The Role of Culture in Language Teaching

What is culture?

Culture is a learned way of life shared by a group of people. It includes languages, food, celebrations, artistic expression, the arts, sports and media.

It can be divided into three groups:

Products: literature, folklore, art, music, artefacts

Behaviours: customs, habits, dress, foods, leisure

Ideas: beliefs, values, institutions

Beware of stereotypes

We must beware of stereotypes e.g. everyone in England has tea at 4 o’clock, London is foggy; as they tend to be outdated, idealised, represent the middle-class and often quite wrong. For culture if dynamic and also exists on two levels. There is what we can see: surface culture and what lies beneath: deep culture, which includes belief systems and attitudes.

We include culture in education

Because learners should have contact with native speakers and cooperate with them. Learners must be acquainted with the target culture.

Stern, 1992

But what is the ‘target’ culture when learning a global language?

The Scottish Curriculum of Excellence says:

The goal of education is to equip all pupils with the foundation skills, attitudes and expectations necessary to prosper in a changing society

And help understand diverse cultures and beliefs

These are all excellent reasons for studying cultures of other countries and groups, especially in the multicultural world we live in today, where ignorance of cultures and beliefs leads to so much friction and even hate.

BUT: ‘the viewer contains the view’

I would argue that any study of culture should begin with one’s own. Start with the known, then move to the alien. For

·         Culture is a two-way process

·         Students need to have a sense of their own cultural reality

·         We need to appreciate our own culture in order to make comparisons and appreciate similarities



Make a list of food that is traditional in your country.

Think about why this food is common.

What’s your favourite local food?

Is there any local food you don’t like? Why?

What’s your favourite foreign food?


Where do these foods come from and what are they?


Dim sum





Have you tried them? Did you like them?


Have you ever eaten any of these foods?

Frog’s legs




Monkey brains

Chicken feet

Where do you think they are eaten?

Would you try them, if they were offered to you?

We use tasks like this to

·         To explore fascinating aspects of cultures = motivation

·         To understand diverse cultures = become a global citizen

·         Appreciate own culture = represent own realities

·         And we don’t forget we are teaching English = afford opportunities to use language meaningfully


I love using all kinds of texts in the language classroom and literature doesn’t have to mean Shakespeare and Byron, but can be folk stories, comics, simple poems and children’s books.

The haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry, consisting of 3 lines. The lines rarely rhyme.


Ancient pond

Frog Leaps


Haikus can be great to read and discuss in class, but particularly to get learners to respond to them in different ways like drawing the poem and writing their own versions.

There is something about a haiku, to me, that reflects Japanese culture: the seeming simplicity and careful choice of a few words to create a powerful image.

Limericks are humorous five line poems with an AABBA rhyme scheme and strict rhythm.


There was a young lady named Rose

Who had a large wart on her nose

When she had it removed

Her appearance improved

But her glasses slipped down to her toes.

They can be read just for the fun of them and students can try writing their own. They are great for exploring the rhyme ad rhythm of English.

In exploring literature we can learn about different cultures as well as individuals.

Communication is “a process by which two individuals ‘try’ to exchange a set of ideas, feelings, symbols.. meanings”

Pierre Casse, Teaching for the Cross-Cultural Mind, Society of Inter-Cultural Education, 1981

We must learn to understand more than just the words, but also

·         Read between the lines

·         Negotiate meaning

·         Tolerate ambiguity

·         Effectively interpret messages

·         Accept difference


 Nothing defines a culture as distinctly as its language, and the element of language that best encapsulates a society's values and beliefs is its proverbs.



Introduce this Arabic proverb to your students.

The son of a duck is a floater.

Ask them to discuss what it means and to find a proverb in their L1 that conveys the same meaning.

In English we say: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Ask students to find proverbs in their L1 that convey the same meaning as the following:

A woman’s work is never done.

Never judge a book by its cover.

You’re never too old to learn.

This could lead to an interesting discussion.

Including culture in language teaching

·         Brings the world into the classroom

·         Broadens students’ knowledge of world

·         Leads to classroom exploration

·         Practises more than just grammar and vocabulary

·         Allows for critical thinking

You can find examples for class room use in the following:



TV  programmes




Students own information




Guest speakers








Why Play is Crucial in learning

It’s 2017 and I still come across learning environments where even with young children playing is regarded as the opposite of working and not to be entertained in a classroom. Of course, things have improved overall in Young Learners classrooms, helped a lot by the fabulous course books on offer, which come packed with games, songs, drama and even craft activities.

It has long been believed that play is a necessary part of life:

The healthy individual is someone who can work, play and love effectively

G. W. Allport

Pattern and Growth in Personality, 1961

And we can see arguments for it even in the 18th Century.

