Using Worksheets to Encourage Students to Discuss Their Culture
Using Worksheets to Encourage Students to Discuss Their Culture
by Hall Houston and Andrew Starck
Some years ago, Marc Helgesen created a brilliant worksheet called ‘Explaining Japan.’ It featured a grid of 20 boxes, each containing a prompt related to Japan where Marc works and lives. The topics covered many aspects of Japan, including sports, music, history, food, and temples. I asked Marc if I could adapt the worksheet, changing it from ‘Explaining Japan’ to ‘Explaining Taiwan,’ and he said yes.
I collaborated with Andrew Starck, another expat university lecturer and ELT author who has also spent over 20 years in Taiwan. We based some of the topics on Helgesen’s selection, often changing Japan to Taiwan, but we also added many of our own ideas. The topics are broad in places and specific in others, but it is our hope that teachers who know a bit about the culture of the country where they work will be able to adapt what we present here, as we have adapted Helgesen’s ourselves.
The two worksheets attached to this article are intended for teachers in Taiwan who want to get their students talking about Taiwanese topics. We included a number of topics that the Taiwanese are often quite eager to talk about, such as food, travel, music, and temples. In addition, we included a few prompts that encourage the students to select and speak about the best of Taiwan (for example “Name the three best reasons for living in Taiwan” and “What should a foreign tourist do and see on his first day in Taiwan?”)
The simplest way to use the worksheet is for students to follow the instructions at the top of the page, choosing the topics that draw their interest and to make comments and questions, then repeating the procedure with other topics.
However, there is much, much more that can be done with resources such as these worksheets, and here I present a set of ideas that will work well both in the present case and with many other worksheets of a similar nature.
1) After discussing several topics, each pair/group must tell the class two or three interesting things that people in the group said.
2) Students choose a topic, talk about it briefly, then ask the other student (or students) in their group for additional comments. Then they repeat the process with other topics.
3) Set a time limit. Tell students they have a number of minutes to discuss a few or many topics. When time’s up, you can ask them if their time was long enough.
4) Students complete roughly half of the worksheet, then the teacher mixes up the pairs/groups. The new groups cover the remaining topics.
5) If you are a foreign EFL teacher, you can encourage students to ask you similar questions about your home country.
6) Break class into small groups of 3 to 5 students. Groups choose five topics and discuss them in their groups. Later, tell the students they're going to act out a topic in front of the class, and the other groups must guess the topic. Circulate so that all groups have a turn.
7) Set a direction for students to follow, such as going left to right on the first row, right to left on the second row, etc. Or they could start with the topics on the outside of the page before continuing with the topics on the inside.
8) Students choose a box to start with. One student rolls a die and moves that number of spaces in any direction. Students discuss the topic in that square. When the students run out of things to say, another student rolls the die and continues the process.
9) Students take turns choosing a topic, talking about it for a minute or two, then subtly shifting to another topic on the worksheet, without telling the others what topic it is. The others in the group must guess which topic the speaker changed to.
10) After a few minutes of discussion with the worksheet, ask students to write six additional topics related to Taiwan which are not on the worksheets (a few suggestions: drinking, dating, nightlife, the cost of living, the job market, comparing different parts of Taiwan, the elderly). Collect the worksheets, and redistribute them so that every group has a new worksheet. Ask the groups to continue with the discussion, talking about the topics in the boxes or margins.
11) Set up a digital timer. Place two chairs in the front of the class. Invite two students to come to the front. Ask the class to choose a topic from the worksheet. When the timer starts, the two students must discuss the topic for one minute without stopping. If they stop for more than five seconds, or go off subject, they are “OUT”. The class can call out when a pair of students pauses for too long or strays from the topic. Repeat several times with different students.
12) Ask students to discuss the worksheet in their mother tongue for the first two minutes so that those with the least confidence can build up some momentum before switching to English at the end of that time. Alternatively, ask the students to discuss the worksheet in their mother tongue, discussing which terms are hardest to transfer into English. At the end of a couple of minutes, move to the feedback stage and help the students to translate the most difficult or useful words and expressions.
Having used the worksheets below, I can confidently recommend them as an effective learning resource, and I thank Marc Helgesen for both coming up with the original template and for his willingness to share it. Marc also has several other fantastic worksheets for talking about culture, such as ‘It’s Special,’ ‘Explaining Your Culture,’ and ‘Culture Capsule,’ which are available on his website (see link below). You might refer to these for additional ideas on how to get students talking about their culture.
Helgesen, M. Talking about Japan (https://helgesenhandouts.weebly.com/talking-about-japan.html) Accessed on February 28, 2023.
Hall Houston teaches undergraduate students at National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Sciences in Taipei, Taiwan. He has a Master’s degree in Foreign Language Education from The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of several books about ELT, including Provoking Thought and 101 EFL Activities for Teaching University Students.
Andy Starck has lectured at Southern Taiwan University for 20 years, delivering a diverse range of courses in languages, philosophy and history. He has a personal interest in painting, calligraphy and salsa dancing.