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Important cultural differences in the classroom

Having some knowledge of how cultures vary from each other can at least give teachers a starting point in knowing how to approach students and classes

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net

Although the personality of two individuals in one country can vary much more than the average personality in two different countries, having some knowledge of how cultures vary from each other can at least give teachers a starting point in knowing how to approach a student or class until teachers get to know the individual preferences of the class. Here is a by no means exhaustive list of some cultural differences that can come up in class.

1. Body language and gestures
The list of gestures by the teacher or students that could be misinterpreted or even found offensive is huge- in fact the number of totally universal human gestures is very few. You can fairly easily research the typical body language and gestures of the country your students are from or are interested in, but particular things to look out for in the classroom include pointing at people, gesturing “okay”, and holding up various fingers to illustrate numbers etc. The main point to note with any of these is that people do not stop finding a gesture offensive just because they understand that it means something else in other countries.

2. Dress
This could be a matter of avoiding even brief and accidental showing of parts of the body like shoulders and belly, or could be more a case of certain clothes such as bright colours or overly sturdy shoes being taken as tacky and/ or unprofessional. Other things to bear in mind include avoiding holey socks if you might have to take your shoes off. There might also be issues with students wanting to keep on head wear that blocks eye contact and so makes communication difficult. Students might also use dress as a clue to try and work out the financial position of foreign teachers, with negative reactions to both seeming too poor and too rich being possible.

3. The teacher’s role
Different cultures can show different attitudes to the teacher admitting they couldn’t be wrong, letting students make classroom decisions, pairwork correction, and pairwork more generally. For native speakers, there might also be issues of differing reactions to your knowledge and use of the students’ L1 or lack of.

4. Asking questions/ saying you don’t understand
To give an example, in a Japanese company it is normal for a subordinate to say “Yes, I understand” to any instructions from the boss, and then find out from elsewhere whatever they didn’t understand. Some people can show the same reaction to grammar explanations and game instructions in the classroom.

5. Making mistakes and correction
As with most of these, the embarrassment at making mistakes and being corrected varies more from person to person than culture to culture, but general national characteristics can also be discerned. There might also be issues with how much correction they expect, if that correction can come from other students, and if it can be in front of other people.

6. Status
Students might feel they cannot interrupt or correct people who are older, in a high status job, are male etc, or may be shocked when the teacher or another student does not pay attention to such distinctions.

7. Gender roles
This is mainly just one subset of “Status” above- if students think that women (especially younger or other “lower status” women) are lower in the ranking, that will exagerate any negative reactions they have to being interrupted, corrected, told to do things in the classroom that are unfamiliar etc.

8. Food and drink
In Islamic countries you might have to take account of low blood sugar levels and varying break times during Ramadan. In other places there might be a taboo against the teacher taking in certain drinks or drinking straight from the plastic bottle, or indeed drinking anything if that is seen as rudeness towards students who do not have drinks. There might also be strong reactions in various places against smelling of or admitting to liking certain foods.

9. Taboo topics
A very much less than exhaustive list of taboo topics in various places included female family members, dogs, politics, social classes, certain periods of history, the Royal Family, the police, the underclass, being mixed race, and homosexuality.

10. Eye contact
The frequency and length of eye contact changes a lot from country to country, as does the times when eye contact is and isn’t considered suitable. One frequently misunderstood example is that East Asian students often close their eyes when concentrating.

11. Small talk
There can be cultural differences in the amount and timing of small talk that is expected in the classroom. For example, Japanese meetings tend to start and finish with quite a lot of small talk but have a clear transisition, whereas British managers (and me in my lessons) will often try to move cleverly and smoothly between the small talk and the start of the first lesson topic. Other cultures might expect small talk to be shorter or even absent until the end of the lesson.

12. Silence
In some countries, most famously Japan and Finland, silence between conversation turns and when thinking is quite normal. The danger is that the teacher or another student might jump in to fill the silence and so prevent them from speaking, or that they will make others feel uncomfortable with their silence. The best short term solution is to teach phrases to fill thinking time like “Well, let me see”, with the next stage being teaching sentence stems to at least get them started quickly, e.g. “I think that…”

13. Writing styles
Most of the things that native English speakers are taught in school are good writing style, such as a clear progression of ideas and one topic per paragraph, exist less or in different forms in other cultures. This can make the writing of even higher level students difficult to follow, and can also mean they are missing out on vital clues to what information is where when reading an English text. Guided planning and reading tasks that identify topic sentences to solve these problems (eventually) are fairly common in Academic English and IELTS textbooks.

14. Interrupting
In some cultures several people almost talking over each other is normal, whereas others will wait until there is complete silence before making their contribution. This can be a problem when you have students from different cultures working together or in EFL tests where the ability to split the speaking 50/ 50 between partners is assessed. Methods to tackle it include giving the one person who is speaking something to hold, making a third student judge each pair on the percentage each person talks, and teaching forms like tag questions that aid turn taking.

15. Directness
Students who prefer to get straight to the point in L1 often find it easier to communicate in English, but there is a chance of them or other students who don’t have the language level to be polite seeming too direct and offending people. They also might miss polite requests to stop doing things etc, for the same cultural, personality and language reasons. This can also be an issue when writing student progress reports, when the same constructive criticism to two different students could offend one and seem like a compliment to the other. Teaching functional language and asking them to judge the politeness of different forms are two good approaches, as is giving realistic reactions when students are rude or overly indirect in class.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net
April 2008 | Filed under Home and Abroad
There are links to more than 400 articles and 1000 worksheets plus 1500 blog posts by Alex Case on TEFLtastic blog.

10 Comments on “Important cultural differences in the classroom”

  1. Sherry Dogruyusever Says:

    Do I have your permission to use this information in an upcoming presentation I am making on working with immigrant children for our school system in Urbandale, Iowa? I would love it! Thank you!

  2. Alex Case Says:

    You certainly do! Any of my stuff can be used in any way except republication without permission. I also have worksheets on the same subject:


  3. Sherry Dogruyusever Says:

    Thank you so much! I appreciate your generosity!

  4. Jo Lamont Says:

    Thanks Alex. This is a really thorough and helpful summary. It’s assisted me with the ‘cultural differences’ aspect of the TESOL course I’m undertaking.

  5. James Says:

    This is some very good stuff. I also am taking a TESOL class and this information is fantastic. Thank you so much for putting in the time to make this website. It brought up some points that I didnt think of.

  6. Funmi Says:

    Thanks Alex this is quite helpful, may i use it for teaching my next set of English students?

  7. Daniel Says:

    Thanks for the article, I’m writing a paper on racial and social diversity in the classroom and this was a big help.

  8. Alex Case Says:

    Hi Funmi

    Would love for any of my stuff to be used! The only thing I ask is that people don’t republish it without permission

  9. Angela Says:

    Thanks for this article Alex. Reading your article has helped me gather some ideas for my communication class, we are studying intercultural communication and I work with children as a mentor and a teachers assistant in a very mixed culture neighborhood, so I am going to center my paper around communication in the classroom with children and differences in culture in the classroom. Thanks for the bright idea! :)

  10. Alex Case Says:

    I’ve also written a similar article specifically on teaching Japanese students


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