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TEFL Masterclass – The Role of Culture in ELT

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Neil Harris – Teacher Trainer & Director of Marketing at CELT Language School

Neil Harris started his career in ELT in 1993 after completing a CTEFLA with IH London. He quickly realized that language learning and teaching was his true passion. Neil has worked in a variety of roles in the UK and Italy, including as a teacher, Senior Teacher, EAP Lecturer, DoS, Teacher Trainer, Business Development Manager, and Director of Marketing. Currently, Neil focuses on developing online ESP medical English and teacher development programmes in his role in agent-based marketing and course development.

What you will learn

One of the defining characteristics of English language teaching (ELT) is that its learners come from a vast range of different countries, different language backgrounds and from different cultures.


While it is true that many of these learners are curious about the cultures of the countries where English is spoken as a first language (and for many of them this is synonymous with English culture), there has been a welcome shift away from this monocultural focus to the opportunities of multicultural exchange and understanding, as befits the development of learners as global citizens.

This workshop first considers how the term culture can be defined before looking at the way in which cultural representation has developed in ELT materials. It then introduces the concept of cultural dimensions and how these can be used to understand culturally influenced behaviours in our classrooms.

Workshop Summary

Introduction and Understanding of Culture:

Neil Harris, a passionate advocate for the intertwining of language and culture in English Language Teaching (ELT), emphasises the role of culture in English classrooms. While many equate culture with high arts or popular practices, it goes beyond these visible markers. It encompasses perceptions such as the British inclination for queuing. 

Diverse Facets of Culture:

Cultures, like icebergs, present visible facets like language, attire, and greetings. Yet, underneath lie profound aspects like humour, beliefs, and gender roles which heavily influence identity. Culture is challenging to define, encompassing not just practices but also the underlying beliefs. Importantly, it extends beyond national boundaries, permeating institutions like companies.

Culture’s Importance in ELT:

For English teachers, comprehending these cultural nuances is invaluable. It enriches classroom interactions and aids ‘acculturation’, smoothing the adaptation process in different cultural contexts. Moving forward, the session explores the cultural depiction in learning materials.

Evolving Landscape of ELT:

Historically, English was studied often without clear objectives. Yet, post-1970s, English for specific purposes gained traction. Today, there’s a concerted effort to refine ELT content, making it pertinent to global students’ needs, and incorporating cultural skills. Notably, modern course books, while having their biases, are moving towards inclusivity, and this transition aims at fostering genuine global communication.

The Dynamics of Cultural Exchange:

In the ever-changing cultural exchange realm, transitioning between cultures leads to ‘culture shock’. English learners now have distinct objectives, such as bridging communication in global business. Modern materials focus on culture not just as language context but as the main subject, calling for resources that genuinely reflect diverse student realities.

Deciphering Cultural Dimensions:

Culture is more than mere superficial observation. Using visual cues, classroom setups, or ambiguous human interactions, cultural dimensions like power distance or high vs low context communication styles emerge. These dimensions provide an empirical lens to comprehend diverse cultures. In the classroom, understanding these nuances helps avoid misunderstandings, with a caution against generalising or stereotyping.

The Essence and Conclusion of Cultural Study in ELT:

While traditions offer culture snippets, they’re merely the tip of the iceberg. ELT’s focus shouldn’t be just on language but also on fostering an in-depth cultural understanding. Such holistic comprehension not only enriches teaching but also promotes tolerance and broadens perspectives.

Reflective Questions

Have a quick think about the reflective questions below in order to get the most out of the workshop:

  1. What does the term culture mean to you?
  2. (How) do you deal with culture in your EFL classes?
  3. Do you feel you need to adapt existing or create new materials to ensure appropriate cultural representation in your classes?
  • Cullen, B., Sato, K. (2000). Practical technique for teaching culture in the EFL classroom. The Internet TESL Journal, 12, 6.. Retrieved from  http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Cullen-Culture.html
  • Gibson, R. (2004). Intercultural business communication: An introduction to the theory and business of intercultural business communication for teachers, language trainers and business people. Oxford University Press.
  • Hofstede, G. J., Perdesen, P.B., Hofstede, G. (2002). Exploring culture: Exercises, stories and synthetic cultures, Intercultural Press.
  • Trompenaars, F., Hampden-Smith, C. (2020). Riding the waves of culture.Understading diversity in global business. Nicholas Brearley Publishing.
  • Utley, D. (2004), Intercultural resource pack: Intercultural communication resources for language teachers.  Cambridge University Press.
  • Valdes, J. M. (Ed). (2002). Culture bound: bridging the gap in language teaching. Cambridge University Press.

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