BTR-TESOL Unit 7E - Teaching Culture



objectives of this unit

the least you should know

importance of teaching culture

comprehensive questions

general guidelines to keep in mind

comprehensive questions

sample ideas and activities

comprehensive questions

video examples

reflection and responses

where to go to learn more

connections to other units in this program

online and other electronic resources

print and paper based resources

additional references



Coming Soon.

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Scenario: Teaching American Culture in China

Jack has been teaching business at an American university for the last 18 years, but recently retired and decided to spend some time abroad. He has been hired by a university in China to teach business English and a listening/speaking class. He is very excited for this new experience, but also a little nervous.

Three weeks before leaving to go to China, Jack’s department chair sent him an email asking him to teach American culture as part of the oral English class. Many of the students are hoping to attend American universities and want to know more about American culture. Jack is very confident in his ability to teach business courses, but he doesn’t know how or what to teach in regards to culture. He is now in the US and has three weeks to prepare materials, items, and lesson plans.

  • What would you do in Jack’s situation?
  • Does being a native speaker of English qualify a person to teach a class on American culture?
  • What do you think her intention was?
  • What ideas do you have about how to include culture in a language class?
  • What preparations do you suggest Jack do in the next three weeks to prepare for this course? Are there items he could take that would be helpful?
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    Objectives of this unit

    After working through this unit, you will be able to…
    • explain the importance of teaching culture in a language learning environment
    • teach your students about some basic principles of intercultural communication
    • connect what you see in a video clip of someone teaching culture with general principles about culture teaching
    • plan how you might apply the principles presented in this unit in your own ESL/EFL classes in the future
    As you learn the content of this unit, you will understand the importance of teaching culture in the language classroom and be able to begin (or continue) including culture in your lessons.

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    The least you should know

    This section will help you learn more about why culture is an important part of language learning and how to help your students understand that importance.

    This unit has three sections:

    1. Importance of teaching culture
    2. General guidelines to keep in mind
    3. Sample activities to teach cultural awareness

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    1. Importance of teaching culture

    Many teachers make the assumption that culture is something that will “just be learned along the way” as their students learn language. While this is true to some extent, your students will be at a large disadvantage if you ignore culture completely in your teaching.

    Culture and language learning

    Language learning is never easy; there are so many different things that you need to learn: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, just to name a few! You then have to take your incomplete knowledge from each of these various areas and combine them together to produce language that can be understood by others! No easy task by any means. When you add culture to the list of things to learn, the learning load may become almost unbearable.

    Pragmatic failure leads to problems

    One of the most important parts of learning a culture is learning to say the right things at the right time. In America, if you meet your good friend on the way to work in the morning, asking, “How are ya?” is an appropriate greeting; however, if you meet your boss, saying “How are ya?” is usually too informal. Possibly “How are you today, Mr. Jones?” would be more appropriate. Why is this?

    Part of becoming culturally aware means understanding the pragmatics of the target culture. Pragmatics is simply the intent or meaning that speakers are trying to communicate to other people through the words they say. Using the example above, saying “How are ya?” implies a certain level of informality and familiarity, which may or may not be appropriate depending on who you are speaking to. Interestingly, native speakers are much more likely to forgive grammatically incorrect sentences than pragmatically incorrect sentences.

    Consider the following:

      Which of these three sentences would a native speaker likely find most offensive?
      • A student talking about his male teacher says: “She is very nice.” 
      • A student talking about his friend, says, “He went his house… to eating.”
      • A university student goes to his professor with his term paper wanting to receive some help with it and says: “Monty, you will read paper.”

    In the first example, the student refers to their male teacher using a pronoun that is for females. This is a forgivable error and could even be used by the teacher to make a joke. In the second example, the student makes a simple grammatical error; it is easily correctable, and is most definitely not offensive. However, in the third, the student will sound rude and demanding because the context requires students to show respect to their teachers and address them appropriately. There is a pragmatic failure of the student to communicate the proper intent. Two small changes would result in a much better request: “Dr. Colver, you can read paper.” Although this is not as good as “Dr. Colver, can you please read my paper?”, it sounds much more polite than “Monty, you will read paper.”

