The Role of Cultural Identity in

Classroom Participation
Melissa Smith, M.A.

Exploring issues involved in using communicative methods in
traditional classrooms.
Working with a monolingual group of students from a
non-Western culture poses a unique set of challenges for
English teachers, whether they are working in English as
a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign
Language (EFL) contexts. By far one of the greatest challenges comes when students are asked to participate in
a communicative task which requires them to interact
and cooperate with their classmates. In any language
class, but especially in those made up of a monolingual
group from a non-Western culture, students often seem
reluctant to participate orally in classroom settings.
While students’ lack of proficiency or the temptation to use their native language may feed this reticence,
culture and ethnicity also play an important role in students’ unwillingness to participate. The degree to which
culture plays a role may depend partially upon students’
individual learning and interaction styles. However, the
differences between students’ cultural backgrounds and
their Western teacher’s expectations may have a significant effect upon classroom participation. This article
examines some of these differences and suggests means
of accommodating them.

Differences in Educational Practices
One of the most prominent differences lies in the
area of teaching styles. Current trends in English language teaching adhere to many of the principles of
Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) theory.
Included in these principles are learner-centered teaching, task-based and content-centered approaches, cooperative and interactive learning, and whole language
education (Brown). Students who are accustomed to
educational practices widely different from CLT may
experience an uncomfortable dichotomy between their
expectations and what in actuality occurs in their language classrooms.
Flowerdew and Miller studied the possible effects
that a Western teaching style may have upon students
Teacher’s Edition

from non-Western cultures. They examined the reactions of Hong Kong university students to lecturers
from native English-speaking countries. Since the style
of teaching in Hong Kong is teacher-centered, what the
university students in their study expected from their
lecturers was a teacher-centered classroom. What many
of the lecturers hoped for was participation on the part
of the students. What the lecturers soon discovered was
that the Hong Kong students did not perform well in
this situation. In fact, one of the lecturers observed,
“They are not accustomed to participating in lectures.
They feel quite threatened when they have to do so”(p.
363). Obviously, then, different teaching styles require
different levels and types of participation (or non-participation) from students. Moreover, learners accustomed to one style may be overwhelmed by another.
Another difference is rooted in the Confucian ideal
of respect toward one’s teacher. As Flowerdew and
Miller explain, “For Confucius, one’s teacher is on par
with one’s father in terms of the loyalty and deference
that one is expected to show”(p.357). As a result,while
original and independent thought are often valued in
American classrooms, the students in the Hong Kong
study were reticent to give their opinions in class, since
this would be seen as showing disrespect to their teachers. Instead of questioning or evaluating what was
being presented to them in class, these learners were
accustomed to an educational setting in which they
were expected to “learn the right answer and to regurgitate [it]” (p. 364). To do otherwise would be to question the authority of their teachers.
Hahn also studied this attitude of respect for one’s
teacher (p. 16). She interviewed six international graduate students at the University of Illinois and had them
compare their American classrooms to classrooms in
their countries. The Korean subjects in her study
described the learning situation in their country as passive, and they explained that students only initiate discourse when they have an indisputably wise comment

