Integrating Critical Thinking Into The Exploration Of Culture
This month the Teacher’s Corner will help students examine and deepen their understanding of culture. This week, encourage students to think critically about the unspoken rules and expectations within cultures.

Integrating Critical Thinking Into The Exploration Of Culture

When one thinks about culture, what often comes to mind are the foods, languages, celebrations, music, and clothing of people from different areas of the world. While these things are certainly part of culture, there are a lot more cultural components that are not quite as easy to see. As Sonia Nieto and Patty Bode note, “Culture includes not only tangibles such as foods, holidays, dress, and artistic expression but also less tangible manifestations such as communication style, attitudes, values, and family relationships” (p. 171).

English teachers have a special responsibility to help students navigate the components of culture that may not be easily visible. Many students studying English may eventually wish to travel, attend school, or work in other countries. Others may choose to work in industries that require them to interact with English speakers from many different backgrounds. Therefore, it is important that students are able to think critically about their personal experiences and cultural values, those of other people, and the potential conflicts differences may cause. This critical thinking will help them to navigate and resolve potential cultural misunderstandings.

This month the Teacher’s Corner will present four successive activities to help students examine and deepen their understanding of culture:

Week 1: Reflecting on Hidden Cultural Rules, Part One Week 2: Reflecting on Hidden Cultural Rules, Part Two Week 3: Thinking About Intercultural Interactions
Week 4: Successfully Navigating Intercultural Interactions

Educators are positioned to provide students with a chance to take part in activities and discussions that promote self-examination, reflection, and critical thinking. In doing so, teachers can help students begin to understand the less obvious parts of their own culture as well as those of other cultures. Activities like these, and the kind of thinking they require of students, have a lasting effect on how learners approach interacting with people from different backgrounds.

Nieto, S. and P. Bode. (2012).
Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education (6th ed.). Pearson. 


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Table of Contents

Week 1 - Reflecting on Hidden Cultural Rules (Part One)Expand

This week’s Teacher’s Corner encourages students to think critically about the unspoken rules and expectations of different cultures. Because English is a lingua franca—a common language used by speakers with different native languages—the ability to successfully navigate different cultural expectations is becoming more and more valuable.

As noted by K. David Harrison in his book The Last Speakers, “languages abound in ‘cultural knowledge,’ which is neither genetic nor explicitly learned, but comes to us in an information package—rich and hierarchical in its structure” (p. 58). Every language has its own cultural “information package,” including English. However, because English is studied and spoken by so many different types of people from various backgrounds, there is not one set of unspoken rules or expectations for all English speakers. Rather, as teachers of English, we must prepare our students to be aware of differences and be ready to work through any potential miscommunications that may occur.

Activity: Generating a list of behaviors and planning a skit

Time: 60 minutes


  • To help students reflect on what defines culture and to understand that different cultural groups have rules and expectations that may not always be communicated directly.
  • To listen, speak, read, and write about culture in English.

Materials: Culture Group Descriptions (Appendix A), Example Scenario (Appendix B), poster/chart paper, different color markers, student notebooks, pencils


  1. Decide how you will divide your class into groups. There should ideally be a minimum of four groups with 3 to 6 students in each one. If you have a small or large class, adjust groups accordingly.
  2. Prepare copies of the Culture Group Descriptions and cut them into fourths for distribution. Note that each group of students will be assigned a single culture description (1, 2, 3, or 4). If your class is divided into more than four groups, you can assign the same description to multiple groups, but each group will need its own copy.
  3. Figure out how you will share the Example Scenario with students, such as by projecting it or making copies.


