Challenges and Responses in|
Teaching a British Culture Course
Le Thi Anh Phuong, M.A.
How one teacher adapted the official curriculum to better meet the
linguistic and cultural needs of her students.
In 1997, the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET)
• To provide students with knowledge about the
of Vietnam drafted a curriculum for the training of
country and the people in the United Kingdom in
English teachers for junior high schools. In 1999, this
document was adjusted and sent to many teacher train-
• To help students grasp the distinguished and specif-
ing colleges in Vietnam. (In this article, it will be referred
ic features of the present United Kingdom in terms of
to as the MOET curriculum or syllabus.) This curricu-
geography, politics, society, culture, and education.
lum is good in that it aims to provide a common frame-
• To equip students with terminology about different
work for all teacher training colleges across the country.
aspects of social and political life to support them in
Also, it specifies aims, content, teaching methodology,
their language learning and future teaching.
and suggested materials, which can serve as good guide-
Another two aims are added for British Life II (p. 50):
lines for teachers. The inclusion of subjects such as lin-
guistics, testing or assessment, British literature, and
• To equip students with a basic understanding of the
“British Life” (referred to as Country Study in the MOET
politics, culture, society, education, and religion in the
curriculum) is also a novelty in the training outline.
United Kingdom; especially changes in society and
The introduction of British Life in the curriculum
lifestyles and the inevitable development of the United
possibly aims at improving students’ sociolinguistic
Kingdom in the new contexts of the world today.
knowledge about Great Britain and its people, which
• To equip students with enough sentence structures
may enable them to communicate in English more effec-
and vocabulary about political, cultural, social, edu-
tively. This purpose seems to fit well with Bachman’s
cational, and legal aspects to communicate,
view (quoted in Brindley) of language competence—
contributing to the foundation and development
that language competence comprises not only language
of linguistic competence for communication and
knowledge but also pragmatic competence, of which
sociolinguistic knowledge is a part.
As can be seen, the teaching aims of British Life
Even though the inclusion of British Life in the train-
focus very much on knowledge about the United
ing curriculum is considered good, the implementation
Kingdom and its people, at the expense of cultural
of this subject in teacher training colleges demonstrates
aspects hidden in the English language itself.
several drawbacks of the suggested MOET syllabus.
These aims may coincide with viewpoints on teach-
ing British and American life in traditional courses, as
Limitations of the Subject
observed by Seelye or Maley (in Tomalin and
Seelye remarks that these courses in
Europe and North America have emphasized “big C” cul-
ture (“achievement culture”) with elements such as his-
In the curriculum drafted and revised by MOET,
tory, geography, institutions, literature, art, music, and
British Life is a subject taken in the third year and is to
way of life. However, Seelye further comments that
be taught for 60 periods (four credits) and possibly
these courses have now been broadened to include also
divided into two parts (British Life I and British Life II).
“little c” culture (“behavior culture”), which refers to
Three aims are specified for teaching British Life I
beliefs, perceptions, and acceptable cultural behavior in
the host community. He adds that “behavior culture,”
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according to Gail Robinson, an American researcher, is
British Life II: Culture, Society, and Education
supposed to cover three main elements which can be
(1) Social profile
specified as products (literature, folklore, art, music, arti-
(2) Culture and style
facts), ideas (beliefs, values, institutions), and behaviors
(customs, habits, dress, foods, leisure).
From a sociolinguistic perspective, this shows that if
an English program aims only to provide students with
This syllabus seems to be taken mostly directly from
knowledge about a host country and its people, it will
Britain in Close-up (McDowall), so each chapter speci-
not be satisfactory. A more important goal that needs to
fies issues to be covered. An example:
be achieved is to develop in students a cultural under-
standing about the social life necessary for effective
Chapter 3: Culture and style
• Community and the individual
The importance of cultural dimensions in language
• Dress codes
teaching and learning has also been pointed out by
• Nostalgia and modernity
many other authors, including Wajnryb and Wegmann et
• Culture of sport
al. Wajnryb confirms that the connection between lan-
guage and culture is deeply embedded in linguistic and
The syllabus proposed by MOET has several prob-
social aspects of communication; therefore, people tend
lems. First, there is a great emphasis on government and
to be less tolerant of cultural ignorance when a learner’s
political issues—four topics of 11 (chapters 2-5 in
language reaches intermediate and above standards (p.
McDowall). This results in a lack of information about
1). As a result, questions such as “Are you married?” or
other interesting issues from British daily life, such as
“Why don’t you have any children?”are considered rude,
food and drink, holidays, or other issues which a high
especially when they come from a second- or third-year
school English teacher must deal with in her teaching.