    Culture shock

    Culture shock can be one of the biggest problems students face when they are learning a language in a foreign culture. Teachers have the responsibility to help their students adjust to the new cultural situation and one of the best things teachers can do is help their students understand the causes, symptoms, and “cures” for culture shock. One of the best “cures” for culture shock is learning more about the target culture. For more information, see Unit 1D, “Understanding and Adapting in a New Culture.”


    Comprehension (and reflection) questions

    1. In what ways do you think culture and language are related?
    2. Have you witnessed or experienced a pragmatic failure recently? In regards to the situation, were the participants offended or were they forgiving?
    3. How could you help your students understand the difference between grammatical and pragmatic errors?

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    2. General guidelines for teaching culture

    When teaching culture, it is important to have a few overall goals in mind. Whether you are teaching in a foreign culture or your students are in a foreign culture, you will need to decide what aspects of culture you want to emphasize. For example, if you are teaching English in an English-speaking country, you will have different goals than if you are teaching in China, Mexico, or Korea, where all of your students share the same cultural background. Furthermore, you should keep in mind that teaching culture is generally more effective with adults than with children because adults typically have an understanding of what culture is; however, teaching culture can be just as effective with children, you may just have to do it indirectly.

    Following are some guidelines to help you think about your goals.

    Culture-general vs. Culture-specific

    There are generally two ways in which culture is taught. The best approach depends on what kind of situation you are teaching in. One way is for your teaching to be culture-general, meaning that you do not teach about a specific culture, rather you teach ideas and concepts about culture that apply generally to most or all cultures. On the other hand, your teaching may need to be culture-specific, which means it has a direct focus on one target culture.

    • Culture-general instruction is useful for helping people to understand the relationships between cultures and the differences that exist between cultures in general with the goal of trying to become more understanding of other cultures and behaviors. Topics might be something like, “What social roles do women have around the world?” or “How do different culture groups feel about ‘outsiders’?”

    • Culture-specific instruction is teaching explicit information about a particular target culture, for example, American culture. Culture-specific instruction is useful for helping people who will be or currently are living in the target culture. Topics might be something like, “How do Americans feel about sports?” or “Do Americans watch too much TV?”  Do NOT assume that the target culture can only be the culture of an English-speaking country; it is very important to remember that your Chinese students, for example, may need to understand the local Chinese variety of English more than they do American English!

    Three types of culture topics - C/c/K culture

    When deciding what content to teach, there are three types of culture to consider:

    • Big C-culture: art, music, literature, drama, dance, and food; may also include important names, dates, and locations
    • Little c-culture: customs, traditions, values, and beliefs of the people; what makes their day-to-day interactions different from other cultures
    • K-culture: the “kooky”, or strange, things that are often unique to a single culture, or small number of cultures
    There is no “right way” to teach culture. There are many different ideas about what type of culture needs to be taught and the methods to teach it. Some people think that important names, dates, and places are most important; others claim that culture is more about the day-to-day lives of the people in that culture; still others prefer to emphasize the differences between cultures and think that the differences are what need to be taught in a language classroom. You need to decide for yourself how to balance these methods and ideas to match your own teaching style and, more importantly, the needs of your students.

    Don't reinforce stereotypes

    When teaching culture-specific material, be certain that you are not merely reinforcing stereotypes about the target culture. One of the worst things a teacher can do is fail to make it clear that there are generalities that can be made about culture groups which are useful and helpful in understanding that group, but that there are definitely exceptions. If students leave your classroom thinking, “All Americans are friendly”, you will have a lot of explaining to do to your students when they meet a rude American the next weekend. This can be a great grammar lesson when teaching degrees of completeness, all, most, many, some, a few, very few, none, etc.; for example, simply write “Most Americans are friendly, but some are rude.” And then open up a class discussion about the students’ feelings about the accuracy of the statement.

