Culture Shock in the Classroom: Yours and Theirs - Full Discussion - English Language Acquisition Discussion List

Culture Shock in the Classroom: Yours and Theirs
Full Discussion

Guest Participant | Preparations

Guest Discussion Leader: Sharon McKay, Center for Applied Linguistics
Moderator: Miriam Burt, Center for Applied Linguistics


During the week of November 8- 12, 2010, Sharon McKay facilitated a discussion on the topic of "Culture Shock in the Classroom: Yours and Theirs." Blaire Willson Toso introduced the topic with a discussion of possible definitions of culture. Several posters joined this thread. Claudia Richardson contributed an example of cultural differences that can be found in everyday life. Ted Klein expanded our discussion by noting factors of cultural confusion he has noticed in the classroom over time. This led to a discussion of the culture of learner expectations for education. Discussing teacher and learner expectations led us to more contributions regarding classroom techniques and strategies for handling cross-cultural difficulties as they arise. Finally, Ted Klein outlined the stages of culture shock for newcomers into a society, and posters responded with their experience in this area. It was a fruitful discussion with a wide variety of contributions during the week.

Topic 1: Definitions of Culture:

Hello all,

In thinking about the upcoming special discussion "Culture in the Classroom," I thought it would be interesting to find out how people on this list are defining culture and how it relates to working with adults learning English, particularly those in the ESL classroom (beyond the obvious fact that our students are from different cultures)?

BTW: I was intrigued that the Diversity List was revisiting the meaning of diversity, and thought CULTURE was an appropriate idea (not word) for the ELA List to revisit.

I look forward to some different and cultural takes from list members, particularly as we have an international audience. This could be fun, informative, and fodder for teaching ideas.

Blaire Willson Toso, PhD

Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy, The Pennsylvania State University

 Whew! Those are hard questions that Blaire poses: What is culture?

The literature on multinational corporations and globalization deals with the issue of culture frequently. I like the way Van Maanen and Laurent (1993) describe cultures as sort of "rough boundaries" than can be drawn between members and non members of a group. The authors go on to say that cultures are not blueprints for everyone’s behavior within the group and cultures do not have an identical effect on all members. Chang (2004) agrees that the influence culture has on behavior can differ from one individual to another.

  • Van Maanen, J. & Laurent, A. (1993). The flow of culture: Some notes on globalization and the multinational corporation. In S. Ghoshal & E. Westeny (Eds.), Organizing theory and the multinational corporation (pp.276-298). New York: St. Martins’.

Other thoughts on what culture is (or isn’t?)

I’m not tackling the "how it relates to the classroom" in this email. That’s for another email, I think.

Miriam Burt

Moderator, discussion list for adult English language acquisition

Center for Applied Linguistics


Your question about the nature of culture has been answered in different ways by many people, but I think there are some aspects that all can agree on: culture is a universal fact of human life; culture is learned; and cultural patterns change over time. Each group develops its own culture, generally in isolation, to solve basic problems: food, clothing, shelter, family organization, social organization, government, arts, knowledge, religion, etc. Gary Weaver's Cultural Iceberg is a good graphic representation of deep and surface culture. (It's in Cross-cultural Orientation: New Conceptualizations and Applications. I don't have the publisher at hand.)

In teachings adult ELLs we try to add another language to their native one. But another language does not make the ELL bicultural or multicultural. They are still bound by the culture in which they were raised, and therein lies the dilemma. No problem of an intercultural nature is present when a person stays in his or her own culture.

Misunderstandings arise when a person who has been enculturated into one culture comes in contact with a very different culture. (That's all of us as teachers of ELLs.) For instance, a teacher wants her students to call her by her first name (because she uses their first names), but students who were raised in a hierarchical society would generally find this very hard to do, and would feel embarrassed, or even shameful. Similarly, do any teachers on the list serve have students who think nothing about helping fellow students answer test questions, or those who never make eye contact? These traits are deeply engrained cultural aspects that need to be understood by teachers, but they do not have to be shared. It you ask me what culture is, I'd say that it was a way of perceiving, a way of thinking, a way of communicating, a way of behaving, and a way of evaluating. It makes our environment understandable and predictable.


I joined the list last month, but did get a chance to introduce myself to you and comment on your discussions due to the mountain of works that I have been doing for the last few weeks. I am glad that I can do that today. My name is Gusman Edouard, but I mostly go by Teddy. I have an M.A. in TESOL and more than seven years of experience in that field. To be specific, I have worked as an ESL/ESOL teacher, teacher trainer and program manager. I have also taught Intercultural Communication and English Teaching Methodology at the college level.

Now let me response to Blaire’s posting.

First of all, I believe in this case, we can define culture as a cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations and concepts of the universe that every single learner brings into the ESL classroom.

Now that we know each adult learner has different values and beliefs system, the question is how will that help or hinder their learning in the ESL classroom. To answer this question, I personally believe that teachers need to raise students’ awareness of cultural issues and create their own "classroom culture" for the group of learners they are dealing with.

Let me define "classroom culture". It is a set of values, rules, and beliefs that can be developed in the classroom that everybody knows about and agrees upon. And the classroom culture varies depending on the teacher’s teaching style and philosophy. However, it is important that I mention there are classroom cultures which are conducive to learning, and there are others which are clearly not.

Here is a list of some of the things that I feel will influence your "classroom culture". It is not an exhaustive list.

  • Teacher’s standing position in the classroom
  • The setting of the Lesson
  • Attendance and Punctuality
  • Seating
  • Student-student interactions
  • Interruptions
  • Attention
  • Teacher-Student Image and relationships

Teddy Gusman, (Edouard), ESOL Specialist, Baltimore, MD

Topic 2: An Example of Cultural Differences:

This is really a question about something that has me totally baffled. Hope it is OK to ask it here. It certainly has to do with different cultures.

My friend who works at a state college saw a woman, who she believes is from the Philippines, walk up to a pregnant woman and touch not only the woman's stomach but also her breasts.

The pregnant woman really felt she had been molested.

What cultures OK this behavior and is it considered good luck or?

Claudia Richardson

Hi Claudia,

I see your point. Thank you for sharing this with others. Was this friend of yours who touched the pregnant woman a man or a women? It all depends on the circumstances. To me, I would see the action of the woman who touch the other woman's belly/ breast a sort of blessing and it could happen with a pure intention of showing emotional/ excitmental support. I do have a concern when a male touches the woman's belly or breast except her husband and their immediate family members. It all deprnds on how we look at it. Of course, culture plays a role here, but if it is a custom of that place/country, then I wouldn't complain much about it. As always said, "When you are in Rome, do as Roman does".

I worked in Johannesburg, South Africa as a high school teacher for almost 10 years, before I immigrated to USA. I worked in a school in a rural area. At times, it was very normal for village people to walk with their naked breast in public places or during cultural events. Even during class, students occasionally appeared partially dressed up. It was a tradition or rather a custom to dress like that in certain places in rural areas in SA, but not everywhere.

So, I would say one has to be very caredul as to what the norms, culture, tradition, and life style of the poeple in a particular area, before you start following it. It is of course a sensitive issue. 


Hope I make sense. I would appreciate your feedback on this. Thanks

Selliah Gnanaseharan. MA

ESL/GED/ABE Instructor

Adult Education Service

Newark, New Jersey.

Thank you for responding. This was a woman who was not known to the pregnant woman or to my friend who witnessed the event. My friend told me about it because she knows I am very interested in cultural differences.

It struck me that the action was either a blessing, a desire to give good luck, or a good wish. This occurred in Massachusetts.

To me touch has its own language and it fascinates me. A promising piano student of mine recoiled when I took his arm and showed him how his fingers should feel on the piano. My teacher had done this often with me to great success and it hadn't occurred to me to prepare my student for this technique. My student quit lessons. He lives within walking distance and was born here. Obviously I offended him. It saddens me.

You make perfect sense and I do appreciate your response.

