How do you deal with cultural issues in the multi-cultural classroom? – An ELTchat Summary 17/10/12

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How do you deal with cultural issues in the multi-cultural classroom? – An ELTchat Summary 17/10/12

Summary of ELTChat, 17 October 2012, by Marjorie Rosenberg


Beach Huts

Beach Huts via #eltpics.


This chat had a number of threads which I have organised here into topics with short introductions.




We looked for a common definition of what we understood by cultural issues and several different ones came up which gave insight into how differently even we teachers look at the issue.

teflgeek: For me I think about behaviours that come from a cultural base, eg not listening to each other / talking over people / the teacher  Also the question of whose culture in dominant in the classroom. Target culture? Host culture? A mixture?

MrChrisJWilson: Potentially more important than differences in beliefs. How students believe they should/shouldn’t be discussed

MarjorieRosenbe added: I teach in Austria – mostly Catholic, have Muslim and Orthodox students from all over Europe. Affects lots of topics. Definition for me is sts with different backgrounds, traditions, religions. and the teacherjames suggested: We can always ask the student to define it for us. I guess when we do needs analysis.

SueAnnan commented that: Sometimes culture is like an iceberg and we only glimpse what is on the surface. Need to be careful as can stir up hornets nest, the first of which is a metaphor often used when discussing culture.

Sensitivity and tolerance

It was also interesting to see the variety of opinions that emerged in the discussion of how to deal with culture in both mono and multi-cultural classrooms. A major issue for most of us was how to deal with these topics in a sensitive way while encouraging conversation and opinions although in some cases this may vary depending on the institution we are teaching in.

lexicojules started off saying: Think a sensitive mix of talking to Ss individually and addressing issues as class when you have the facts and SueAnnan added: My classes are always multilingual and multicultural, but I don’t tempt fate with taboo subjects that I am aware of.

OUPELTGlobal then said: It sounds like dealing with cultural issues is a problem. I’d like to look at it as an opportunity. And then OUPELTGlobal when on to say: Coursebooks are often tailored to avoid offence but, of course, might need adapting in certain contexts. and Being American, of Portuguese descent, living in the UK, I come across ‘cultural issues on a daily basis.’ GemL1 then asked; Isn’t it interesting for Ss to discuss these differences and learn about other cultures? and teflgeek said: Students of one culture may have a mixture of beliefs – sensitivity is key once you know your sts. lexicojules replied: Yes exactly, different in you’re in their country or they’re in yours

theteacherjames brought up an interesting point about sensitivity: Just because we want to be culturally sensitive doesn’t mean we can’t ask challenging questions, if we’re careful about it and let them take the lead and teacherphili went on to say that it was Difficult in situations where we are supposed to get students to think critically yet not on ‘fixed’ beliefs

OUPELTGlobal offered the opinion: I’ve found that culturally sensitive topics kill the conversation in class.  So, don’t mind that they are not included and GmL1 commented: think it depends how well Ss know each other and how T presents the topics with SueAnnan adding: You need to be interested and sensitive. MarjorieRosenbe also mentioned: I find that some students don’t want to discuss in the group but are happy if I talk to them privately and Shaunwilden said: it does depend on how it is broached – why then do so many coursebooks have culture in them

harrsonmike went on to say that Overreaching belief behind religion is tolerance – cite this when dealing with strong opinions based on relig? which was answered by

teacherphili: OK as long as you don’t proselytize one faith over another – that was my experience in Saudi anyway and It certainly depends on the make-up of the Ss but also on what the institution declares fit for discussion.

SueAnnan brought up an interesting point: I think you have to make your classroom a safe environment for discussion and teacherjames said  I would certainly be patient before bringing up a culturally sensitive issue, the sts and you need to have developed a rapport first.

Encouraging interest and dealing with practical situations

We went on to explore how to make use of cultural differences to encourage interest as well as their importance in teaching our students to deal with practical situations.

teacherphili Yes, it is interesting to compare cultures where possible – esp in mixed classes and for younger learners. and lexicojules working with a different group of students said: My Ss are coming to live/study in UK, think it’s important to tackle cultural norms. Knowing probs from exp. helps the process. SueAnnan then commented: I try to help my students avoid problems while they are here in my country and jobethsteel added: Some sts interested, others not at all. I encourage them to see importance in their English use around the world.

In discussing problems with different cultural beliefs and behaviors lexicojules said: I’d rather Ss made cultural gaffes in the classroom where I can sensitively explain than out in the ‘real world’ and teflgeek added: Asking learners to pass comment on other cultures can help them realise aspects of their own.

MarjorieRosenbe said: Being open to culture provides motivation and interest and added that university students often take languages so they can study abroad.

