Speak for IH: Daniel Tse at IATEFL "Bringing intercultural awareness into the classroom"

Bringing intercultural awareness into the classroom 

Daniel Tse

This was my first time of speaking at the IATEFL conference, which took place in Brighton this year. Although I went there on my own, I was pleasantly surprised by how many familiar faces I could immediately recognise.

My contribution was a talk on the first day, in which I shared five lesson activities teachers can readily adapt for the purpose of raising learners’ intercultural awareness. There were about eighty in the audience, some of whom were standing throughout my talk. Judging by their feedback, I am pleased that it was well received.

I began my talk with the definition of intercultural awareness. According to Geert Hofstede and Will Baker, it refers to the understanding of how various cultures express meanings and values similarly or differently. Before the audience explored the lesson activities, I proposed a model for identifying learning aims in these activities. Reflecting on my teaching experience, I divided the aims into four increasing levels of intercultural awareness: knowledge, understanding, demonstration, and communication.

Activity 1: A to Z of countries (‘knowledge’)

Using this activity from a pre-intermediate coursebook for teenagers, I explained how teachers can increase learners’ basic knowledge of the world. As a lead-in activity, learners brainstorm a list of countries beginning with each alphabetical letter, from A to Z. I also suggested two follow-on ideas to further extend their knowledge: grammar practice and role-play interview.

In the grammar practice, learners use the present perfect simple to ask each other what countries they have been to. In addition to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses, learners are encouraged to say something they have learnt from their holidays abroad. In multilingual classes, learners can tell each other about their own country in a role-play interview. This exchange of authentic information enables them to build rapport with each other. To prevent the risk of reinforcing cultural stereotypes, however, I mentioned several examples of the language input for the above activities, including ‘this part of (a country)’, ‘usually’, and ‘most people’.

Activity 2: deduction and speculation (‘understanding’)

Inspired by other similar activities in general English coursebooks for adult learners, I showed the audience four photographs of people who are relatively unknown to the public: a NASA astronaut, a pioneer of fibre-optic broadband internet, an actor, and a high-ranking politician. The audience then compared their guesses about the occupation and nationality of these four people. As straightforward as this activity may seem, the photographs were carefully selected to represent those whose facial appearance does not show a direct correlation to their country of origin.

The message behind this activity can be summarised by this proverb: don’t judge a book by its cover. While empirical information inevitably plays a role in our assumptions of other people, one should constantly challenge his or her own preconceptions. In this activity, therefore, learners will be able to infer the above message when practising the modals of deduction or speaking sub-skill of speculating. This would ultimately contribute to their more accurate understanding of others in a globalised world.

Activity 3: making comparisons (‘understanding’)

This language practice began life as my experiment with a monolingual group of three Upper-Intermediate teenagers. Drawing on my everyday experiences of living and working in Italy, I asked each student to look into the regional differences of a specific country. After that, students reported their findings using the appropriate comparative structures. In the feedback stage, those who were listening to their classmates shared one thing they had learnt about different countries.

In monolingual classes, this activity provides learners with meaningful language practice. It also fosters a deeper understanding of other countries or cultures in them. Nevertheless, I argued that teachers should use this activity judiciously as, without accurate knowledge of the target countries for comparison, learners may simply regurgitate ideas that have become deeply entrenched over the years.

Activity 4: turn-taking in speaking exams (‘demonstration’)

Having focused on language practice thus far, I turned to spoken discussion as skills practice in exam preparation classes. Notwithstanding cultural differences, I mentioned other factors affecting turn-taking in spoken communication, including the setting and the tenor, or relationship between conversation participants. To illustrate how teachers can raise students’ awareness of the appropriate turn-taking skills for speaking exams, I walked the audience through the Task-Teach-Task procedure.

Under this procedure, learners try doing an exam discussion task before they watch or listen to other stronger candidates as better models. This gives the learners an opportunity to reflect on and notice the gap in their own interactive communication earlier in the task. Once learners have understood how to manage their turns from the listening model, they can demonstrate the appropriate turn-taking skills in further speaking practice.

Activity 5: genre in writing (‘demonstration’)

Akin to the turn-taking skills in speaking, learners who do not possess sufficient knowledge of genre usually struggle with different generic conventions in writing, as these concern the way in which the writer’s ideas are organised and presented. Generic conventions can vary greatly between the learners’ first language and English. To raise learners’ awareness of such differences, teachers can use a genre approach.

In this approach, learners discover the convention of a sample text, for instance, a discursive essay. They respond to a set of guiding questions about the text, which are designed to facilitate their noticing of the paragraph structure and the organisational pattern of ideas. Once learners have gained a more thorough understanding of the genre of discursive essays, they can demonstrate it by applying the same convention in any subsequent writing.

I concluded my talk by suggesting that intercultural awareness be best taught implicitly. As evident in the above activities, it can be integrated into language practice, skills practice, and exam preparation tasks. In other words, teachers can broaden students’ knowledge and understanding, which underlie their ability to put intercultural awareness into practice in cross-cultural communication.

Overall, it was a marvellous experience speaking at the IATEFL conference. I enjoyed reconnecting with other delegates as much as making new connections. Thanks to the support of the Speak for IH grant award, I was able to extend my hotel stay and spend an additional day at the IATEFL conference.

See Daniel's slides here.

If you work for an IH school and would like financial support to attend a conference, apply for the Speak for IH grant of 300 euros. Learn more here.