Claudia Richardson

Your guess that the touching might have been a kind of blessing or good luck gesture is very possible. It might also have been something like touching wood to gain good luck. In either case, it is an example of the way in which unthinking gestures and taboos can clash. I was raised to look and smile at people I pass in a neighbourhood context, but where I work older men consider it very rude for a woman to do this. I have also been in the position, as an interviewer, of trying to make eye contact with a prospective young female student, who was not willing to do this. It took a while before I realised that by looking down she was being respectful to me as an older person in a position of authority. I should have realised sooner than I did.

In terms of classroom management, many of our students prefer not to sit next to a person of the opposite sex, so we tend to get men on one side of the room (a fairly permanent U-shaped arrangement of tables) and women on the other. Older men sometimes address me and women in the class as 'sister' as a courtesy, which has real resonances with my Baptist childhood.

In terms of your musical example, there can be very strong personal reactions to touching, even of a type which would normally be considered appropriate. I once saw mother become furious when a (female) violin teacher quickly and gently repositioned her daughter's violin just before a group performance, but she may have been more angry at what she saw as implied criticism than at any possible touch. I think instrumental teachers are now advised to ask about touching, at least for a kind of general permission when a student begins.

Cheryl Thornett

ESOL & Adult Literacy Tutor, BAES

Birmingham UK

Hi Claudia and Cheryl:

I have been reading your comments and just had to jump in because too often we take things for granted when it comes to culture. We all at one point or another seem to forget that culture affects behavior. Claudia’s incidents clearly highlights the fact that as teachers we must make sure that we learn as much as possible from our students about their cultural traditions and beliefs. The more we know the more can understand a simple thing as "touching the stomach of the pregnant woman". As teachers we need to take the challenge of "reading as much as we can" about our students culture and traditions. We need to learn all that we can and we all know, that we can never learn all, but we sure can try.

It is also important to understand that what is okay in one culture is not necessarily acceptable in another. The "nuances" of our cultures may seem simple to some, but not to others. Hence, we must come to the classroom with an "open mind" and not look at things through our personal cultural lens. This is where we all tend to fall short.

Dr. Migdalia Cruz Arthurton

District Coordinator

Department of Education

St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands

Topic 3: Factors of Cultural Confusion in the Classroom:


 Since most persons participating in these discussions are involved in education and training, following is a list of some of the most common confusion factors that I have noticed for international students in an American classroom:

  • The American system of placing the ability to think and analyze over the ability to memorize. In many cultures the opinions of students are considered irrelevant.
  • The relative informality of many American instructors.
  • The tendency of some Americans to chastise publicly. ("FACE")
  • The expectation of some international students that instructors should know "everything" about the subject.
  • The American priority of individualism over the group.
  • The high value that most Americans place on punctuality. (Monochronic vs. polychronic ultures.)
  • The negative American attitude toward "assisting" friends during examinations.
  • The fact that students who occasionally "challenge" their instructors seem to sometimes be favored, or at the least not "in trouble."

Ted Klein

Ted -

Thanks for posting. It was always fascinating for me to figure out the balance between my understanding of good practice and what students expected. I found that I had to walk a balance of compromise between their cultural expectations about what education looks like and how it is carried out and my training about good practices. Here are a couple of examples that tie in to your list below.

Adult immigrant learners who expected me to discipline them by making them stand in the corner (I was 24 and they were all generally 40+). I could not ever do that. We had multiple conversations about cultural differences and expectations. We set class rules and consequences. However, I lived with a rowdy class for a while. It took a deal of time to get to mutual agreement: students to self-regulate and me to become more authoritarian.

The other pertinent example is teaching strategies. Most of my work has been with low-level literate students, and per good practice, theory, and methodology, one should focus on developing oral skills. Because of this I had students who left my classes because I did not give them enough pencil and paper work; they told me that they were not learning properly. I moved to incorporating dedicated time to activities that met their expectations of what learning should look like. After all, affect is a big part of learning and retention.

By the way, this was a moving target; new students or topics could shift class dynamics or bring up new cultural issues.

For example: students from conflicting ethnic groups enrolled in the same classr; undocumented students versus green card holders.


Topic 4: Culture of Learner Expectations:

My colleagues and I find that we often have to help adult students to get used to a new kind of classroom culture. Some are terrified of coming to the front of the class and writing on the board. Others have a hard time understanding how playing a game can help learning, or that we want them to talk to each other and help each other work. (And of course often the point is the talking required as much as the game itself.) Some won't speak unless called on, and others have a hard time taking turns. I particularly remember a very shy woman who wouldn't speak at all in class for a couple of months and then would only speak in a whisper to a friend or to me, which was partly cultural and partly personality. Writing is a big hurdle for some people who are technically literate, but whose culture mainly reserves writing for authority figures.

I once had a colleague who seriously offended some of her students by insisting on activities which she regarded as good communicative work, but which the students regarded as undignified and unsuitable. Also, students complained that they didn't know what they were supposed to be learning and didn't think they were learning anything. Ironically, she failed to communicate the purpose of her communicative activities. Another failing was in not accepting indirect, and eventually direct, negative feedback from the students. Some were genuinely unable to learn in that situation.

Students themselves are generally the best resources for cultural information. I'm sure we all use traditions, celebrations and perhaps more serious issues to stimulate discussion and to encourage reading and writing. Also, if we show that we value our students' cultures and are interested in learning about them, we promote a better learning environment. If the classroom is multi-cultural, we can promote mutual respect and understanding as students share their knowledge.

Cheryl Thornett

When I first started teaching, I was working with foreign students in a university prep program. This was back in the '80s, and probably half of our student population was Middle Eastern. One of my classes was a group of very jolly male friends from Kuwait, who were really just looking to have some fun in the States. But as Ted points out, they definitely believed in "assisting" each other during quizzes and tests. Since this was a university prep course, it was important for them to learn that this was not acceptable test behavior, but nothing I said or did could stop them, so finally I decided to devise different tests for each student. I'll never forget the look of bewilderment and confusion on one student's face when he finally recognized that the paper he was copying from was not the same as his own and he rather accusingly pointed this fact out to me. It was pretty funny.

In adult ed classrooms, however, I have experienced two very volatile cultural conflicts.

The first time, I was working with a group of Khmer students in Tacoma. During our classroom break one day, the women were having a pretty heated conversation but since they were speaking Khmer, I had no idea what was going on or how serious it was. The next thing I knew, two of them were in a physical fight in the middle of the classroom (I think the problem was a generational one - one of the women was older and one was younger). Well, actually, we were in a community center somewhere so there was no one to call for help, so I just had to step in and separate them myself. I don't think they thought it was my place to get involved, however. Apparently, my involvement in separating them shamed them and I never saw either woman again. Now how do you deal with something like that in the classroom? I'm not sure what else I could have done although maybe today there would be a mutual assistance organization somewhere that could help to sort the situation out and help to restore everyone's sense of dignity.

The second incident did not happen in my classroom but in my school. Blaire might remember this incident at Pratt? I believe there was a substitute teacher in one of the classrooms on a day when one of our Salvadoran students came to school with flyers promoting a rally in support of the communist group in El Salvador. He spoke about the rally in class and praised the work of the communist group in his country. Well, in the same class there was a big contingent of Hmong men, who HATED communists and had suffered tremendously at the hands of the Pathet Lao in Laos. They heard the Salvadoran man praising communism and interpreted that to mean that he supported the atrocities of the Pathet Lao. The sub in the classroom did not know how to handle this conversation and let it go on too long without pointing out that communism wears different faces in different parts of the world. Well, emotions got to a fever pitch, and during the classroom break, probably 5 or 6 Hmong men jumped the one Salvadoran man in the hallway. Major conflict.

Culture and what can trigger cultural conflict is so unpredictable. In my experience, it seems that the relationships among the students in an ESL classroom is probably trickier to manage than the relationship between the teacher and the students.



This statement you wrote caught my attention:

"Most of my work has been with low-level literate students, and per good practice, theory, and methodology, one should focus on developing oral skills. Because of this I had students who left my classes because I did not give them enough pencil and paper work; they told me that they were not learning properly. I moved to incorporating dedicated time to activities that met their expectations of what learning should look like. After all, affect is a big part of learning and retention."