English major student.
Also, the focus on this kind of information may make it
In addition, students in teacher training colleges will
hard for teachers to give detailed explanations about
have to deal with cultural aspects commonly found in
certain issues, such as the legal systems in different parts
Vietnamese high school English textbooks. Therefore,
of the U.K., as specified in the syllabus.
they need to learn both “achievement culture”and “behav-
In addition, even when students understand the
ior culture.” Consequently, there needs to be a more logi-
information in the book, they find it hard to remember
cal proportion of these in the British Life syllabus.
because it is not very relevant to their needs as future
teachers of English. Therefore, lessons may be carried
out with difficulty and end in disappointment.
In the MOET curriculum, a topic-based syllabus has
been designed for British Life. It specifies 11 topics to
be taught over the 60 periods, with British Life I cover-
At present, different textbooks on Great Britain can
ing the state and politics (30 periods), and British Life II
be found in Vietnamese bookshops. Among them are
covering culture, society, and education (30 periods).
Life in Britain (Brookes and Fraenkel), Spotlight on
The topics are (pp. 48, 50):
Britain (Sheerin et al), Britain Explored (Harvey and
British Life I: State and Politics
Jones), and Focus on Britain Today (Lavery). Even
(1) Snapshot of Britain
though each book has its own advantages and disadvan-
(2) System of government
tages, Britain in Close-up (McDowall) and Faces of
(3) Government and politics
Britain (Laird), the two books recommended by MOET,
(4) Forces of law and order
seem less desirable than the others in several respects.
(5) Local government
The main limitations of Britain in Close-up
(6) Working Britain
(McDowall) have been discussed above—the overem-
phasis on knowledge about the government and politi-
cal issues. Faces of Britain (Laird) consists of five
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chapters with stories that help learners understand
aloud and have students answer questions. A great deal
more about the following specific issues:
of emphasis is placed on explanation of vocabulary.
Both these ways of teaching are not very effective
Who are the British?
because the teacher often has to work a lot and students
At work in the city
At work in the country
are simply recipients of knowledge. Also, some teachers
have problems in understanding the subject matter
themselves and are not able to deal with the required
texts in a satisfactory way. Topics such as economics and
This book does provide information about these topics
finances can result in a boring lesson for both teacher
in the form of light readings, but the focus is still on
knowledge about Britain and British people, rather than
their cultural behavior. This book is also designed as a
textbook for reading comprehension, with each text fol-
lowed by exercises, half of which are skimming and
The assessment recommended for British Life is car-
scanning and half of which focus on grammar or vocab-
ried out mainly at the end of the semester, with possible
ulary. Faces of Britain is, therefore, neither as informa-
additional assessment after every 15 periods. This type
tive as other similar books, nor as interesting as other
of assessment is basically knowledge-based and often in
materials in developing cultural awareness.
written form. British Life, therefore, is treated very much
All this suggests that the two recommended like a content subject and is not very helpful for devel-
textbooks may not be the best choice for teaching
oping cultural understanding and incorporating it into
language skills for effective communication.
Considering the limitations of the current curricu-
lum, I have recently tried a different way of teaching this
subject to make it more suitable for my students and to
The teaching methodology for British Life is also
maximize benefits to them.
specified in the MOET curriculum (p. 49):
...the subject, focused on transferring knowledge and
An Alternative Approach to the Subject
training language skills, is taught in English. Lessons
can be organized in small classrooms or in an audi-
torium for two or three classes together. It is essential,
however, to have seminars in which students have
My British Life course objectives are:
opportunities to discuss in English the knowledge
• To provide learners with opportunities to explore
learned under the teacher’s guidance.
basic knowledge about the U.K. in terms of geography,
politics, society, education, leisure, and ways of life.
This methodology guideline is interpreted in differ-
• To motivate students in learning about culture and
ent ways at different colleges. In some places, the
how to integrate learning culture with learning the four
teacher tends to lecture about the text, which results in
the teacher doing almost all the hard work. In other
• To equip learners with basic cultural aspects in English
places, the teacher chooses not to give lectures because
it would be more difficult and not very beneficial for stu-
• To help learners understand the cultural aspects intro-
dents. Therefore, teachers often treat this subject like a
duced in high school English textbooks.
reading class. For example, a teacher might read a text
• To encourage students’ autonomy in learning.
Teachers often treat this subject like a reading class...
these ways of teaching are not very effective because the teacher often
has to work a lot and students are simply recipients of knowledge.
