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Vol 34 No 3, July - September 1996 Page 18 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT

Developing Cultural Awareness
in EFL Classrooms
by Roseanne Tavares and Ildney Cavalcanti

. Anthropologists define culture as ".the whole way of life of a people or group. In this context, culture includes all the social practices that bond a group of people together and distinguish them from others" (Montgomery and Reid-Thomas, 1994:5). Based on this definition, it is our opinion that the classroom context is an example of a cultural group and by being so, is an excellent phenomenon to be analysed and observed. In fact, some researchers have already investigated classroom settings under two complementary viewpoints: social interaction and language learning. These two viewpoints led some investigators to realize that culture is not only present in the classroom setting but also in the language that is being taught.


Nowadays, some researchers claim that cultural learning positively affects students' linguistic success in foreign language learning. Others state that culture can be used as an instrument in the processes of communication when culturally-determined behavioural conventions are taught (Byram et al. 1994). These two conceptions are far too narrow for our purposes here, however. We believe that culture should not be seen as a support to language teaching but that it should be placed on an equal footing with foreign language teaching.

Regardless of different points of view, culture has taken an important place in language teaching and learning studies. It has been widely recognized that culture and language are interrelated and that language is used as the main medium through which culture is expressed (Montgomery and Reid-Thomas, 1994). In our opinion, in foreign language classrooms, "pure information" is useful but does not necessarily lead us to insight, whereas the development of people's cultural awareness leads us to more critical thinking as citizens with political and social understanding of our own and other communities.

But how can we "teach" culture to Brazilian foreign language teenage students who usually do not have close contact with native speakers of English and have little opportunity to discover how these speakers think, feel and interact with others in their own peer group? How can we stimulate their curiosity about the target culture when, sometimes, they do not even have sufficient time to learn the formal properties of the language. Perhaps one of the ways of doing so is by exploring culture-based activities.

Needs and audience

The idea of developing a set of activities arose from the fact that although the teaching of EFL has become widespread in all levels of Brazilian education, teachers still lack resource material for exploring the target culture in the classroom. Actually, there are some books in the area, but they are not specifically concerned with the similarities and differences among Brazilian culture and those of English-speaking countries. Note: The activities described in this article are suitable for primary, secondary, and tertiary English teachers and private school professionals who desire to develop a programme in which language and culture are interrelated and have the same level of importance.


The aim of these activities is to increase students' awareness and to develop their curiosity towards the target culture and their own, helping them to make comparisons among cultures. These comparisons are not meant to underestimate any of the cultures being analysed, but to enrich students' experience and to make them aware that although some culture elements are being globalized, there is still diversity among cultures. This diversity should then be understood and respected, and never, as we have said before, over or underestimated.

With this cultural diversity in mind, we do not mean to emphasize only one target culture such as the British or the American. Instead, we chose a miscellaneous style in which cultural elements of any English speaking country could be employed in an activity. On the other hand, this variety of cultures was grouped under predetermined cultural topics.

Determining topics

By cultural topics, we consider all properties that are included in the definition of the word "culture" (for example: cultural artifacts, family talk). These properties are extensive and practically impossible to be explored by all activities. Thus, we decided on general categories which encompass such properties. Four different sources of general categories were analysed. They were: Teaching and Learning Language and Culture by Byram, Morgan and Colleagues, Cultural Awareness by Tomalin & Stempleski, British Studies: Designing and Developing Programmes Outside Britain published by the British Council, and finally a list of categories developed and presented by the Bulgarian teachers at the Third International Summer School on British Cultural Studies. Having compared the four classifications mentioned above, we developed the following topics which guide each section of our set of materials. These topics are presented with no concern for order of importance or progression:

  • Social identity: Groups characterized by social class, ethnic minorities;
  • Social interaction at different levels of familiarity;
  • Belief and behaviour: Patterns of everyday life, usually taken for granted;
  • Socio-political institutions: Institutions of the state and of socialization such as ceremonies, local government;
  • National history and geography: Historical events, geographical places;
  • Media: TV, newspaper, radio;
  • Arts: Literature, cinema;
  • Language variation: Black English, Cockney, (here the main focus is on how language is presented).

