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The Impact of Teaching Culture on Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary
Knowledge in Iranian EFL Learners

Saeed Ghaniabadi, Ph.D,
Neda Alavi, MA,
Abstract: The language picture of the world is different for every nation. It
depends on many reasons but the most important of them is culture. Culture
is the way people of any community see the world around them- their way of
thinking, behaving and reacting to the world and to other people. Language
teachers must have knowledge of how learning is shaped by culture. Second
language reading and vocabulary skills are challenging tasks for foreign
language learners. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether
teaching culture in EFL classes and EFL students' knowledge of target culture
influence their understanding of vocabulary and their reading
comprehension. To accomplish this study, a true-experimental design was
employed. It was carried out at Hakim Sabzevari University and Samen
Tarbiat Moallem of Mashhad, Iran, with 2nd grade students at the ELT
department where the participants were homogenously placed in different
groups according to their TOEFL scores. All the participants in this study
were given a pre- and a post- test on vocabulary and reading
comprehension, though the treatment process was used only for one of the
groups (the experimental group). The main finding of this study is that
incorporating cultural aspects of English-speaking countries into teaching
process is essential for improving the students' understanding of the
language and reading comprehension. T-tests determined that the treatment
group, who were exposed to the cultural schemata during the process of
teaching vocabulary and reading, outperformed the other group. The
researcher hopes that the findings of this study will provide insight into the
connection between EFL learners' vocabulary knowledge, reading
comprehension and cultural knowledge.
Key words: Culture, reading comprehension, vocabulary breadth of
knowledge, foreign language teaching



Defining culture is difficult because anthropologists have not agreed upon
its definition. They have multiple answers to the question, “what is culture?”
Each school of thought has a different perceptive of culture.
According to the view of some anthropologists such as Mead (1961),
culture is the patterns of behavior and thinking that people living in social
groups learn, create, and share. Hofstede (1991) defined culture as "…the
collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one
group or category of people from those of another". According to the foreign
language teaching professionals in the United States, there was a
comprehensive set of standards for foreign language education, including
culture standards. Their definition of culture was based on three interrelated
dimensions: products, practices, perspectives (National Standards in Foreign
Language Education Project, 1996). Moran (2001) adds two important
dimensions to the components of culture: persons and communities. He
defines culture based on these five dimensions and believes that culture is
the evolving way of life of a group of persons, consisting of a shared set of
practices associated with a shared set of products, based upon a shared set
of perspectives on the world, and set within specific social contexts (p. 24).

A culture is the way people of any community see the world around them
– their way of thinking, behaving and reacting to the world and to other
people. Culture also shows the life style in the target community. Culture and
teaching language cannot be separated, thus culture must be taught while

Language. According to Bada (2000. language study seems senseless if they know nothing about the people who speak the target language or the country in which the target language is spoken. English learners encounter some difficulties when they tend to learn English as a foreign language. p. Since language and culture are closely interrelated to one another. from community to community. For L2 students. A proper understanding of a language is impossible without a full awareness of the cultural context in which it is used. Culture is a set of rules and behavior pattern of the people who live in a nation. language cannot be separated from the culture in which it is embedded. 101). It is a well-known fact that language teaching and culture are bound and during international communications students require social and cultural awareness.language and culture . as a container and creator of meaning. Sapir (1949). From 1930s.3 teaching a target language. As we know. teaching culture in EFL classrooms has got a crucial role of the course. If we cannot be successful to draw students’ attention into cultural elements. also is an important aspect of culture of each nation and these two aspects . Language is used for expressing and communicating human needs.can never be separated. wants and desires which vary from person to person. “the need for cultural literacy in ELT arises mainly from the fact that most language learners. not exposed to cultural elements of the . and Whorf (1956) urged linguistics to recognize the fact that language was not simply a system of signs to be coded and decoded on paper. According to Chastain (1988). but it was a system concluded from cultural values and norms. it will produce some misconceptions in the students’ minds. the anthropological linguistic works of Hall (1976).

