The Internet TESL Journal

Teaching Culture in Literature in the ESL/EFL Classroom

Anna Franca Plastina
annplast [at]
TESOL-Italy Local Co-ordinator in Cosenza, Southern Italy
The present paper is based on part of the work carried out at the University of East Anglia/NILE, Norwich U.K. on a teacher trainer bursary jointly funded by the British Council and the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and was presented as a workshop at the 18th British Council National Conference held in Palermo (Italy) in March 1999.


The aim of this work is to design an in-service training (INSET) plan to be run for ESL/EFL teachers and based on the importance of teaching Culture in Literature within the ESL/EFL classroom. Why train ESL/EFL teachers to teach Culture in Literature? Valdes (1986:137) claims:
It is simply accepted as given that literature is a viable component of second language programs at the appropriate level and that one of the major functions of literature is to serve as a medium to transmit the culture of the people who speak the language in which it is written.
Furthermore, it is possible to agree with Kramsch (1993:1) that:
Culture in language learning is not an expendable fifth skill tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading, and writing.It is always in the background, right from day one /.../ challenging [the good language learners’]
In the literature, theoretical tenets seem, therefore, to underline the urge to escape the language-culture dichotomy which unduly simplifies the issue raised.

Didactically, the planning of this course can be justified by the need to use language for successful interaction with members of another sociocultural background. In this perspective, hitherto neglected within the ESL/EFL curriculum, trainees develop awareness of the importance of contextualising language by reference to its cultural connotations. This may possibly shift trainees away from the view of underestimating culture as an adjunct to the four skills towards the social/anthropological values embodied in language.

Bearing this in mind, the present work will be divided into three sections:

  1. the theoretical framework: an overall model which determines the basic parameters for designing the present INSET plan;
  2. the implementation of the INSET plan: the core of the present work which relates the theoretical model to the teacher training situation;
  3. Overview: a brief conclusion which analyses the desired outcomes of the INSET implementation.

Section One : The Theoretical Framework for the INSET Plan

The present INSET plan will be designed according to the following parameters, which seem properly to cover the main issues dealt in foreign language teacher education courses (cfr. Wallace, 1991; Woodward, 1991; Richards & Nunan, 1990).

1.1. The Theoretical Parameters

Table 1 provides an outline of the main parameters required.

Table 1: The INSET Plan Parameters
Table 1: The INSET Plan Parameters

By attempting to answer the issues illustrated in Table 1, it will now be feasible to set up the profile for our case.

Section Two: The Implementation of the INSET plan

2.1. The profile

2.2. Implementing the plan

A sample plan of two sessions - Session One: Enhancing Cultural Awareness and Session Four: Placing culture in context (culture in literature) will now be provided. The purpose of sampling the first and the last sessions of the course is to enable the reader to grasp the overall idea of the course structure which may be represented as in Figure 1.

Figure 1

2.3. Sample of Session One

Session One: Enhancing cultural awareness (3 hrs.)

Activity No. 1

Figure 2
Activity No. 2
* In our case Italian culture is considered.
Break (15 mins.)
Activity No. 3
* In our case Italian images are considered.
Activity No. 4

Table 2 Handouts: Session 1 Activity 4
Sheet A
"Culture in language learning is not an expendable fifth skill tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. (Kramsch, 1993:1)
Sheet B
/Culture/ is always in the background, right from day one /.../ challenging [the good language learners' ] ability to make sense of the world around them". (Kramsch, 1993:1)

Table 2 Handouts: Session 1 Activity 4

Cultural Awareness involves...
Figure 3
Figure 3 Mind map on Cultural Awareness

2.4. Sample of Session Four

Session Four: Placing culture in context (culture in literature) (3hrs)

Activity No. 1

Table 3 Handouts: Session 4 Activity 1
Sheet A
The aim of the language teacher is surely to teach language, not culture. /.../ The solution , therefore, is to select literary texts which are culturally universal or, at least culturally neutral, and which allow us to concentrate exclusively on language. (from Lazar, 1993:66)
Sheet B
Our students' comprehension is frequently impeded not by linguistic features in a literary text, but by cultural ones. We owe it to them to help them understand what these might be. Language can never be divorced from culture... (from Lazar, 1993:66)

Table 3 Handouts: Session 4 Activity 1

Activity No. 2

Table 4 Adapted from Lazar's (1993) list of cultural aspects in texts
Table 4 Adapted from Lazar's (1993) list of cultural aspects in texts

Activity No. 3

Break (15 minutes)
Activity No. 4
Table 5 Session 4 - Activity 4: Grid with expected outcomes
Cultural Items Overcoming Strategies
Ayers Rockprovide gloss
plastic chairs/vast inner spacemake associations
dusted coolabah treecultural inference
Dreamtime Experiencemake cultural comparisons (e.g. myths)
tribal mancultural inference

Section Three: Overview

In the present inset plan an attempt has been made to introduce a range of teaching and learning techniques in order to follow the key aspects involved in the process of teacher education. The outcome of the process is illustrated in figure 4:
Figure 4
Figure 4 The process of teacher training

In sum, figure 4 gives us an overview of the present INSET Plan. The trainees have worked through the three phases - knowledge , application and reflection to attain professional development. Firstly, the trainee has received new knowledge from the teacher trainer and has bought his/her own background knowledge to the course. New information is related, elaborated and stored in the trainee's schemata. Such acquired knowledge is practically applied and experienced in the course of trainees' teaching.

Impressions, intentions, feelings etc. are not left unconsciously stored but trainees have developed an awareness of the learning process, of their professional performance, of the postive and/or negative outcomes. In so doing, trainees reflect retrospectively on the overall process. This process has led trainees to the stage of consciously knowing not simply what, but more importantly, how things have occurred, enriching their professional competence. In this view, it seems that the main thrust of the present INSET Plan has been to adhere to the fundamental principles underlying the reflective approach to teacher training.

Appendix A: Sample Text

Inside Ayers Rock

By Les Murray, Subhuman Redneck Poems, 1996

(Editor's Note: This text has not been included since it is under copyright protection. Contact Redneck Press, if you would like the text.)

Appendix B: Evaluation Sheet

Please complete


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 3, March 2000