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My aims are not just to provide students with oppor-
interactive as possible by designing activities and
tunities to find out about the U.K. and British people, but
preparing guided discussion questions. Pictures and
also to encourage them to learn to deal with cultural
other visual aids are encouraged. In a second session,
aspects in their future teaching jobs. Thus, I decided to
the teacher and students work together to clarify and
combine the required MOET syllabus with cultural
finalize information. The teacher approves the final
aspects found in Vietnamese high school textbooks.
version before it is photocopied for the class.
(4) Presentation. Each pair or group presents their
topic in one period (45 minutes). The next period is for
questions from other students and explanations either
In terms of teaching methodology, I chose a learner-
by the responsible pair or group or by the teacher.
oriented methodology, with a view to maximizing
Feedback is given first by students and then by the
opportunities for students to explore the subject and to
teacher. Finally, unclear or incomplete information is
contribute to the course.
clarified or provided by the teacher.
As suggested by Smith, content classes can be made
more communicative through interactive lecturing,
group presentations, and performance activities. These
are done to avoid turning students into passive receivers
In total, the oral presentations occupy half the
of information. Another aim is to offer students more
course (30 periods). The other half is devoted to the
opportunities to explore the information, to learn for
other activities mentioned above. For the portfolio, stu-
themselves, and to contribute to classroom activities.
dents are required to collect information from different
sources about Great Britain that may be useful in their
future teaching. They can even use the high school text-
books as guides. They may also search out information
that is personally interesting, including pictures, articles,
or texts in either English or Vietnamese. The collected
The basic activities in my course are: presentation,
information is then classified into categories and sources
portfolio, picnic, readings, and videos. The presentation
is divided into stages:
(1) Preparation. Students are divided into pairs or
groups and a topic is assigned to each. It is recom-
mended that they read books about their topic for a
The picnic is organized near the end of the course.
month or two in order to propose an outline of what to
Each group prepares a set of questions and answers for
present. Books to recommend (available in Vietnam)
a quiz on their presentation topic. They also each con-
tribute a Western dish, such as sandwiches, hot dogs, piz-
• Life in Britain (Brookes and Fraenkel).
zas, spaghetti, and chips. (This might be done with the
• Britain Explored (Harvey and Jones).
help of a foreign volunteer.) Other cultural awareness-
• Focus on Britain Today (Lavery).
raising games may also be played during the picnic.
• Spotlight on Britain (Sherin et al).
• 2000 Years of British Life (Fry).
• The Making of the United Kingdom (Kelly et al).
• Britain 1995 (Central Office of Information, HMSO).
Readings about “behavior culture”and issues such as
(2) Input Session. Students receive instruction on
those related to gestures, individual space, and etiquette
giving their presentation, covering such topics as audi-
are discussed, and other cultural issues in Vietnamese
ence, purpose, language choice, structure, voice projec-
high school textbooks are covered. Discussions on cul-
tion, nonverbal language, using visual aids, and so on.
tural differences between Vietnam and English-speaking
(3) Consultations. During an initial consultation,
countries are organized. Readings are taken from vari-
the teacher works with each group on their structure
ous language and culture textbooks, including:
and information, giving suggestions as appropriate. She
• Australian Profile (Hodge).
also tries to help them make their presentations as
• Other Voices: A Cross-Cultural Communication
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My suggestions in teaching British Life are just one
• Culture Connection (Wegmann et al).
context-specific way of working with the subject. It has
• Cultural Awareness (Tomalin and Stempleski).
gained generally desirable results for both teachers and
• Developing Intercultural Awareness (Kohls and
students, who enjoyed and benefited a great deal from
the course. This way of teaching and learning may not
• Communications Between Cultures (Samover and
be fully applicable in many colleges in Vietnam because
of limitations in facilities, as well as students’ differing
needs and abilities in other settings. In any case, I
strongly believe that teachers should remain flexible in
terms of the aims of the British Life course, the text-
Videos and films about British life are also used.
books used, the content learned, and the methods adopt-
They are very useful in giving learners vivid ideas of
ed to meet their specific contexts.
what Britain and British people are like. Students watch
the videos and work in groups to write down what they
can learn after each viewing. They then discuss their
Brindley, G. “Language Testing and Evaluation.” Lecture
ideas and the teacher can add to this discussion as
given at Macquarie University. August 28, 1999.
appropriate. Their notes can later be refined and put
into students’ portfolios.
Assessing Achievement in the Learner-Centred
National Centre for English Language
Teaching and Research, Macquarie University, 1989.
Britain 1995: An Official Handbook. Central Office of
I attempt to follow recommendations given by
Information, HMSO, 1994.