Teachers need to encourage free expression and natural playfulness…

Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1762

Jean Piaget said:

play leads to consolidation of newly learned behaviours… exposing the child to new experiences and new possibilities for dealing with the world

We encourage children to play with English

·        To make them feel comfortable

·        To help language be memorable

·        To practise language

·        To facilitate involvement

·        Because we recognise that language learning is affective as well as cognitive

·        It’s fun and motivating

But with teens and adults the game changes. We probably don’t play so much with our older students because of

·        Student expectations – their previous learning experiences have been serious and rigidly defined

·        Teacher expectations – we wear a different hat with our older students

·        The course book – there aren’t many games in exam preparation books, for example

·        Play lacks credibility

·        It’s regarded as the opposite of work

·        Play has been defined as trivial by a male-dominated society which emphasises the power of rational thought (Anning, 1991)

It won’t come as any surprise that I like to incorporate elements of play with my adult language learners including those studying Business English, Academic English and preparing for exams.

Below are a few of the activities that have proved particularly popular with my students over the years.


Write a question which will kick start a discussion. Cut it up into separate words. Place these words into a balloon. Use enough balloons so you have groups of no more than 6 students working together.

Blow up the balloons. Place them somewhere in the class with enough space for students to run up to them.

Ask each group to nominate a runner. When you give the signal, the runner has to go to their balloon and burst it without using their hands, gather up the pieces of paper from inside (you’ll have told them how many pieces of paper are in the balloon) and bring them back to the group, who rearrange the question and then start discussing it.

It’s a great way to inject some energy and fun into the start of the lesson.

Getting to know you

There is a limit to how many times students can ask each other the same personal questions.

So, this is what we do. I ask students to write down the following, not showing anyone around them what they write:

 l  A fruit

l  A vegetable

l  A number between 1 and 200

l  Your favourite movie star

l  How many pairs of shoes do you have?

l  What’s the first thing you do every morning?

Then I explain that these 6 things are actually their:

l  First name

l  Family name

l  Age

l  Spouse

l  Children

l  Job

I model the questions (What’s your name? How old are you? etc) with some of the students, write them on the board, drill them if necessary and ask the students to mingle and get to know each other!!

This is a great game because

·        It’s suitable for all ages (obviously tweak the questions to make the answers appropriate e.g. children can talk about their best friend or a hobby)

·        It’s scaffolded

·        All learners participate

·        As answers are surprising, listeners pay attention

·        Students practise vocabulary as well as question forms

·        Laughter promotes a sense of well-being, relaxation and alertness


I write about 25 words on the board, including a range of verbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns etc. Like those below:

teenagers parents       radio   cows         coffee         politics

       a  in  on  an  to   we        their   I   sexy  green  fat  rich   quickly

          dancing        is     eat  was  say  think   the        tall     quickly

I ask students to work in pairs or small groups and write a one word sentence, using any word on the board; then a 2 word sentence; then a three and keep going till they have created the longest sentences they can.

This task is great for practising syntax and grammar as well as justifying the weirder suggestions.

The CSI Game

Either use flashcards stuck on the board or a projected image like this:

Explain that the students are actually all experts in solving crimes and must look carefully at the picture and come up with a theory of what crime has been committed and how.

But as they can never be sure they will be using modals of probability: can, could, might, must etc.

Add more details (e.g. a knife, wine bottle, blood stain, picture of a woman on the wall) to the picture one at a time and get more ideas.

Encourage students to incorporate all the clues into their theories and if they don’t use modals of probability, nudge them by asking ‘Are you sure?’


If learning is just serious it can become boring, uncreative and depersonalised and if it’s just fun, it can lack a language purpose. We need to make sure it’s SERIOUS FUN!

Further Reading:

Laughing Matters, Peter Medgyes, Cambridge University Press

The Excellence of Play, Janet R Moyles, McGraw-Hill

Play, Learning and Early Childhood Curriculum, Elizabeth Wood and Jane Attfield, Paul Chapman Publishing


Genre – a focus on reading and writing

(Many thanks to Deb Avery for pointing me in this direction.)

The following is a summary of my talk in Romania:

Learners have to deal with a number of different types of text – reading and understanding them as well as producing them. My talk focused on analysing genres with students in order to help them with these challenges.

Genre is a style of writing that involves a particular set of characteristics.

Why is it important for students to know about genres?

When reading:

·         To recognise type of text

·         Activate schemata

·         Navigate the text and make predictions

When writing:

·         To know the shape of text they need to produce

·         To follow genre patterns of layout, style, choice of grammar and vocabulary

Every text has a specific purpose and usually a specific audience.

There are three main purposes of texts: to entertain, inform or evaluate.


Purpose: to entertain

3 stages: orientation – the who, where, when etc; complication; resolution.

