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.