Culture in ESL Classrooms

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Helping ESL students understand culture in ESL classrooms encompasses many areas. The best instructional practices help students negotiate unfamiliar situations while still recognizing the importance of their own cultures.

Aspects of Culture in ESL Classrooms

There are many things teachers should consider when including cultural information in their classrooms.

Holidays and Religion

Holidays offer an obvious way to incorporate culture in ESL classrooms. However, teachers should take care with religious holidays. While it's not inappropriate to discuss Easter or Christmas, the focus should be on the celebration and not the religious doctrine behind it.

Discussing religion is an easy way to offend those who have different beliefs.


Media Literacy

Much of the culture an English language learner is exposed to comes from the media.

Teaching Media Literacy in the ESL Classroom presents a rationale for incorporating media literacy as part of English language learners' cultural studies. This field of study can:

  • Help them become familiar with common elements of popular culture
  • Make them more critical consumers of television, movies, and advertising
  • Provide great conversation topics for developing English fluency
  • Encourage students to speak more freely with native speakers of English when they feel they have a common knowledge base

Idioms and Expressions

Everyday language and sayings such as idioms make up another important aspect of imparting culture to ESL students. How must sayings like "It's raining cats and dogs" sound to non-native speakers?

The BBC World Service provides a list of animal-based idioms and food and drink-based idioms. You can devote an entire lesson to these sayings or make it an ongoing endeavor by presenting an expression of the week.


Share Cultures

Another way to look at the idea of culture in ESL classrooms is as a means of providing opportunities for English language learners to share aspects of their own cultural backgrounds. "Getting to you know you" ESL lesson plans may offer an opportunity to share this information. Asking questions like, "Where are you from?" and "What do you do for fun?" can teach basic conversational skills while also opening a dialogue about students' backgrounds and experiences.

Comparing and contrasting is another way to recognize and respect ESL students' diverse backgrounds while presenting cultural information about the English-speaking world. For instance, during a lesson about the Super Bowl, the teacher could ask students to compare the event and the attention it gets in the U.S. to the way in which World Cup games are celebrated in their country of origin.


Meet the Students' Needs

Deciding which aspects of culture to cover can vary depending on the curriculum and the students' needs. For example:

  • A business English class will need to focus on issues of business etiquette.
  • A class for travelers could discuss the practice of tipping and how to hail a cab in a busy city.

Classes being held in the U.S., Canada, or Australia will focus on American, Canadian, or Australian culture respectively. The students are likely staying in the country for an extended period of time and will find real-life cultural hints useful.

Those teaching in non-English-speaking countries should think of what's practical for the class and its future language use. For instance, English language learners in Europe are more likely to spend a holiday in the U.K. than they are to travel to New Zealand.


Use Authentic Materials

For a lesson on public transportation, real subway schedules and bus tickets will make the experience more valuable for students.

Stay Aware of Cultural Standards

Teachers should also consider how students' cultures may be affecting their participation in the class. Cultural mores may dictate how they feel they should interact with authority figures, whether they should volunteer to participate in class, or how closely they stand to other students. A little sensitivity can go a long way in these cases while also providing the opportunity for teachable moments by discussing topics like personal space and eye contact.