Integrating CULTURE into language instruction

AS LANGUAGE TEACHERS, we know the goal is 90% in the target language, focusing on comprehensible input in context. For most of us, this, although sometimes challenging, is a goal we can attain when it comes to vocabulary and even grammar. Where it gets more difficult is in overlaying culture, making it comprehensible and accessible to our students. Here are some thoughts and experiences that have worked for me in my elementary Spanish classes (K-4), as well as with my adult students in Russian class- SIX QUESTIONS I ask myself when I am considering what to incorporate (or not!) into my classroom:



*IS IT RELEVANT?- Can my students make a connection and/or relate to what I am teaching? Does it have meaning for my students? When students are able to connect emotionally or intellectually to something, they are more likely to internalize and remember it. Teaching about wedding traditions to 8 year olds has little meaning for them as they are not connected to weddings in any fashion- however, teaching about how kiddos get to school each day taps into a daily occurrence in the lives of our students and has real meaning for them. With little ones, keeping it tangible and concrete makes it easier for kids to connect. Abstract ideas, political views, and perspectives are harder for them to relate to as they are not thinking on that level. AND,  don't underestimate the power of comparing and contrasting! Kids naturally do this, and being able to make comparisons with their own lives gives them context for making sense of what they are learning.

*IS IT AGE APPROPRIATE?- Since I teach elementary level, my primary goal with culture is to share children's culture with my students; in other words, exposing them to how children in Spanish speaking countries (at the same age as my students) live. There are many fascinating aspects of adult culture that I would love to teach about, but, as I said above, they have little meaning for my students. When choosing aspects of culture to teach about, consider what constitutes the culture of the age group you are teaching- if it's middle or high school, pop culture is a good bet.  If you feel you don't know enough about that particular age group in the target culture, ask native speaking friends, do a web search, think about what was important to you at that age (or what were big events in your life) and then search that out in the target culture.

*WILL IT INTEREST/MOTIVATE MY STUDENTS?- Tying into what I've already said above, ask yourself whether what you are considering will be of interest to your students. Just because you are fascinated by it, doesn't mean they will be. Big motivators such as food, celebrations, and music are always great choices, but there are tons of other areas to explore. I find non fiction information to be a big hit with my little kiddos, most specifically science and geography. My students love animals, so I am sure to include animals from Spanish speaking countries whenever I can!

*IS IT LINGUISTICALLY ACCESSIBLE?- Here's where the rubber really meets the road! Is what you want to incorporate linguistically accessible to your students? meaning, can you integrate it using comprehensible input? At the lower levels, are you able to break down the information into digestible chunks? Can you simplify it enough to make it comprehensible without losing the overall meaning? Picking and choosing what meets these criteria can be challenging- and sometimes you have to dump something because it just can't be integrated successfully without using lots of English to explain- and that's ok! Things I look for what considering this question:
-Is it tangible/concrete?  This is especially important with little kiddos and/or novice learners. Authentic games are tangible, beliefs about where you go when you die- not so much. With novice learners of any level, keeping it tangible means you have less linguistic leg work to do in order to frame the context. Keep it simple with these learners!
-Do I have enough resources to talk about this? Most specifically, do I have pictures, videos, realia, etc? Having visuals or other representations is going to help greatly with what language/ vocabulary you need to use to get the idea across. If you don't have these resources, either go find them or look for something else to talk about. Sometimes it takes me years to get together what I want to effectively teach about a particular aspect of culture- there's nothing wrong with an overstuffed closet full of "one day I will get to that" items! :)
-If it's a song or poem or story, are there too many new words? If so, good-bye! Studies show students can only hold on to about 3-5 new words at a time, so anything above and beyond that is either a candidate for a lot of pre-teaching of the vocabulary before introducing it (which then begs the question- is this song/poem/story really the best choice?) or I look for something else. There's always something else......

*WILL IT LIVE ON AFTER THE LESSON/ THEME IS OVER?- I'm big on culture that has a long shelf life. I particularly like culture that is part of our everyday classes, not just facts or themes which my students learn about and then we never revisit. (not that this isn't important!) What are aspects of culture that come up over and over again or are easily incorporated into your daily flow? In my classroom, this entails a whole host of things: greetings and leave takings, idioms and expressions that make sense in a classroom setting, gestures, my 4th graders are organized into teams with country names, regular and constant map references, how we write the date on our paper, how the calendar is set up (Monday first), authentic songs, chants and games we use regularly, tooth traditions with Ratoncito Pérez, the Tooth Mouse, even our clean up song which signals our routine for putting materials away (and is authentic) and so on. In addition, I've set up my curriculum in a spiral format, meaning we revisit "old" themes and vocabulary often. This allows us to have 'blasts from the past' as I call them, singing previously learned songs, playing games from the year before, integrating former knowledge into new themes.

*WHAT ARE THE GOALS FOR MY STUDENTS?- It is always important for me as a teacher to know beforehand what my goals are for any instruction. Does what I am teaching meet a particular standard? What do I want them to get out of the information? or how do I want them to use it? Answering these questions helps me determine whether something is really a good fit for my classroom.

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