"School" and "learning" seemed to be different things to the adult English Language Learners in my classes than to me. Before entering the ESOL classroom, the adults who were parents had put a lot of effort into making sure their children were sent to school, both when they lived in their home country and after they came to the U.S. They showed by their financial sacrifice that they valued "education" highly. Once they started attending the ESOL class, they seemed to be so happy just to sit in a desk with a notebook and a pencil. For some of them, it was the first time in their lives. Up until they came to the ESOL class, they had built up images of "education," and "teacher" and "student." Then, when I, as their "teacher" acted in ways that they did not expect, it disappointed them.

When I caught on to what was happening, I dedicated time for them to do the desk work they expected. I applied the focus of our lesson in the "copying" and ‘handwriting practice" they wanted to do. We divided the walls of the room into sections for each group of students in the multi-level class. They decided which pages of their work would be posted there. As I tried to play the role of the type of "teacher" they expected me to be, I tried my best to make sure that a tone was set in the class which always gave support to everyone, and praise for everyone in their work.

I could not use "good practice, theory, and methodology" until I responded to these adult learners’ needs to be the kind of students they thought students were supposed to be, and do the things they believed students were supposed to do. I had a big surprise, after about two cycles, when these adults began to thank me for helping them to pronounce and speak like "Americans." One of them said his bosses told him that they were impressed how much English he was learning.

I shifted my concept of education as I began to understand how they saw the educational process; over time, it seemed like they too shifted their concept. Perhaps the most important thing I learned was to first find out what they feel they need, and start off by addressing these things first.

Philip Anderson, Florida Department of Education, Adult ESOL Program Specialist

Dear Phillip,

I am very interested in your reflection and what you did to address your students’ need for what they expected out of a teacher. I have encountered this kind of dissatisfaction with what I expect in a classroom throughout my career.

You said at the end that they made shifts in their concepts. Did you do something to cause this shift to happen?

I’m thinking of doing something similar for my students.

Karrie Zylstra Myton Bates Technical College, ESL Instructor


I wish I could say I knew of a specific intervention to cause a shift in their perception of what would be the correct way to learn English. While it was clear that it did happen, I didn’t set out to try to change their attitudes toward how they should be taught. It kind of surprised me when they began to thank me for helping them to learn to communicate verbally.

I started off doing a lot more speaking and listening practice than paperwork. Soon it became clear that speaking and listening was not something they wanted to do. They wanted to work alone at their desk and the classroom to be quiet so they could concentrate. I was convinced that they really needed to get speaking and listening practice or they weren’t going to succeed in getting jobs. Yet, it also became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to give them that until I gave them what they expected first. After I gave them a good dose of silent desk work in every class, they were okay with me having them do speaking and listening practice.

I had learned Spanish and Haitian Creole from teachers that used much more speaking and listening practice than reading and writing (probably 90% S/L-10% R/W). From being taught that way, I probably was going for the default of copying the teaching methods I had experienced rather than a theory I read in a book or heard in TESOL class. In the end, I think I could say with some certainty that they were probably more open-minded toward future teachers than they had been with me, their first teacher. By the way, I still chuckle when I remember them saying I was their first teacher and I would hear, "You are my "fierce" teacher!"

Philip Anderson

I think the "Cultural expectations" in the classroom is a fascinating topic and fodder for a PhD dissertation for someone, perhaps. My current job is in Malaysia working for the British Council, where we receive adult English students from all over Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and occasionally from Africa south of the Sahara in mixed, multilingual groups, sorted by ability during a placement intake test.

We use a very interactive, integrated skills approach, based on a course book that promotes a lot of fun and games, and a more non-academic, oral communication focus. In this type of multicultural group, students arrive with many different expectations, but surely most of the Asians have experienced rote learning, exams focused prior education, and are much more comfortable with pencil and paper work and teachers praise, and marks to prove to themselves they are progressing. The Arab and Persian students much prefer the less serious, conversational games and mixer activities where they get out of the chairs and talk to other students, using their English practically.

It is hard to find the right mix in the classroom. I am fortunate enough to have the latest in technology- computer, digital projector, and interactive whiteboard for presentations that allow students to go up to the board and write, or move words around, etc. What I feel like I can share is that it is important to plan a MIXTURE of activities in every class session. This also has the advantage of appealing to multiple learning styles, so we have listening audio CD's, a YouTube video now and then for the young and young-at-heart, and of course reading comprehension questions, practice worksheets and grammar exercises for the ones who like that and need that.

This all boils down to good teacher planning, so that each class has something fun as well as some "serious" practice and recycling of prior lessons.

L. Heidi Primo

A few years ago, I worked in a small refugee run agency in Madison, WI. The staff and clients were primarily refugees from Laos and Cambodia (Hmong, Lao and Cambodian). The agency ran a summer school program for young kids and the teacher would give them time during that day to play educational games in the small computer lab, often at the end of the day. However, if the parents happened to drop by to pick up their children, they would react--why are they not learning? Similarly, adults who were, for example, using a computer program to improve their typing would react when the program automatically followed a typing session with a typing game--not so much because the game was geared for younger users but because it wasn't "teaching" in the way they expected. We needed to change the default so they felt they were being "taught" in the manner they understood teaching to be conducted.

Arthur Upham, PH. D.

Refugee Specialist, Madison, Wisconsin

Topic 5: Classroom Strategies:

Arthur Upham speaks to a basic and very poignant tenet of adult learning. Adults come to our schools with preconceived notions about what education should look like, what the teacher’s role is and what the student’s role is. These ingrained notions color how they approach the teacher, the curricula, and their classmates.

I am becoming more and more convinced that learner-centered instruction is powerfully effective in the adult classroom at all levels. However, this can run counter to a student’s educational background and cultural expectations. It takes time and patience. If the teacher presents a safe, respectful learning environment where students learn to collaborate, help each other, identify their own errors and celebrate their own successes, they quickly lost that idea that the teacher teaches and the students sit and absorb. Without even realizing it, they become equal partners with the teacher in the learning process.

If the situation is parents not "getting" the purpose of multiple modes of instruction, including games, I guess they could be encouraged to "wait and see" the end result. Better yet, if they could visit, maybe even volunteer in their children’s classrooms, maybe they would recognize the results in action.

Just my thoughts on a chilly Colorado morning.

Kat Bradley-Bennett

I was pleased to see the word volunteer because that is what I do.

I am a retired English teacher but don't have credentials

in this area of teaching English as a second language.

One thing of interest to me is that students often don't see why anyone would

volunteer. No pay? What for? After some time passes they start talking about

volunteering themselves and it is such a good feeling that they are accepting

this idea. Another part of our culture.


I want to take a moment to recap some of the highlights of the discussion thus far. Blaire Willson Toso began by asking what is culture? Since A. Kroeber and C. Kluckhohn compiled 168 definitions of culture in their work, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions (1952), I think we might never be absolute about our definitions. We might, however, loosely agree that culture involves patterns of thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and customs belonging to and creating the distinction of a group of people. 

Claudia joined the discussion with a question about behavior from a culture outside the United States and how we, as ESL teachers and culture brokers, might respond to such behavior. When I was thinking of a name for this discussion, I thought of the great number of questions we have about other cultures. As they unfold, these become our moments of ‘culture shock’ in the classroom.

Migdalia Cruz Arthurton pointed out we ‘need to learn all that we can’ and that although we can never learn everything about all of the cultures we are working with, we can try. I agree that reducing our culture shock will enhance our ability to create the learning culture we seek. I also believe that I will continue to be ‘shocked’ by student culture that is new to me. Anecdotes about these challenges and possible solutions you have found will add greatly to our understanding of culture in the classroom.

Ted Klein introduced eight great cross-cultural points of confusion between US school environments and various other cultures. We all feel the need to prepare our students for this world they are entering, both in terms of the culture of school and the culture of work. How do we as instructors create a bridge between cultures that prepares students for their future?