  1. Begin by asking students what they think culture means. They can discuss this in small groups or as a whole class.
  2. Create a Culture Thinking Map on chart/poster paper by writing culture in a circle in the middle. As students share their ideas with the class, draw lines coming out of the circle to record students’ responses.
  3. Explain to students,  “Every cultural group has visible or spoken elements that are easy to see and understand. These are things like common celebrations, foods, clothing, and music. Additionally, we can also observe common ways of interacting such as greetings and goodbyes. However, every culture also has rules and expectations that are not discussed, directly taught, or easy for other people to see.”
  4. Tell students that they are going to participate in an activity to examine some of the parts of culture that are not as easy to see.
  5. Have students get into groups according to the plan you prepared before starting the activity.
  6. Continue by explaining that each group will be assigned one description of a fictional culture. Working together, the groups should discuss the description and write down a list of behaviors they believe that members of their assigned cultural group would show in a conversation or interaction.
  7. Model this portion of the activity by choosing one or two of the characteristics from a Culture Group Description. Talk to students about what behaviors a person might show during a conversation or interaction as a result of each characteristic. Record responses in a chart as shown below.

Characteristic of Culture

Corresponding Behavior

  • Low level of gestures
  • Does not talk with hands or explain things using movements
  • Direct eye contact is a sign of respect 
  • Looks people in the eyes during conversation
  1. Have students create the same chart in their notebooks. Working together, each group should discuss the characteristics from the assigned description. Students should write down a list of behaviors they believe that members of their assigned cultural group would show in a conversation or interaction.
  2. Once groups have had adequate time to prepare a list of behaviors, tell students that they will now be given an example scenario. Say, “Using this scenario and the list of behaviors you wrote, your group will create a skit. The skit must be about the example scenario and the actors must demonstrate as many of the behaviors as possible. You will perform this skit for the rest of the class. Based on your skit, your classmates will try to determine some of the characteristics of your culture, so keep this in mind as you are working.”
  3. Display or distribute the example scenario, review it with students, and answer any questions they may have.
  4. As groups work on writing their skits, move around the room to ensure students understand the assignment. Note that not every student from a group must act in the skit, but all group members should help to write it.
  5. Students should write down a script or at least an outline of their skit in their notebooks in order to continue during the next class.
  6. Provide time for students to practice their skits. If needed, review each group’s culture description, list of behaviors, and skit to offer suggestions.
  7. After the activity is complete, collect all materials for use during upcoming classes.

In the next activity in this month’s Teacher’s Corner, students will perform and observe skits and work with classmates to describe each culture group.


Harrison, K. D. (2010). The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.


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Week 2 - Reflecting on Hidden Cultural Rules (Part Two)Expand

During last week’s Teacher’s Corner activity, students began to think critically about what defines culture. They also planned a skit based on the characteristics of an assigned culture group. This week, groups will perform their skits as others observe and try to identify characteristics of each culture group.

Activities: Skit Presentations and Brainstorming

Time: Varies depending on the size of your class, but all groups will need to present skits, reflect on those they watch, and brainstorm a list of descriptors. Estimated time is 45-60 minutes.


  • To help students reflect on what defines culture and to understand that different cultural groups have rules and expectations that may not always be communicated directly.
  • To listen, speak, read, and write about culture in English.

Materials: Culture Group Descriptions (Appendix A), Example Scenario (Appendix B), poster/chart paper, different color markers, student notebooks, pencils, student skits (written and brought in by students)


  1. Copy the Skit Observation Table (shown in Procedure Step 3) on the board for student groups to use to record observations as they watch skits and discuss what they see. Students should copy the table into their notebooks before groups share their skits.
  2. If you have a very large class, with multiple groups representing each culture, you may choose not to have every group perform their skit in front of the whole class. Instead, you can divide up the class (in half, or in multiple sections) and have each section watch the groups in their section. If you divide up the class, make sure that all of the culture groups (1-4) are represented in each section. Every student should make observations about all the culture groups.

Activity one: Skit Presentations and Observations


  1. Begin by reviewing the purpose of the skits with students and answering any questions. Remind learners that the goal of the skit is to demonstrate the list of behaviors they made with their group based on their assigned Culture Group Description.
  2. Tell students that they will have 10-15 minutes to practice their skits before performing them for others. If you are splitting your class in half or into sections as described under Preparation, share the plan with students.
  3. Once the time allotted for practice has passed, draw students’ attention to the Skit Observation Table. Explain that as students present their skit, they should share the number of the culture group they are representing. Members of the audience should record this number on the Skit Observation Table. As they watch the skit, students should also note what behaviors they observe, as shown below.

