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by Erica Fischer on Nov 5, 2011

How to Present Culture in World Language Classrooms

This past Thursday we had a very exciting and active #langchat with lots of great debate, tips and resources shared! Our topic was “How is culture best presented in the world language classroom?” Participants showed up en masse and we had a fantastic evening of professional development.

Thanks to all our participants for the evening, and special thanks to our two moderators for the night, Diego Ojeda (@DiegoOjeda66) and Don Doehla (@dr_dmd). If you weren’t able to make it, this summary will fill you in on what was missed, and the full #langchat archive is available here. Our topic was fast-paced and crammed full of excellent ideas, but there’s still time to participate! Feel free to share your thoughts below or tweet on the #langchat hashtag, we’d love to hear from you.

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How to Present Culture in World Language Classrooms

Why Teach Culture?

@DiegoOjeda66 asked early on, “What is your main purpose when bringing culture to class?” There were some great answers to this question that highlight the many reasons we teach and expose students to culture.

@tmsaue1 said it’s to give language learning a purpose (@tmsaue1). @dr_dmd suggested it’s to build cross-cultural understanding. And @SECottrell mentioned that it’s important because the language is useless if you can’t use it competently with the people who actually speak it. @CalicoTeach wants culture to be understood from the point of empathy; not better or worse, simply different. Consider the “Why?”

Many of our students might not ever venture outside of their community, so we teach them culture so that they understand that other people live differently — and that’s ok (@klafrench). We don’t teach or compare culture to decide which one is better (@DiegoOjeda66), we do it so students know that there are other ways of doing things.

In our 21st-century, post-modern world, with all our connectivity, cultural borders are shrinking and interculturality is becoming a key word (@dr_dmd). Understanding and being able to understand other cultures has become an essential skill.

Bringing Culture to the World Language Classroom

So how do we bring culture into the classroom? A great start: @dr_dmd likes to make sure that all target texts, visuals and songs are from target cultures and authentic. If you’re using authentic materials, there’s culture in every lesson (@SECottrell).

@DiegoOjeda66 asked, “Is teaching language teaching culture?” Often, the two are inseparable. Most participants consider that they do not directly teach culture, but they use it to aid in their ultimate goal of teaching students the language.

Perhaps the best way to approach it is to consider teaching culture a means through which you teach the language. Sometimes, we’re not so much teaching culture as we are exposing students to it and teaching them the access to understand cultural means of expression (@dr_dmd).

If your class does not cover culture, on the other hand, you’re missing a great opportunity to engage students and really get them exposed to the native aspects of the language. As @DiegoOjeda66 says, “I cover culture every time I open my mouth in class.” We all should.

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Selecting Cultural Resources to Share in the Classroom

AP classes focus a lot on culture. Often, every project or assignment revolves around a cultural question. Many times the resources for these themed lessons are provided or suggested to the teacher, but not always. How do we go about locating authentic materials in order to incorporate culture in our classes?

Participants shared lots of ideas last week in our discussion on Authentic Resources for Novice Learners, and we shared a few more tips and resources this week, too.

First, choose resources that correspond to real life. All language that corresponds to real life is culturally relevant (@SECottrell), and it’s also relevant to the students — essential to engage them in class.

Next, choose resources that students want to learn about or can identify with. If students don’t buy into the cultural topic, it’s wasted. Songs and music are good authentic materials that can quickly expose kids to the culture while keeping them interested, for example (@karacjacobs).

Also, if you decided to become a world language teacher, chances are you have your own story to tell (@DiegoOjeda66). Share it! It’s automatically relevant to students and can be adapted to multiple units.

Reflecting on Culture in the World Language Classroom

Once you’ve chosen cultural topics that students are interested in and that match your language points, and you’ve selected several authentic resources, how do you maximize students’ opportunities to absorb the culture?

@dr_dmd likes to use a “What We Know / What We Need to Know” structure to discuss and go deeper with a culturally appropriate topic. Students choose or are given a topic, outline what they already know and then discuss how they can learn more, and why they should.

LinguaFolio online has a section that asks students to reflect on their cultural interactions: feel, know and act (@tmsaue1). How did this make you FEEL? What do you KNOW about this? How are you going to ACT in the future because of this?

Participants also discussed comparing the target language culture to students’ native culture as a means of learning about their own culture. This is an important point — how can students truly understand their own culture before they’ve had the time to reflect on and contrast it? How can they understand another culture until they’ve had time to compare it with their own (@tmsaue1)?

Connecting Students with the Target Culture

@BevSymons suggests letting students link up with students in the target culture through Twitter, Facebook and blogs. We’ve discussed this several times on #langchat, and participants have always stated that students really get excited about and understand the real-world use of the language this way.

For more resources on connecting with other classes, check out these former #langchat topics: Collaborating with World Language Teachers and Classrooms and Using Web 2.0 Tools in the Language Classroom.