Although these three last categories are better defined as the media through which culture is expressed rather than the properties themselves, we classified them as sections due to their richness in cultural peculiarities.

Finally, we developed classroom activities for these categories by using authentic materials, our own personal experience as EFL teachers, and of course contributions from colleagues through ideas that were adapted to our needs and objectives.

The activities are described under the following headings: aims, materials, level, preparation, procedure, follow-up and variation. They are devised in such a way that allows the teacher the flexibility to adapt them according to his/her needs and audience. Whenever possible we also insert some linguistic items which may be used together with the cultural aspect emphasized. This is mainly due to the fact that in the Brazilian school system cultural studies are not viewed as a separate subject. Thus, cultural-based activities are generally applied in the EFL classroom. The three activities provide a sample of the material we have already developed.

National History and Geography 1. English-Speaking Countries


Indicate the geographical location of some English-speaking countries;

Raise the learners' awareness of the geographical extent of the usage of the English language;

Introduce vocabulary related to countries and respective languages.


Photocopies of the world map;

Cards containing names of countries (see preparation).




1. Photocopy the world map (one copy per student);

2. Prepare about 25 cards and write the name of a different country in each one. We suggest the following:

* Australia
* Canada
* England
* Guyana
* India
* Ireland
* Jamaica
* New Zealand
* Nigeria
* Northern Ireland
* Pakistan
Saudi Arabia
* Scotland
* South Africa
* Wales

English is spoken either as a native or as a second language in the countries marked (*).


  1. Present the cards to the class and stick them on the board;
  2. Divide the class into pairs or small groups and hand out the copies of the world map;
  3. Ask the students to locate on the world map the countries listed on the cards. During this stage make sure that the groups are carrying on a discussion and filling in the map properly;
  4. Then, tell them to highlight the English-speaking countries. Check the answers with the whole class;
  5. End the activity with a brief discussion on the geographical extent of the usage of the English language in the world.


Depending on both cultural and linguistic aims of the lesson, the present activity may be followed by the exposition and practice of the following items:

  • * Where is/are he/she/they from?
  • * He/She/They is/are from.

with the presentation of photographs of famous people from English-speaking countries.


The cards containing the names of the countries can be made by the students themselves in case they have already acquired the specific vocabulary to do so.

The number of countries and/or cards must be increased or reduced depending on the students' level. It is important to include English speaking countries the students have little or no knowledge of.

Socio-Political Institutions 2. Matching and Comparing Institutions (see Footnote 1 )


Compare and contrast socio-political institutions (including their representatives and symbols) from Brazil, the U.S., and the United Kingdom;

Raise learners' awareness of the similarities and differences between socio- political institutions from the countries mentioned above;

Introduce vocabulary related to the topic;

Practice the grammar item have got in questions and answers.


Cards containing names of institutions (see preparation).




Prepare cards and write the name of a socio-political item (institution, representative, or symbol) in each one. We suggest thirty items divided into ten categories;

  1. Country: Brazil/The United States of America/The United Kingdom;
  2. Head of state/government: Presidente Fernando Henrique Cardoso/President Bill Clinton/Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister John Major. (In the UK the head of state is the Queen, whereas the head of government is the Prime Minister.);
  3. Type of government: Republica Federativa/Federal Republic/Constitutional Monarchy;
  4. Representatives: Congresso e Senado/ Congress (The Senate and the House of Representatives)/Parliament;
  5. Official residence: Palacio da Alvorada/The White House/Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street;
  6. Official document: ConstituiOao/U.S. Constitution/Magna Carta;
  7. Famous politician: Getulio Vargas/ Abraham Lincoln/Winston Churchill;
  8. Flag: Bandeira do Brasil/Stars and Stripes/Union Jack;
  9. National anthem: Hino Nacional/Star-spangled Banner/God Save the Queen;
  10. Currency: Real/Dollar/Pound.


