Two Communicative Activities for Teaching Culture
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
by Stefan DuBois
There are various tempting personas to adopt when teaching culture in the classroom: the “Ben Stein,” droning through a laundry list of “Did-you-knows?”; the “crusty old aunt on the couch,” torturing students with an interminable slideshow of the instructor’s own photo albums; the “projectionist,” playing a tangentially-related movie or video whose primary objective is soaking up time until the bell rings.
All of these personas fall into the trap of the Atlas Complex (Finkel & Monk, 1997)—that is, the flawed notion that the classroom must revolve around the instructor as an all-knowing fountain of knowledge. For me, the quality of my classes is inversely proportional to the amount of time I spend talking, but I have always struggled with how to reconcile this desire for student-centered, communicative group work with the trivia memorization inevitably necessitated by most textbooks’ culture presentations. While I certainly don’t claim to have found the answer, I’ve found two go-to activities to fall back on no matter what the topic.
Communicative Reading—When you want to make students read a passage but not have a stone-silent classroom
For this activity, I take whatever reading I want to assign and split it into three parts of roughly one paragraph each. With each text, I include at least 2 comprehension questions, but—and here’s where the magic happens—those questions are about the other two texts, not the one they’re listed with. That is, Text A comes with 2 questions: the answer to one question is found in Text B, the other in Text C. This format obligates students to converse: Student A asks their first question, Students B and C look for the answer in their own texts, and then Student A writes down the response from whoever has it. Repeat until all three students have the answers to both of their questions.
Doing this activity in groups of 3 rather than pairs has several advantages. First, it places greater emphasis on listening/reading comprehension: Student B doesn’t know if Student A’s question is about their text or Student C’s, so they must truly understand the question as well as their own passage to respond (ensuring questions don’t exactly mirror the wording in the text can further enhance this). Second, the physical orientation of 3 students in a triangle makes it less likely that students will simply place the readings side-by-side and complete the task without the spoken element.
Texts can be sourced directly from the book, but I like to include outside materials (often just adapting a Wikipedia entry) to mix what students need to know for the exam with interesting trivia.
Overall, this is basically just a reading comprehension activity, but dividing the information keeps one student from dominating the proceedings and the spoken element keeps things more active than the drier, individual alternative.
Experts and Investigators—When you want students to go in-depth on a variety of topics
After dividing students into groups of 2, each group is assigned a different sub-topic. One person in the pair (“The Expert”) has information on their group’s topic, the other (“The Investigator”) interviews other Experts to fill out a table of questions they’ll report back to the Expert.
For example, say the culture topic is “open-air markets” and each Expert is assigned a different city. The Investigator must then write down, say, the location, opening hours, and wares of markets in 3 different cities. Afterwards, the Investigator relays this information to their original partner, and the two discuss which of the markets they have information on would be their favorite to visit.
This activity works particularly well when, rather than handing students a prepared information sheet, you let them do their own research prior to the interview phase. This gives students agency to explore topics of personal significance to them, and even if they carry out their research using non-target language websites, you can still require them to translate their answers for the interview phase.
For the above example, the complete sequence would look as follows:
I like to implement this activity when the textbook presents a culture topic which is overly vague (“Open-air markets exist!”) or centered on a list (“Here are the names of 16 famous markets in the target culture”). This way, they connect with the culture topic through relatively detailed information on the specific area they chose, plus a Cliff’s Notes understanding of a handful of areas chosen by their classmates.
These might not be the creative ideas, but they are an easy way to give a communicative twist to most any topic. They are admittedly better-suited to the “big C Culture” (what Herron & Dubreil 2000 define as ‘products’; that is, things such as history, music, and art) more ubiquitous throughout textbooks than “little c culture” (‘practices’ such as cultural norms, worldview, and communication styles). I have found that this latter category tends to benefit from an integration with a more language-focused topic. For example:
Haggling to practice clothing and numbers
Learning idioms to practice body parts (“To cost an arm and a leg,” “To know a place like the back of your hand”)
Using target language plane/train/bus booking websites to practice time-telling structures
Simulating “Overcooked”-style cooking of famous dishes to practice food vocabulary
If any of the above sparks your imagination, you can find detailed lesson plans for those (and more!) on my Teachers Pay Teachers page, Communicative Spanish Tasks! Even if you teach a different language, you may be able to find some ideas for inspiration 😊.
Finkel, D. L., & Monk, G. S. (1997). Teachers and learning groups: Dissolution of the Atlas complex. MAA NOTES, 5-12.
Herron, C., Dubreil, S., Cole, S. P., & Corrie, C. (2000). Using instructional video to teach culture to beginning foreign language students. Calico Journal, 395-429.