Category Archives: Cultural Exploration

Communicative Speaking Activity for Foreign Languages: Category Sort

This activity is a very effective way to get students communicating with each other using a specific set of vocabulary that they are familiar with.  This is also a great activity to practice circumlocution.  I typically provide a list of words that students know well and they have the task sorting the words into categories.  Screen Shot 2013-02-17 at 2.05.45 PMI either give a list of words that students list in categories or they cut them out and physically place them in categories.  The first time through, I have them put the words in two categories, then three categories and sometimes up to seven or eight categories.  The objective is to do this using only the target language as the groups or pairs negotiate the categories.  This is why it is best to provide words that are familiar.  This helps to maintain the focus on speaking and communicating the negotiation in the target language and not focusing so much on the meaning of the words.  The great thing about this activity is that there are no right or wrong categories as long as the groups can explain why the words are grouped together.  Here is a WORD document with words to use to practice to do this activity with your students.  The activity is in English, Spanish and French.I have also done this with pictures of well-kn0wn people that are related to the language and culture that we are studying (artists, actors, politicians, authors, etc.).  Screen Shot 2013-02-17 at 1.46.27 PM

Foreign Language Travel Scrapbook Project

Foreign (World) Language Travel Scrapbook Project (French, Spanish) wlteacher.wordpress.comThis is a project that can be done with level 1 students in a foreign language.  It gives them an opportunity to use the vocabulary and structures typically taught in a first year course.

The focus of this project is travel and geography vocabulary.  Once students make the scrapbook of a trip, there are opportunities to use the books to do additional speaking, reading, listening and writing activities.

  • Begin by giving a sheet with directions for creating a travel scrapbook with directions for each page including examples.
  • Then hand out a storyboard for students to do a rough draft of their book.
  • Students then assemble the travel scrapbook.
  • When the books are done, students read their book to the entire class or to a small group.
  • Provide a sheet to those students who are listening so they can fill in information when they are listening to other students in the class read their final book.

A final activity gives  students a chance to use the information that they recorded during the presentations to write sentences about that they heard and saw. You can download complete, ready-to-use versions of these projects here:

Foreign Language Class Group Speaking Project for a Food Unit

Foreign (World) Language Food and Restuarant Project (French, Spanish)

You can download full versions of this project here:

We have the food unit that comes up in our foreign language classes almost every year and every text book has at least one chapter devoted to it.  I  created this group project that has students incorporate everything that they learn during a food and restaurant unit.  Students work in groups to create a sales pitch. They have 5 minutes to present their concept for a restaurant to a group of judges (I use other teachers in the school who can understand this level of the language).  Sometimes I record the presentations and email the videos to faculty members to vote on.  Presentations include ideas for the style and decor, the place setting, uniforms, a menu, a chef, and one prepared specialty of the house for the judges to test.

Foreign (World) Language Food and Restuarant Project (French, Spanish) Foreign (World) Language Food and Restuarant Project (French, Spanish) wlteacher.wordpress.comTo keep it completely proficiency-based, they have visuals to represent decor, menu, restaurant style, uniforms, etc. but they speak in the moment with no notes. The idea is to have them speak completely at their proficiency level without any memorized, prepared language. This is a great way to have them use everything that they learn throughout a food unit, and it’s an effective alternative to skits. I always give students an a a sheet with useful phrases and vocabulary to use during the presentation as well as an in-depth rubric that the judges also use. This is lots of fun and all about proficiency and showing the students what they can do with the language, and the project-based learning aspects are very effective as well.

You can download full versions of this project here:

How do you “teach” culture in a foreign language class?

Let’s begin by looking at quote from Moran:

“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 on a shared set of perspectives on the world, and set within specific social contexts.”

–Patrick R. Moran,  Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice

You can look at this approach to understanding culture through the diagrams below.  Essentially what can be seen and experienced in a culture is highly influenced by the perspectives of the culture, though the perspectives are rarely easily described nor seen.  There is also a dynamic influence of each element on all of the other elements.

How do you "teach" culture in a foreign language class? (French, Spanish) wlteachger.wordpress.comWhen students come across a “new” elements or phenomenon in a culture that is different from their own, encourage them to consider the questions below in an attempt to understand why something may happen the way that it does, rather than passing judgment based on their own cultural lens. This moves them beyond comparing the “foreign” culture to their own.  They will instead come to understand why things are the way they are based on the perspectives of the particular culture.

  • What are the products?
  • What are the practices?
  • Who are the people involved?
  • Which specific communities take part?
  • Why do the people need the product?
  • Why is practice important in a particular community?
  • What people or communities are not involved in a particular practice?
  • What people or communities do not use a particular product?

Many of these concepts are well beyond an adolescent’s comprehension. I have adapted the wording to make it more approachable and age-appropriate:

Teaching Geography with Invisible Maps in the Foreign Language Class

Students remember geography better when they can visualize locations without referring to a map.  One way that students can hone this skill is to have them make “invisible maps” before they look at actual maps.  Basically, the teacher has students take out their invisible maps and hang them up in front of them.  The teacher does the same with her map in the front of the class.  The teacher then stands behind the invisible map and draws on countries, cities, rivers, oceans, streets or landmarks.  As she does this, students draw the locations on their invisible maps as well.