Culture group

Behaviors Observed


Number  ______


Communication Style

Emotional Expression

Gestures or Body Language

Eye Contact or Physical Contact

People do not say what they are thinking

Not an honest display of emotions


Negative feelings are hidden

Very few gestures


Smiles that do not seem genuine

Avoid eye contact


Shake hands at the end of the conversation

Based on these behaviors, what do you believe to be some of the characteristics of this culture?


  1. Once students have had a chance to view all of the skits from each of the other culture groups, they should work together with their group members for about 15 minutes to compare notes, discuss observations, and brainstorm ideas about characteristics of each culture. Characteristics should be recorded in the Skit Observation Table.
  2. After groups have had sufficient time to discuss and record characteristics, bring the class back together. Tell students that they will now share ideas in order to attempt to create a description of each cultural group.
  3. Label four sections of the board or four pieces of chart/poster paper with culture group 1, culture group 2, etc. Tell students that you will record the characteristics they share about each culture group and that they should also copy the information into their notebooks.
  4. Remind students that this is just a learning experience and that no one assumes any student shares the behaviors or characteristics of the culture group they represented for the activity.
  5. Beginning with Culture Group 1 on the board or chart/poster paper, have students volunteer to share characteristics that were observed during the skit. Continue with each culture group until a list of characteristics has been recorded for each one.

Activity Two: Descriptive Brainstorming


  1. Explain to students that now that a profile of each culture group has been established, the next step is to list words or phrases that describe each culture group. At this point, you can share the culture group Descriptions (Appendix A) either by photocopying, projecting, or having students read them aloud, to provide students with as much information as possible.
  2. Divide the class into four large groups or, if you have a large class, create smaller sections and assign each one a culture group to focus on. Provide students with chart/poster paper and markers to record their list.
  3. Tell students that they should carefully read the description and profile of their newly assigned culture group and think about positive and negative descriptions that may be used to describe the group. Inform the class that they will have 10 minutes to record as many positive and negative words as they can to describe the culture group they have been assigned. Have each group elect a recorder to write down student responses.
  4. Provide ample time for groups to review the list of characteristics generated about their assigned cultural group during the first activity, as well as the original culture group Description.
  5. Then, set a timer for 10 minutes and allow students to begin recording their one-word descriptions.
  6. Move around the room and ensure that students are generating a list of positive and negative descriptors. If needed, prompt students to come up with additional words to describe each culture group by asking questions such as:
    1. What are some positive aspects of this culture group? What do you think they would do well? What would people like about someone from this group?
    2. What are some negative aspects of this culture group? What do you think they would not be very good at? What would people dislike about someone from this group?
  7. Once time is up, have each group select one student to share what their group wrote down to describe the others. Give each group ample time to share their list.
  8. After each group presents their list, have students recall the culture group to which they belonged during Activity 1. Ask students to read the list of descriptors generated for that culture group closely, and to reflect on the following questions in their notebooks:
    1. What descriptors would you characterize as positive? Which ones are negative? Create a list for each.
    2. Which of the positive descriptors do you agree with most? Which do you disagree with? Why?
    3. Which of the negative descriptors do you agree with most? Which do you disagree with? Why?
    4. Do you think this is a fair representation of the culture group you represented during the skit? Why or why not?
  9. Ask students to find a partner that was assigned to a different culture group during Activity 1. Have partners share the reflections they recorded in their notebooks.
  10. Once partners have had time to discuss reflections, ask students to volunteer to share their feelings about this experience and whether their culture group was described accurately or not. Encourage students to discuss the implications of this activity beyond the classroom.
  11. After the activity is complete, collect all materials for use during upcoming classes.

Next week, students will continue to think critically about culture as they add to their initial ideas about what makes up culture on the Culture Thinking Map from Week 1. Students will also begin to discuss and reflect on how cultural differences can make intercultural communication challenging at times. 

