September 2014
Joe McVeigh, Independent Consultant, Middlebury, Vermont, USA


If we hope to help students gain awareness of cultural differences, we need to be sure that, as teachers, we are aware of how our own culture influences us. Cultural attitudes, belief systems, and values color the way that we look at the world and interact with it. For example, many TESOL members live and work in the United States or were raised in that culture. A few of the values identified as commonly exhibited by those living in the United States include the following:

  • directness and assertiveness
  • cooperation and fair play
  • informality
  • an orientation to action
  • a strong sense of individualism as opposed to group orientation
  • the importance of individual freedom and self-reliance
  • the importance of privacy (Althen & Bennett, 2011; Datesman, Crandall, & Kearney, 2014)

If, as teachers, we are aware of the values that we carry as members of a particular culture, this will be helpful as we try to help others understand cultural differences.

In addition, it can be valuable to express directly to students what types of expectations we have for them in the classroom. What do we mean when we talk about a “good” student? Depending on the context, this might mean making explicit our ideas of what constitutes appropriate classroom behavior. What expectations do we have of silence and interaction? Should a good student volunteer her or his knowledge or wait to be called on? Should a student make eye contact with an authority figure, or is this considered disrespectful? And what is our concept of academic integrity? When is it acceptable to work collaboratively with others, and when must a student's work be done only by that individual? What are the expectations about making clear when ideas have been taken from other sources? As teachers, when we find ourselves in the role of guiding students into a new culture, we need to make the expectations very clear.


Since many younger learners may not have the vocabulary to express sophisticated concepts of culture and identity, visual aids and media can be effective tools. You can surround students with stimuli from the culture you are studying using posters, drawings, photographs, bulletin boards, or realia. If possible, decorate your classroom with items that relate to the culture you are studying. Consider bringing in newspapers, magazines, food, songs, or appropriate clips from TV shows or films.

One key aspect of culture is an awareness of personal identity. You can create an assignment in which you ask young learners to create a collage to represent their personal identities (Wintergerst & McVeigh, 2011). Begin by creating a model of the type of collage that you would like to see students produce. Well in advance of the activity, ask the class to bring in a variety of magazines and newspapers with photographs. Tell students the project is to make a collage that represents their personal identity. They should use information they feel represents who they are, their interests, and their hopes. Point out that they can use photos, bits of text, their own drawing or writing—anything that helps portray how they see themselves. Completed collages can be displayed in the classroom for discussion. With middle school and high school students with relevant skills, consider making digital versions of collages.


One of the most valuable ways to gain intercultural insight is to communicate directly with people of other cultures. Earlier generations of teachers helped students engage directly with those in other cultures through pen pal programs. A teacher would find a collaborator at another school, perhaps in another country, and then the two teachers would connect students with others and have them write back and forth about a variety of topics. We used to do this through the mail with letters and stamps and a 2-week turnaround time. Then e-mail came along, and suddenly communication could take place much faster.

Today’s technologies make the possibilities of interacting directly with those of other cultures much easier. A wonderful example of how this can work is the Global Classroom Project. This group of teachers have classes and interests that span many age groups and disciplines. In the most recent year, more than 400 teachers from 42 countries engaged in more than 17 different projects. The programs use a variety of technology tools, including well-known social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter along with recording programs such as VoiceThread, classroom management systems such as Edmodo, and real-time audio-video communication through Skype or Google Hangouts.

The overall goals of the project include a desire to facilitate global conversations between teachers and students and to build community between diverse groups. The projects span the K–12 age groups. The organizers aim for students to

  • have regular, authentic opportunities to talk, share, learn, and collaborate with their classmates and other students around the world;
  • share a little about their lives, interests, culture, school, and learning with children around the world, exploring what we have in common and what makes us different;
  • develop a stronger sense of identity as individuals and as global citizens;
  • be inspired and motivated to practice their English language skills in authentic, natural, and spontaneous ways;
  • learn and practice new communication, literacy, collaborative, and information and communication technology skills through their direct involvement in global projects as participants and experts.

For these projects to work, participating teachers need to take some time to familiarize themselves with the technology and to be sure that the project is aligned with the goals of their teaching.

One popular project is Mystery Location. In it students communicate with another class in another part of the world; however, the location of the other classroom is concealed. Students need to ask questions and use logical skills to discover the location of the other class. The final piece of the activity involves a Skype session in which the two classes query each other in an attempt to establish their identities and to learn more about their locations and cultures.

Other projects are more traditional in nature, though they make use of electronic resources. These include an Edmodo Pen Pal Project and a Global Digital Scrapbook Project, in which participants work with those in other parts of the world to construct collaborative texts, post original writing, and receive feedback. Other examples of projects include a global filmmaking challenge and, on a less technological note, an exchange of origami cranes with messages of peace.

Of course, individual teachers could set up intercultural communication projects like this on their own, but collaboration provides a number of advantages. First, there is a community of like-minded teachers with whom to share ideas. Second, there is a built-in pool of potential collaborators with whom to team up. Finally, the project ideas are headed up by experienced teachers who have been through the process before and learned from their mistakes. They can point out potential pitfalls and help you avoid them if it is the first time you have engaged in this type of collaboration.


Ultimately, while the immediate goal of our teaching may be to improve students’ language skills and abilities, we hope to do more.

Somewhere in those deep recesses of your mind and emotion you are guided by a sense of mission, of purpose, and of dedication to a profession in which you believe you can make a difference. Your sense of social responsibility directs you to be an agent for change. You’re driven by convictions about what this world should look like, how its people should behave, how its governments should control that behavior, and how its inhabitants should be partners in the stewardship of the planet. (Brown, 2007, p. 512)

By helping young learners engage in intercultural communication with those who are different from them, we can take some solid initial steps toward transforming the world into a more peaceful place for all.


Althen, G., & Bennett, J. (2011). American ways: A cultural guide to the United States (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Intercultural Press.

Brown, H. D. (2007). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy (3rd ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Datesman, M. K., Crandall, J., & Kearny, E. N. (2014). American ways: An introduction to American culture (4th ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Wintergerst, A. C., & McVeigh, J. (2011). Tips for teaching culture: Practical approaches to intercultural communication. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Joe McVeigh is co-author of two books in the Q: Skills for Success series from Oxford University Press and of Tips for Teaching Culture: Practical Approaches to Intercultural Communication from Pearson. He works as an author and independent consultant, speaking at conferences and providing advice to intensive English programs. He is based in Middlebury, Vermont, U.S.A. You can follow him on Twitter @JoeMcVeigh, visit his website:; or email him at: