Teaching a British Culture Course
Teacher’s Edition — 16 — September 2004
How one teacher adapted the official curriculum to better meet the
linguistic and cultural needs of her students.
according to Gail Robinson, an American researcher, is
supposed to cover three main elements which can be
specified as products (literature, folklore, art,music, artifacts),
ideas (beliefs, values, institutions), and behaviors
(customs, habits, dress, foods, leisure).
From a sociolinguistic perspective, this shows that if
an English program aims only to provide students with
knowledge about a host country and its people, it will
not be satisfactory. A more important goal that needs to
be achieved is to develop in students a cultural understanding
about the social life necessary for effective
The importance of cultural dimensions in language
teaching and learning has also been pointed out by
many other authors, including Wajnryb and Wegmann et
al. Wajnryb confirms that the connection between language
and culture is deeply embedded in linguistic and
social aspects of communication; therefore, people tend
to be less tolerant of cultural ignorance when a learner’s
language reaches intermediate and above standards (p.
1). As a result, questions such as “Are you married?” or
“Why don’t you have any children?”are considered rude,
especially when they come from a second- or third-year
English major student.
In addition, students in teacher training colleges will
have to deal with cultural aspects commonly found in
Vietnamese high school English textbooks. Therefore,
they need to learn both “achievement culture”and “behavior
culture.” Consequently, there needs to be a more logical
proportion of these in the British Life syllabus.
In the MOET curriculum, a topic-based syllabus has
been designed for British Life. It specifies 11 topics to
be taught over the 60 periods, with British Life I covering
the state and politics (30 periods), and British Life II
covering culture, society, and education (30 periods).
The topics are (pp. 48, 50):
British Life I: State and Politics
(1) Snapshot of Britain
(2) System of government
(3) Government and politics
(4) Forces of law and order
(5) Local government
(6) Working Britain
British Life II: Culture, Society, and Education
(1) Social profile
(2) Culture and style
This syllabus seems to be taken mostly directly from
Britain in Close-up (McDowall), so each chapter specifies
issues to be covered. An example:
Chapter 3: Culture and style
• Community and the individual
• Dress codes
• Nostalgia and modernity
• Culture of sport
The syllabus proposed by MOET has several problems.
First, there is a great emphasis on government and
political issues—four topics of 11 (chapters 2-5 in
McDowall). This results in a lack of information about
other interesting issues from British daily life, such as
food and drink, holidays, or other issues which a high
school English teacher must deal with in her teaching.
Also, the focus on this kind of information may make it
hard for teachers to give detailed explanations about
certain issues, such as the legal systems in different parts
of the U.K., as specified in the syllabus.
In addition, even when students understand the
information in the book, they find it hard to remember
because it is not very relevant to their needs as future
teachers of English. Therefore, lessons may be carried
out with difficulty and end in disappointment.
At present, different textbooks on Great Britain can
be found in Vietnamese bookshops. Among them are
Life in Britain (Brookes and Fraenkel), Spotlight on
Britain (Sheerin et al), Britain Explored (Harvey and
Jones), and Focus on Britain Today (Lavery). Even
though each book has its own advantages and disadvantages,
Britain in Close-up (McDowall) and Faces of
Britain (Laird), the two books recommended by MOET,
seem less desirable than the others in several respects.
The main limitations of Britain in Close-up
(McDowall) have been discussed above—the overemphasis
on knowledge about the government and political
issues. Faces of Britain (Laird) consists of five
Teacher’s Edition — 17 — September 2004
chapters with stories that help learners understand
more about the following specific issues:
Who are the British?
At work in the city
At work in the country
This book does provide information about these topics
in the form of light readings, but the focus is still on
knowledge about Britain and British people, rather than
their cultural behavior. This book is also designed as a
textbook for reading comprehension, with each text followed
by exercises, half of which are skimming and
scanning and half of which focus on grammar or vocabulary.
