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Motivating Students Through Culture

Bringing cultural content into your classroom is an important way to engage and motivate students, enabling you to connect your course content with the students’ own wider interests, helping them to think critically about the world and developing important life skills through functional language.

The role of the teacher

How you approach your classes in general will foster the right kind of environment for effectively bringing culture into your classroom. Key to this is remembering that cultural content should not be taught in a strictly top-down approach. Our own cultural exposure and interests are naturally different from those of many of our students. While we, of course, want to bring ourselves into the class to motivate students to think about the world, it is important that the students feel their own interests are valued.

 To this end, using co-operative learning techniques will help students connect with the materials and develop a positive interdependence in the classroom, promoting both their individual accountability and group interaction as well as ultimately helping them further develop important social skills. These aspects are all key to exploring culture in the classroom and remembering that ESL learning is not just about grammar, vocabulary, and exam skills, but also about challenging students, developing their critical thinking skills, and sparking curiosity about the world they live in.

Choosing materials

There are many materials available nowadays that we can draw on, but when deciding on the students’ books it is important to evaluate what they can bring to your classes. By and large, the grammar content of most books is very similar. Where they differ is in the cultural materials that they choose; the topics of reading exercises, the videos and audios they include and how they develop interactive group activities, projects and speaking.

Effective materials will guide students through cultural situations, developing their ESL skills through each unit as they explore the world around them. They will introduce students to a wide vocabulary and reinforce grammar through direct cultural content (videos, songs, texts). They will then connect the materials to good functional language through situation-based learning.

The benefits of using interesting videos to explore culture are that not only are they engaging and powerful motivational tools, but also present content in a more natural and complete context, reinforcing register and pronunciation, and aiding memory retention. Connecting cultural materials to situation-based learning aids in the integration of knowledge and skills, creating positive attitudes and values through useful and functional language. It also helps students to develop their critical thinking and, when developed and connected to projects, their creative thinking skills. As such, cultural content enables further development of transversal competences and reinforces tools that students can use in the real world.

Bring yourself into the classroom

While ready-made materials can provide lots of scope to introduce cultural content into the classroom, by bringing yourself and your own interests to the classroom too, not only can you widen the scope of cultural content, but also motivate students through your enthusiasm. By thinking about your own interests, the history of your hometown or country and how you can tie ideas together to increase your students’ curiosity about the world around them, you will further enrich your classes and increase students’ enthusiasm for learning.

Considering the variety of reading paths for learners, and also thinking about the authors that you yourself enjoy, will bring yet another side of cultural materials to your classes, as well as helping students develop a habit for reading and analysing texts, expanding their vocabulary, and reinforcing their grammar. As students develop to higher levels, you can bring more complex texts and ideas into your classroom and have students think even more critically about society in relation to the texts that they are reading.

Developing 21st century skills

Culture can be a great motivator in the development of students’ critical thinking, helping them to make connections and improve their decision-making skills. By applying cultural aspect to projects in the classroom, we can also help students to develop their creativity, collaboration skills, and, in presenting projects and working in groups, their communication skills. It is also a great opportunity to focus on digital literacy, challenging students to evaluate the information they find on the Internet with a critical and analytical eye.

A final word

As one of the authors I regularly use with teenagers, Kurt Vonnegut, said:

 “Culture isn’t a rational invention. There are thousands of other cultures, and they all work pretty well. All cultures function on faith rather than truth and there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It’s also a source of hope. It means we don’t have to continue this way if we don’t like it.”

That is the key. Culture in the classroom should by no means be secondary. It is fundamental as educators to help students develop the tools they need not only to navigate, but also improve the world that they live in.

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