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Teaching Culture for an Authentic and Communicative Learning Experience

Teaching culture is an integral part of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).  In order to communicate clearly and effectively in English, students must have knowledge of the language’s vocabulary, grammar, when and how to use them appropriately (function), and the corresponding body language. English students also need to be able to read and make accurate assumptions about the other person’s meaning by evaluating their verbal and non-verbal cues.  When one is gauging the appropriateness of language and behavior, culture must be considered. It would be impossible to explain, for example, how to talk to a potential employer without talking about both the language and its culture. Culture and the Communicative Approach to teaching English are intricately woven together

One of the many benefits of teaching culture is that it intensifies students’ motivation.  Teaching culture allows students to “feel, touch, smell, and see the foreign peoples and not just hear their language” (Peck, 1998, p.3). Short of traveling abroad to visit or live in a foreign country, the language learners’ experience becomes more real and authentic. This OnTESOL Graduate blog explores how English teachers can prepare themselves to teach culture in the communicative classroom and offers engaging ESL activities that are specifically geared to help students develop their language skills and cultural knowledge at the same time.

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How Can Teachers Prepare to Teach Culture in the English Classroom?

English teachers can prepare themselves by being knowledgeable about their own as well as their students’ culture.  Reading books that are written purposely to explain a certain culture and travelling are great ways to become culturally aware.  Asking questions and talking to successful bilinguals is another effective way. Successful bilinguals are individuals who speak two or more languages and feel very comfortable in each of them. They are an invaluable resource because they have intercultural insights and knowledge (Alptekin, 2002) that may not be as readily available in monolinguals. This preparation is essential because English teachers are often the students’ main model and source of information about language.  For this reason, it is critical that teachers present cultural facts in a way that does not place a higher value on the students’ own culture (Peterson & Coltrane, 2003).

Learning another language should be an enriching experience and contribute to the learner’s positive sense of self.  Supporting students in the realization that all cultures are different and equally important is a step in that direction. There are many Communicative Language Teaching strategies that English teachers could employ to teach language and culture at the same time.  What’s important to keep in mind is that the two should be taught simultaneously and at all levels of learning. Learners begin by becoming familiar with the new culture, progressively moving toward comparisons between cultures, and eventually gaining an in-depth knowledge of both (Sellami, 2000). 

Use Engaging Materials for a Variety of Learning Styles

Materials that are visual, auditory, tactile, or experiential add a dimension of reality to the language and cultural learning that a textbook alone cannot provide.  Authentic materials, such as stories, videos, songs, and magazines, are excellent sources and accessible by all levels.  For example, “Shaune the Sheep” is a series that can be used with beginner students. The show has no dialogue, so students do not have to worry about not hearing key information.  Besides eliciting vocabulary based on what students see on the screen, the teacher should also ask questions regarding the meaning behind the characters’ body language.  This can be an effective way of introducing various aspects of a new culture to beginner students.

Capitalizing on the Internet

The Internet is a great tool for teaching English because students can access a mosaic of English-speaking cultures.  In addition to videos, pictures, websites, and articles, the Internet gives students the opportunity to communicate with other native speakers, which is particularly useful for practicing the language.

An activity for higher-level students using the Internet could be a lifestyle- or entertainment-themed news clips from MSNBC, ABC.com, CBC.com, or BBC.com, etc.  They are often peppered with phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions that require cultural knowledge in order to fully comprehend the material. This is how the media communicates with the public so that it sounds professional but is still expressed in a way that a wide range of audiences could relate.  Students can practice language skills through comprehension and technical exercises.  They can be made aware of the culture through the clip’s content as well as analyzing how the clip is produced by creating their own news clip.

Cultural Presentations

Cultural presentations are an excellent way to motivate students to learn about the culture of the language they are studying.  Students can work in groups to do the research and create a presentation to share their learning with the class. In this process, students come into contact with a wealth of information about the culture and become exposed to the wide variety of vocabulary needed to talk about it.  This can be a starting point in which students begin to make explicit comparisons between cultures.

The activity also serves as a way to dispel myths and popular stereotypes, supporting students to realize that there is much more to culture than what they see on television.  Topics could include food, music, art, stories, traditional clothing, etc.

Presentations on Cultural Misunderstandings

This activity would teach students to think from multiple cultural perspectives and increase their cultural awareness.  Learners are presented with a scene or dialogue involving a cultural misunderstanding that, in real life, could result in confusion, frustration, and even anger between the people involved (Shumin, 1997).  Then they discuss how and why the communication broke down by looking at the situation from each person’s point of view. They could then work together to figure out a way to clear-up the miscommunication. Using their knowledge about the various cultures involved.  The entire incident, from miscommunication to resolution, could be role-played in front of the class.

This activity is probably suitable for more advanced language learners. It requires students to be aware of their own culture. And also have a depth of knowledge about the other culture to make comparisons.  They would also need to access a wide range of language that would be appropriate for the situation.

Why Choose OnTESOL?

Learn use the Communicative Language Teaching method. Get the lesson planning skills you need to teach different levels of ESL students. Learn to supplement the boring ESL textbook with engaging authentic materials. OnTESOL offers accredited online TESOL / TEFL courses valid for teaching jobs worldwide. Self-paced and live options available. All courses offered by OnTESOL include lifetime job assistance and access to the OnTESOL Job Board.


Alptekin, C. (2002).  Towards intercultural communicative competence in ELT.  ELT Journal, 56(1), 57-64.

Peck, D. (1998).  Teaching Culture: Beyond Language. Retrieved July 23, 2003

Peterson, E. & Coltrane, B. (2003, December). Culture in second language teaching. CAL Digest, 3(9), 1-6. Retrieved January 22, 2006

Sellami, A. B. (2000, March 14-18). Teaching towards cultural awareness and intercultural competence: From What through How to Why culture is? Paper presented at the Annual Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Abstract retrieved January 16, 2006

Shumin, K. (1997). Factors to consider: Developing adult EFL students’ speaking abilities. FORUM, 35, 3, 1-11.

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