seem to encounter significant hardship in communicating meaning to native speakers”. reading comprehension and vocabulary learning have long been considered as essential skills of their English learning. and each factor in it may be exhibited on words (Zhang Xue-Wei & Yan Ying-Jum. These cultural differences are inevitably exhibited on the vocabulary and we can say in a word. Pulverness (2003) also claimed that due to the undeniable growth of English as an international language. 1980). cultural content as anything other than contextual background was included in language teaching programs. Recent studies focus on the seamless relationship between L2 teaching and target culture teaching. For many university students who study a foreign language as part of their educational requirements. . Cultural mistakes and linguistic misinterpretations can be avoided if the educational system places importance on the cultural literacy and linguistic proficiency (Simon. The dialectical connection between language and culture has always been a concern of L2 teachers and educators.4 society in question. A language does not exist on its own but it is embedded in the culture of a people and reflects the beliefs and thoughts of the speech community. We should know there is a big difference in the connotative meanings of vocabularies in the target language. 2006). especially over the last decade with the writings of scholars such as Byram (1994). culture is a comprehensive composite with abundant implication. and Kramsch (1993). Byram & Morgan (1994). Language is the carrier of culture and vocabulary has been known as the basic ingredient of language.

The cultural background knowledge plays an important role in reading comprehension (Zhang Xue-Wei & Yan Ying-Jum. Review of Literature Reading is defined as the most important academic language skill (Carrell. 2006). 273) also point out the special role of reading comprehension. the cultural background knowledge. p. Richards and Renandya (2002. They believe that there are two reasons for considering reading as the most important skill in language learning. Because words help us to improve reading and since language and culture cannot be broken off. 2001). reading plays a vital role in second language acquisition. cultural instruction for foreign language learners is extremely crucial especially in reading and vocabulary teaching. many foreign language students often have reading . and other specialized knowledge are altogether in effect. 1988a. As stated by Bernhardt (1991). the ability to read is accepted as the most stable and durable of the second language modalities. The present study intends to investigate the impact of teaching cultural information on developing the learners’ reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge among Iranian learners of English as a foreign language. “First. Reading is a process in which the knowledge of language. Grabe & Stoller. In other words.5 Learners of foreign language may rarely find chances to communicate with native speakers orally. but they can read different texts in different subjects with varying degrees of detail and difficulty.

In this point of view. p. then the role of the reader changed and was “. Recent scholarship indicates that reading comprehension is not simply unidirectional information .” Transformational Generative Theory asserts that reading comprehension begins at the smallest and simplest language units and each single word. reading has started to be described as interactive rather than simply being active. and texts. 22).. teaching reading becomes teaching of language points known as grammar and vocabulary. if comprehension does not go on successfully.receiving activity or only an activity of comprehending words. Accordingly. Reading was accepted as a passive skill in early accounts. they are told that they fail because of their poor grammar or limited vocabulary. In that case. sentences. 2001. reading is simply decoding. reading comprehension is realized.. Reading comprehension is the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language. Lately.6 as one of their most important goals”. Wallace defines the bottom-up model reader as passive. . sentence and passage carries its own meaning independently which has no direct link with the reader. When decoding ends. This theory highlights the influence caused by language structure more than the reader’s own influence. When students have problems in comprehending the text. it is the reading material that causes the problem grammatically or lexically. “Second. various pedagogical purposes served by written texts help reading to receive this special focus.typically described as ‘extracting’ meaning from a text” (Wallace.

