Culture Shock: A Mixed-Level Speaking Activity

If you are teaching English as a second language (ESL) rather than English as a foreign language (EFL),  it’s likely that a significant portion of your adult students are currently experiencing some degree of culture shock as a result of their move to an English-speaking country.  As Judie Haynes recommends in her recent blog post on this topic, I like to address this issue up front in the first week of class.  Doing so allows my adult students to begin to reflect in a safe environment on some of the challenges they are facing as they confront our language and culture.  Here’s an activity that helps normalize their feelings of disorientation and homesickness, and that also gets them up out of their seats and talking to each other.

I improvised this activity when I was called upon recently to substitute in an Accent on Fluency class.  I had been told that the speaking abilities of students in the class varied widely. How, I wondered, could I get students talking to each other about culture shock in a way that leveled the playing field, so that high-beginners could participate effectively alongside high-intermediate students?

I started by simply writing these two words on the white board: CULTURE SHOCK. Some understood what those words meant. Others didn’t. The ones who did explained the concept to those who didn’t.

I then put the students in groups of three, gave each group a single sheet of paper, and ask them to spend 5 minutes (later extended to 10 minutes) writing as many words as they could that came to mind as they thought about culture shock. I told them not to worry about spelling, and I told them I just wanted individual words, not complete sentences. I challenged them to free associate and see if they could think of at least 20 words.

Some groups struggled to come up with five words. Others easily came up with far more than 20. But every group had managed to produce at least three words.

I then asked each group to choose their single best word and write it on the board. With nine students, we had three words for the first round of conversations:

Group #1                    Group #2                     Group #3

Lifestyle                      Spanish                        Attitude

I then asked all of the students to get up out of their seats, to approach someone not in their group, and find out why he or she had chosen the word his or her group had written on the board. For example, students from Groups #1 and #3 needed to locate someone in Group #2 and find out why they had chosen the word “Spanish” to represent their sense of culture shock. Students in Group #2 had to interview students from Groups #1 and #3 to find out why they had chosen the words “lifestyle” and “attitude,” respectively, as their “culture shock” words.

Much to my surprise, students were instantly absorbed in making these inquiries, asking and answering follow-up questions, and illustrating their chosen words with examples of situations they had found themselves in.  Some of the word choices were so unexpected (“Spanish”?) that lengthy discussions ensued.   In that case, two Asian students in one group explained that they were shocked to discover how prevalent Spanish was in the United States. “We feel like we should be studying Spanish now,” one of them remarked.

We then proceeded to Round 2.  I asked each group to choose their second best word, to write it on the board, and again, interview someone from one of the other groups about their word choice. As in Round 1, students gamely threw themselves into avid discussions of cultural differences evoked in their minds by the words  “chopsticks,”  “education,” and “cook.”

All told, this activity led to 40 minutes of active, engaged discussion. Not bad for a mixed-level speaking class!  Please share with us how you get mixed-level groups talking.


About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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6 Responses to Culture Shock: A Mixed-Level Speaking Activity

  1. Anne Webb says:

    I love this activity and use it all the time with different levels of adult learners. It also works well in mixed level groups. It really promotes discussion in English about a topic relevant to their lives and some of the examples of culture shock are very interesting. Thanks so much for sharing such a great activity.

  2. Eunice says:

    I had initially come across your post back when it was first published here and thought this activity would be great to incorporate one day. So, I saved the link and came back to review your post today. I have a multi-level class of 21 students of varying proficiencies from different countries and language backgrounds. Since this is the first week of our semester, I’m thinking of having our students do this activity in class tomorrow. Thank you for sharing this wonderful activity! 🙂

  3. Geoff says:

    sounds interesting, might try this next week.

  4. Jorge Dopazo says:

    Hi Alexandra,
    I used your activity, “Culture Shock,” in my ESL Level 4 class at WCC. It was an amazing experience for me and my students loved it. It really hit home for them. Let me tell you a story.
    I have a student who was somewhat confused by our Communicative Language Teaching approach we use at WCC. In her country she was used to more “teacher centered” language learning, with lots of tests and grammar structure exercises. I tried to explain, but I could see she was frustrated and during our fourth class she became very upset and walked out. I thought I lost her. I was a wreck thinking about this all weekend, and praying she would return for Tuesday’s class. My heart jumped when she walked into class on Tuesday. I told the class, “Today we are doing an activity called “Culture Shock.” The rest is ESL history. It was amazing, almost one hour of non-stop interaction. But here’s the magic. In the end, my student raised her hand and smiled, “I’m sorry for leaving early last class, I think I was experiencing culture shock.” I tried to hold back a tear of joy, but everyone knew how I felt, and they did too. Thank you, Alexandra. This was more than just another communicative activity. This was an experience I’ll never forget.

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Dear Jorge: Thanks so much for taking the time to share in depth the experience you had in your class. You make a very interesting point that our very manner of instruction is a form of “culture shock” for many students. I agree that that is something we definitely need to find a way to address. By the way, I frequently introduce the activity described here with a short YouTube video from the International Student Orientation at Columbia Business School, It’s funny and gives students “permission” to be open about their misgivings about studying in the U.S.

  5. Weijuan He says:

    My students are 17 years old and they are eager to know the outside world and especially those who are of their age. Culture is something that really can attract my students’ attention and they are interested to know the experiences I share with them during my stay in France and America last year. In class, they begin to face the challenge of learning with more curiosity and enthusiasm. I feel it nice to be with my students because we can communicate more naturally in and after class. They are willing to share with me their anxieties and development in school performance and I am glad to offer them help and guidance. The communication is pleasant.

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