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Week 3 - Thinking About Intercultural InteractionsExpand

So far this month in the Teacher’s Corner, students have had a chance to adopt characteristics of a fictional culture group, plan and perform skits, and observe and describe culture groups other than those they were assigned. Through critical thinking, reflection, and discussion, these activities have helped students recognize that culture includes more than just food, clothing, and celebrations. This week, students will add ideas to the Culture Thinking Map and reflect on potential breakdowns in communication that could happen when people interact.


Time: 30-45 minutes Goals:

  •   To help students continue to reflect on what defines culture.

  •   To think about and discuss potential miscommunications or misunderstandings that could happen

    during intercultural interactions.

  •   To listen, speak, read, and write about culture in English.

    Materials: culture group Descriptions (Appendix A), Example Scenario (Appendix B), Culture Thinking Map with students’ ideas about culture from Week 1, different color markers, chart/poster paper, student notebooks, pencils


  1. Ensure that the Culture Thinking Map (Week 1) and descriptive lists (Week 2, Activity 2) are displayed in the classroom.

  2. Gather copies of Culture Group Descriptions (Appendix A) and Example Scenario (Appendix B) , or be sure you have a way to project them.


  1. Display the Culture Thinking Map from Week 1. Start by asking students to review the ideas about culture they previously added to the map.

  2. Next, have students get into groups of 3-4.

  3. Remind students to consider how they thought critically about culture during the other activities. Ask them to discuss additional ideas they would now add to the map.

  1. Allow groups to discuss for five minutes. Then, have students share their ideas. Using a different color of marker, add new ideas to the Culture Thinking Map.



  1. Ask students to recall the number of the culture group they were assigned when they created and performed the skit. Have students hold up fingers to indicate which group they were a part of.

  2. Tell students that for the next activity, they will need to create a new group of four students. Their new group should be made up of one member from each of the culture groups. It is OK if some groups have more than four members as long as each culture group is represented. Provide time for students to get into new groups.

  3. Tell students that for the next activity, each of them will represent their assigned culture group. Students should approach the activity from their culture group’s point of view.

  4. Project or pass out the Culture Group Descriptions and remind students about the descriptive lists they created in Activity 2 during Week 2. Provide students a few minutes to review these items.

  5. Explain to students that they will revisit the Example Scenario they used to plan their skits during Week 1. This time, students will participate in a discussion with classmates from each of the different culture groups and answer questions.

  6. Display the following instructions for students to read:

    1. Choose two culture groups. For each one, think about the description, the skit you

      observed, and the descriptive list. What do you think would happen if members of both of these culture groups were in this scenario? Would people from the different groups interact easily and get along well? Would the interaction be difficult, or would anyone get upset?

    2. List areas where you think the interaction might go well and areas where you think communication could be difficult. In your answers, refer to your descriptions of the culture group’s behaviors and characteristics.

    3. Repeat Steps A and B for a different pair of culture groups.

  7. After students read the instructions, answer any questions about the task.

  1. Tell students to write down their responses in their notebooks. Provide student s with at least 20 minutes to work in groups. As they do so, move around the room and observe.

  2. When time is up, gather students’ attention again. Ask learners to reflect on what they discussed and wrote down in their notebooks, thinking specifically about the reasons that intercultural interactions can be successful or challenging. Provide some examples by saying “For instance, in some cultures, direct eye contact is a sign of respect. However, in others, it is a sign of respect to not make eye contact. Or some cultures prefer to speak directly about issues when someone is upset, while others prefer to minimize feelings and maintain relationships. These differences could cause a misunderstanding.”

  3. Givestudents5minutesingroupstogenerateafewreasonsthatinterculturalinteractionsmight succeed or be a challenge. Let students know that they will share their ideas with the class to create a new thinking map.

  4. Writethewords“Factorsthatcanaffectinterculturalinteractions”inacircleinthecenterofa piece of chart paper or on the board. Have each group share the reasons they came up with and add them to the chart paper to create a new thinking map.

  5. Onceallgroupshavesharedtheirideasandallnewideashavebeenaddedtothemap,explainto students that they will use this Intercultural Interactions Thinking Map during the next activity.

In next week’s Teacher’s Corner, students will bring together all of their ideas and reflections in order to think critically about how to successfully approach intercultural interactions. 


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