The Role of Cultural Identity in Classroom Participation Melissa Smith,...
The Role of Cultural Identity in
Classroom Participation
Melissa Smith, M.A.
Exploring issues involved in using communicative methods in
traditional classrooms.
Working with a monolingual group of students from a
from non-Western cultures. They examined the reac-
non-Western culture poses a unique set of challenges for
tions of Hong Kong university students to lecturers
English teachers, whether they are working in English as
from native English-speaking countries. Since the style
a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign
of teaching in Hong Kong is teacher-centered, what the
Language (EFL) contexts. By far one of the greatest chal-
university students in their study expected from their
lenges comes when students are asked to participate in
lecturers was a teacher-centered classroom. What many
a communicative task which requires them to interact
of the lecturers hoped for was participation on the part
and cooperate with their classmates. In any language
of the students. What the lecturers soon discovered was
class, but especially in those made up of a monolingual
that the Hong Kong students did not perform well in
group from a non-Western culture, students often seem
this situation. In fact, one of the lecturers observed,
reluctant to participate orally in classroom settings.
“They are not accustomed to participating in lectures.
While students’ lack of proficiency or the tempta-
They feel quite threatened when they have to do so” (p.
tion to use their native language may feed this reticence,
363). Obviously, then, different teaching styles require
culture and ethnicity also play an important role in stu-
different levels and types of participation (or non-par-
dents’ unwillingness to participate. The degree to which
ticipation) from students. Moreover, learners accus-
culture plays a role may depend partially upon students’
tomed to one style may be overwhelmed by another.
individual learning and interaction styles. However, the
Another difference is rooted in the Confucian ideal
differences between students’ cultural backgrounds and
of respect toward one’s teacher. As Flowerdew and
their Western teacher’s expectations may have a signifi-
Miller explain, “For Confucius, one’s teacher is on par
cant effect upon classroom participation. This article
with one’s father in terms of the loyalty and deference
examines some of these differences and suggests means
that one is expected to show”(p. 357). As a result, while
of accommodating them.
original and independent thought are often valued in
American classrooms, the students in the Hong Kong
Differences in Educational Practices
study were reticent to give their opinions in class, since
this would be seen as showing disrespect to their teach-
One of the most prominent differences lies in the
ers. Instead of questioning or evaluating what was
area of teaching styles. Current trends in English lan-
being presented to them in class, these learners were
guage teaching adhere to many of the principles of
accustomed to an educational setting in which they
Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) theory.
were expected to “learn the right answer and to regur-
Included in these principles are learner-centered teach-
gitate [it]” (p. 364). To do otherwise would be to ques-
ing, task-based and content-centered approaches, coop-
tion the authority of their teachers.
erative and interactive learning, and whole language
Hahn also studied this attitude of respect for one’s
education (Brown). Students who are accustomed to
teacher (p. 16). She interviewed six international grad-
educational practices widely different from CLT may
uate students at the University of Illinois and had them
experience an uncomfortable dichotomy between their
compare their American classrooms to classrooms in
expectations and what in actuality occurs in their lan-
their countries. The Korean subjects in her study
guage classrooms.
described the learning situation in their country as pas-
Flowerdew and Miller studied the possible effects
sive, and they explained that students only initiate dis-
that a Western teaching style may have upon students
course when they have an indisputably wise comment
Teacher’s Edition
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March 2001

to add to classroom lectures. One subject said,“You’re
want to learn about methods and approaches to EFL
not supposed to say anything. You have to obey your
when they may feel unable to justify their worth?
leader, the teacher, who is like a king or queen. It is not
Nonetheless, taking an interest in students’ learning
virtuous to disagree with your teacher.” Thus, while
backgrounds has a number of benefits. One such bene-
American culture often allows students to question
fit is an exposure to a variety of approaches to language
teachers and voice opinions, other cultures see such
learning, and this exposure may in turn result in an
behavior as highly disrespectful.
appropriate respect for such methods. As many stu-
Another difference between American classrooms
dents’ proficiency testifies, they have not been unsuc-
and those of other cultures is the issue of “face.”
cessful in their attempts to learn English through meth-
Understandably, students’ fears of not being able to
ods other than CLT. As a result, other teaching methods
express their ideas in a comprehensible manner may
deserve respect.
hinder them from participating in classroom discourse.
