• Best Subject for an ESL Integrated-Skills Class (Part 1 Overview)

Cover Part 1 overview shot

For an extended discussion of this topic with links to some YouTube videos and downloadable exercises, see Four Part Series: Why, How And When to Teach ESL Integrated- and Discrete-Skills Courses. 

This post may sound like I am contradicting a previous post of March 13th,Integrated vs Discrete Skills ESL Courses: Advantages of Discrete Skills   Despite my support for segregated skills in general, an integrated skills course with higher-level students who are more homogeneous in ability can be effective and practical.

For an integrated skills 1 course to be effective and engaging to the students, the subject should be something which is inherently appealing to the majority of the students.  After all, the students will be spending the course time reading, writing, and talking about the subject.

One subject which has been enthusiastically received by both students and instructors is culture, and more specifically, differences in cultures and the reason for these differences.

Some examples of these differences are:

-Why are people in western cultures more likely than people from Eastern cultures to smile at a stranger standing at a bus stop than?

-Why do people in some cultures tend to be less direct in saying their opinions than in other cultures?

-In a study of 4-year-olds, why did the Asian children spontaneously share their candy with another child but the American children only reluctantly share when asked?

-Why are young people  in some cultures more apt to follow their parents advice about who to marry?

-Why do some cultures have specific titles for “my wife’s sister’s husband,” but other cultures merely say “my brother-in-law.”

-Why would a female in some cultures be more reluctant to get a perm than in other ones?

-Why do Asian students seem to excel so well in Math compared to American students?

To illustrate more what I mean by a cultural difference and the reason for the differences, I’ll share here a personal experience.

A sample of a cultural difference

I once had a Japanese student, Yuki, who told me that she felt Americans were insincere and superficial.  She observed how they would compliment her about insignificant things, such as her shoes or hairstyle.  Once, she was at a party, and one of the guests (an American) told her that she liked her earrings.  Yuki thought it was a strange comment; the earrings were nothing special, so she felt it was odd that the American had praised them.  In the end, she concluded that Americans just were not sincere.

Yuki might have realized that that American’s compliment was “normal behavior” if she had been aware of research which shows that Americans are much more likely to give and receive compliments than Japanese.   In a study about complimenting,  Barnlund and Araki (1985) 2 conducted interviews with university students in Japan and the United States.  They were interested in learning how often the students in these two countries were involved in a “complimenting” situation.  They found that the Japanese gave or received a compliment, on average, only once every 13 days, whereas the Americans had a “complimenting” experience, on average, once every 1.6 days.  The results of that Barnlund and Araki study would have been helpful to Yuki but even more helpful would have been a clarification of the reasons why Americans compliment so often and the Japanese don’t.

Two key concepts: Individualism and Collectivism

In order to understand the reasons for cultural norms, two important concepts tend to stand out: individualism and collectivism.  Individualists, who are generally from North America, Western Europe and Australia, come from more affluent societies.  People are relatively independent and are more likely than collectivists to move away from family, friends and neighbors; also, among these individualists, changing groups is quite common.

In contrast to individualists, societies in many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America are identified as collectivist.   In general, in collectivist cultures, the main occupation is farming, and people depend on their family members, friends and neighbors to survive.  Because, generally speaking, the people in these agrarian societies do not have much money, they tend to live their whole lives in the places where they were born.  As a result, these people know each other well, have common goals and need to get along with each other.  At the same time, nowadays, in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America many of the people are financially comfortable and live in large cities.  However, even though they might look like Western-style individualists, they generally remain collectivists because they have maintained their identity with their groups and do not see themselves as separate from others.

It is important to note that some countries tend to have more collectivist characteristics and others more individualist ones.  This does not mean that everyone in a particular country, for example Japan or China, is a collectivist or that everyone in the U.S. or Canada is an individualist.  In collectivist countries, some people are more independent and less attached to their in-groups (e.g., family members), and feel less need for the type of social support that collectivism can supply.   Likewise, some people in individualist countries are very attached to their in-groups and will forgo their personal goals for the sake of their group’s goals.

In a word, the reasons why Americans compliment so often and the Japanese don’t seems to be that Americans, who change groups often, use compliments in order to join new groups. However, Japanese, who tend to keep the same in-groups, do not need that technique.

 What makes cultural differences like this so perfect for an integrated skills course?

1) It’s relevant to the students’ immediate lives.  International students studying in the States observe these differences in their communities, among their classmates and with their host-families, and they are often frustrated by them.  After they understand the reason for these differences, they no longer believe that Americans are just trying to be weird.

2) They have a schema for helping them understand academic readings in this area.

3) They are highly motivated to engage in discussions.  They are eager to share their experiences and curious to find out if other international students have had similar ones.

4) Because of the above three points, it’s much easier for them to apply the subject matter to writing academic papers.

5) The course is always fresh for the instructor.  Each term, the new students are bringing fresh perspectives and experiences which the instructor gets to hear and read about.

And finally, the information tends to be counter-intuitive.  Students are learning something new about topics which they probably had the wrong assumptions.

Using the subject of cultural differences in an integrated reading, discussion and writing courses.

In Part 2, I’ll show how the subject of cultural differences can be used to develop reading skills. Best Subject for an ESL Integrated-Skills Class (Part 2 of 4: Reading aspect)

In Parts 3 and 4, I’ll show how it can be used to develop discussion skills. Best Subject for an ESL Integrated-Skills Class (Parts 3 & 4: Discussion and Writing aspects)

See Pro Lingua Learning–Cultural Differences  for a textbook that integrates these skills. It is now available in digital and print version for students to rent or buy.

1 An integrated-skills class is one in which several skills (e.g. reading, writing, listening and speaking) are equally developed.  A discrete-skills class is one in which only one skill is the focus even though students may use other skills during activities.  For example, in a Conversation class, the students will, needless to say, use their listening skills, and at time, reading skills.  However, the goal of the exercises during a lesson are to improve conversation skills, not other skills like reading.  The students’ grades for the class will be based on how well their speaking skills have improved, not on their other skills.

2 Barnlund, D., & Araki, S. (1985). Intercultural Encounters: the management of compliments by Japanese and Americans. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. 16. 9-26.

David Kehe

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