Faces of Britain is, therefore, neither as informative
as other similar books, nor as interesting as other
materials in developing cultural awareness.
All this suggests that the two recommended
textbooks may not be the best choice for teaching
The teaching methodology for British Life is also
specified in the MOET curriculum (p. 49):
...the subject, focused on transferring knowledge and
training language skills, is taught in English. Lessons
can be organized in small classrooms or in an auditorium
for two or three classes together. It is essential,
however, to have seminars in which students have
opportunities to discuss in English the knowledge
learned under the teacher’s guidance.
This methodology guideline is interpreted in different
ways at different colleges. In some places, the
teacher tends to lecture about the text, which results in
the teacher doing almost all the hard work. In other
places, the teacher chooses not to give lectures because
it would be more difficult and not very beneficial for students.
Therefore, teachers often treat this subject like a
reading class. For example, a teacher might read a text
aloud and have students answer questions. A great deal
of emphasis is placed on explanation of vocabulary.
Both these ways of teaching are not very effective
because the teacher often has to work a lot and students
are simply recipients of knowledge. Also, some teachers
have problems in understanding the subject matter
themselves and are not able to deal with the required
texts in a satisfactory way. Topics such as economics and
finances can result in a boring lesson for both teacher
The assessment recommended for British Life is carried
out mainly at the end of the semester, with possible
additional assessment after every 15 periods. This type
of assessment is basically knowledge-based and often in
written form. British Life, therefore, is treated very much
like a content subject and is not very helpful for developing
cultural understanding and incorporating it into
language skills for effective communication.
Considering the limitations of the current curriculum,
I have recently tried a different way of teaching this
subject to make it more suitable for my students and to
maximize benefits to them.
An Alternative Approach to the Subject
My British Life course objectives are:
• To provide learners with opportunities to explore
basic knowledge about the U.K. in terms of geography,
politics, society, education, leisure, and ways of life.
• To motivate students in learning about culture and
how to integrate learning culture with learning the four
• To equip learners with basic cultural aspects in English
• To help learners understand the cultural aspects introduced
in high school English textbooks.
• To encourage students’ autonomy in learning.
Teacher’s Edition — 18 — September 2004
Teachers often treat this subject like a reading class...
these ways of teaching are not very effective because the teacher often
has to work a lot and students are simply recipients of knowledge.
My aims are not just to provide students with opportunities
to find out about the U.K.and British people,but
also to encourage them to learn to deal with cultural
aspects in their future teaching jobs. Thus, I decided to
combine the required MOET syllabus with cultural
aspects found in Vietnamese high school textbooks.
In terms of teaching methodology, I chose a learneroriented
methodology, with a view to maximizing
opportunities for students to explore the subject and to
contribute to the course.
As suggested by Smith, content classes can be made
more communicative through interactive lecturing,
group presentations, and performance activities. These
are done to avoid turning students into passive receivers
of information. Another aim is to offer students more
opportunities to explore the information, to learn for
themselves, and to contribute to classroom activities.
The basic activities in my course are: presentation,
portfolio, picnic, readings, and videos. The presentation
is divided into stages:
(1) Preparation. Students are divided into pairs or
groups and a topic is assigned to each. It is recommended
that they read books about their topic for a
month or two in order to propose an outline of what to
present. Books to recommend (available in Vietnam)
• Life in Britain (Brookes and Fraenkel).
• Britain Explored (Harvey and Jones).
• Focus on Britain Today (Lavery).
• Spotlight on Britain (Sherin et al).
• 2000 Years of British Life (Fry).
• The Making of the United Kingdom (Kelly et al).
• Britain 1995 (Central Office of Information, HMSO).
(2) Input Session. Students receive instruction on
giving their presentation, covering such topics as audience,
purpose, language choice, structure, voice projection,
nonverbal language, using visual aids, and so on.