A second benefit is the opportunity for teachers to
One of the Korean students that Hahn interviewed, for
justify CLT or other techniques that they make use of in
example, described her efforts to participate in her class-
the classroom. As students share their language learning
es in this way:“I feel like a loser” (p. 10). Further ques-
experiences, instructors are afforded a chance to explain
tioning of both this student and the five others revealed
their own approaches and give a rationale for choosing
that apprehension about being unintelligible to their
one method over another.
teachers as well as their classmates played a role in their
Finally, by showing an interest in students’ learning
attitudes toward participating in class. Clearly, then, a
experiences, teachers are modeling the same openness
fear of “losing face” may hinder learners from making
they expect from their students. When instructors
oral contributions to class discussions.
incorporate new techniques and approaches into lesson
From another perspective, the issue of “face” may
plans, they can expect the same reception that they
exercise control over students’ willingness to partici-
have displayed toward their students’ ideas.
pate. Flowerdew and Miller explain that according to
A second suggestion is to approach teaching
the Confucian ideal, learners should not appear to be
methodology as a dynamic rather than a static entity.
better than their classmates. They describe the situation
Teachers may find it helpful to view approaches to
in this way:“[I]f students ask or answer a question, they
teaching on a continuum, with methods prevalent in
will be seen by their peers as ‘showing off’ and will
their students’ cultures on one end and CLT on the
become ‘an outcast’” (p. 358). In some cultures, then,
other. In this way, rather than implementing immediate
students can be guilty of losing face either by producing
and radical changes, instructors can gradually move their
unintelligible utterances or by appearing too proficient
students along the continuum. At first, they can attempt
in their responses. Both perspectives may serve to
to include principles of CLT within methods currently
discourage language learners from participating in
accepted and used in the cultures from which their stu-
EFL classrooms.
dents come. As learners grow accustomed to these small
changes, teachers can then introduce more and different
Accommodating the Differences
ideas. The goal of such a dynamic approach to method-
ology is to find a middle point, according to what is fea-
What is clear from the above discussion is that learn-
sible and most beneficial for students.
ers’ cultural backgrounds have an effect upon their atti-
Third, dispel the myth that CLT language classes are
tudes toward classroom participation. Students’ learning
all fun and games. EFL learners often seem to be moti-
styles or lack of language proficiency may work to shape
vated by a fear of “not learning anything,” and as a result
their ways of interacting or participating in class.
complain that CLT classes are an entertaining diversion
However, discrepancies between learners’ expectations
but educationally worthless. For students from coun-
and what occurs in the classroom also play a significant
tries where a great deal of emphasis is placed upon
role in their level of comfort in classroom discourse. In
examinations and regurgitating information, the fear of
order to reconcile these differences, teachers may want
not learning is an understandable one. The challenge,
to take the following steps.
then, for language teachers is to demonstrate that learn-
First, display an active interest in the learning con-
ing can be both entertaining and effective. In order to
texts from which students come. Why would teachers
meet this challenge, a first step is to ensure that com-
municative and cooperative activities do in actuality
Teacher’s Edition
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March 2001

have educational value and language improvement pur-
Flowerdew, J., and L. Miller. “On the Notion of Culture in
poses. This is accomplished when instructors design syl-
L2 Lectures.” TESOL Quarterly 29, pp. 345-373, 1995.
labuses with goals to be reached throughout a semester,
and when they create lesson plans with objectives in
Hahn, L.
“The Challenge of Oral Participation in
mind for each activity. Once goals and objectives are
American Classroom Discourse: International Graduate
mapped out, these should then be communicated to stu-
Students’ Perspectives and Experiences.” Paper present-
dents. Teachers can explain long-term goals at the begin-
ed at the 10th Annual International Conference on
ning of each semester, and they may also want to give
Pragmatics and Language Learning in Urbana, Illinois,
rationales either prior to or following class activities. In
March, 1996.
this way, students are made aware of what is being
Krashen, S. “The Pleasure Hypothesis.” In Georgetown
taught, how, and why.
University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics
In addition to understanding purposes and ratio-
1994. Ed. J.E.Alatis. Georgetown University Press, 1994.
nales, students may need some tangible evidence that
fun activities serve to improve their language proficien-
cy. In this case, a comparison between pre- and post-test
Melissa Smith (M.A.,TESOL, Ball State University) is cur-
performance may be helpful. For example, learners in a
rently working on a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology
writing class could be asked to produce an essay at the
from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
beginning of a semester which could then be compared
Previously, she served as the ELI Curriculum Director for
to one written at the end. Or in a speaking class, learn-
China, where she taught from 1993-1997.
ers could be audio- or video-taped before the course
begins, and then they could compare these tapes with
ones made near the end of the course. Such compar-
isons will help students to measure their own progess
and may open their eyes to the fact that as their overall
proficiency develops so will individual skills necessary
for performance on exams.
Krashen describes a study that asked students to
An education isn’t how much
compare traditional methods with a more current one,
the Natural Approach. He found that students’ attitudes
you have committed to memory,
toward traditional methods were neither more positive
nor more negative than their attitudes toward the
or even how much you know.
Natural Approach. He responded to these findings by
writing:“[T]hese students may feel anxiety over the lack
It’s being able to differentiate
of traditional techniques because they have incorrect
personal theories of language acquisition.” This is exact-
between what you know
ly the attitude that teachers should not have toward
discrepancies learners may find between their own
and what you don’t.
practices and those of their teachers.
– Anatole France
instructors should recognize that these differences
may be rooted in students’ cultural identities. What
students need is a teacher who models an ability to
adjust to such differences.
Brown, H.D. Teaching By Principles. Prentice-Hall,
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March 2001