finding clues. scanning. predicting. activating background knowledge. Rumelhart (1977) proposes an interactive model as a model in which both the letter features or data-driven sensory information and non-sensory information come together in one place. reading is not viewed simply as either a “bottom-up” or a “top-down” process. The top-down model includes skimming. surface meaning. Experience teaches us. Contrary to bottom-up models. In this model it is evident that the flow of information proceeds from the top downward so that the process of word identification is dependent upon meaning first. Laufer (1998) argues that guessing . Carrell (1991) believes that bottom-up processing mainly stresses on literal comprehension. 2002). In this model. translation into L1 and use of dictionary which have specified this model as “data driven”. calling for the application and integration of all the previously identified knowledge sources. but instead as a synthesizing of patterns. language would be reduced to mere gestures and symbols. Without words. contextual guessing. The criticism against bottom-up and top-down models led the theorists to develop a new approach: the interactive model. and different studies confirm the indispensable role that words play in human communication. in top-down models the reader is expected to bring her background knowledge to the text. thinking of the author’s main idea. and interactive model reader as interactive.7 the top-down model reader as active. and associating image which have specified this model as “conceptually driven”(Grabe and Stoller.

prior experience. They believed that culture and language are interrelated and language is used as the main medium through which culture is expressed. They claim that speakers cannot assign any meaning to words in isolation. especially one from the native culture. 18). meaning emerges from the connection between words in context. Not only is it important for the learner to have the background knowledge to read more efficiently and understand the meaning of words appropriately.). Many English teachers ask a question: Is it really important to teach British. They also agreed that bringing cultural studies of English speaking countries closer to students will help them to better understand the language. From their views. 1993). American or English speaking countries’ culture? Does it really help students understand the language better? Tavares and Cavalcanti (1996) answered these questions. They pointed out that “culture is not only present in the classroom setting but also in the language that is being taught” (p. its background and usage (ibid. L2 readers might more easily activate the appropriate background concepts and hence more efficiently process the text. 2001). When reading a story with a familiar theme. But changes in linguistic and learning theory suggest that culture should be highlighted as an . 1999). Culture is often neglected in EFL and ESL learning/ teaching. Culture and language learning involve a dynamic relationship between the situation and the actors in which cultural context. Many authors have discussed the importance of context (Nation. but that knowledge also needs to be activated. and other factors come into play (Street. Linguistic competence alone is not enough for learners of a language to be competent in that language (Krasner.8 the meaning of words is not possible unless one knows at least about 95% of the neighboring words.

From this point of view. Schema theorists also propose culture as key to language learning. Sociolinguistic theory focuses on the social and cultural aspects of language. 213) summarizes the goals of culture teaching in five categories:  Cultural awareness. knowledge about differences in the way of life and an . learning about culture changes a person from a ‘naïve individual’ into one who understands the ways in which he is shaped by cultural forces. successful language learners should know the culture that underlies the language. including geographical knowledge. According to cultivation theory. In a sociolinguistic perspective. Thus.9 important element in language classrooms. p. Schema theorists think about the concept of culture from the cognitive point of view whereas sociolinguists think about it from a social point of view. Ideas originating in sociolinguistic theory and schema learning theory forced experts to try to find a link between culture and language learning. competence in language classes is determined not only by the ability to use language with accurate grammar. Valeete (as cited in Stern. knowledge about the contributions of the target culture to world civilization. 1992. In addition to these two theories. but also to use language appropriate to particular contexts. culture effects changes in individual perception and is vital for expanding an individual’s perspective of the world. When the main aim of foreign language teaching is to develop students’ ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in various situations. the teaching of culture should facilitate intercultural communication and understanding. cultivation theory also provides a rationale for addressing culture in a foreign language classroom.

10 understanding of values and attitudes in the second language    community. “knowledge about the target culture.e. unreal. this community may provide the first step on a long journey of cultural discovery that will end improvement in the world outside the classroom. 212-215) also stresses on the cognitive aspect of culture teaching. bestowing less severe punishment for the commission of linguistic and cultural errors that could be met outside its walls.. awareness of its characteristics and differences between the target culture` and the learner’s own culture”.e. requiring the interpretation of  the target culture and the learner’s own culture. i. including unfamiliar conventions. the classroom draws a culturally protective wall around those within. polite behavior. i. forgiving. If administered well. “interest. they can be divided into two: those which focus only (or mostly) on the culture of the country whose language is studied (the mono-cultural approach) and . They can be classified in different ways. Analysis of the target culture. Command of etiquette. 2) The classroom community is managed. i. and protective. In the history of the teaching of culture different approaches can be noticed. intellectual curiosity. In very broad terms. p. and empathy”. but it is also an environment that provides unique opportunities for experimental intercultural communication.e. and affective goals of culture teaching. Damen (1997) also posited that learning culture in the classroom provides two distinct advantages: 1) As an artificial community. Understanding daily life. Understanding the cultural values. Stern (1992.

