Let’s get cultural!
Given that reading is an essential skill in the ESO classroom, let’s make the most of it and ensure that students read to learn as well as learning to read. ‘Cultural texts’ can take many forms, but I am going to illustrate the use of two types: texts about cultural aspects of English-speaking countries around the world and texts about contemporary cultural issues which affect young people everywhere. Examples of the former might include an article about South Africa hosting the next World Cup or a brochure about Australian wildlife. The latter might include texts about changing technology, genetically modified food, social networking or immigration. Integrating cultural texts into your English course enables students to practise three essential reading skills:
- Reading for language acquisition: the texts provide language input which enables students to expand their vocabulary and see how grammar is used in an authentic context.
- Reading for information: the exercises provide practice of extracting ‘real’ information which gives a meaningful sense of purpose.
– Reading for cultural knowledge: students gain insight into the way other people live and awareness of the issues that concern them. By reflecting on the similarities and differences between themselves and others, they can break down cultural stereotypes and increase tolerance and understanding.
– ‘Doing culture': one step at a time! Any kind of reading text can seem challenging to many students, so it is important to stress that they should worry more about the task than the difficulty of the text. They do this naturally in their own language, but in English all too often they are caught up in the perceived need to understand every single word. Here is an example from each cycle.
Figs 1 & 2: First-cycle ESO
Figs 3 & 4: Second-cycle ESO
Step 1: Pre-reading
Pre-reading activities make tasks more manageable for students. Depending on the text, you can either get them to describe the pictures, elicit background knowledge, read the title and predict the content of the text or find places on a map. With older students, you can introduce an element of personalisation to increase their interest. Also, make sure you identify the initial purpose for reading. Get students to read the gist task before they read the text, so that they can focus on what they have to do.
Step 2: Reading
Avoid asking students to read the text aloud. By nature, reading is usually a silent, reflective task. Reading aloud presents different challenges such as word recognition and pronunciation, and usually entails a complete loss of the meaning behind the words. However, if the text is recorded, listening at the same time can aid comprehension. The tone and inflection of a native speaker can help students to see the separation between ideas and to understand emphasis, attitude and humour. At this first reading, focus only on the gist question. Questions of linguistic detail can come later.
Step 3: Post-reading
After the initial reading, there are countless ways of exploiting a text, including finding words to match to definitions, checking facts in the text and finding supporting evidence, getting students to write their own comprehension questions and identifying uses of grammar in context.
Step 4: Personalisation
Finally, with carefully guided activities and plenty of time to prepare their ideas, students can add their own voice to the topic of discussion.
Language both reflects and creates culture; the two are inextricably linked. By bringing more cultural content into the language classroom, we can thereby open the door to a far more meaningful learning experience for our students.
(All examples are taken from Voices 1 & 3)