I would like to take just the first two of Ted’s list and ask for your responses to them.

  • "The American system of placing the ability to think and analyze over the ability to memorize. In many cultures the opinions of students are considered irrelevant." Have you encountered difficulties in this area? If yes, how have you bridged the gap between these ideas? Were there any activities you found helpful in doing so?
  • "The relative informality of many American instructors." I have found myself to be so informal at times that I couldn’t remember what ‘formal’ was. Have you found any solutions to this challenge in your classroom?

To sum it up, we want

  • to understand incoming cultures and reduce our ‘shock’.
  • to know how to create bridges between cultures and reduce their ‘shock’.
  • to discover what aspects of our culture need to be deliberately transmitted within a ‘classroom culture.’
  • to discover activities and planning that will accomplish these in short order

I’m sure we can get this all finished on Monday and then decide what to do the rest of the week, right? OK, we may not get to everything in the coming week, but let’s get on with the adventure and see where it leads us.

Sharon McKay, ESL Specialist, Washington, DC

 "The American (and Australian) system of placing the ability to think and analyze over the ability to memorize. In many cultures the opinions of students are considered irrelevant." Have you encountered difficulties in this area? If yes, how have you bridged the gap between these ideas? Were there any activities you found helpful in doing so?

We put the ability to memorise first, from the first years of primary school onward. The culture shock of our migrants who are literate in their own languages such as Malaysian, Indonesian, Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish, German, Greek, Russian is that our spelling must be learned by memory. 

 Their writing systems have only a few rules which can be thought and analysed out.

Many have said to me, 'Why can't we have an English spelling for migrants?" 

Helpful Activity. I have used Parallel Text to help them. with present spelling and 'spelling without traps' on opposite sides of the page. They - and other teachers - are surprise to find that only a few changes are necessary. They assume there must be far more, because they have never analysed our spelling, and the 35 most common irregular words appear all the time - in 12% of everyday text..)

valerie yule

I am constantly shifting my focus in the classroom to fit different learning styles. There is more than one way to skin a cat!!! If students want grammar, it is possible to "do" grammar and also have many communicative exercises.

Rosemary Dill


A number of subscribers have already raised questions and shared reflections about culture, generally, and culture in the classroom. I wonder if many of us are quiet because it's a complicated question - or set of questions - to consider. I tend to try to get back to very basic elements, and ry to imagine what something looks like; what , for example, an awareness of culture might mean to us on a day to day basis.

We are aware of culture in our classrooms and tend, maybe, to think about gender roles, or age, or the potential of religious views to have an impact on expectations of interaction and learning. I believe that Daphne Greenberg might have raised a question about our views about culture in the workplace as well (or someone raised the issue - forgive me if I've gotten ti wrong) , leading me to think about interactions beyond the relatively safe space of the classroom.

How/do we think about shifting the conversation away from culture as such (i.e. tell me about death/health/food in your country) and ask ourselves and learners to consider culture through the lens of things we observe about behavior and customs that are similar AND different to our own? Is it possible to use sheer observation (what do you see people do at the bank, grocery store, in traffic, etc) - and using those observations, back into conversations and discussions about culture?

Janet Isserlis


Your remarks are on target. There is no recipe or rule book to guide us. This is very fluid, particularly for cultures that are assimilating in the most modern country in the world. As the war in Vietnam was ending, our community became a relocation destination for large numbers of Hmong, Vietnamese and Cambodian. At the time I worked as a medical social worker at the local children’s hospital. The cultural clashes were immediate and difficult not to notice. The Hmong culture was particularly challenging because this population came from a relatively remote and undeveloped mountainous region. They had no written language and many had little or no education.

From the hospital staff perspective, their behavior made little sense. They routinely refused any procedure that punctured the body. Sometimes children bordered between life and death while debates went on about the use of intravenous fluids. More often, physicians would use the power of the courts to do what they medically were trained to do. A dramatic example but one that shows what can happen when the gap between cultures is wide. Neither party could understand the behavior of the other, and first arrivals received negative impressions about doctors and nurses. It took us several years to understand the logic that would lead parents to endanger their children’s health. At the same time leaders in these communities were developed and they actively help bridge the cultural gap. These are indeed rare incidents today. Today, they have elected political leaders to voice their concerns/priorities as a community.

The important point is that this has not been a one way street. These refugee communities have learned about social and business life in the valley and have adapted well. their cultural values of collectiveness has enabled them to successfully develop remarkable business enterprises which would otherwise be beyond the reach of any single person/family. Their children are among the highest achievers (they recently celebrated their first Bar approved lawyer) and also the most troubled with large participation in youth gangs.

The point is that when people are new to a community is easier to see where there are differences, and sometimes this newness creates an opportunity to learn and explore together. Overtime, other pressing interest divert our attention and we have less awareness of how some of the issues we face are due to fundamental misunderstandings because we do not share the same beliefs, ideals or goals. Just because I am in this room does not mean I am like you or that I want what you want.

We may do better if we operate as if we are all strangers. Assume we do not know. Work to create within us an openness to discover what we share in common and have a commitment to deal with our differences so that we are both better off.

Yolanda Partida, MSW, DPA

Director, Hablamos Juntos

Assistant Adjunct Professor

UCSF Fresno Center for Medical Education and Research

How/do we think about shifting the conversation away from culture as such (i.e. tell me about death/health/food in your country) and ask ourselves and learners to consider culture through the lens of things we observe about behavior and customs that are similar AND different to our own? Is it possible to use sheer observation (what do you see people do at the bank, grocery store, in traffic, etc) - and using those observations, back into conversations and discussions about culture?

Sometimes the best way to deal with an apparently unsuitable topic in materials is to ask students for their opinions: what do they think about the young woman in the text living away from home? Is that a good idea? Do you think young people should live with their parents or relatives until they marry? What is good and bad about both customs? How do you feel when you see real young people dressed this way? Would they be punished in your country?

Real life observations can be absolute gold in the classroom and what better than everyday situations and problems to get people speaking freely and naturally to each other? It's also good for students to have a safe place to air their fears and criticisms. Some topics that have really got some of my students going are a first pregnancy (loads of good advice and detailed comparisons of giving birth in different countries); conflicts about clothing, especially full veils for Muslim women (pro and con), hostile reactions received when wearing traditional male or female clothing, students' associations of some western styles with prejudice and violence; traffic and the roads; the local schools; how to cope with living in a different country with a different climate and different laws. Some have been planned and prompted by me, and some have arisen in the course of something else. When a topic doesn't take off, the lesson proceeds as planned, and when it does I let it run until it seems to conclude or as long as I feel I can let it. I can always make notes of language issues for a short summary at the end, or to introduce another day.

I do think it is a good idea to get students to talk about their expectations of the classroom and of issues around behaviour (which may or may not be cultural), although this of course has to be done without appearing to shame or blame a person or group of persons.

Cheryl Thornett

ESOL & Adult Literacy Tutor, BAES, Birmingham UK

Personally, I think the most difficult and insidious cultural differences are those that we can observe but do not identify as cultural because they are so far below our level of conscious awareness. For example, "interrupting" someone who's talking is cultural - acceptable and even valued in some cultures, unacceptable and devalued in other cultures. When someone from a culture that values it meets someone from a culture that devalues it, they will perceive each other as either rude and pushy, or uninvolved and bored.

Pauses between bursts of speech are another example. In some cultures, like U.S. culture, pauses must be very short and if you want to jump into a conversation, you have to be prepared to jump in quickly. In other cultures, the pause is significantly longer. People from those cultures perceive us as pushy and controlling because we never "give" them a chance to talk, but we're just following our conversational rules. The problem is that nobody recognizes it as a conversational rule and they don't recognize that they're playing by different rules - they just know that they feel disrespected, but they don't really know why.

These kinds of misperceptions go on all the time and are rarely perceived as cultural - they are generally attributed to personality. That person is rude, that person is unfriendly, that person is antisocial, that person is not a team player. Joan

In my culture, we need to be able to do what we ask others to do, so here are a couple of my responses to Ted's first two items...

I would like to take just the first two of Ted’s [Klein] list and ask for your responses to them.

  • "The American system of placing the ability to think and analyze over the ability to memorize. In many cultures the opinions of students are considered irrelevant." Have you encountered difficulties in this area? If yes, how have you bridged the gap between these ideas? Were there any activities you found helpful in doing so?

I have found the need to teach the language and structures for expressing opinions from the first day of class. "I like" and "I don't like" surface naturally in those early classes. A reluctance to focus on opinions in the classroom can be as much of a linguistic hurdle as a cultural one. I try to model expressing opinions beginning with the weather and extend it throughout the course. This may not draw everyone into expressing their opinions but it does provide a comfort and competence zone for those who wish to do so. Students begin to notice small talk becoming easier when they share opinions. Hopefully, this becomes a gentle nudge to those who have not done so in the past. 

  • "The relative informality of many American instructors." I have found myself to be so informal at times that I couldn’t remember what ‘formal’ was. Have you found any solutions to this challenge in your classroom?"

I am truly guilty of informality in my classroom, from first names to wearing jeans. What has struck me over the years is that many little things can have a big impact on learners. I used to enjoy sliding handouts across the table at students quickly, as if it were a game. A students came to me after class one day and expressed her shock at the way I gave out papers. Needless to say, I was shocked to realize that she felt belittled by my actions. She shared that other students felt the same as she did. I never thought about the view from the other side of the table. Thereafter, I have tried to make eye contact and give papers directly to each student. I also ask students to give out papers as well. It takes longer and it's not a game anymore, but it isn't offensive either.
I can't change everything about the way I teach, but that one was an easy fix.

  Do you have any insights or activities to add? 

  Sharon McKay, ESL Specialist, Washington, DC

I would like to pose a question. Has anyone found that informality in class

contributes to less attentive students? Do they become more talkative among themselves?

I ask because in one class the students said it was too noisy to

concentrate and hear pronunciation well. That amused me because they were the ones being a bit noisy.

They are not disrespectful toward the instructor and they enjoy class.

It made me wonder if their unfamiliarity with a warm and casual style of teaching

had affected behavior too much. Thanks for your thoughts.

Claudia Richardson

Creating a class culture could help here. The students get to espouse opinions that they might not have known that they have but do not necessarily practice about how class/school should be. Then they develop their group norms. Don’t expect perfection or total agreement, but it will clear the air, I think, from where you describe you are now.

Andrea England

I don't think that talking in class is related to informality on the teacher's part - I think it happens when you have students that have not spent a lot of time in a classroom and have never learned that talking while a teacher is talking is not appropriate in most classrooms. It's just a classroom rule they're not familiar with.

In very small classes, when students are talking during a lesson, I often try to join their discussion because what often happens is one student is having trouble understanding me and asking another student for help. And if one student is having trouble, probably others are too - so let's all talk about it.

On the other hand, sometimes it has nothing to do with what's happening in class - maybe it's a problem with a doctor or the bus or any number of other issues that's taking their attention away - and then it's a good topic for discussion for the whole class. I just always think it's a good idea to join those discussions and find out what's going on. And explaining the issue in English is a good exercise for them too.


I am not sure that informality and being talkative is necessarily a bad thing, after all getting ESL students to talk (in English) is one of the main goals. I have to laugh sometimes when I find myself self trying to get my class to be quiet and focus on me so I can tell them to talk to each other… I don’t think informality necessarily leads to disrespect or chaos, it is that something else happens, and that something else might also be a powerful learning experience. A more important question might be: What is it that they should be attending to? If the goal is fluency then setting up situations where they naturally start talking to each other (in English) could be really engaging for them. How far off target are they? Sometimes I think a more casual environment invites a more flexible process, If they are talking in English but not quite the subject you had in mind but still working on language forms that they are learning, is that necessarily worth interrupting? It means having to navigate more gray areas, but I think the value of a casual environment is that it can lead to more authentic interactions. The down side can be that this environment require more delicate and thoughtful interventions. I think it is a mistake to think that casual means the instructor stops being intentional. For me it means that you are in the canoe with the learners, occasionally using your paddle to subtly navigate the river.

Marjorie Richards

"The American system of placing the ability to think and analyze over the ability to memorize. In many cultures the opinions of students are considered irrelevant." Have you encountered difficulties in this area? If yes, how have you bridged the gap between these ideas? Were there any activities you found helpful in doing so?

 Students raised in Asian countries that are rote-learning/ exams-oriented find it very difficult to form an opinion because they have never been asked to do so in their prior studies.

Critical thinking can be taught, if a) students are aware the teacher expects it and b) there is a good reason in their own agenda for having opinions and being forthright. I remind the students that are university bound (undergraduates or postgraduate) that the will be expected to have opinions in academia.

So, I have developed board games with dice, where they land on a square with their marker and it says "Tell your group about....." some of the options are your favorite movie, your favorite kind of food, and simple everyday topics. Others are more substantial such as "Tell your group what people can do to help the environment" or "Tell your group how you think rich countries can help poor countries." The key is asking open-ended questions that cannot be satisfied with mono-syllable answers.

Where the lack of opinions (in general) combined with the inability to express the ones students do have really seems to hurt foreign students is when they are preparing for an IELTS or TOEFL English language proficiency exam. Two areas require they express their opinions: the Speaking test and the essay part of the writing test. These tests are the gatekeepers for university entry for most students, and I developed a few strategies to use to get those opinions out. One is to teach students cognitive mapping in the form of a spider-gram or tables with pros and cons of certain issues then letting them work in groups to complete these. That way the shyer students can ease their way into vocalizing their thoughts. Then I take it to individual work and they have to hand in or explain to me their input. We also talk about and practice building good arguments with reasons and examples, before massive essay writing practice with feedback.

I begin the class by handing out a bowl of "cue cards" and pair students. They have to pick one out and give a two minute monologue about their opinion on the question or topic they draw to their partner.

Hopefully, this contributes. I look forward to hearing more ideas.

As far as the informality in the class, I just assumed the students were judging all Americans by that behavior and they just thought that is the way Americans are. But, now I have been made more aware of the problems this can create. My worse faux pas is probably sitting on top of the tables when I teach, instead of standing or sitting in a chair.

Aloha, L. Heidi Primo

Greetings everyone,

Much discussion has been unfolding about "culture." It is one that seems to never quite get resolved.

As a son of political refugees, I have led quite a nomadic life and lived in numerous countries. I find myself now "looking through" the culture my students bring to class so as to move beyond cultural traits to interactions that are conducive to mutual learning. I consider undue preoccupation with how we may view the world and a need to be cognizant of it to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we broaden our perspectives by getting glimpses of others’ perceptions; on the other, we may fall short of moving "beyond culture" to newer and deeper insights that can be negotiated.

At this point in my life, it seems to me that we need to put aside traditional teacher and learner roles and exhibit a serious desire to learn together.

Michael A. Gyori , Maui International Language School

There is a board game that can be optimal in sharing thoughts and opinions. One version is called Life Stories.

Many times, the sharing of life experiences gets to "how we (individually, particularly, culturally) do things".

This game is designed to be non-competitive and, with good facilitation, can elicit outstanding group experiences.

Try it – see what you "think."

Andrae England, Director, Roswell Literacy Council, Inc., Roswell NM

Thanks to all who are bringing new ideas about culture to our discussion.

I want to take a moment to focus on an intriguing proposal from Yolanda Partida. She wrote, "We may do better if we operate as if we are all strangers. Assume we do not know. Work to create within us an openness to discover what we share in common and have a commitment to deal with our differences so that we are both better off."

 I know that most all of us do a variety of things to create a cooperative climate in the classroom when we begin our classes. One challenge for me is to be sure that everyone knows each other’s name. I don’t always succeed right away. I am curious to read how you ‘operative as if we are all strangers.’ What kinds of activities do you use to create a learning community and bring that ‘openness’ into the classroom? We often discuss activities designed for language acquisition on this list and I believe we could benefit from examining those classroom activities that do double duty both in cultural and linguistic awareness.

Sharon McKay, ESL Specialist, Washington, DC,

The wonderful book The Checklist Manifesto (by surgeon Atul Gawande) shows the importance of everyone in a surgery knowing the name of everybody else before the operation begins (promotes communication, including raising concerns - this is strongly correlated with improved surgical outcomes). He also refers to other research on the importance of names in promoting positive communication climate.

In my own classrooms, I do three things right at the start to help students AND ME with names.

The first is the practical task of getting everyone to write their PREFERRED name (what they would like us to call them) clearly (with fat pen) on a desk-tent (heavy paper or light cardboard, in range of bright colours for them to choose). Name to be on BOTH sides of the tent, so that I can see it, and their desk-buddy can also see it. (For some sessions where we'll be doing activities away from desk, I also invite them to wear a peel-off label on their clothes; caution is that not everyone's familiar with how these work - be prepared to help, or get other students to help.)

Their next task is to tell their name to their desk-buddy, and then play THREE SIMILARITIES AND A DIFFERENCE. That is, chat with each other to find three things they have in common - number of children or sibs, fave food, colour, or sport etc - as well as find one way in which they are different. (Note the imbalance - it's important and symbolic.)

Finally, we play THE STORY OF MY NAME. With their desk buddy, they share several things about their name - any of their names. The first is its meaning - in Australia, this can be a challenge for Anglo students, but is welcomed by others. Then, if they can write their name in another script, do so. Then (and this one everyone can do), share a story about something funny or frustrating or moving etc about their name (any of their names). I model this before letting them loose - the buzz is great!

And then of course we debrief. Part of this is inviting those who can write their name in another script to write it on the board.

The debrief also includes discussion on whether or not using names, and using them in preferred way, helps communication.

Well worth investing the time, I find.

PS: The idea of including script comes from my wonderful colleagues Professor Anita Mak and Professor Michelle Barker.

However, I think we need to be aware that there are some cultures, groups, and individuals who are not comfortable sharing personal thoughts and opinions with others, so I think such sharing needs to be very impersonal at the beginning until you have a better knowledge of your students.

Terry Pruett-Said, Macomb Community College

 I agree wtih Terry that we need to be mindful of the fact that some cultures, groups and individuals may not be comfortable sharing personal information.

Rosemary Dill, Teacher, CREC

I agree, however, time allows for disclosure.

Jackie Luttrell

I use as a springboard Carolyn Graham's jazz chant titled "Personal Questions." It invariably launches a good discussion. On the other side of the coin, some of the textbooks have potentially invasive questions or assumptions. That is, many of my students left children in their home countries, making even the benign question, "Do you have any children?" potentially sensitive.

Alice Davis

Linda made reference to differences in motivation based on age and education. I might go further and say that the ‘classroom culture’ will be quite different according to these variables. Oddly enough, I have often found younger students less motivated in my adult ESL classes. I think the key is the wide variety of student goals. Students who are focused on workplace issues have different goals than students focusing on academic transitions. Everyone wants to learn English but their motivation is directly influenced by the goals and topics taken up by the instructor.

Teddy Gusman Edouard gave us a list of some factors influencing ‘classroom cultures’ that we might discuss as part of investigation this week:

  • Teacher’s standing position in the classroom
  • The setting of the Lesson
  • Attendance and Punctuality
  • Seating
  • Student-student interactions
  • Interruptions
  • Attention
  • Pace
  • Teacher-Student Image and relationships

Sharon McKay, ESL Specialist

The traditional past tense exercise 'talk/write about a journey/difficult journey' can be rather difficult for asylum seekers, as well. In fact, it can take quite a while before asylum seekers are able to talk about even the less personal aspects of their experiences, and some have experienced the most severe traumas.

I think Terry's point about starting with relatively impersonal, factual information is good.

One of the reasons that we offer some women-only classes is that women from some cultures are very much inhibited from speaking in front of men. Others cover their mouths when speaking, more so when there are men in the room, which can impede communication, or they may speak even more quietly and often only to a female neighbour.

In a culture where men and women mingle more freely than in students' home cultures, the classroom can offer a relatively safe, controlled environment for getting used to the idea, as it can and ideally should for other cultural adjustments. (I don't pretend this is always easy.)

Cheryl Thornett, ESOL & Adult Literacy Tutor, BAES, Birmingham UK

Regarding the teacher's standing position: I had occasion to think about this in the course of a recent training session. Some people have mentioned things like sitting on tables, and that some students see this as too informal, or perhaps disrespectful. When I think about it, I might be sitting at my table when students come in, but often I am moving around the room at the time most students arrive, perhaps putting out materials for a warm up or review activity, but I also tend to move into the 'student' part of the room to chat or speak informally, go over written work and so on. I might perch on an unoccupied table or on the front of mine while chatting. (I have to plan for an intermediate time because of local transportation problems, settling children in their childcare, and so on.) After about 20 minutes, we usually pull things together, finishing the warm up and moving into a more formal mode. At this point, I realised, I tend to return to my table or take a 'teacher' position at the board, which perhaps helps to signal to the students that it is time to switch modes. If I am moving around to monitor activities during the main part of a lesson, I probably would not sit on a table.

I have a feeling that pedagogy and classroom management experts might reel in horror at the thought of this, the teacher standing at the front of the room, and I certainly don't stay there if I'm not using the board, but many people do recognise this as an indication that a lesson is taking place. Other times it seems to help if the teacher's head is on the same level as the students' heads, if that makes sense, so sitting in a chair can be both more formal and yet more equal (or something like that).

When it is difficult to get students back from speaking activities, I find that standing silently and very still in the middle of the room (we have a horseshoe arrangement) is often most effective, as at least one person will usually notice and clue a neighbour and this spreads. But it might be better to negotiate a signal with the learners, practising it a few times until the habit is established.

Cheryl Thornett

ESOL & Adult Literacy Tutor, BAES, Birmingham UK

I wanted to get back to Ted Klein’s list of cultural differences that may show up in your classroom. We have already taken a look at one and two so I thought we might visit three, four, and five:

  • The tendency of some Americans to chastise publicly. ("FACE")

I believe Ken is referring to one’s presentation of oneself to others when discussing ‘FACE’. Some eastern cultures carry a very strong sense of ‘FACE’ and respect or lack thereof. American’s focus on competition may at times override any consideration of ‘FACE’. Establishing ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’ answers and behaviors may be done by example when competition is in play. This is an area I would like to study further from both an internal and external point of view. Have you encountered challenges in this area? How did you overcome them?

  • The expectation of some international students that instructors should know "everything" about the subject.

At the literacy level, this an easy myth to debunk. When we are practicing "I don’t understand." and "I don’t know," I practice with the students and take the earliest opportunity to use the new language during class.
At higher levels, I become as specific as I can about what I don’t know and what resources we might use to find answers. I’m not sure if the gradual debunking of the myth enhances or lowers my stature but I try to explain that ‘not knowing’ is not a crime. What are your thoughts about this dilemma?

  • The American priority of individualism over the group.

There are many reading and writing topics from family to employment that provide the chance to observe the priority of the individual over the group in American society. In the classroom, students observe teachers focusing on one person at times during the class. They may or may not understand the reasons for that behavior. In contrast, student desire to ‘work together’ on everything, including tests, can cause major friction with instructors. Students’ need to move in our world requires an understanding of individuality. How have you handled this in your class?

Sharon McKay, ESL Specialist

"Teachers should know everything." Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute here.

Obviously, students start with this assumption, so there would not be any problem if WE believed it too – but, of course, we know better. We might say, then, that this is OUR problem, not our students’ problem.

We want them to know that we don’t know everything. Why? What is the cultural assumption that we’re working under? Maybe if we can sort out the underlying cultural assumptions, a solution will arise out of that.