    Remember individual differences

    Part of not reinforcing stereotypes is remembering that within each culture group or language group there is variety in individuals. Even if two people belong to many of the same culture groups, speak the same language, are the same age, and belong to the same social class and gender, the fact remains that they are still two distinct individuals with different personalities, beliefs, goals, and values. In other words, belonging to the same culture does not necessarily mean that two people are culturally identical.


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    Comprehension (and reflection) questions

    1. Have you ever had any culture-general instruction? Have you ever had any culture-specific instruction? What was it like? Do you think it was helpful?
    2. When you studied a foreign language, how was culture taught?
    3. What do you know about the culture of your students? Categorize your knowledge into C/c/K-culture types.
    4. What culture-specific stereotypes do you have about your students’ culture/s? Do you think those stereotypes are really true?
    5. What types of stereotypes might others have about your culture? Do you think those stereotypes are true in general?
    6. In what ways do you or your family vary from others that share your same cultural background? What are the reasons for these differences?

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    3. Sample ideas and activities

    There are lots of ways to bring culture into your classroom. Many teachers agree that giving students exposure to a variety of materials can be very helpful. Choose a specific cultural topic such as ‘greetings with friends’ or ‘nonverbal communication between siblings’, then you can find materials that demonstrate cultural norms from the following sources:
    • Movies
    • Songs
    • Folklore (stories)
    • TV series
    • Literature
    • Children’s books
    • Role plays
    In addition to using these resources, there are lots of books and websites that can be useful for teaching culture. Following are some sample ideas and activities to help you get started teaching culture. Many of these activities only take a few minutes, but can lead to wonderful, lengthy discussions about culture if your class is ready for that kind of activity.


    Culture is all about perspective. The things we think we see may be distorted by our own beliefs, experiences, and values.  

    1. Watch the first 25 seconds of this video:
      This video shows balls being place at the bottom of ramps. The balls then appear to magnetically ascend to the top of the ramp. It is merely an illusion.
    2. After 25 seconds, pause the video and ask students how they think this is done.
    3. After some discussion, play the rest of the video.
    4. Discuss the importance of perspective. We often see things that we interpret incorrectly because we believe that we understand the underlying principles (such as gravity in this case).
    5. If you are living in a foreign culture, give some examples of things that you have seen that you don’t understand and ask for an explanation. Be careful not to be derogatory!
    6. Have students give examples of things they have seen from the target culture that they don’t understand and try to determine if perspective would help them understand these things better.

    What's in a name?

    what's in a name break-downOften a person’s name has some meaning to it, even if that meaning is unknown to them. Before doing this activity, you should research your own name. Why did your parents give you that name? What does it mean? Are their famous people with your name?

    This is a great “first day” activity that can be done right at the beginning of class after you have introduced yourself.

    1. Begin the activity by writing your name at the top of the board in big letters so everyone can see.
    2. Begin with your given name and explain a few things about it. Then do the same for your other name/s. Give students opportunities to ask questions.
    3. Explain how names are related to our culture. Names often have meaning that reflects the values and beliefs of our parents (and hence their culture).
    4. Give the students the homework assignment to learn about their own name and come prepared to share information about their own name.
    5. The next day as each student shares, give the class opportunities to ask questions and have discussions. Take the time to learn what you can about each others’ cultures and enjoy the diversity.
    Adapted from Ned Seelye’s Experiential Activities for Intercultural Learning, 1996.

    The priest and the coach

    Within each culture, people generally share the same values and beliefs, but there is also room for individual differences depending on social status, occupation, religious beliefs, educational background, etc.

