cross-cultural activities

Though potentially problematic, cultural ideas and items can be the greatest asset you have as an ESOL teacher seeking to motivate students. Make cultural differences work for you! Find out what cultures your students are from and in a respectful environment, have fun. If done in this way, such activities can soon become a core part of your teaching. Here are ten quick ideas for such activities:

  1. Food! Begin by extoling the joys of varied cuisine and, for example, write on the board things like CABSA, BULGOGI, TAKOYAKI, PHAD THAI and so on. Images may also be used. Have students discuss and/or explain what they are. This can easily be extended into recipe sharing and so on.

  2. Marriage! Show photos of various marriages. Describe a wedding you went to. Draw students into chatting about the similarities and differences between this wedding and weddings in their countries. What do they all have in common?

  3. Family! Review the basic vocabulary of family members (mother, brother, cousin, aunt and so on). Discuss your family members and what their roles are in your family structure. Get students to do the same. What ROLES do, for example, aunts and uncles play? What about third cousins? Answers will be illuminating.

  4. Money! Have students bring in examples of their currency, bills work best. Use the document camera and ask about images on the bill. (Why this animal?) Let other students question those students from that country about the bill. Fun!

  5. Passport! Have every student bring their passport to class because each one tells a story. In pair or small groups, have students describe what the symbols and so on mean and what countries they visited and why and what happened!

  6. Proverbs/Idioms! In the USA we are ‘hungry as a horse’ but in Russia one is ‘hungry as a bear.’ Introduce a few idioms or proverbs and then have students present idioms and proverbs from their country. Knowing what ‘gold does not come from the sky’ means to an Arabic student is fun and culturally interesting.

  7. Movies/TV shows! Have students list some of the U.S. movies or TV shows they have seen then help them use the internet to show Youtube clips of a favorite movie from their country. What is similar? Different? What do they like about movies from different countries? Homework: Watch a foreign movie!

  8. Customs! Group students by nationality. Have them write a bulleted advice list on things visitors to their country should and should not do. Have them present and have a class discussion on culture, expectations, politeness and so on.

  9. Clothing! Have students either show or, better yet, wear to class traditional national clothing. Whether a kimono or hijab, have students ‘show off’ their clothing and explain it. When is it worn? What is the history of it? What does it mean?

  10. Stuff! Have students bring in items that reflect their unique culture. Maybe an omamori (charm) from Japan or a festival fan from Korea. Have other students guess what it is and what it is for and how it is used. Let the students then ‘show and tell’ and pass it around. Maybe have a tea ceremony or other demonstration!
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M.A. History (Cross-Cultural Studies), Western Washington University; TESOL Certificate, The School of Teaching ESL. Denny is a teacher educator at S-TESL and delivers most of the 4-Week Intensives each year. Denny has taught ESL at ELS Language Center in Seattle and in Japan at Sundai Junior College. He worked at American Cultural Exchange in Seattle as Center Director and as Director of Marketing.