Culture and Lesson Planning

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At the end of the article are guiding questions for the educator about culture and lesson planning.

Culture and language teaching go hand in hand as language is inherently drenched in multiple elements of culture. Lesson planning should always account for what the students bring to the classroom via culture and how this meshes with the culture of language being learned.

However, culture is not an all encompassing mass that can be lumped together. There are various considerations that need to be made depending on context and student make up.

Culture Related to Identity

Everyone is in essence a Russian matryoshka doll where one doll opens up to another doll. None of us are solidly us, but a mixture of various levels of culture that blend together to form a unique specimen.

  • Personal culture
  • Area culture
  • Regional culture
  • National culture
  • Ethnic culture
  • Religious culture

Relation to Lesson Planning
These areas of culture and identity need to be thought about to build lesson plans that connect with the students.

  • Area / Regional Culture: What kind of area/region are the students located? Is the area a major city, suburb, rural area, farming community, fishing community, etc… What kind of region do the students reside: north, south, mountainous, plain, arctic, etc…This is important for understanding what the students may bring to the classroom and how to plan lessons that connect with them. Area Example: High school students from a rural fishing community may not have an easy time connecting with information about city life. Regional Example: American students in Arizona may not look at Spanish in a favorable light because of the problems with immigration in the state.
  • National Culture: Students will be a part of a national belief system that has social standards for the students to adhere. For instance, an American educator in Korea has to understand that the national culture abides by tenets of Confucianism. Therefore, in Korea students will usually follow the older student and not challenge his ideas as respecting elders is extremely important. So, in a discussion class with mixed aged students, the older students may dominate the conversation as the younger students defer to them as a sign of respect.
  • Ethnic Culture: This may not be a major concern in places that have a homogeneous society, but in countries that are multi-ethnic societies, there might be an ethnic minority in the class which may cause some divisions amongst the students. For example: students in an English class in China may be divided between Han Chinese and Zhuang Chinese. The Hans may not want to talk with the Zhuangs or vice versa.
  • Religious Culture: Some students may be from religions that need careful considered when lesson planning for certain topics. For example: Jehovah Witnesses’ don’t celebrate birthdays, so a lesson on birthdays needs to be viewed from multiple angles to make sure the lesson does not create problems for those students. 

How to Use in Lesson Planning

  • What They Know: Examine the students’ local area and regional area to get a baseline for what the majority of the students bring to the classroom in the form of experience and knowledge. Use this to identify potential problem areas in the lesson.
  • National View: How is the culture of the language different from the national culture of the students. Since language is greatly cultural, the educator may have to assist the students into adopting the language culture in the classroom. For instance, an educator in Korea can tell his students that the school is in Korea, but the classroom is an Australian territory, so they will follow Australian culture. During class when students try to perform with the Korean culture, remind them that they are in Australia and it should be done the Australian way.
  • Everyone is Equal: Ethnic and religious bias can really tear a class apart and create a hostile learning environment. The educator can find the ethnic and religious differences and use classes to celebrate the differences. Whether the subject allows for inclusion or it is included at the educator’s discretion, lesson planning for these differences may help culture discrimination in the class. Examples:
    • Celebrate ethnic holidays/ religious holidays
    • Food
    • Heroes of ethnicities/ religions
    • Clothing of ethnic/ religious people 

Culture Related to Language

  • Syntax
  • Phonology
  • Rate/Tone/Volume

Relation to Lesson Planning
Language also carries a lot of cultural information the educator needs to be aware of when planning a lesson.

  • Syntax: These are the rules and structure of the language. A prominent example is the SVO/SOV construct. English and Chinese are SVO languages, whereas Korean and Japanese are SOV languages.
  • Phonology: Every educator realizes that languages carry various phonetic qualities that may not translate into another language. For example, Japanese students may have difficulty in annunciating ‘L’ properly. However, what is often overlooked is students may not want to produce language like the native language speakers. Some students may want to keep their identity tied to their national heritage while using another language. For example, Iraqi school children may learn to speak English, but they may not want to sound American/British when speaking English because they could be associated with an “occupying” force.
  • Rate/Tone/Volume: Some students may come from countries with various rates of speaking, from very tonal languages such as Chinese or monotone languages such as Korean, or speaking in loud volume which can be seen as anger in the second language.

How to Use in Lesson Planning

  • Provide Enough Experience: Setting the parameters of SVO/SOV will not be a major concern as adequate exposure and practice helps facilitate the rearrangement. This is a developmental element, so opportunity to develop is key for lesson planning this problem.
  • Let Them Keep Their Identity: Trying to form students into proper English speaking machines should not be the focus of instruction. Today, the focus has shifted  from English language imperialism to communicative competence. If the students want to sound like the native speaker that is fine, but the focus of lessons should be on expressing their ideas and being understood. When annunciation, rate, tone, volume interfere with comprehending communication, this is when strategies need to be developed.

Various Cultural Elements

  • Eye contact
  • Gestures
  • Touching
  • Physical Space
  • Direct/Indirect

Relation to Lesson Planning
These are elements that are outside of language and identity, but need to be considered when teaching language to students of another language.

  • Eye Contact: In some countries students do not make eye contact with the educator as a sign of respect.
  • Gestures: Each culture has their own way of using gestures to convey information. In most countries, people will shake their heads up and down to show they agree and side to side to show disagreement. However, in some cultures it is reversed, up and down to show disagreement and side to side to show agreement.
  • Touching: In some cultures, such as Thailand, one’s head should not be touched. Learn the culture standards for touching in the context.
  • Physical Space: In America, people have an unstated imaginary but perceived boundary that people adhere to when around others. However, in some cultures, there is no concept of this boundary and the learners may not understand the importance of this.
  • Direct/Indirect: Although this involves language, it revolves around a social convention within the culture. Westerners are more known for being direct with their speech, whereas Asians are indirect.

How to Use in Lesson Planning

  • Know the Differences: The educator should learn the cultural differences of the students and incorporate these into lesson plans. For example, if the educator is in Korea and teaching a lesson that requires to the student to tell others to “come here,” the educator may point out that waving the fingers up towards one’s body is the correct way, as waving the fingers down towards the ground is calling a dog to come here. Koreans perform it the opposite way.
  • Explicit Instruction: When it comes to various cultural elements, students need explicit instruction and practice. Look at the theme or information in the lesson and immediately consider cultural differences and how to incorporate them into the lesson. Specifically focus and instruct on eye contact or being direct with speech. Make activities with these elements and practice the differences. However, the subject of touching someone may be discussed, but never cross that cultural line.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to lesson planning and culture, there is a wealth of knowledge for the educator to draw from. It is not so basic as nation versus nation, but goes much deeper to include everything from personal knowledge and experience to simplistic elements such as gestures. The instruction of language patterns and vocabulary are only a portion of using language; the other parts are understanding when and how to use the language. In an EFL context, the educator carries the sole responsibility for providing this opportunity to the students, so make sure each lesson packs the cultural elements the students need to succeed in learning a foreign language.

Questions to Think About to Help Teaching

  1. Make a list of the various cultural identity elements your students bring into the class (area, region, ethnic, religion).
  2. What differences do your students have and how can you celebrate those differences?
  3. How is the students’ native language different from the second language?
  4. How much of your teaching revolves around teaching cultural differences? Is it adequate?
  5. Do your lessons promote communicative competence or an imperialistic view where the student must speak like a native speaker? Is this good? Why?