Chinese people both use chopsticks”, “All humans smile”), giving reasons for cultural differences (“The taboo on pork is because it can be dangerous to eat pork in the desert”), and showing that a subculture in their own society is just as mysterious (“Old people in my country eat rice but young people prefer hamburgers”).

6. Gives answers
Unfortunately for the ease of conforming with the advice above, students aren’t likely to be happy with a question or lesson that finishes with “Your theory is as good as mine”. Ways around this include sticking to topics you have personal experience of; dealing with cultural topics in broad ways based on psychological theories; using statistics from marketing surveys etc, and showing them that they can’t even explain the reasons behind their own cultural habits (but see below).

7. Don’t embarrass them
The most common way of embarrassing students in this kind of lesson is by finding holes in their knowledge of their own country or other world knowledge they think they should know, but it can also occur because the discussion can drift into areas they are not happy to talk about such as criticizing their own country or talking about racism or history.

8. Avoids or skirts taboo topics
See above. Topics that could be difficult if approached too directly include gender roles, marriage and dating, history, racism, and revelations about famous living and historic figures.

9. Prompts discussion
Meaning: doesn’t prompt rants, monologues or thoughtful silence. The last is a particular danger when the discussion gets too philosophical. You can plan this into your lesson by writing down what you expect students to say during the discussion, and so judge if they are likely to be able to make an even handed discussion out of it and what language and help with ideas they might need in order to do so.

10. Has lots of STT
As well as topics that are stimulating but not too thought provoking or controversial, this mainly means the usual points about raising Student Talking Time with pairwork and groupwork. With lessons on cultural topics this involves the use of worksheets such as questions to discuss together or True/ False statements to agree on. Roleplays are also possible, as are board games on challenges like entertaining a foreign guest.

11. Doesn’t overload them with facts
As with teaching vocabulary, too much information at one time can mean none of it will stick. As with vocab, grouping things together under one topic or one country can help students organise the information in their heads and therefore take more in, as can getting them to use the information and revising it in future lessons.

12. Doesn’t overload them with theory
If teaching cross-cultural facts is like teaching vocabulary, then teaching a theory of cross-cultural differences is like a grammar lesson, i.e. one theory a lesson is usually enough. As with grammar, it is possible to write a “graded” syllabus of theories you want to bring up, with each lesson revising and building on the last one.As with grammar, a “discovery approach” where students try to come up and test theories with the examples and data you give them helps interest and memory.

13. Makes it memorable
As well as the tips above (about limiting input, getting them to use the information or theories and revising), you can also make the lesson content stick with personal anecdotes, the use of visuals and multimedia, project work, interesting listenings and readings, surprising facts, and relevant homework.

14. Ties in with the syllabus
Although taking a class away from the syllabus to concentrate just on learning to interact with other cultures is usually appreciated, even such a lesson is a great opportunity to revise the language they have been studying in a way that really shows it in context. Ways of tying it in include by grammar point (e.g. adverbs for “Germans drive quickly), vocabulary area (e.g. clothes for “Men must take their hats off in church”) or function (e.g. obligation for “Catholics had to eat fish on Fridays”).

15. Is practical
Although the tips above have mainly concentrated on cross-cultural facts and theory, what students most want is something they can use. This can be something as basic as spending some time on navigating a street map of a city they will visit for business or practising ordering from a real restaurant menu, so it is worth including this kind of stuff in your supplementary files and lessons.

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET April 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Tefl.NET


  • Brian Barker - London says:

    “community of speakers of English, as an international language”
    I think that this is relevant to Esperanto.
    At least, I hope so.

  • Alex Case says:

    I’m sorry, but I really can’t see the relevance of the video to the article. Could you elaborate?

  • Brian Barker - London says:

    Without wanting to put a spoke in the works, can I ask what we do about those who are both unwilling and unable to speak or learn English competently? Consider that even the England football manager cannot speak the so-called “international language” English. And nowhere does the word Esperanto appear either, and that must result from bigotry, if not ignorance. I mention this because I have just seen the following Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU

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