However David_Boutton brought up the topics of real life: We aren’t training future politicians or debaters. How often do we speak about these topics in real life?

And mmgrinberg said: I’ll never forget a teen shouting ‘Heil Hitler in the middle of my lesson. I was so confused but I’m happy we discussed it to which David_Boughton replied: We don’t accept this behaviour in real life. Why in the class? Would we ‘discuss’ it if someone did that at a party?

Then David_Boughton brought up the point of realistic situations: Ss don’t ‘discuss’ with a waiter or when shopping. What happened to functions? to which the teacherjames replied: Always need a balance. Fully agree with incorporating functional activities alongside higher order thinking. Then David_Boughton said: I think expecting students to handle difficult topics with respect is more than we expect from the general population to which OUPELTGlobal replied: I agree but the general population is not necessarily learning a language. That makes a difference, no? and David_Boughton replied: Students want to learn so they can interact with the general populations, so I would say no.

Role models, behavior and importance of dealing with these topics

Our positions as role models was also discussed as well as the importance of these topics in regard to tolerance, communication. learning and critical thinking.

lexicoules said: I don’t think discussing culture has to always be about ‘big’ issues, it can be about everyday norms and SueAnnan said: I have more difficulty with things students do, or don’t do in class such as going down the corridor to blow their noses etc lexicojules replied: I’ve had discussions about interrupting in class, criticizing others, saying you don’t know sth, nose blowing! and GemL1 suggested: Maybe setting some ground rules 1st? And setting a good example but not offending anyone yourself. harrisonmike then said: If we don’t do it (set an example) as teachers, sts will see such behaviour as acceptable – which is is NOT eg. when looking for work

vickyloras added: Agree, sometimes teachers ask of their students things they don’t model themselves.

David_Boughton added: I would say embracing the culture as needed. Students I see learn quickest love English-speaking culture. the teacherjames said: If I want to challenge my sts, they will already know that I don’t accept easy answers and that I want them to think seriously and the teacherphili said: I wonder if being an ELT teacher should require a high level of challenging and drawing out of critical thinking skills and theteacherphili went on to ask: Would you challenge a lack of acceptance or tolerance? Shaunwilden replied: I would openly challenge racist, homophobic etc. views and theteacherjames came back with the question: What’s the alternative? Discussing celebrities and the weather? I’ll pass thanks. teflgeek went on to say: You do hear learners say some quite … provocative … things sometimes and later added Teenagers love to push the boundaries – and their teachers’ button. A reaction is what they want. and lexicojules commented: I try to distance myself by saying ‘Most British people would find that quite offensive/shocking/surprising and then explain why and teflgeek added that It’s not about imposing your own point of view, it’s about leading learners to challenge and rethink their own POV. and went on to add: We cover some of these issues with a code of conduct for classes that includes ‘respect’.

harrisonmike added: Challenging discrimination is part of OFSTED’s inspection framework now as part of Equality and Diversity provision and lexicojules agreed: Exactly, we’re not only teaching lang but norms of communication behaviour in a target culture too.

Possible taboo topics

The conversation became quite specific with suggestions of topics to avoid or those people have experienced difficulties with in the past.

MarjorieRosenbe asked And how do we define taboo topics? That’s the first pitfall for me. I just try to be sensitive about religions, sex and money and added: Have you got some examples of topics to avoid or ideas? to which a number of people replied with a variety of activities and ideas. SueAnnan suggested: holidays, old age, language itself, ways of thinking about the world. prese1 added: I avoid religious and political views and teacherphili said: When I taught in Saudi Arabia, I wasn’t allowed to talk about sex, religion and politics.and theteacherjames asked: But did your students want to talk about those subjects? to which teacherphili replied: Oh, yes, my students wanted to discuss what I labeled the ‘holy trinity’ of sex, religion, politics.

In continuing to define taboo topics MrChrisJWilson said: The one that comes to mind for me is religious and political beliefs. but lexicojules sees this in a broader way: Surely it depends on the mix of Ss and the setting. Many of my EAP Ss have issues adjusting to a UK uni setting.

MarjorieRosenbe went on to say: In some markets dogs and alcohol are taboo, for example. In others it could be completely different topics and mltmkp added more topics to avoid: Sex, death and divorce

harrisonmike summed up by saying: Students can have strong opinions based on culture, religion and personal beliefs.