health. it tries to show the relationships and values in a given culture and. According to McLean (1994. It deals with key elements of current British life. such as class. 135). liberty. and education. love. a “topic-based approach can provide an indirect but original encounter with British life and culture. for example. honor. which are seen as typical of a culture. The theme-based or thematic approach to the teaching of culture is based around certain themes. patriotism. privatization. and the land affect the thought . value. religion. p. it is important that the teaching of culture “never loses sight of the individual” (Brooks as cited in Seelye 1993.11 those which are based on comparing learners’ own and the other culture (the comparative approach). p. symbolism. helps learners to understand it better. Though this approach is mono-cultural by nature. not in isolation but within a series of unifying contexts”. there are a number of approaches that are centered on various aspects of a given culture or concentrate on developing certain skills in learners. The following approaches concentrate on both giving knowledge and understanding of the country’s culture and encourage students to compare it with their own. In addition to the above-discussed approaches. language. 80). ceremony. therefore. No matter what approach is used. Seelye (1993) also goes on to say that firstly the focus should be on “how societal values. institutions. The topic-based approach concentrates on more general and crosssectional topics which involve various cultural issues. education.

Research question To achieve the research objectives outlined above. the following research questions should be considered: 1. Here are some strategies and techniques for introducing cultural elements while teaching a language in the classroom. Strategies that allow students to do cross-cultural analysis. and Strategies that afford students opportunities to culturally conditioned behavior.12 and lifestyle of someone living in the culture we are studying. there are several strategies of which teachers may profit. 135136). poems. grammar. speaking. Lafayette (1976) suggested some specific activities for integrating culture and the teaching of vocabulary. a very useful way of teaching culture is through textbooks and readings which provide learners with the knowledge about the foreign culture. According to Rivers (1981). He also indicated that teaching strategies should fall into one of the four main typologies:     Strategies for information and understanding. comparison of one’s own and the other culture is also important (p. Short stories. scenes from plays.” Secondly. reading and writing. Is there any relationship between EFL learners’ ability to comprehend reading texts and their cultural knowledge taught in their language class? . and articles from leading newspapers and magazines have been treated as wonderful contents for classroom instruction that they all can be adapted in a course book. Choosing to use effective and practical techniques to teach culture and bring cultural facts into foreign language classroom is also very important. In teaching language and culture to students. listening comprehension. Strategies for teaching students to behave appropriately in the target culture.

in order to show the relationship between variables which have been selected. The technique of research used in this study was quantitative. were the first participants of the real study from whom the researcher selected 65 according their TOEFL scores – 30 participants from Sabzevar University and 35 participants from . About eighty undergraduate EFL learners.and two dependent variables including reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge of EFL learners. educating at Hakim Sabzevari University and Samen Tarbiat Moallem center of Mashhad. Does culture teaching bring about any variation in foreign language learners’ understanding of English vocabulary? Research Design The present study formed with one independent variable . Method Participants The study had two separate groups of participants: (1) pilot study’s participants by whom the researcher could check the reliability and validity of the culture proficiency test. and (2) real study’s participants. The participants of the pilot study were twenty upper-intermediate students who were studying English as a foreign language in Sabzevar Shokouh Institute. Therefore.culture teaching . the true experimental design was used. male and female. aging between twenty to twenty four years old.13 3.

14 Samen Center. Four reading passages about Christmas. the researcher only selected the reading section of this TOEFL test including 45 questions. Thanksgiving Day. Procedure . and English-American daily behaviors and customs were also given to the participants of both the control and experimental groups. Materials The researcher used two TOEFL tests for this study. a TOEFL test (2001) was selected as a concurrent test to check the validity of the culture proficiency test. Secondly. Then the researcher randomly selected each group as the experimental group (Sabzevar University) and control group (Samen center). The researcher constructed a cultural proficiency test including 50 questions used as the pre. This TOEFL test consisted of only these two sections: structure and written section (20 questions) and vocabulary and reading comprehension section (including 20 vocabulary questions and two reading passages. a sample test of TOEFL (2007) was given to find out whether the participants were homogeneous or not. Since the culture proficiency test (pre-test/ post-test) has been constructed from two reading passages and some questions on vocabulary knowledge. Halloween. Firstly.and post-test for this study. each with 20 questions).

(35 students from Samen Tarbiat Moallem Center and 30 students from Hakim Sabzevari University were selected). The researcher taught these topics for four sessions. superstitions. all 80 participants completed the TOEFL test. sixty-five participants were selected based on their TOEFL test scores. one session per a week. the researcher took a pre-test for both the participants of the control and experimental group. In the treatment phases of the study. Results and findings . In the second phase of the study. the students of the experimental group were guided and informed about the American idioms. Then the researcher gave a post-test to the students of both the experimental and control group.15 In the first phase of the study. their holiday customs. and finding some information about an American cultural topic to discuss inside the class. the subjects’ performances on the tests (pre. asking the participants to compare the Iranian’s culture with the American’s.and post-test) were scored and the researcher used t-test as a proper statistic formula to show the effect of teaching culture (culture of English speaking countries) on vocabulary gain and reading comprehension. After gathering the data and in order to check the null hypotheses. and their daily behaviors. Among all 80 students.

M = Mean. Results of the pre-test The major question addressed in this study was whether teaching culture would improve Iranian EFL learners’ vocabulary learning and their reading comprehension at the upper-intermediate level of language proficiency.12 Note. Table 1.e.16 The results of pre. the researcher administered a researcher. The descriptive data and ttest results appear in Table 1 and Table 2.and post-tests were statistically analyzed to compare the means obtained by the two groups to determine the effect of the treatment.09 E1b 6 29 18. SD = Standard deviation. Independent t-test for Pre-tests Mean Std. Characteristics of Culture Proficiency Pre-test Group Min Max M SD C1a 6 30 18.made culture proficiency pretest to experimental and control groups in order to compare the two groups’ means obtained from the pretest. culture instruction). Error . b n = 30. Before the implementation of treatment (i. To capture the initial differences between the two groups’ means on pre-test.14 7.60 7. E1 = Experimental group pretest. a t-test was applied. a n = 35. C1 = Control group pre-test. Table 2..

The comparison of pre-test scores of the control group (M = 18. E1= Experimental group pre-test.457 difference 1.926 E2. ns. M = Mean.23 3.77 3.R = Control group post-test (reading section). Characteristics of Culture Proficiency Post-test Group Min Max M SD C2. Results of the post-test For the purpose of finding the discrepancies between the experimental and control groups on both reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge. SD = 7. C2. E2. Table 3.09) and the experimental group (M = 18.93 5.799 t df p (value) 0.12) revealed no significant differences between the two groups. 798 > .05 is significant. The results of pre-tests were supposed to be compared with those of post-tests to measure the progress of the students in both groups to determine the impact of culture instruction on the improvement of the vocabulary knowledge and reading skill of the participants. SD = 7. C1= Control group pre-test. E2. C2.798 Note.80 4. b n = 30.60. df = Degrees of freedom.Ra 2 17 9. SD = Standard deviation.R= Experimental group post-test (reading section).Rb 4 19 9.Va 3 16 9.V = Experimental group post-test (vocabulary section).213 C2.257. P < .14. .843 E2.139 Note. t (63) = .Vb 4 21 9.17 difference Pair 1 C1-E1 -0. a n = 35.V = Control group post-test (vocabulary section). descriptive statistics were carried out whose results are provided in Table 3.05. p (value) = .257 63 0.

