Teaching Different Cultures In Your ESL Classroom

Two people standing in front of multi colored lanterns showing the teaching of different cultures.

With Christmas and other holidays coming up throughout the Western world, it can be a perfect time to introduce your students to different cultures relevant to English speaking. However, many newer teachers may be reluctant to try and introduce these sorts of topics out of fear speaking on something they may get in trouble for talking about. It usually isn’t an issue discussing different cultures in the classroom. But, understanding a few best practices and some examples can help you to introduce these topics without getting in trouble with parents, administration, or even worse the government.

Should I talk about different cultures in my classroom?

Of course!

There are a great many reasons that you would want to discuss different cultures that are relevant to English speaking with your students. One of the main reasons is that it can provide significant benefit to your students that will be moving abroad to learn in English speaking countries. Learning these sorts of lessons can help them to better understand English speaking countries beyond the basics. This can, in turn, provide them with a better understanding of the language and potentially help them improve their speaking abilities.

Another reason that it can be of benefit to introducing lessons about different cultures is that this can provide your students with unique vocabulary that they would probably not learn any other way. This can be vocabulary that is relevant to the holiday such as food, decorations, etc. You can introduce this vocabulary through games, videos, music, and other means that can make the lesson fun and can provide some diversity compared to the usual lessons.

One last reason that teaching lessons about different cultures can be important is that it can be an excellent way to expose students to new cultures in a way that can allow them to reflect on both the differences as well as the similarities to their own culture. By understanding the similarities with their own cultures, students may find it easier to learn English as they won’t be looking at it as an entirely foreign entity and can instead begin to focus on the similarities as opposed to the differences.

What’s the best way to introduce these lessons?

The primary thing to remember, as stated above, as an English teacher we are not in the classroom to challenge a student’s cultural beliefs or to tell them that something is right or wrong. We are there to teach English. So, with that being the case the main thing to remember is that you don’t want to focus on controversial aspects when teaching lessons about other cultures. Instead, you want to focus on how you can use that lesson to increase your students understanding of English.

Since Christmas is coming up we’ll use this as a jumping off point. There are many controversial aspects to Christmas both in the English speaking world as well as in the countries you may be teaching in. In China, for example, it is a major breach of government regulation for a teacher to speak about their religion in the classroom. So, if you are preparing a lesson about Christmas then you wouldn’t want to approach it as a Christian holiday and focus on the religious aspects of the holiday if you are teaching students in China.

Instead, a better way to approach this lesson with these students would be to focus on aspects such as celebrating with family and having dinner together. You could then move on from that to having students, depending on the level, compare Christmas to holidays they celebrate and talk about how they are similar and also how they are different.

By teaching about Christmas in this way you are avoiding anything thing that could get you in trouble and also engaging your students in a way that they can relate to the culture. This will also provide them with more opportunities to connect to the lesson than if they were just listening to the history of the holiday and doing a few worksheets that related to them in no way.

What should be avoided in lessons teaching different cultures?

As stated above the most important thing is to avoid controversial topics or lessons which might rub against social norms or ideas in any way. Remember, it is not your job as an English teacher to challenge students’ ideas or the ideas of the local culture. While there are certainly times and places for that in education, English class isn’t one of those times or places. Students are there to learn English and it can be incredibly hard to teach English if students are busy arguing with each other or if they have tuned you out because they don’t agree with what you are saying.

Even worse, it can be hard to teach English if you are being detained at a police station which, in some countries, is a very real possibility if you are caught talking about the wrong things to students. It is best to avoid controversy whether you like it or not. Instead, focus on things that your students can relate to an create lessons around this. This can be songs that they can learn that are unique to the holiday. Books they can read which are at the appropriate level. Lessons about food or drinks which are unique to the holiday which students can discuss (plus 1 if you can bring in those foods or drinks for students to try and talk about in English).

You want to also avoid talking about holidays which students may not have any reference for understanding. Not every holiday or aspect of a culture translates over to other cultures. If you know ahead of time that creating a lesson about a specific holiday or aspect of a culture is going to confuse students and cause more issues that the lesson is worth than just avoid it. There are plenty of ways to teach about other cultures and holidays without confusing students.

What are some final thoughts?

Lessons about cultures and holidays that are different from your students own culture can be important in their English language education. It can provide a great opportunity for students to learn words they otherwise wouldn’t have they chance to learn. Also, it can be a great opportunity for students to enhance their understanding of English speaking countries which can give them different perspective that can make learning English easier. The most important thing to remember is that you want to avoid controversy and avoid lessons that may confuse students. Try to always keep lessons fun and keep things interesting, informative, and  exciting and you have a sure recipe for success when teaching lessons about different cultures.

Adil Vellani

Adil Vellani

Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Adil Vellani is the co-founder of ESL Job Exchange. With more than 20 years of international experience in both the education and corporate sectors, Adil is devoted to sharing his knowledge and experience to help individuals and organizations connect and make a massive impact in the lives of ESL learners across the globe. Adil also lectures at the Sino-European Institute of Aviation Engineering, where he teaches aviation engineering students in an international degree program.
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