April 2020
TESOL HOME Convention Jobs Book Store TESOL Community


Tabitha Kidwell, American University, Washington, DC, USA

As TESOL professionals, we have the great responsibility to prepare our students for interactions with people unlike themselves. We help students develop the competencies necessary to travel and study internationally, share and access information, and integrate within new communities. Students’ success requires both linguistic and cultural competence, yet, in many contexts, the TESOL curriculum prioritizes linguistic objectives over cultural ones (Young & Sachdev, 2011). If teachers focus only on grammar, vocabulary, and structure, we miss a valuable opportunity. By also addressing cultural objectives, we can help our students develop intercultural competence: the ability to understand, respect, and establish relationships with people from different cultures (Byram & Wagner, 2018). Cultural content is not simply an “add-on,” however. It can be integrated within each lesson, even if the curriculum focuses primarily on linguistic features. This article describes an activity that allows students to build language skills while thinking critically about cultural similarities and differences.

Class Activity: English Proverbs

In this activity, students discuss proverbs, popular sayings that hold great communicative power and cultural significance. See Table 1 for a listing of some common English-language proverbs, as well as an explanation of each proverb in plain language. Sharing proverbs with students is a great way to help them understand the concept of figurative language, where meaning is alluded to rather than directly stated. Teachers often share proverbs with students when relevant vocabulary comes up, or as a motivator at the beginning of class. In this activity, students work together to unpack the meaning and cultural load of well-known proverbs.

Table 1. Common English Language Proverbs



Don't judge a book by its cover.

Don’t make assumptions by someone’s/something’s appearance.

Actions speak louder than words.

What you do is more important than what you say.

Money does not grow on trees.

You must work for what you have or want.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

If you eat healthily you will not have health problems.

The best things in life are free.

Appreciate your friends and family, what you already have.

Better late than never.

It is better to be late than to give up altogether.

Rome wasn't built in a day.

Great things take time.

Variety is the spice of life.

Diversity makes things interesting.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

You can’t force anyone to do something against their will.

Birds of a feather flock together.

Similar people are likely to be friends.

Don't bite off more than you can chew.

Don’t start a project you won’t be able to complete.

The grass is always greener on the other side.

You always want what you can’t have.

A leopard cannot change its spots.

A person can’t change their character.

You can't teach an old dog new tricks.

It’s difficult to change someone’s habits.

Where there's smoke, there's fire.

If it looks bad, it probably is.

To prepare, create cards listing either a proverb or its explanation. Think about your students’ prior knowledge, and preteach any vocabulary from the proverbs that will be unfamiliar to them. Model the activity by displaying two or three sets of proverbs and explanations on the board and matching them as a class. Then, distribute a card to each student and ask them to find the person whose card matches their own. In other words, they should match the proverb with its meaning. Once each student has found their partner, give them a few minutes to discuss their proverbs together. To support their discussions, you could display one or more discussion questions, such as:

  1. Are there any similar proverbs in other languages you know?
  2. Do you agree with this proverb?
  3. In what situations could this proverb be used?
  4. Who do you think would say this proverb?
  5. What cultural beliefs are hidden in this proverb?
  6. Do those cultural beliefs match those of your cultural communities?

After partners have had time to discuss their proverbs, ask each group to share with the class. Lead a class discussion about the meaning and significance of the proverbs.

You can build on this activity in many ways. For example, you could ask students to move to one side of the room to show if they agree with the proverb, or to the other side of the room if they disagree, then discuss their responses. You could give students texts describing a dilemma, and ask them to supply the proverb that would be appropriate advice in response to that situation. You could also ask students to write a story that has a certain proverb as its moral. Once students are familiar with these proverbs, you can even use the proverb/explanation cards to pair students randomly.

This activity has a number of beneficial outcomes. It offers an authentic and engaging context for students to engage in discussions with each other. Students will develop the ability to use figurative language communicatively, and they will also build awareness of the cultural information that is hidden in common sayings. If you have a diverse and multicultural class, students will be exposed to proverbs from other cultures and will have the chance to identify similarities and differences within their communities. This activity offers an example of how TESOL professionals can integrate cultural content within rich language practice activities. Doing so allows them to diversify the TESOL curriculum and help students develop both the linguistic and cultural competencies necessary for successful communication and connection across lines of difference.


Byram, M., & Wagner, M. (2018). Making a difference: Language teaching for intercultural and international dialogue. Foreign Language Annals, 51, 140–151. http://doi.org/10.1111/flan.12319

Young, T. J., & Sachdev, I. (2011). Intercultural communicative competence: Exploring English language teachers’ beliefs and practices. Language Awareness, 20(2), 81–98. http://doi.org/10.1080/09658416.2010.540328

Tabitha Kidwell is a language teacher and teacher educator interested in the role of culture in language teaching. She is a faculty member in the TESOL program at American University, and has taught languages and trained teachers on five continents.
« Previous Newsletter Home Print Article Next »
Post a CommentView Comments
 Rate This Article
Share LinkedIn Twitter Facebook
In This Issue
Search Back Issues
Forward to a Friend
Print Issue
RSS Feed