Teaching Culture in Adult ESL: Pedagogical and Ethical Considerations

This resource discusses the appropriateness and use of teaching culture to English as a second language (ESL) students.

D. Johnson
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Kennesaw State University
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This short article reports the findings and implications from an ethnographic study on the appropriateness and use of teaching culture to English as a second language (ESL) students. The study was conducted at an adult education ESL program located on a university campus. Two questions guided the research: “How do the teachers decide what aspects of American culture should be taught and how do students react to these decisions?” and, “How do the instructors teach culture so that their students have more than a linguistic understanding of English?” (p. 5). He embeds his study in the discussion of whether and how ESL pedagogy and content can promote western values and superiority.

Findings demonstrate that differences in age and training affect when, how, and which aspects of culture are appropriate to teach in the classroom. The researcher also presents data indicating that students think learning about culture is appropriate when it is a language learning activity; however, observations indicated that students bring in questions about culture and enthusiastically engage in discussions about culture even when it is not linked to a linguistic activity. Lastly, the researcher found that, regardless of a teachers’ stated opinion on the appropriateness of teaching culture, culture is embedded in teacher comments and lessons.

What the experts say

This study inspires significant questions such as: What do teachers specifically mean when they talk about culture? Depending on the student population and context of individual programs, what cultural items are important to teach? Would attrition rates be lower if more or less culture was taught? To what degree is the teacher a cultural arbiter? How can teachers present culture in a “neutral “way so as not to be perceived as showing “hegemonic tendencies”? This ethnographic study concludes that while some criticism is probably appropriate, nonetheless the teaching of culture is unavoidable and both teachers and students believe that it is important for communicative competence.

The above questions suggest that teaching culture in an adult ESL program would be a worthwhile topic to explore in a professional development setting. Professional developers are always on the lookout for “fresh” topics that are meaningful; this study might set the stage for reflection and discussion or offer ideas for a presentation, particularly as some of the findings are contradictory and might lead to new discussion questions.

The description of the methodology for gathering ethnographic data was clearly stated and would shed light on similar approaches for teachers and researchers interested in setting up similar studies.

In sum, this resource is a useful first step towards creating guidelines for the teaching of culture and hopefully will lead more researchers to study the question further, and in other environments.

Points to Consider:

  • The researcher does not define “culture,” so we don’t know what definition of culture the participants themselves were using or responding to.
  • The study was conducted with students enrolled in an ESL program at a university, primarily the spouses of international students. As visitors to the U.S., these students would probably have different reactions to questions of culture than would immigrants and refugees living in the country. Findings may be different in an adult education classroom populated by refugee and immigrant workers, who are under much more pressure to assimilate to American culture, particularly in the workplace. The expectations of American workplace culture are rarely questioned.

Methods the resource used to collect and
analyze the data for the research:
 The researcher gathered data via student and teacher interviews, class observations, and school documents. Interviews were transcribed. The researcher used a cross-analysis method. All data was coded using established categories.