Language used: past tenses, descriptive vocabulary, direct speech

Think of any story, film plot etc and you can see they all follow this pattern.

e.g. Little Red Riding Hood

Orientation - we are introduced to the little girl in the forest, who is off to visit her grandma

Complication – the wolf is disguised in order to eat her

Resolution – depending on which version you read (a) she is rescued by the woodsman or (b) eaten by the wolf


Purpose: to inform

Stages: classification, description

Language used: present tenses, topic-specific vocabulary

e.g. The horse is a mammal that people have valued for thousands of years. In the past people commonly used horses to get from place to place and to pull heavy loads. People still use horses in sports and recreation. The scientific name of the horse is Equus caballus.

Other genres:


Purpose: to explain what to do

Stages: step by step instructions

Language used: imperatives, short clear sentences, few adjectives


Headlines e.g. Three killed in blaze

Passive voice e.g. The suspect was arrested and charged with murder.


Use of repetition (particularly x 3  and cadence


Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones,
So let it be with Caesar.

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar


Is Homework a Waste of Time?

 Is Homework a Waste of Time?

As the bell goes, signifying the end of the lesson, and students start leaving the class room, the teacher casts a quick eye over the course book and shouts an instruction out: ‘Do exercise 3 on page 7!’. Be honest, we’ve all done it.  Homework is usually one of the least planned aspects of our teaching.

Why do we set it anyway? Because we think we should, students and parents expect it or because we see its benefits?

Homework is certainly a waste of time when:

students haven’t been well-prepared for to do the task alone and end up making lots of mistakes. Teachers then have to attack this work with the dreaded red pen. The student gets a low mark and feels demotivated, doesn’t feel confident and then does badly again. She goes into a failure cycle. It’s important to motivate students by setting achievable tasks. Success breeds confidence and confidence breeds success!

students are overwhelmed with other studies or work and too tired to do well. Many of us teach teens, who have many subjects with their attached homework at school. There is terrible exam and school pressure on these poor teens. We should be understanding and careful what and when we set for homework. Adults will also have time pressure at work and at home.

students are asked to learn by heart. Have you ever set students 15 words to learn for a test on Monday. On Monday they all do very well, but by Wednesday they have all but forgotten the words. Rehearsed language like this goes into short-term memory and is soon forgotten. Language is stored in our long-term memory when it’s practised regularly, meaningfully and in a variety of ways.

students can copy or Mummy can do it. Too many workbook exercises can simply be copied or done for the student. This really is a waste of time for both teachers, who spend time marking it and students, who gain no benefit from it.

when the work would benefit from collaboration. Lev Vygotsky came up with the term the Zone of Proximal Development to describe the difference between what we can do alone and what we can achieve with help, support and/or encouragement. This is where we learn. Learning does not happen in a vacuum and learners really do benefit from working together and from the teacher’s guidance and direction. Working alone at home often suffers from lack of support and fails to add to value to the overall learning process.

BUT the good news is homework is not a waste of time when:

when students are well-prepared in class to do the task successfully. For example, before going home to write a composition, in class they have

·         Brainstormed vocabulary

·         Been introduced to new useful vocabulary

·         Reviewed what grammar they need to use

·         Discussed ideas

·         Had input of new ideas e.g. through a video, web site or article

·         Planned the structure of the composition together

when students see the point of the homework. I hardly blame them for not doing carelessly set exercises. But they can be asked to write directly to you. I find a lot of writing tasks artificial, in that there is no ‘real’ reader. So, I ask my students to write to me and tell me anything they want. I read and reply to this correspondence and it is far more motivating for the students to do as it really is communicative. I don’t mark it as such, but pick up on errors and try to include correct versions of the language in my responses or do remedial work in class to help them later.

when students can choose what they do for homework. Quite often there are a number of exercises, particularly in workbooks, which have not been covered. So, I ask students to choose one or two of them to do. This will be based on what they either enjoy doing or what skills they feel they need more practise on. When we are allowed a choice, we do it with more thought and a more positive mind set. Quite often students do all the tasks!! I don’t waste class time by going over it all, but allow them to quickly check their answers with an answer sheet or together and just discuss any serious problems they may have had.

when parents can really help. Often parents really do want to help but don’t know how. It is valuable to discuss with parents what they can do to help at home, so it’s a positive and helpful experience for all involved. For example, with young children they could read stories together, play games on recommended websites etc.

Some examples of useful homework

·         Students read the discussion questions set in the course books and prepare their answers before class. The discussion then is richer, longer and more useful for all students involved.

·         Students rehearse dialogues, taping them and listening back in order to work on phonology

·         Students write quiz questions, based on a topic they have done in class, to ask each other in the next lesson

·         Students read extensively – any types of text they wish to read e.g. stories, magazines, news articles, sports reports etc.

·         Students research the next unit’s topic before they start, in order to have ideas and vocabulary to share

·         Exam preparation students do practise tests online as well as timed silent practice

Homework should

Maximise class time

Be meaningful

Provide pre- or post-lesson support

Encourage independence

Allow for personalisation