Should we teach culture in the ESL classroom?

In essence, language serves as a verbal representation of culture, emphasizing the importance of culture in language learning. While mastering English vocabulary and grammar is crucial, gaining a deep understanding of what the language signifies to native speakers demands extensive knowledge about the culture of English-speaking nations. Fortunately, students generally enjoy learning about cultural elements, be it music, cinema, literature, TV, or even food and fashion. So, how can we embed culture into our ESL lessons to make them captivating and productive?

Use authentic materials

Materials commonly used by native English speakers that can be repurposed for an ESL classroom constitute authentic materials. These materials provide a genuine alternative to custom-made content designed for language students, offering a glimpse of using English in real-world settings. Whether it's spoken English from a video, TV show, or movie, students get to experience the language as a native speaker does, with natural pacing and pronunciation. Other frequent forms of authentic material include restaurant menus, advertisements, business documents, application forms, etc. Using such materials can motivate students by showcasing the practicality of English beyond textbooks, making their efforts seem more worthwhile.

Compare two cultures

Another effective strategy is to juxtapose the students' culture with that of the target language. For instance, comparing simple greetings can pique the interest of a Japanese student accustomed to bowing in greetings. The handshaking tradition of Americans or the French custom of cheek kissing can lead to fun activities. Discussing unique cultural elements that don't have equivalents in different cultures can be equally fascinating.

Introduce live native speakers

Language learners relish interacting with native speakers, especially when discussing their own culture. Although the teacher can do this, involving an external guest offers a fresh perspective. The ideal guest speaker should be confident, engaging, and good at storytelling. Students can ask questions about daily life, food preferences, popular music and sports, and commonly followed traditions and festivals. Native speakers can also model real English language usage in actual situations, providing a fun way to learn everyday English not typically covered in textbooks.

Use food as a tool

Every culture is united by the universal activity of preparing and eating food. Introducing unique foods from different cultures that might be unfamiliar to the students can be a fun and educational experience. Combining a cooking class with an English language lesson can yield an engaging session, filled with new learnings about language and culture. If that's not feasible, centering a lesson around recipes and ingredients can serve as an excellent alternative.

Use songs as a tool

Songs are a potent tool for language learning and provide insights into the culture of the language used. For young learners, early years songs like "Oranges and Lemons" or "The Wheels on the Bus" can be effective tools for learning basic vocabulary. For older students, popular chart songs can be used to practice all four language skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. There are countless music-based activities that are effective, fun, and promote cultural learning.

Use Online Resources

The internet offers a plethora of resources that can help you teach culture and language simultaneously. A few recommended websites include:

  • This site features loads of material related to teaching cultural diversity, with lesson plans, articles and activities all available for you to use in your lessons.
  • Time for Kids: On this site you will find a whole section that covers fun and interesting facts about different countries. Your students can browse through pictures of far off places, all from the comfort of the classroom or home.
  • World Stories: This site can prove extremely useful as it contains a collection of childrens’ stories from all over the world. These can easily be incorporated into normal lessons to further expand on cultural awareness.
  • Great Websites for Kids: Finally, take a look at this fantastic collection of websites aimed at teaching young learners about different cultures, their history and geography, and different religions.