(3) Consultations. During an initial consultation,
the teacher works with each group on their structure
and information, giving suggestions as appropriate. She
also tries to help them make their presentations as
interactive as possible by designing activities and
preparing guided discussion questions. Pictures and
other visual aids are encouraged. In a second session,
the teacher and students work together to clarify and
finalize information. The teacher approves the final
version before it is photocopied for the class.
(4) Presentation. Each pair or group presents their
topic in one period (45 minutes). The next period is for
questions from other students and explanations either
by the responsible pair or group or by the teacher.
Feedback is given first by students and then by the
teacher. Finally, unclear or incomplete information is
clarified or provided by the teacher.
In total, the oral presentations occupy half the
course (30 periods). The other half is devoted to the
other activities mentioned above. For the portfolio, students
are required to collect information from different
sources about Great Britain that may be useful in their
future teaching. They can even use the high school textbooks
as guides. They may also search out information
that is personally interesting, including pictures, articles,
or texts in either English or Vietnamese. The collected
information is then classified into categories and sources
The picnic is organized near the end of the course.
Each group prepares a set of questions and answers for
a quiz on their presentation topic. They also each contribute
a Western dish, such as sandwiches, hot dogs, pizzas,
spaghetti, and chips. (This might be done with the
help of a foreign volunteer.) Other cultural awarenessraising
games may also be played during the picnic.
Readings about “behavior culture”and issues such as
those related to gestures, individual space, and etiquette
are discussed, and other cultural issues in Vietnamese
high school textbooks are covered. Discussions on cultural
differences between Vietnam and English-speaking
countries are organized. Readings are taken from various
language and culture textbooks, including:
• Australian Profile (Hodge).
• Other Voices: A Cross-Cultural Communication
Teacher’s Edition — 19 — September 2004
• Culture Connection (Wegmann et al).
• Cultural Awareness (Tomalin and Stempleski).
• Developing Intercultural Awareness (Kohls and
• Communications Between Cultures (Samover and
Videos and films about British life are also used.
They are very useful in giving learners vivid ideas of
what Britain and British people are like. Students watch
the videos and work in groups to write down what they
can learn after each viewing. They then discuss their
ideas and the teacher can add to this discussion as
appropriate. Their notes can later be refined and put
into students’ portfolios.
I attempt to follow recommendations given by
Shohamy and Venugopal in assessing British Life. Three
recommendations by Shohamy are to integrate assessment
with teaching, to involve both students and teachers
in the assessment process, and to use multiple assessment
sources (not only tests). Also, as pointed out by
Venugopal, ongoing assessment should be chosen as the
main form of assessment, as this offers such benefits as
anxiety reduction and variety in forms of assessment.
Ongoing assessment can reflect the learning and teaching
process more effectively.
Students are assessed for the main tasks of giving
presentations and creating portfolios (including
information gained from watching videos). Their class
participation is also taken into consideration at the end
of the course for rounding up the marks or for giving
The introduction of the British Life subject into the
English training curriculum for teacher training colleges
is highly recommended. The attempt by MOET to offer
specific guidelines for teaching this subject is also appreciated.
However, flexibility should be given in implementing
this subject to make it more effective in specific
My suggestions in teaching British Life are just one
context-specific way of working with the subject. It has
gained generally desirable results for both teachers and
students, who enjoyed and benefited a great deal from
the course. This way of teaching and learning may not
be fully applicable in many colleges in Vietnam because
of limitations in facilities, as well as students’ differing
needs and abilities in other settings. In any case, I
strongly believe that teachers should remain flexible in
terms of the aims of the British Life course, the textbooks
used,the content learned,and the methods adopted
to meet their specific contexts. n
Brindley, G. “Language Testing and Evaluation.” Lecture
given at Macquarie University. August 28, 1999.
---. Assessing Achievement in the Learner-Centred
Curriculum. National Centre for English Language
Teaching and Research, Macquarie University, 1989.
Britain 1995: An Official Handbook. Central Office of
Information, HMSO, 1994.