This is a great way to expose kids to the language and culture at the same time as they practice listening and speaking with native speakers. If you put students in a real situation where they might speak Spanish, culture will inevitably enter (@SECottrell).

@BevSymon’s board created scaffolded outlines for pen-pal letters (to both send and receive); this is a great way to get even novice learners involved!

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Is It OK to Not Teach Some Culture?

@senoralopez asked if there is a guide to what cultural notes should be taught — for example, if teaching Spanish, do you HAVE to teach about flamenco dancing? Are you obligated to teach everything, or certain things?Honestly, there are so many cultures and subcultures out there that it would be impossible to expose students to all aspects of the target culture. Pick topics that match well with the language point you’re concentrating on or that students are interested in. We don’t teach culture expecting that students will visit every country that speaks the target language(@DiegoOjeda66), but we do teach it to promote cross-cultural awareness and understanding.Ideas for Culture-Linked Units
Participants shared lots of resources and ideas for specific units to try in your classroom. We’ve included lots below, check them out!

  • Use important days in the target culture and celebrate them with students. If you have class during the summer, celebrate Bastille Day together. @profesorM likes to use the Day of the Dead to highlight famous Hispanics who have passed away. He asks students to make a Wallwisher project to go along with the project.
  • Food is a wonderful way to link your students with culture while teaching essential vocabulary and phrases — and it definitely gets students’ attention! @profesorM often shared authentic food with kids in the past, and @SECottrell is considering doing an in-school Christmas field trip on making tamales soon.
  • Highlight areas of the target culture by contrasting with the same topic in the students’ native culture. For example, @SECottrell suggests a unit on relationships where students contrast US relationships with Latin American relationships.
  • Similarly, choose a current event and compare how it’s received and treated in the two cultures. @cadamsf1 did a recent unit on the Occupy movements in the US and in Spain and found it was an excellent way to study the subjunctive.
  • Often, the target language is shared by many different cultures. Students might not realize this, so take advantage of your time with them to show that the language they’re studying is spoken throughout the world. For a unit on the environment, for example, highlight eco-tourism and the various indigenous peoples who speak the target language.
  • Sometimes, teaching about subcultures is a great way to go more in-depth and then relate to the larger culture (@karacjacobs). Subcultures can be a topic of their own and are often an essential piece in the education puzzle. Too often we’re stuck on the concept of the nation equals the culture; what about religious cultures? generational cultures? (@pamwesely)

Some other excellent cultural unit topics that can also draw on subjects students are already familiar with:

  • a unit on healthcare where students research and highlight the healthcare crisis in regards to undocumented immigrants (@SECottrell);
  • bullfighting and its end in Barcelona (@profesorM);
  • technology and the change that the Internet and cell phones are bringing to Latin America (@SECottrell);
  • clothing with an emphasis on shopping in the target culture (use target-language websites like this one for Spanish! @SECottrell)
  • discuss geography and its impact on culture, for example the 12 hours of daylight along the equator — how would that impact life? (@CalicoTeach);
  • read the story on the UY rugby team stranded in the Andes as a prelude to a debate on whether students would eat their teammates to stay alive (@kaleestahr).

The possibilities are endless! Choose any one unit, and you’ll surely be able to find target language resources to go along with it.

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Teaching Culture to Beginners

A common issue is how to teach culture to beginners — while staying in the target language and thus furthering their language education. This is a difficult problem, and one we discussed last week in our Authentic Resources for Novice Learners topic.

It’s important to avoid feeling that we need to educate beginning learners in as much culture as possible while we can — language instruction is still our main goal. If we spend more time getting kids out of novice levels, they will be able to experience and learn about so much more culture (@tmsaue1).

Still, simple grammar instruction and vocabulary repetition is a quick path to a sleepy class. Share as many authentic materials as you can to get students engaged and exposed. Good general ideas for novice learners are authentic images, video clips and songs so they can begin to get a feel for the culture (@CalicoTeach).

Books, Movies and More!

This week’s #langchat was an exciting mix of resources and debate. We want to say thank you to all of you for sharing such great resources and ideas!

If you’d like to continue the discussion, feel free to do so below. We welcome all comments and further resources!

Finally, we’ll leave you with a challenge to try in the coming weeks. @cadamsf1 and her colleagues are challenging themselves to choose existing units and to find as many great, authentic materials as possible to share with their students. What a great way to push yourself to give your kids the best that you can!

Take care, and until next Thursday at 8.
#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.


Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.


  • Christina

    Thank you for all the feedback. I would love to access your authentic material list for novice learners, however the link is not working. Please email me any relevant links. I appreciate your time and support. I am a first year teacher.

    [email protected]

  • Mary Beth Tietgens

    yes – I have the same concern. Can you please email it to me as well?
    thank you!

    • Kindergarten Spanish Lesson plans Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell

      Thank you both for alerting us that this link was broken. The link is working now. Also, Mary Beth, for your privacy we’ve removed your email address from your comment. We hope the correctly linked summary is helpful to you!

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