Teaching British Culture to ESL Students

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

Do you want to get your students interested in learning about British culture? Getting students engaged often depends on the approach and the specific topic you choose, because after all, culture is broad. This lesson explores some options.

Culture is Broad

The advantage of having ESL students in a classroom is that they come from diverse cultures. The first step in teaching British culture is to give your students a simple definition of 'culture,' such as, 'culture is the set of aspects that characterize a country or region.' Then, you can give your students examples of aspects that characterize your culture. For instance, if you are in the U.S., some good examples of American culture is jazz music in New Orleans, the separation of powers in government, art by Georgia O'Keeffe. This way, your students understand that music, government, art, food, and so forth are part of culture. Then, your students can share some examples that illustrate their culture. With this introduction, you can move on to aspects of British culture.

Relevant Aspects of British Culture

While British culture is extremely rich in many aspects, the following are perhaps the most relevant for ESL students just beginning to learn about it.

The Language

It is common for ESL students to be curious about how British English is different from American English. A good approach to illustrate the difference is to first give your students a few examples of specifics in British pronunciation, such as how the British generally drop the 'r' at the end of words like 'water.' This, of course, works great if you can make the two pronunciations yourself. You could also give examples of how the British prefer to use different words for certain things. For example, the British say 'petrol' instead of 'gas,' 'flat' for 'apartment,' and 'plaster' for 'bandage.'

Another good approach is to address the different accents in England. You could begin by telling students about received pronunciation (RP), which is the British English the queen speaks and that we also hear in British news. You could show a short clip from the internet in which the queen speaks or in which a BBC reporter talks. Do not forget to point at the fact there are hundreds of different accents; find clips online that show cockney, Yorkshire, brummie, and other accents.

Note: Do not forget to tell your students that there is no need to stress out if they cannot understand all British accents, as even native speakers have difficulty at times. Your students could try and imitate some accents or word pronunciations as an activity. Alternatively, you might have students research words the British use that are different from their equivalents in the U.S.

The Government

A huge part of England's identity has to do with its government: Parliamentary with a prime minister, while the monarchy still plays a role in state affairs. Information about the British government can easily be found on the official U.K. government website. Teach this information using simple terms and broad concepts that make it easier for students to grasp, such as by explaining what the prime minister does and why the queen is important.

A strong project idea is to have students find pictures of the representatives of government on the internet and make posters featuring these representatives to display outside the class.

And don't forget to tell students about the famous quote, 'Keep Calm and Carry On,' which the British government came up with during Word War II in order to keep the spirits of the people up. Once your students learn a bit of the history behind this quote, ask them if they have seen other versions on T-shirts, posters, etc. It is very likely they have. You can then create a project based on this quote, asking students to come up with their own version of 'Keep Calm and....' The class could vote on the best quote after all students present.

Finally, if your group is mature enough, they could read some 'gossip' about the royal family and discuss it. Tabloid news about the royal family can easily be found online.

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