The teacher should draw each location on several times and have students draw several times as well.  As the activity moves on the teacher can simple say the names of the locations and students can draw them on their maps.  At the conclusion of the activity the teacher gives students a blank map with the names of the locations that they had drawn on their invisible maps.  You will soon see how quickly the students are able to match the names to the locations because they are now able to visual the locations in their head and then transfer that knowledge to the actual map that they are working with.

One thing to keep in mind is that the teacher needs to draw the map backwards because she is standing behind the invisible map and facing students so that the locations are in the correct place for students when they mimic the drawing that the teacher is doing.  This takes some practice and I recommend that you photocopy the map on a transparency that you can flip over and reference when you first try this out.

Using Proverbs in the Foreign Language Classroom

Using Proverbs in the Foreign (World) Language Classroom (French, Spanish) wlteacher.wordpress.comProverbs will very often reflect the history and values of a community of people (Ciccarelli, 1996). Since these phrases tend to be short, the vocabulary and sentence structure don’t require a lot of time to understand linguistically. When a new vocabulary list is presented to students, consider providing a few proverbs or idioms that use some of the words and engage a conversation about how the phrase might be important in the target language culture as well as who might use it and in what circumstances. This is also a great opportunity to have students reflect on cultural similarities and differences as they consider whether or not the proverb exists in English, and if not, why?

Here are some proverbs by language for use in the classroom:

Reference: Ciccarelli, A. (1996). Teaching culture through language: Suggestions for the Italian language class. Italica, 73(4), 563-576.

Adding Culture to the Foreign Language Curriculum

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As second language teachers, we know that the culture associated with a language cannot be learned in a few lessons about celebrations, folk songs, or costumes of the area in which the language is spoken.  Culture is a much broader concept that is inherently tied to many of the linguistic concepts taught in second language classes.  Through the study of other languages, students gain a knowledge and understanding of the cultures that use that language; in fact, students cannot truly master the language until they have also mastered the cultural contexts in which the language occurs.

In THIS concise article, Peterson and Coltrane discuss how to teach culture in a way that challenges preconceptions.  They suggest teaching methods that include role play, the use of authentic documents, film, proverbs, and student resources.  This is an article that I read while in graduate school studying Applied Linguistics and the ideas have always guided me in the classroom.

Read the article HERE

Foreign Language Tongue Twisters

Foreign (World)Language Tongue Twisters. (French, Spanish) wlteacher.wordpress.comIf you want students to practice their pronunciation and to have fun while doing it, try out some tongue-twisters.  This is a great way to have students focus on their pronunciation without relying on repetition.  It’s fun to make it into a game and see who can say it the fastest.  Once students get more comfortable with the pronunciation they can begin to make their own tongue-twisters in the target language.  This would be a great opportunity to see if students understand the sound-symbol relationship between letters, letter combinations, or characters.  Very often as well, the content of the tongue-twister is a window into the culture.

Here are some tongue-twisters to get you started:

Rao k’ou ling (Mandarin)

Tongue-Twisters (English)

Virelangues (French)

Zungenbrecher (German)

Scioglilingua (Italian)

Hayakuchi Kotoba (Japanese)

Trava Linguas (Portuguese)

Trabalenguas (Spanish)

Online Spanish Grammar and Culture

There is a great site available through Colby College that gives students an opportunity to practice Spanish grammar structures, everything from regular verb conjugations, to comparisons, through the subjunctive.  This site also has many audio clips, readings, and interactive cultural activities to help students master Spanish grammar concepts and structures.  There are great activities to be done together as a class or given to students individually.

You can see the site HERE.

Using Authentic Documents in the Foreign Language Classroom

Using Authentic Documents in the Foreign (World) Language Classroom (French, Spanish)

The use of authentic documents in the World Language classroom has become more and more important in recent years as teachers are becoming more aware of the importance of exposing students to culture in the classroom.  Here are some ideas concerning the use of authentic documents in the classroom, as opposed to documents created to mimic the culture.

Traditional attempts at understanding difference, particularly cultural difference, have typically focused on institutions, achievements, publications, and well-known public people.This can be most obviously displayed in various “Cultural Notes” or “Culture Capsules” in various foreign language and history textbooks. (Kramsch, Galloway, Moran)

A true understanding of another culture must move beyond what Moran refers to as a Functionalist View, which presents only institutional and assumed collective perspectives of a country or culture.This might include the presentation of cultural “facts” such as “All Quebecers speak French and want to separate from Canada.”By approaching the study of culture from what Moran refers to as a Conflict View, students can come to understand that there are various opinions and perspectives within any culture and these must be understood in order to arrive at a more appropriate, and perhaps empathetic perception of the culture.

The most effective way to provide students with opportunities to understand cultural perspectives from an insider’s point of view is through the use of authentic documents that are created by members of the foreign culture for members of the foreign culture (Galloway,).

The teacher’s guidance through the process of interpreting film clips, commercials, literature, photographs, web sites, and products of the foreign culture will help students to conceptualize it in a way that is not influenced by their native culture. (Kramsch)


Galloway, V. (1992). Toward a cultural reading of authentic texts. In Heusinkveld, P. R. (Ed.), Pathways to Culture. (pp. 255-302). Yartmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Kramsch, C. (1988). The cultural discourse of foreign language textbooks. In Singerman, A. J. (Ed.), Toward a New Integration of Language and Culture, pp. 63-88. Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages

Moran, P. (2001) Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.