Specific examples of cultural differences and surprises for teachers and students

MarjorieRosenbe My Austrian students were shocked that not everyone celebrates the same holidays that 25 Dec is not a special day and teflgeek replied: I was shocked when in China and had to teach on Dec 25th At that point it hadn’t previously occurred to me that it wouldn’t be a holiday. Live and learn! Shaunwilden went on to point out: Quite of lot of teachers don’t realise that 25th is not a universal day as well and MarjorieRosenber said Teaching on Dec 25 is probably the case in many places around the world

Addressing the topic of habits and traditions OUPELTGlobal said Portuguese find 45 minutes for lunch criminal … and only a sandwich? Barbaric. And MarjorieRosenbe added: The Chinese nap during the day – love it when students bring up these things in class and added that sometimes women teachers face particular problems with male sts. to which Shuanwilden replied: I had to deal with a company director once who refused to be taught by a woman!

Ideas for the classroom and finding topics

Participants talked about activities as well as specific topics which have worked or not worked in the classroom setting.

teacherphili gave an example of an activity: In Beijing, I taught how to pass an IELTS Writing Part One exam using a rewritten 12 days of Christmas and MarjorieRosenbe added: One lesson I do is a comparison of Xmas, Kwanzaa and Chanukka traditions (winter holidays) OUPELTGlobal went on to say: Food is always an interesting topic and really brings up cultural differences in a safe environment and SueAnnan commented: I have a crime lesson I do with things which are problems in diff parts of the world, it always raises questions. Good material. to which Shaunwilden replied: I imagine crime is quite a conversation starter.

SueAnnan went to on to say Have to admit that we use the taboos and issues book with teens and it works quite well. I enjoy 52 with my adults too and OUPELTGlobal said: Great discussion with Spanish students on the importance of the siesta as it is challenged by the rest of Europe. SueAnnan reported on a group of students: My beginners from Venezuela were desperate to discuss their elections the other day and MarjorieRosenbe: My students want to talk about the US election with me. teacherphili added a personal story illustrating the pitfalls: I remember discussing reunification and under age sex with 16-year old South Koreans- never had so much silence in the classroom.

MarjorieRosenbe went on to say that: We once held a holiday party in which sts brought specialty foods from their countries – was really fun and informative and then added: I have an activity on how the winter holidays are celebrated and they guess where. Gets lots of conversation going GemL1 mentioned another idea: immigration/visa act Ss interview and explain about some cultural differences they need to get used to but David_Boughton cautioned that: Any activity that doesn’t have Ss role-play as other cultures (as it could be a) Recipe for disaster.

 vickyloras brought up the idea of: Visuals around the classroom/school as well as posters of other cultures with people, lives, traditions as well as saying: If in multi-culti cases a show and tell of each one’s culture, if in mono-culti, each S chooses a country to present on and David_Boughton said: I do a similar one where they create a country. Anthems, culture and everything. michaelegriffen took this one step further with: An activity that I love to have Ss (in groups) create their own cultures complete with traditions, mores and everything and said students talk about ‘How do you greet each other’ What do you avoid? How do men/women relate to each other?

Further resources

A number of participants suggested materials to have a look at.

mmgrinberg: said there is: An awesome book re culture and

SueAnnan added that: Barry Tomalin is excellent on cultural issues too.

Michaelegriffen said: Another book recommendation is and teflgeek told us about an: Activity: time lapse video of daily life for comparison with ss own culture:

theteacherjames suggested using: some ideas taken from the Guardian family section, lots of cultural comparisons to be made here and MarjorieRosenbe talked about: business in different cultures and referred to The Culture Pack, Derik Utley as well as a unit on Islamic banking in Banking and Finance 2, Pearson, (which) always creates interest in non-Islamic countries and teflgeek said: There’s also the Socio-Cultural Game in the back of Market Leader Intermediate

Moving on

The conversation ended with some definition of our roles as ELT teachers.

MarjorieRosenber said: I think we need to define our mission as ELT teachers. Mine is to open their minds as well as to teach the language. And to teach them to be citizens of the world. and teflgeek replied that it: might be our mission, but is it our job? MarjorieRosenbe answered: I believe in life long learning, so the wider opportunity to learn should be granted to all who want it (and that) Learning is not just limited to the classroom. Opening minds can help learner autonomy and that: we are ambassadors of our culture.

Summing up

This was a fascinating and lively chat which brought in a number of our own ideas, experiences and beliefs about teaching and what we can do for our students. There was a great deal of enthusiasm for others’ ideas and people were adding in personal experiences once topics were introduced. The list of resources at the end should also prove to be helpful to continue exploring the topic.



About The Author

Marjorie Rosenberg teaches general and business English as well as a CAE preparation course at the Language Institute of the University of Graz and ESP at the University of Teacher Education. She has been teaching at the adult level for over 30 years and at the tertiary level for the past 20. She is an active teacher trainer and her interests include NLP for the classroom, learning styles, cooperative learning, and multiple intelligences. 




Photo taken from, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,