Brookes, H.F., and C.E. Fraenkel. Life in Britain.
Fry,P.S. 2000 Years of British Life. Williams Collins Sons
and Company, 1976.
Hodge, A. Australian Profile. Sydney College of
Advanced Education, Multicultural Centre, 1989.
Harey, P., and R. Jones. Britain Explored. Longman,
Kelly, N., et al. The Making of the United Kingdom.
Kohls, L.R., and J.M. Knight. Developing Intercultural
Awareness. Intercultural Press, 1981.
Laird, E. Faces of Britain. Longman, 1992.
Lavery, C. Focus on Britain Today. Phoenix ELT, 1993.
Ministry of Education and Training of Vietnam. “Detailed
Syllabi of Different English Subjects”and “Curriculum for
Teacher Training Colleges.” MOET, 1997 and 1999.
McDowall,D. Britain in Close-Up. Longman, 1995.
Samover, L.A., and R.E. Porter. Communications
Between Cultures. Belmont, 1991.
Seelye, H.N. Teaching Culture. NTC, 1988.
Teacher’s Edition — 20 — September 2004
Sherin, S., et al. Spotlight on Britain. Oxford University
Shohamy, E. “New Modes of Assessment:The Connection
Between Testing and Learning.” In Language
Assessment for Feedback: Testing and Other Strategies.
Ed. E. Shohamy and R.Walton. Kendall Hunt Publishing,
Smith, M. “Making Content Classes More
Communicative.” Teacher’s Edition 6, pp. 14-17,
Tomalin, B., and S. Stempleski. Cultural Awareness.
Oxford University Press, 1993.
Venugopal, S.N. “Continuous Assessment in the Oral
Communication Class: Teacher Constructed Test.” In
Current Developments in Language Testing. Ed. S.
Anivan. SEAMEO RELC, 1991.
Wajnryb, R. Other Voices: A Cross-Cultural
Communication Workbook. Thomas Nelson Australia,
Wegmann, B., M. Knezevic, and P. Werner. Culture
Connection. Heinle & Heinle, 1994.
This paper was also presented at the British Council’s
Vietnam Teacher Training Network National ELT
Conference, “Delivering Quality in English Language
Teaching,” held in Hanoi, March 18-19, 2004.
Le Thi Anh Phuong (M.A.,Applied Linguistics, Macquarie
University) has been working as a teacher and teacher
trainer at Nha Trang Teacher Training College since 1980.
She is also currently working for the Australian
Development Scholarships project, preparing
Vietnamese students for study in Australian universities.
Her most recent contribution to Teacher’s Edition was
her article,“Teachers’ Problems in Dealing With the Pre-
Lesson Stage,” published in the previous issue.
Teacher’s Edition — 21 — September 2004
Ideas on the Go
The Hot Seat
Goal: A motivating way to practice
This exercise is very simple, but I have found it to
be very effective in the classroom. At the start of
a lesson on hypothetical situations—“What
would you do if…?”—I introduce to the class
“The Hot Seat”by putting a lone chair at the head
of the classroom. I choose three students whom
I know can handle the pressure to come to the
front and answer three questions, such as,
“What would you do if you had one million
dollars?” Their answers are the introduction to
the day’s topic.
After this, I begin the lesson on hypothetical
situations and have students do a few group exercises
as practice. For the final exercise, I have
them write three hypothetical questions to ask
their classmates. I then reintroduce “The Hot
Seat,” call another student to the front, and ask
her three of the questions prepared by her classmates.
After she has answered, she gets to choose
one of her classmates to put in “The Hot Seat,”
and the activity continues in this pattern for the
remainder of the period.
I have found that this activity is a great way
for students to practice their listening and speaking
in a fun, student-driven format. My students
reacted well to the exercise and could not wait to
put their best friend or boyfriend/girlfriend into
“The Hot Seat.”
Jack Peterson is in his second year of teaching
at Dalat University.
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.