Hi Fellow ELL teachers: Question for today-I have 2 ELL adult classes. What if anything should I share about Veterans Day?

Thanks, Linda Whitelock

I am confused by the question? Why should there be a hesitation as to what to share. The veterans of this country are the ones responsible for the ability to be free in this great country. You share their patriotism and heroism. You share the sacrifices they made and are still making on behalf of the world. We respond to the world's request for help. Many of your students might have had experiences with our military's assistance in their homeland.

You don't have to elaborate on each war fought, but you should definitely promote the patriotic efforts of each of these men and women. I have a nephew who has lost a leg and arm in Afghanistan this past August. He is a hero. He was one of those young men who walked, with his bomb sniffing dog, through the mine fields looking for bombs planted in the earth. Unfortunately he found one.

I guess you know that I am very proud of our fighting men and women.

Gloria Sward, Flagler Tech Institute, Palm Coast FL

For holidays that are not celebrated on a large scale in this country, or not official holidays, sometimes I mention them, sometimes I don't. My first priority is for students to understand all the hoopla going on around them and what's happening and why. When we do religious holidays, it can get to be quite amusing to hear the re-telling of some stories! The confusion that arises makes the questions quite revealing about what we have all just simply "known" growing up here.

I mentioned why we don't have class today, but didn't go beyond that. In more advanced classes (right now I'm teaching a beginning level class), we often talk about whether or not military service is compulsory or not in their countries. We talk about registering with the selective service here and what not doing so means for young men.

I believe it is our job to teach English, not indoctrinate our students with our own opinions or beliefs. Present the facts, encourage discussion, teach them how to think critically.

It's true that some of our students may have had experiences with US military. It's also true that those experiences may not be positive. It could possibly have been terrifying. Many people have very negative views about US military occupying land in their countries for decades and the behavior of US military personnel. In South Korea, maybe you remember, there were large-scale demonstrations against the military after a girl was raped by an American soldier. There has been long-term, large scale opposition to continued military presence there.

For every major American holiday I teach the customs, the "traditional" reasons or explanations for them, offer alternative opinions about them and ask what students do in their own countries on each particular holiday. For example, for Columbus Day we went over what the students knew about Christopher Columbus, I asked students about their opinions about him, asked how they mark the day in their Latin American countries, mentioned Dia de la Raza (Day of the (hispanic) Race) and Dia de la Resistencia Indigena (Day of Indigenous Resistance) and asked which title they preferred. I expressed my opinion after, but said we all can have different opinions. This led to a discussion about colonization and students from other continents had opinions about that.

Assuming that we should instill patriotism for the US among adult immigrants infantalizes them, asks them to realign their own values, and disrespects their experiences. When we then further equate honor with the military and attempt to impose that on students, we may be negating some very painful truths about US and other military personnel.

Kris Pack

If I were learning Vietnamese, Spanish, Hindi or Swahili in the countries where these languages are spoken, I would expect the teacher to behave as he or she would normally, in his or her culture. I would also not want the teacher to make assumptions about me based on some, more than likely inaccurate, stereotype about my culture. I feel that it would up to me to adapt to the culture of the teacher, and of the language that I was learning.

Steve Kaufmann


I think I am with you on the stereotypification of cultures. On the other hand, the notion of "adapting" to a target culture flies in the face of one of the key reasons I am a second language educator. It is in the sharing of, and not adaptation to, cultures that understanding grows. The synergy in the sharing gives rise to, a higher (if you will) "culture" that is greater than the sum of a native plus a target culture.

You may wish to check out for an article that speaks to this notion.

Michael A. Gyori

There’s a valid question here regarding classroom treatment of holidays. Sometimes we get so involved in explaining the meaning of the holiday that we forget the very basics that our newcomers need to know…The banks are closed. Roads will be closed for a parade. There is no school for your children. If you work in a restaurant, you may have different hours and a different amount of clientele.

Students want to know many things about our culture. The question is how and what do we choose? Since my school is close to Arlington Cemetery, I showed some pictures of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in my class last night. The students could see the soldiers guarding the tomb and so they understood part of the reason for the holiday. They can also arrange to GO to the monument and experience the scene I showed them. I also covered the basics described above.

 We know time is always an issue in the classroom and my beginners were not ready for philosophic discussions on patriotism in a Level 1 class. I have to agree with the participant that mentioned how confused students can be over holidays [cultural traditions] they don’t understand. If we can walk in their shoes and look through their eyes, we can see the confusion and try to supply some clarity. Have you seen this confusion in action in your classroom? We can all benefit from knowing which cultural roadblocks were responsible and how we might clear things up.

Sharon McKay, ESL Specialist

Topic 6 Stages of Culture Shock:

I have heard several brief references to "culture shock" in the present discussion. However, nobody has yet talked about the "real" culture shock that commonly occurs among persons who have changed countries and are living in a new culture. I relate all of this to the "syndrome of changes" phenomenon, which is used as a diagnostic tool by some mental health practitioners. In it ALL changes in a person's life get points toward the stress factors that can bring on emotional crises. These changes, both good and bad are all meaningful in stressing persons, many of whom have no history of mental illness. They include X many points for a death in the family, X many points for a job loss, X many points for a divorce, X many points for a new job, even a good one; X many points for a positive or negative change in finances, X many points for moving, getting married, etc. etc. The human mind is only capable of absorbing a certain amount of changes. 

The problem for us ESL teachers is that when one changes countries, EVERYTHING changes. This pertains both to our acceptance of jobs in other countries and to our students who have come to us from elsewhere. During my time overseas in other countries, I have observed persons with no history of previous instability go off the deep end, resulting in changes of temperament, sleep deprivation, divorce and at the worst suicide or attempts at the same. As a matter of fact, persons who are most stable in their usual lifestyles sometime have a worse problem than those who are at least a little silly and adventurous.

In a previous job, I prepared Americans being assigned overseas for the possibilities of negative results. Enlightened organizations should all have training programs for their overseas staffs. ESL teachers should know the symptoms in their students and do what they can to get them the help that they need. Some come here expecting life to be "perfect" as in the movies. Following is a chart that I have used in training potential candidates for this problem. The sequences seem to be predictable:







Overseas candidates should be aware that culture shock is a possibility and is nothing to be ashamed of. The more that they know about it in advance the more prepared they will be to deal with it. The more willing they are to discuss their feelings with persons who have been through it, the better off they will be during the whole process. Stage one is fun. Everything is new and exciting. Stage two comes in a few weeks and is not fun. One suddenly realizes that many small things are missing that were part of their life and many things have been added that one may or may not be happy about. This is the time when persons need the most help. Stage three is the adjustment period, which should be a gradual period of getting used to the changes and finding new ways to recover. Persons with strong hobbies and persons who make new friends easily and can share with them have the easiest time. Stage four is a level off and is good for the long haul. The biggest problem is that one often goes through the same stages upon return home, which can actually be at least as devastating.

For those of us teaching persons from other countries it is critical that we notice any negative symptoms that our students may be having. Discussing some of the changes in their lives may be possible. It is normally best done with a fellow countryman who has been through it all. Openly discussing cultural differences is almost always productive, if it is done in a diplomatic and non-judgmental way. Finding professional help through your organization may also be an answer.

Ted Klein


Thanks for bringing the stages of culture shock into the discussion. Yours is a clear outline of the different phases people go through when they travel away from their home environment. It has been argued that these stages may apply to people moving to new contexts (city to country, etc.) within home country as well. Your point about everything changing seems obvious yet easily overlooked if nothing has changed for the teacher. We need to recognize these stages and deal with the possibility of having a class of twenty-five different points along the continuum that marks these stages. It has often crossed my mind that ‘multi-level’ instruction is not just about linguistic prowess. What do we do with a room filled with individuals who feel differently about almost everything in their new and old culture? This process of culture shock impacts the perception of home country as well. I have monitored if not broken up more than one argument about how awful or wonderful a particular home country was. What a variety of perspectives arise when culture shock comes into play!

