The Internet TESL Journal

Practical Techniques for Teaching Culture in the EFL Classroom

Brian Cullen
cullen [at]
Nagoya Institute of Technology (Nagoya, Japan)

Kazuyoshi Sato
Nagoya College of Foreign Studies (Nagoya, Japan)

Teaching culture is considered important by most teachers but it has remained "insubstantial and sporadic in most language classrooms" (Omaggio, 1993, p. 357). Omaggio gives several reasons for this including lack of time, uncertainty about which aspects of culture to teach, and lack of practical techniques. In this paper, we will present a range of practical techniques that we have found to be successful in culture-based courses and some tips that can help to make the teaching of culture a better experience for both you and your students.

Creating Cultural Texture

Oxford (1994) has used the term 'cultural texture' to describe the many aspects of culture that we need to teach to our students. To achieve this texture, we need to vary three different parameters.
  1. Information Sources
  2. Activity-types
  3. Selling-points

1. Information Sources

In order to get a comprehensive picture of the target culture from many angles, we need to present our students with different kinds of information. The list below shows some possible sources of information which can be used as materials for teaching culture. By using a combination of visual, audio and tactile materials, we are also likely to succeed in addressing the different learning styles of our students.

2. Activity Types

Many books which attempt to teach culture offer only 'discussion' activities. Discussion is a valuable form of learning in culture, but we cannot expect all students to be able to discuss complex issues at a high level in a foreign language. Often, even high-level students need some preparatory activities with clear goals before they can proceed to discussion. Some of our favourite activities are discussed below.


We have found that quizzes are one of the more successful activity types. Quizzes can be used to test materials that you have previously taught, but they are also useful in learning new information. For example, look at the simple true/false quiz about Ireland below.
With a partner, answer true or false to the following questions.
  1. Ireland is totally dark during the winter.
  2. There is little snow except in the mountains.
  3. The population of Ireland is less than that of Aichi Prefecture.
  4. Ireland is about the same size as the island of Honshu.
  5. The United Kingdom includes the Republic of Ireland.
  6. The Coors, the Cranberries, U2, the Beatles and Enya are Irish musicians.
  7. Some Irish people think the Shinkansen connects Tokyo to Hong Kong.
You should ask the students to answer true or false to each of the questions in pairs or groups. They will share their existing knowledge and common sense to give answers. It is not important whether students get the right answer or not, but by predicting, students will become more interested in finding out the right answer. The right answers can be given by the teacher, through a reading, listening, or video. At this point, extra information can be provided. For example, in answering question 7 above, I tell the story of the Irish man sitting next to me on an airplane who gave me this lovely nonsense.

Here is a different type of quiz that can be useful for introducing the differences and similarities across cultures.

Choose the odd one out of the following items:
  1. a) Earthquakes b) Sushi restaurants c) Snow d) High level of education
The correct answer is 'earthquakes' because you can find all the others both in Ireland and in Japan, but there are no earthquakes in Ireland. Again, getting the correct answer is less important than thinking about the two cultures.

You can also ask students to quiz their partner about readings or other materials. Quizzes offer a high-interest activity that keeps students involved and learning.

Action Logs

An action log is a notebook used for written reflection on the activities done during class which also provides useful feedback for the teacher. Students write it up after each class or at the end of each class. By requiring students to evaluate each class activity for interest usefulness, difficulty, and , they must reconsider what they have learnt.Each student also records their target for speaking English, what they think they actually achieve, the names of their discussion partners, and their own comments on the activities. Some students get so interested in the target culture that they write several pages in comments each week.


When students have read an activity or listened to a story, you may like to use reformulation to allow them to check what they have learned and to reinforce it by retelling it to a partner. Reformulation simply means : 'Explain what you just learned to your partner in your own words.' It is a very simple technique, but has proved very successful for learning both culture and language. We often give readings for homework and require students to take notes on the content. These notes can be in the form of pictures, keywords, or mind-maps.

In the next class, we ask the students to reformulate the content of the reading with a partner using their notes without looking at the original paper. Reformulation is also effective after watching a short video extract or listening to a story. Through reformulation, students check what they have learnt, find out things that they have missed from their partner, and improve their language by noticing gaps in their own ability to explain.


