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Review ~ Tips for Teaching Culture

A good combination of theory, research and practical classroom ideas.
Reviewed for TEFL.net by Kate Mastruserio Reynolds
Tips for Teaching Culture

Tips for Teaching Culture

Texts on culture and intercultural communication topics tend to divide into too theoretical and research oriented or too superficial, treating culture as “food, flags and fun.” Tips for Teaching Culture by Wintergerst and McVeigh is one of the rare college textbooks that has been able to successfully bridge the theory, research and practice divide by integrating important concepts and research into chapters that offer teachers of adults and young adults activities to investigate cultural concepts and understandings in their English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. The authors’ goal is to build the intercultural understanding of teachers while providing ways to raise English language learners’ (ELLs) intercultural understanding and awareness of cultural dynamics.

In eight chapters on the intersection of culture with language, non-verbal communication, identity, cross-cultural adjustment, education, sensitive issues, and social responsibility, Tips for Teaching Culture provides the basics of understanding ways to describe, view, compare and interrelate various cultural paradigms and the interactions of cultural participants. Including traditional perspectives and concepts of teaching culture (e.g. culture shock) and spanning into more contemporary approaches (e.g. identity and social responsibility), the text provides new insights for even the seasoned professional. I was happy to learn more than just the tired and stereotypical comparisons of “shy Japanese students” to “raucous American children”. One example I found interesting was in the non-verbal communication chapter referring to the “action and meaning of multi-active people”, “Latin Americans may purse the lips or kiss their fingertips to express praise. Saudi Arabians may blow at their fingertips to request silence.” These patterns were contrasted to the “action and meaning of quiet-group people”, in this case Asian and Nordic cultures who do not employ these gestures. In addition to the chapters, there are two appendices that include handouts for chapter activities and lists of movies to employ in classes to facilitate intercultural communication and discussion.

Each chapter is formatted as a series of tips that are more like concepts teachers need to know about culture. For example, in the chapter on culture and cross-cultural adjustment, ethnocentrism and prejudice are considered. Every tip is then explored by presenting the latest research on the topic, explained in approachable language and elaborated with practical, everyday examples from the ESL classroom and community. In one section on ethnocentrism, a 2007 study by Shaules was presented, which described resistance as “a negative reaction accompanied by a negative value judgment”. Communicative-based, interactive activities are suggested for educators to employ in their ESL classes to focus on the specific cultural tip. The activity for ESL classroom exploration on ethnocentrism, prejudice and stereotyping is called, “avoiding cultural bias and stereotyping”. In this activity, students are guided to review a critical cross-cultural incident by unpacking it via various dimensions of culture and perspectives of participants to better understand the events and behaviors. The activities are explicit investigations of the cultural concepts and would require a more mature audience to handle the concepts and a higher level of language ability. Most activities are interesting, meaningful and engaging, such as the movie study. In some instances though there is only one activity offered or the activity is somewhat common in the field. It would be a bit better to add a second more innovative activity in those instances. Employing more internet resources, such as Colours in Cultures to analyze cultural patterns, Project Implicit to probe our unexamined prejudices and reactions, or the Cultural Identity Test to self-evaluate belief systems, or data gathering/observing tasks would enhance any humdrum activities.

The strengths of this text are:

  1. up-to-date, readable research on culture
  2. congruence of cultural concepts with Brown’s Principles of Language Learning and Teaching
  3. more contemporary topics of identity and social-responsibility.

The text expounds on cultural concepts that Brown’s Principles text can only skim. This congruency between texts makes sense since Brown is the series editor and had some guidance in the project.

The text is a good source of material and yet has some areas that could be enriched. For example, the text lacks color and visual representations of information, which would create a vibrancy missing in the presentation of this otherwise dynamic material. A needs assessment at the beginning of the text would help instructors to avoid redundancy of coverage and possible boredom of students. Self-assessments of personal attitudes, beliefs and unexamined cultural theories would allow for more personal insight and growth on the part of the teacher-students. Technology needs to be interwoven with this text as well. These are all minor criticisms that can be remedied in the second edition.

The only significant criticism I have is that I cannot place this text into an ESL curriculum. I can foresee employing this text in a teacher education curriculum prior to theories of second language acquisition and learning (SLA) since it provides a wonderfully sound research and conceptual basis upon which to discuss SLA theories and it is congruent with Brown’s Principles. However, the activities for each tip are oriented to high school and adult learners who would have a class on culture. Reflecting on the role of content-based instruction as the predominate mode for English for academic purposes in the US k-12 public school, it is hard to envision which high school ESL classes would treat culture as a semester-long topic. High school students need academic English for core subjects, and while culture is fascinating and of merit, it is not going to account for high school credits. High schools outside of the US might be able host an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) course on culture, but I suspect that direct instruction of grammar and vocabulary are more the norm. As for adults, the other ESL/EFL population to whom the activities in the text are geared, university-level ESL courses might have a course on culture, but they would probably employ more skill-based books with multicultural, academic reading and writing. Community college ESL programs might do some cross-cultural understandings activities, like university programs, but these would be random and intermittent, not sustained over a longer period of investigation that Tips for Teaching Culture implies in its cumulative structure. Many publishers in the field currently request teacher education textbook authors to include activities for teachers to do with their ELLs. From a practical perspective this makes sense; however, most concepts that teachers need to learn are not directly transferable to their ESL/EFL populations. In spite of this criticism, I intend to use this text in my distance teacher education courses so that my American and Japanese future ESL/EFL teachers can investigate their cultures together while focusing on teaching English to Japanese children, leaving whether they employ the activities up to them.

Reviewed for TEFL.net by Kate Mastruserio Reynolds
July 2011 | Filed under Teacher Training