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TESL Canada: Cultural Considerations for the Canadian ESL Classroom

Teaching English in Canada can be significantly different from teaching abroad. If you land a TESOL job in Canada, your students will be newcomers to Canada or short-term international ESL immersion students. Your ESL students will be learning English primarily for the purposes of entering university in Canada or qualifying for better job opportunities back home, and they are studying at great personal and financial expense so stakes and expectations are high. At the same time, your students are also generally open to new experiences in a culture different from their own, so learning to strike a balance between rigorous study and fun is a necessary skill. What can Canadian ESL teachers do to take advantage of cultural factors and give their students an excellent experience studying English in Canada?

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Understanding Your Students

Many of your students will come from a handful of countries, including South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan, but over the past eight years of teaching in Toronto, I have taught students from all over Europe, Asia, South America and, to a lesser extent, Africa.

Inquire about the demographic makeup of the school at which you will be teaching, and investigate the major linguistic differences between English and those languages here. Your students will be grateful for any display of understanding of the unique challenges they face as learners that arise from their first language.

Also consider reading up on the cultural norms around education in your students` countries, as this is key to understanding their needs and expectations. While it would be ideal that all students could instantly understand what study behaviours will allow them to thrive in a Canadian context, it is wiser to expect that this adjustment can take time. Knowing where they are coming from can greatly ease this process. For instance, you will likely notice that study habits prevalent within certain cultural groups may not emphasize communication skills, focusing on pen-and-paper exercises instead.

Encourage students to step outside of their `comfort zones`, whatever those are, to take advantage of the opportunity to devote their time to improve their English. Be available to discuss learning strategies with students who are struggling to find what works best for them. Also, take into consideration how the role of ‘teacher’ is perceived by students from other countries; in Middle Eastern and East-Asian countries, for instance, teachers are highly respected for the skill and knowledge they possess.

For this reason, it is often the case that students expect them to take their work seriously, and to practice an authoritative style of classroom management. Though I am not suggesting you conform to these expectations, it is important to understand them and to preemptively address them by clearly articulating your philosophy of education.

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(Inter)Cultural Dynamics in The ESL Classroom

ESL teachers in Canada have to be aware that while many students look forward to the prospect of meeting and learning alongside students from other countries, different approaches to study that arise from both personality and culture need to be addressed.

Stereotypically, students of East-Asian origin (Korean, Japanese, Chinese, etc.) have a strong desire to improve their communication skills but feel overwhelmed and overpowered by students from a South American or European background, for whom fluency typically comes more quickly.

It is up to you to establish a strong precedent of equitable patterns of participation in your classroom, and this may initially require an explicit discussion about how ‘quiet’ students can make space for themselves, and how dominant students can ensure their less fluent classmates have the opportunity to be heard.

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Classroom Management

In some cases, intercultural interactions may become tense when misunderstandings arise. Not all of your students will be as open-minded as you may like them to be, often because they have had little opportunity to interact with those culturally different than themselves.

It is important that you model an attitude of interest and inclusivity for all things cultural; investing time in cooperative activities that also have clear language aims can yield great rewards when students from different cultures congeal and learn to value each other’s differences.

Materials and Topics

Many ESL textbooks found in Canadian language school were written by North American or British ESL teachers. They contain built-in assumptions around a culture that may alienate students and prevent them from succeeding at language activities. As an example, I was surprised to find that many of my Saudi Arabian students had never celebrated a birthday, and that birthday celebration had very little significance in some parts of their country.

Because of this, they had little to contribute to the discussion questions about birthdays presented by the textbook we were working with. Similarly, some students may react with sensitivity to content that deals with gender, relationships, family dynamics, religion politics and history.

Instead of avoiding these interesting and fertile topics altogether, communicate a sense of flexibility to your students, and let them know that you respect their right to express concern with or refrain from a particular activity or discussion. As a theme, culture is a natural fit for language lessons, but be careful not to tokenize students.

Many students do not identify with many of the popular (or stereotypical) conceptions that we tend to have of their cultures, and everyone wishes to be regarded without prejudice. Check-in with students regularly to make sure they have the opportunity to express privately those concerns they may not feel comfortable sharing in front of a group.

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