Error t df p (value) difference Equal Variances 2. p = .880 2.E2. Table 5.008* assumed Note. Thus.738. Similar analysis was carried out on the scores of both groups to determine the usefulness of teaching culture in the students’ breadth of vocabulary knowledge.18 However.R = Control reading post-test. That is. was significantly higher than that of the control group.R = Experimental reading post-test.05 is significant.410 0. another t-test was carried out.008 as a whole. The mean score of the experimental group.R Mean Std. T-test for Post-tests in the Experimental and Control Group (Vocabulary Section) . T-test for Post-tests in the Experimental and Control Group (Reading Section) Pair C2. *p < . df = Degrees of freedom. the participants who had instruction on how to use target culture to read different texts drew more inferences than those who only read them with no treatment.R. t (63) = 2. The results are shown in Table 5. the question of the current study is whether the improvement in the participants’ reading comprehension performance of the experimental group in the post-test is a result of the treatment or not.. C2.738 63 0. in spite of the fact that both the experimental and control groups had similar levels of English proficiency. which received the treatment for utilizing cultural knowledge in reading comprehension. an independent t-test was employed and this time the post-tests of both groups were compared to obtain statistically the evidence required to test the first null hypothesis. To determine the difference in control and experimental groups’ performance on vocabulary knowledge. E2. The results appear in Table Table 4.

novels. In doing so.R = Experimental vocabulary post-test.19 Pair C2.022 < .Error Difference 2. the better the short stories. p = . The results of the research suggested that the better performance of the learners in the experimental group indicated the effectiveness of culture teaching.05 is significant. C2. t (63) = 2. Conclusion The purpose of this study was to investigate the effectiveness of culture instruction on the vocabulary knowledge and reading skill of Iranian EFL learners. . In the ideal foreign language classroom the teaching of culture should be an integral and systematic component.V – E2.954 t df 2.351 63 p (value) 0. The more cultural knowledge the teachers use and teach in L2 classes.351. the experimental group outperformed the control participants after using these cultural subjects for teaching process.R = Control vocabulary post-test. the learners were given opportunity to learn about culture in their language class.022* assumed Note. That is. pointing to the fact that the using cultural points and activities as a new concept of English teaching process for EFL learners resulted in improved performance of the learners’ vocabulary ability. *p <. E2.05.V Equal Variances Mean Std. and reading texts are comprehended by foreign language learners.243 0. These findings also confirmed that there was a meaningful relationship between teaching culture and L2 readers’ comprehension of texts unlike what was mentioned in the first null hypothesis of the study. The above table reveals that the experimental group performed significantly better than the control group. df = Degrees of freedom.

Chastain. Textbooks also can serve as one of the decisive factors in culture learning. and also implementing a completely culture-based curriculum. These factors have an impact on the success and failure of culture teaching in language classrooms. appropriate attention could be allocated to the teaching of culture to students learning a second or foreign language. .g. 1988. p. For example. Once cultural competence is recognized as important as linguistic competence. 1981. the attitudes of learners towards foreign language. Damen (1997. Overall. 5) indicates that teachers as cultural guides and their correct cultural knowledge plays the most important role in language classes.20 Developing a culture-based approach for teaching will be dependent upon many factors such as teachers’ cultural knowledge. Carrell. natural setting for teaching or classroom setting. 1987. The findings of this study verified the importance of teaching culture as an effective way to achieve a good reading comprehension and to have vocabulary breadth of knowledge. 2006). Wandel (2003) suggested that textbooks should contain materials allowing and provoking diverging opinions and discussions on cultural issues. Johnson. the main findings of this study are consistent with the suggestions from previous research that there is a positive relationship between students’ knowledge of target words and their reading comprehension (e. and Al-Issa.

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