— 28 —

March 2001

” Understandably. discrepancies between learners’ expectations and what occurs in the classroom also play a significant role in their level of comfort in classroom discourse. dispel the myth that CLT language classes are all fun and games. As a result. It is not virtuous to disagree with your teacher.” Thus. In order to meet this challenge. 358). rather than implementing immediate and radical changes. However. learners should not appear to be better than their classmates. teachers can then introduce more and different ideas. Students’learning styles or lack of language proficiency may work to shape their ways of interacting or participating in class. You have to obey your leader. A second suggestion is to approach teaching methodology as a dynamic rather than a static entity. other cultures see such behavior as highly disrespectful. display an active interest in the learning contexts from which students come. First. while American culture often allows students to question teachers and voice opinions. In some cultures.instructors are afforded a chance to explain their own approaches and give a rationale for choosing one method over another. 10).“You’re not supposed to say anything. Both perspectives may serve to discourage language learners from participating in EFL classrooms. From another perspective. Another difference between American classrooms and those of other cultures is the issue of “face. At first.instructors can gradually move their students along the continuum. they have not been unsuccessful in their attempts to learn English through methods other than CLT. then. they can attempt to include principles of CLT within methods currently accepted and used in the cultures from which their students come. As learners grow accustomed to these small changes. students’ fears of not being able to express their ideas in a comprehensible manner may hinder them from participating in classroom discourse. The goal of such a dynamic approach to methodology is to find a middle point. a fear of “losing face” may hinder learners from making oral contributions to class discussions. teachers may want to take the following steps. Clearly. who is like a king or queen. One of the Korean students that Hahn interviewed. Teachers may find it helpful to view approaches to teaching on a continuum. for example. according to what is feasible and most beneficial for students. The challenge. One such benefit is an exposure to a variety of approaches to language learning. then. As students share their language learning experiences. One subject said. taking an interest in students’ learning backgrounds has a number of benefits. then. Third. In this way. When instructors incorporate new techniques and approaches into lesson plans. and this exposure may in turn result in an appropriate respect for such methods.” and as a result complain that CLT classes are an entertaining diversion but educationally add to classroom lectures.described her efforts to participate in her classes in this way:“I feel like a loser” (p. teachers are modeling the same openness they expect from their students. they can expect the same reception that they have displayed toward their students’ ideas. with methods prevalent in their students’ cultures on one end and CLT on the other. Finally. They describe the situation in this way:“[I]f students ask or answer a question. by showing an interest in students’ learning experiences. EFL learners often seem to be motivated by a fear of “not learning anything. the teacher. For students from countries where a great deal of emphasis is placed upon examinations and regurgitating information. a first step is to ensure that communicative and cooperative activities do in actuality — 29 — March 2001 . they will be seen by their peers as ‘showing off’ and will become ‘an outcast’” (p. Accommodating the Differences What is clear from the above discussion is that learners’ cultural backgrounds have an effect upon their attitudes toward classroom participation. students can be guilty of losing face either by producing unintelligible utterances or by appearing too proficient in their responses. Further questioning of both this student and the five others revealed that apprehension about being unintelligible to their teachers as well as their classmates played a role in their attitudes toward participating in class. A second benefit is the opportunity for teachers to justify CLT or other techniques that they make use of in the classroom. Why would teachers Teacher’s Edition want to learn about methods and approaches to EFL when they may feel unable to justify their worth? Nonetheless. other teaching methods deserve respect. the fear of not learning is an understandable one. As many students’ proficiency testifies. the issue of “face” may exercise control over students’ willingness to participate. Flowerdew and Miller explain that according to the Confucian ideal. for language teachers is to demonstrate that learning can be both entertaining and effective. In order to reconcile these differences.

“On the Notion of Culture in L2 Lectures. Or in a speaking class.Alatis. In this way.TESOL. a comparison between pre.or video-taped before the course begins.D.have educational value and language improvement purposes. learners could be audio. where she taught from 1993-1997. J. Teaching By Principles. This is accomplished when instructors design syllabuses with goals to be reached throughout a semester. Ball State University) is currently working on a Ph.. and why.” In Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1994. Ed.” TESOL Quarterly 29. ❖❖❖❖❖ Melissa Smith (M.. she served as the ELI Curriculum Director for China. Once goals and objectives are mapped out.A. L. learners in a writing class could be asked to produce an essay at the beginning of a semester which could then be compared to one written at the end. 1994. and they may also want to give rationales either prior to or following class activities. J. He found that students’ attitudes toward traditional methods were neither more positive nor more negative than their attitudes toward the Natural Approach. In addition to understanding purposes and rationales. Instead. – Anatole France References Brown. 345-373. In this case. 1996.E. how.” This is exactly the attitude that teachers should not have toward discrepancies learners may find between their own practices and those of their teachers. and when they create lesson plans with objectives in mind for each activity. n An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory. Hahn.” Paper presented at the 10th Annual International Conference on Pragmatics and Language Learning in Urbana.D. or even how much you know. Illinois. It’s being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t. 1995. Miller. 1994. Teacher’s Edition — 30 — March 2001 . students may need some tangible evidence that fun activities serve to improve their language proficiency. Previously. “The Challenge of Oral Participation in American Classroom Discourse: International Graduate Students’ Perspectives and Experiences. ❖❖❖❖❖ Conclusion Krashen describes a study that asked students to compare traditional methods with a more current one. Teachers can explain long-term goals at the beginning of each semester. in Educational Psychology from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. pp. H. What students need is a teacher who models an ability to adjust to such differences. S. Flowerdew. March. He responded to these findings by writing:“[T]hese students may feel anxiety over the lack of traditional techniques because they have incorrect personal theories of language acquisition. the Natural Approach. and L.and post-test performance may be helpful. and then they could compare these tapes with ones made near the end of the course. Prentice-Hall. “The Pleasure Hypothesis. For example. Georgetown University Press. students are made aware of what is being taught. Such comparisons will help students to measure their own progess and may open their eyes to the fact that as their overall proficiency develops so will individual skills necessary for performance on exams. Krashen. instructors should recognize that these differences may be rooted in students’ cultural identities. these should then be communicated to students.