Shohamy and Venugopal in assessing British Life. Three
recommendations by Shohamy are to integrate assess-
Brookes, H.F., and C.E. Fraenkel.
Life in Britain.
ment with teaching, to involve both students and teach-
ers in the assessment process, and to use multiple assess-
Fry, P.S. 2000 Years of British Life. Williams Collins Sons
ment sources (not only tests). Also, as pointed out by
and Company, 1976.
Venugopal, ongoing assessment should be chosen as the
main form of assessment, as this offers such benefits as
Sydney College of
Advanced Education, Multicultural Centre, 1989.
anxiety reduction and variety in forms of assessment.
Ongoing assessment can reflect the learning and teach-
Harey, P., and R. Jones. Britain Explored. Longman,
ing process more effectively.
Students are assessed for the main tasks of giving
Kelly, N., et al. The Making of the United Kingdom.
presentations and creating portfolios (including Heinemann, 1998.
information gained from watching videos). Their class
participation is also taken into consideration at the end
Kohls, L.R., and J.M. Knight. Developing Intercultural
of the course for rounding up the marks or for giving
Awareness. Intercultural Press, 1981.
Laird, E. Faces of Britain. Longman, 1992.
Lavery, C. Focus on Britain Today. Phoenix ELT, 1993.
Ministry of Education and Training of Vietnam. “Detailed
The introduction of the British Life subject into the
Syllabi of Different English Subjects”and “Curriculum for
English training curriculum for teacher training colleges
Teacher Training Colleges.” MOET, 1997 and 1999.
is highly recommended. The attempt by MOET to offer
McDowall, D. Britain in Close-Up. Longman, 1995.
specific guidelines for teaching this subject is also appre-
ciated. However, flexibility should be given in imple-
Samover, L.A., and R.E. Porter.
menting this subject to make it more effective in specif-
Between Cultures. Belmont, 1991.
ic teaching contexts.
Seelye, H.N. Teaching Culture. NTC, 1988.
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Sherin, S., et al. Spotlight on Britain. Oxford University
Ideas on the Go
Shohamy, E. “New Modes of Assessment:The Connection
Between Testing and Learning.”
The Hot Seat
Assessment for Feedback: Testing and Other Strategies.
Ed. E. Shohamy and R.Walton. Kendall Hunt Publishing,
Goal: A motivating way to practice
“Making Content Classes More
Teacher’s Edition 6, pp. 14-17,
This exercise is very simple, but I have found it to
be very effective in the classroom. At the start of
Tomalin, B., and S. Stempleski. Cultural Awareness.
a lesson on hypothetical situations—“What
Oxford University Press, 1993.
would you do if…?”—I introduce to the class
Venugopal, S.N. “Continuous Assessment in the Oral
“The Hot Seat” by putting a lone chair at the head
Communication Class: Teacher Constructed Test.” In
of the classroom. I choose three students whom
Current Developments in Language Testing.
I know can handle the pressure to come to the
Anivan. SEAMEO RELC, 1991.
front and answer three questions, such as,
“What would you do if you had one million
Other Voices: A Cross-Cultural
dollars?” Their answers are the introduction to
Communication Workbook. Thomas Nelson Australia,
the day’s topic.
After this, I begin the lesson on hypothetical
Wegmann, B., M. Knezevic, and P. Werner.
situations and have students do a few group exer-
Connection. Heinle & Heinle, 1994.
cises as practice. For the final exercise, I have
them write three hypothetical questions to ask
their classmates. I then reintroduce “The Hot
This paper was also presented at the British Council’s
Seat,” call another student to the front, and ask
Vietnam Teacher Training Network National ELT
her three of the questions prepared by her class-
Conference, “Delivering Quality in English Language
mates. After she has answered, she gets to choose
Teaching,” held in Hanoi, March 18-19, 2004.
one of her classmates to put in “The Hot Seat,”
and the activity continues in this pattern for the
Le Thi Anh Phuong (M.A.,Applied Linguistics, Macquarie
remainder of the period.
University) has been working as a teacher and teacher
I have found that this activity is a great way
for students to practice their listening and speak-
trainer at Nha Trang Teacher Training College since 1980.
ing in a fun, student-driven format. My students
She is also currently working for the Australian
reacted well to the exercise and could not wait to
Development Scholarships project,
put their best friend or boyfriend/girlfriend into
Vietnamese students for study in Australian universities.
“The Hot Seat.”
Her most recent contribution to Teacher’s Edition was
her article,“Teachers’ Problems in Dealing With the Pre-
Jack Peterson is in his second year of teaching
Lesson Stage,” published in the previous issue.
at Dalat University.
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
– W.B. Yeats
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