    1. To illustrate this difference, look at the differing opinions of the word “education” from the point of view of a priest and a soccer coach, both of which have the same cultural background. Think of words that each might use and write these on the board in two columns. A priest might emphasize the importance of morality and education received at school with a some mention about discipline and religion. On the other hand, a soccer coach would likely mention ideas such as competition and hard (physical) work with a stronger emphasis on discipline, and would likely not mention religion at all. These two individuals, although from the same culture, have differing ideas about the concept of education and related activities and ideas. Likewise, each person you ask would have slightly varying thoughts about the word “education” regardless of whether they share the same culture or not.
    2. Give students a few minutes to write down some of their thoughts about a specific topic; for example, education, family, love, or culture. Students’ answers should be short and easily repeatable; for example, if the topic is family – mom, dad, children, brother, sister, summer vacation, home, going to the movies, etc.
    3. Have students share some of their responses and write them on the board, ask other students to say whether they disagree or agree with the answer and talk about why they agree or disagree. Is the difference cultural or individual or both? REMEMBER: THERE IS NO CORRECT ANSWER. Make sure the students understand this. You are simply trying to determine in what ways your students are similar and different and help them understand that words have different meanings to different cultures and people.
    Adapted from Ned Seelye’s Experiential Activities for Intercultural Learning, 1996.


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    Comprehension (and reflection) questions

    1. Which of these activities did you like? Why?
    2. What changes could you make to these activities to adapt them to your situation?

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    Video example

    You will now view a video clip of a lesson from two classrooms in China. The first clip shows some students who may need some instruction about handshaking and the second clip illustrates how you might teach the culture-specific concept of handshaking.
    Click here.  

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    Reflection and Responses

    As you view this video clip, think about each of the following questions.

    1. How does this video illustrate culture? (Hint: there is more to it than handshaking!)
    2. What other kinds of nonverbal communication can you see?
    3. What other things might you do differently to help your students understand what culture is?

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    Where to go to learn more

    That’s it. That’s “the least you should know” about teaching culture. Of course, there is much more that you can learn about teaching culture. For more information, please use the following section to guide your search.

    Connections to other units in this program

    Here are some other units in this program that relate to topics we have addressed in this unit.
    • Unit 1D, “Understanding and adapting in a new culture”
    • Unit 3C, “Managing classes of English language learners”
    • Unit 4F, “Developing an awareness of teaching styles and cross-cultural style differences”
    • Unit 5C, “Understanding your students’ language learning styles”  

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    Online and other electronic resources

    Here are some web sites that are helpful resources for understanding and adapting to a new culture.

    education world homepage
    This is a website for K-12 teachers with ideas for culture-related activities and ideas. Most of the content is more appropriate for a younger audience, but can be adapted for older students as well.

    teaching tolerance homepage
    A website dedicated to helping teachers bring cultural understanding to the classroom. This site also contains many anecdotal experiences that can be useful in discussion culture differences.

    pro teacher homepage
    This is a directory for K-12 teachers, which guides users to resources about culture teaching.

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    Print and paper-based resources

    Here are some helpful, published resources about culture and culture learning.

    experiential activities coverH. Ned Seelye. Experiential Activities for Intercultural Learning. Intercultural Press, Inc. 1996. Ready-to-use activities that can brought into most classroom environments to help students become more culturally aware. Most of the activities require very little preparation and can be easily adapted to fit the needs of your students. ISBN 1877864331

    teaching culture coverPatrick Moran. Teaching Culture. Heinle & Heinle, 2001. This book provides an in-depth look at the relationship between language and culture. Although the text is academically focused and may be difficult to understand for those who have a lower proficiency in English, it also includes a lot of anecdotal evidence to support his ideas and theories which helps the readers to relate the material to their own experiences. This book is for teachers who are looking for something that is more theory than application.
    ISBN 9780838466766

    talk your head off coverBrana Rish West. Talk Your Head Off. Prentice Hall, 1996. This book covers a wide variety of topics that are ready for use in a speaking/conversation class. Most of the topics are not well-suited for children, but there are some that could be used with children as well. Adults will find the topics engaging, interesting, and humorous.
    ISBN 9780134762012

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    Additional References

    Coming Soon.

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