When I am working with a particular student, I don’t see a line graph with stages listed on it. But I have met students gripped by deep depression obviously linked to culture shock. I would like to hear how others have dealt with this potentially emotional roller coaster in your classroom.

Sharon McKay, ESL Specialist, Washington, DC

Hello, everyone,

I forgot to introduce myself earlier. I'm Alice, a relatively new ELL teacher now teaching beginning and advanced beginning ELLs at the REEP program in Arlington, VA. I'm finding this discussion helpful--thank you. In yesterday's class, several students asked me the meaning of the word "miss." Based on this discussion, I have a question or two: could it be helpful to such students to introduce terms like "homesick" and/or "culture shock?" And on a different note: are there psychological risks to acknowledging such feelings? Might we as teachers risk destabilizing our students in the process? Sorry if these questions are overly naive,

Alice Davis


Good question. Actually the more I have delved into this thing the more that I realize that people NEED to know the possibilities. That way, when some problems come up, expatriates and students are less likely to have to deal with feelings of surprise, or the terrible "There's something wrong with me!" Communication on these problems, which are actually quite "normal," is the best medication. That and time.. You are not naive. I promise. We have to be cautious with other persons' emotions.


Hello everyone,

First off, I have really been enjoying this discussion of culture from the sidelines! Thanks for lots of great ideas and observations.

I'd like to respond to Alice's and Joan's posts. Thank you both for bringing in these important issues of emotional health and culture to be mindful of in ESL instruction. I taught ESL for 15 years before becoming a clinical social worker, and looking back I'm sure that a fair number of my students were wrestling with traumatic histories and PTSD, while others were likely severely situationally depressed by the challenges of relocation and the losses it can bring. Each student manifested their struggles differently --- for example, some by social withdrawal, some by confusion in learning and difficulty with memory, some by anxiety, some by acting out in class, some by repeated absences, some by physical symptoms, and some by appearing to be working very hard to give the appearance that everything was just fine. Of course, these symptoms on their own don't necessarily indicate a mental health crisis.  

The often severe stresses many learners have faced in their past lives are excellent reasons to include some very basic education on US understanding of mental health and US mental health services in ESL health units. For a very basic intro to the topic at low levels, one resource is the picture story (with lesson plan) "Depressed."  

I think it's important to note that each culture views mental health differently. For example, some cultures don't recognize mental health issues, and people experiencing the issues typically seek help for physical complaints in order to feel emotionally better. Other cultures see what many in the US view as a problem of brain chemistry to be a spiritual imbalance. The US clinical standard of talk therapy with or without an antidepressant may or may not help someone from another culture. I think it is helpful for ESL programs to see what (if any) culturally and linguistically appropriate counseling services are available in their area and develop a relationship with those service providers. If those service providers can train ESL teachers on what manifestation of symptoms to be aware of in cultures represented in the ESL program, and how best to bring up discussion of mental health with those populations, all the better.   

In response to Alice's question about psychological risk involved in acknowledging feelings around culture shock and homesickness in the classroom, I think it can actually bring comfort to students by normalizing their feelings when they hear that others have experienced the same and that things get better. I think that the collaborative, mutually supportive culture that evolves in many ESL classes, born in part out of learners' shared experiences of immigration and adjustment, can be a very powerful and positive thing for the learners. 

I remember when I was teaching at REEP teachers shared with one another a handout which had a simple culture shock adjustment curve on it. I believe it was based on Lysgaard's U-Curve of Cultural Adjustment (1955). It had stages of Honeymoon, a dip into Culture Shock, a slow climb of Recovery, and finally Adjustment. We would introduce it to students and let them discuss what they thought was happening at the different stages. Then if students were at a high enough level they could write on their personal experiencing of the curve. It helped students to see that they were in a process and to hear from others who were closer to the end of the process. For a beginning level class you could make a very simple version of this curve to talk about, with simple illustrations for each stage to help get the challenges and emotional changes across.  

(And on a personal note, Alice, I believe I will be having the pleasure of presenting on health literacy to your classes this week. I'm looking forward to it!!)

Kate Singleton, MSW, LCSW
Health Literacy Specialist, Inova Health Sciences Library

& ER Trauma Social Worker

Falls Church, VA

Author of: Picture Stories for Adult ESL Health Literacy

Virginia Adult Education Health Literacy Toolkit

Hello Ted,

The culture shock reality is possibly the most important reality for ESL teachers to address, as almost all of their students are newcomer immigrants, even if they’ve been in the U.S. for many years before attending class. As for sharing culturally-embedded perceptions of the world and sharing them, the reality of culture shock is the most compelling backdrop for cooperative learning – for teachers and students alike – to occur.

Thank you for bringing this up.

Michael A. Gyori

This is especially true for any of your ESL students who have come to the US as refugees--every piece of this is so much more intense--loss of home, loss of identify, loss of environment (physical and social), and so on.

Arthur Upham, PH. D. Refugee Specialist, Madison, Wisconsin

In addition to all of these stresses that immigrants and refugees are experiencing, there is yet one more - many are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder as the result of torture and other traumas experienced in their home countries. I have had students from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Ethiopia, Somalia, El Salvador and Guatemala who were victims of torture before they came here. There have probably been even more who have passed through my classroom but did not talk about their experiences.

Even if they have not been tortured, almost everyone who comes from these areas has experienced the trauma of losing their homes or loved ones, been caught in the middle of a war zone, or been threatened in some other way.

Trauma affects their ability to learn. We all know that the adult ESL classroom requires a lot of repetition, and this is why: because trauma affects short-term memory. There is a useful resource on ERIC that talks more about the effect of trauma on learning:

When I was teaching back in the '80s, we had many students who wanted to talk about their traumatic experiences during class, but we teachers had no idea how to deal with this situation. We called in the Center for Victims of Torture, which did a great job of guiding us through these waters. I think there are many such centers around the country now, and a lot of them will do special trainings for ESL teachers.


Hello Everyone,

Speaking of refugees - I highly recommend reading What is the What? by Dave Eggers. This book focuses on refugees from the Sudan, but I'm sure can be applied to many refugee experiences and will give you quite an insight into what their lives were like before they came to the U.S.A. and the enormous, overwhelming adjustments they must make in our culture. . .the positives as well as the negatives.

Maggie O’Leary, Director of Literacy, Greensburg, PA 15601

Not to turn the conversation entirely to refugees, but the DHHS/ACF Office of Refugee Resettlement site does have a short bibliography of works on and about refugees; and there is a recent full length documentary which tracks the journey of a couple of Somali refugee families from the Relocation Camp in Kenya to the US—one family arrives in winter in Springfield, MA, only to jump in shock on seeing their breath for the first time in freezing air. Anne Makepeace, Rain in a Dry Land.

Arthur Upham, Ph. D., Refugee Assistance Services Program Section, Madison, WI 

Another book about refugees that people might find interesting is by Mary Pipher, The Middle of Everywhere: The World's Refugees Come to Our Town.


Another book that helps one see the communication problems between refugees (in this case Hmong) and Americans is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Ann Fadiman.

Abbie Tom


I want to take a moment to thank each of you for participating as a poster or a reader this week. We have had some exceptional contributions to the topic of culture in the field of adult ESL. The week went very quickly for me and in some ways it seems that we just scratched the surface of culture in the classroom. I hope we can continue this thread into the coming week.

I have really enjoyed being a part of this forum and I would like to recognize many of you for bringing useful background information into the discussion. I think we have dispensed with the notion that ‘culture’ is not an important part of ESL instruction. Our students bring up cultural questions on a daily basis. The answers they find will help them successfully acquire English, pursue their careers, and further their own education. Culture is clearly a huge part of what we do whether we decide to acknowledge it or not. For me, the intrinsic nature of culture in the classroom makes me more determined to observe and examine it as I teach. I may not always like what I find, but the practice of looking at and reflecting on culture will help me reach my goal of becoming a better instructor.

Thanks to all of you for being a part of this process and I hope it has served you well.

Sharon McKay

ESL Specialist, Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), Washington, DC

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