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Why and How to Acquire Cultural Competency in the ESL Classroom

Why and How to Acquire Cultural Competency in the ESL Classroom | ITTT | TEFL Blog

I am a South African who has worked in South Korea for more than eight years and one of the most important tools as an ESL teacher from a whole different nationality and culture has been the knowledge and awareness of cultural sensitivity in the classroom. When I meet a new ESL teacher and they ask me for advice this is usually the first thing I recommend: become an expert in the culture. It helps you meet the needs of your students and it creates a comfortable environment in which your students want to learn. In this essay we will look at what is culture, strategies for culture learning and how to assess your level of cultural competence.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Amy B. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Firstly let’s look at what is a culture

The Standards for Foreign Language Learning (NSFLEP 1999) provides a framework for teachers to identify important cultural characteristics. This has become known as the 3P model of culture: Perspectives (what members of a culture think, feel, and value), Practices (how members communicate and interact with one another) and Products (technology, music, art, food, literature, etc.; the things members of a group create, share, and transmit to the next generation). A tool that can help EFL teachers consider elements of culture is Edward T.Hall’s (1976) “cultural iceberg” analogy. He developed the analogy to show the differences between what we readily see when we enter a new culture (the tip of the iceberg) and the immersed aspects of the culture not readily visible (the submerged part of the iceberg). Examples of surface culture elements include food, national costumes, traditional music and dance, literature, and specific holidays. In the sub-surface culture, the section is notions of courtesy, body language, gestures, touching, eye contact, personal space, facial expressions, conversational patterns, and the concept of time. These are the behavior-based, unspoken rules of social interaction present in all cultures but perhaps not often thought about.

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There are five basic cultural competence skill areas

Growth in one area tends to support growth in another (Adapted from Diller and Moule, Cultural Competence: A Primer for Educators, Thomson Wadsworth 2005):* Valuing Diversity. Accepting and respecting differences—different cultural backgrounds and customs, different ways of communicating, and different traditions and values.* Being Culturally Self-Aware.* Dynamics of Difference. Knowing what can go wrong in cross-cultural communication and how to respond to these situations.* Knowledge of Students' Culture. Educators must have some base knowledge of their students' culture so that student behaviors can be understood in their proper cultural context.* Institutionalizing Cultural Knowledge and Adapting to Diversity.

students of different ethnicity

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So how can the ESL teacher acquire these skills?

Let’s look at some strategies for learning about the culture. The cultural collection is a process where the teacher elicits the appropriate information from the students themselves. This can be in the form of a questionnaire or a survey. The point is not simply to gather information and make reports, but to think and make connections about how this information can lead to a solid understanding of the culture under study: Why do people do the things they do? It is also important that the ESL teacher does her homework. Join a language exchange or culture exchange group and learn about the culture first hand. Make friends with other teachers of the same culture as your students and ask them specific questions regarding certain situations that may experience in your classroom which might be different than in a classroom with a similar culture as your own. Do not trust Google! Make an effort to collect first-hand information.

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So how can we assess our cultural competency? Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Are you aware of your own cultural bias and behavior? It is important to have an understanding of your own culture and what makes it unique so you can appreciate the differences in others.
  • Are you ready to challenge any assumptions or stereotypes that you may hold? It is important to let go of any stereotypes you might have and have an open mind.
  • Can you acknowledge how culture impacts the daily life and activities of students? Although you may not understand or be aware, it’s important to recognize that a student may be used to spending their day differently than students of a similar age in your culture.
  • Can you understand how cultural norms influence communication? It is important to acknowledge that forms of communication may be different than yours and rather than perceiving it negatively, you should use these differences as a learning opportunity.
  • Do you make an effort to learn about other cultures?
  • Can you effectively intervene when you see a student behaving in a discriminatory manner? As someone in a leadership role in the classroom, teachers should quickly address derogatory comments and use the situation as a teachable moment for their students.
  • Are your teaching styles adaptable to students of multiple different cultures?

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In this essay, we looked at what culture is and strategies for the ESL teacher to develop their cultural competency. It is important to remember that cultural competence is a continually evolving practice which you will need to acquire all though out your teaching career. Cultural competence starts with the teacher and is achievable.

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