As students watch a video or are engaged with some other materials, you can ask them to 'notice' particular features. For example, they could watch a video of a target-culture wedding and note all the differences with their own culture. Asking students to 'notice' gives a focus to the materials by making it into a task, rather than simply passive viewing or listening.


As mentioned above, prediction can be a useful tool in quizzes, but it can be equally useful in using almost any materials. Like 'noticing', prediction can engage the students more actively. For example, when you are telling a story, you can stop at a certain point and ask the students to predict how it will continue. Or, when you are giving out a reading for homework, first give the title of the reading and ask students to predict what they will learn. This will force them to review their existing knowledge of the topic and raise their curiousity about whether their prediction is correct or not.


Student research is one of the most powerful tools that we can use with college students because it combines their interests with the classroom. For example, after the first class, we ask students to search the internet or library and find information on any aspect of the target-culture that interests them. In the following class, students explain to their group what they have learned and answer any questions about it. This can lead to poster-sessions or longer projects. For some students, it can even lead to a long-term interest in the target-culture.

Some other types of activity that we have found useful include the following but with a bit of thought, most standard EFL activities can be easily adapted for use in the culture classroom. The most important point is to ensure that the students are actively engaged in the target culture and language.

3. Selling Points

In order to create cultural texture, we must be careful not to portray the culture as monolithic, nor to only teach the pleasant aspects. Activities and materials should portray different aspects of the culture. In other words, we need to 'sell' different views of the culture to our students. Introducing deliberate contrasts within a culture can be useful. Some different 'selling points' are contrasted below.

Practical Tips


Only by personalizing activities and content can we hope to lead students to better cultural understanding. We can start off by talking about a distant country, but this will only result in stereotyping if we do not allow students to relate the same issues to their own lives. And as every language teacher knows, students love to talk about themselves.

Activities, not just 'Discussion'

I was reading a book on teaching culture recently and had to laugh at one activity. 'Step 1 - introduce the material. Step 2 - Lead a lively discussion.' This is probably possible with some high-level students in some parts of the world, but for most foreign-language students, instant lively discussion is an unlikely scenario. We have found that activities with simple instructions and a clear goal such as quizzes or surveys are very successful even with low-level learners. It is very easy to extend such activities into open-ended discussions if the opportunity arises. On the other hand, it is often impossible to transform open-ended 'discussion' activities (usually with no clear goal) into activities which work effectively with low-level learners.

Suitable Level of Difficulty

Know your students. Even though you may see yourself primarily as a teacher of culture, if you are working with EFL students, you must constantly remember that they probably will not understand everything that you say. It is not necessary that they understand every word and indeed a challenge is wonderful for learning, but consistently using material or a way of speaking that is too difficult is a sure way to make students lose their interest in a target-culture.

Make It Interesting

Of course, the culture is interesting to you, so you presume that it will be interesting for your students. However, imagine sometimes that you are studying the culture of a foreign country, one that you may have no intention of visiting. Pick out the interesting aspects of a culture and present them in a way that will engage students. By using the variety of approaches described above to create cultural texture and by employing your own enthusiasm, you should also be able to create an exciting class for your students.


Students learn more in groups. They have more opportunities for using the target language, discussing the target culture, and gaining additional perspectives on their own cultural.

Don't Try to Cover Everything

You can't. A culture is enormous. It consists of all the institutions, all the behaviour, in fact all the man-made aspects of a very large group of non-homogeneous people. All that we can do is provide some pathways to enter into learning more about the culture. After all, we never know everything about our own culture. We should not be disappointed that we cannot teach everything but rather be happy that we are able to raise intercultural awareness at all.

Learn Your Students' Language and Culture and Understand Your Own Cultural Baggage

One of the oddest things in the world must be a language teacher who only speaks one language or a culture teacher who only knows one culture. We are so immersed in our own culture that we can only understand it by trying to see it from the outside. Imposing our own values without making an attempt to understand our students' values is imperialistic and arrogant. We must remember that intercultural understanding runs both ways.


  1. Omaggio-Hadley, A.(1993). Teaching language in context. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.
  2. Oxford, R. L.(1994). Teaching culture in the language classroom: Towards a new philosophy. In J. Alatis (ed.), Georgetown University Round Table on Language and Linguistics 1994 (pp. 26-45). Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.
  3. Seelye, H. N. (1993). Teaching culture: Strategies for intercultural communication (2nd ed.). Lincolnwood, Ill: National Textbook Company.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 12, December 2000