1. Hand out one card to each student and ask the class to divide into groups of three according to the categories they have got in common. For instance, the student who receives the card containing Real must look for the classmates who receive the cards containing Dollar and Pound . During this step, they may use the grammar item have got ;

2. Check whether learners have formed the groups properly by asking each group to show their cards to the class and state the category they belong to. While you do so, list the ten categories shown on the board;

3. Ask students to rearrange themselves into three groups according to nationality. For example, the student who receives the card containing Real must group together with those who have got cards containing the other items related to Brazil. The grammar item have got must be explored again during this stage;

4. Write the names of the three nationalities which were explored on the board and end this activity by reviewing all the categories and clearing up any doubts.

3. A Wedding in the UK


Analyse a traditional wedding in the UK;

Compare and contrast this practice with the Brazilian one;

Acquire specific vocabulary related to weddings;

Foster learner independence through the use of the dictionary.


Photocopies of task sheet 1 (see Footnote 2 ) ;

Videotape of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral (UK, 1994), available in video shops;

Portuguese-English dictionaries.




In the previous session, tell your students to bring Portuguese-English dictionaries for this lesson;

Having obtained the videotape, select the part that will be played to the class. It starts with the film opening (including the credits) and finishes in the scene of the first wedding in which the bride and groom say goodbye to the guests and leave for their honeymoon. This portion of the film lasts about 20 minutes;

Photocopy the task sheet for all students.


I. Previewing:

Introduce the theme of the lesson (wedding) by brainstorming the vocabulary items students already know;

Hand out the copies of the task sheet containing the graph to be filled in, divide the class into groups of about 5 students, and supervise the dictionary work. Depending on the time available for the activity, each group may be asked to fill in only one part of the graph;

Check the graph completion by drawing a large schema containing all the students' opinions on the board. Ask each individual student to fill in his/her graph so that all the class may finally have a similar schema.

2. Watching the video:

Explain exercises two and three of the task sheet and play the selected passage of the film to the whole class.

3. Postviewing:

Bring the activity to an end by raising a discussion on the results obtained by the group;

Compare/contrast the wedding rituals in the UK and in Brazil.


Suggest that the students: (a) collect cut-outs, articles, photos, etc. about different and/or curious wedding rituals to be presented next class; (b) watch the whole film.


We would like to add here that all these activities have already been applied in a university classroom context and that the results were quite successful. The activities proposed enriched the students' knowledge of the target culture and led them to a more critical understanding of their own and other communities. Besides being fun, cultural-based classroom materials also provided ourselves and our students with opportunities to get in touch with the tides of educational change.

Roseanne Tavares is Assistant Professor at the Federal University of Alagoas, Brazil. She teaches graduate and undergraduate students of English and Literature in English.
Ildney Cavalcanti is Assistant Professor at the Federal University of Alagoas, Brazil. She teaches graduate and undergraduate students of English and Literature in English.



  • Byram, M., C. Morgan, and Colleagues. 1994. Teaching and learning language and culture. Multilingual Matters No. 100. Clevedon.
  • Ellis, G. and B. Sinclair. 1989. Learning to learn English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Montgomery, M., and H. Reid-Thomas. 1994. Language and social Life. England: The British Council.
  • Tomalin, B., and S. Stemplesky. 1993. Cultural awareness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Walker, R., and N. Wadham-Smith. 1993. British Studies: Designing and developing programmes outside Britain. England: The British Council.

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task sheet 1

1. Complete the "spidergraph" below by looking up the items in the dictionary:
2. As you watch the video, tick (v), in the graph, the items which appear in the film.
3. List the elements which appear in the film but not in the graph above.

Task Sheet 2

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Footnote 1

   1. The present activity was developed and adapted from a suggestion raised by Tomalin and Stempleski, 1993.

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Footnote 2

   2. The use of the type of graph suggested in the task sheet is mentioned by Ellis and Sinclair, 1989.

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