12 Activities for Teaching ESL Students About British Culture
Ask your ESL students what comes to mind when they think of England.
The responses will inevitably include “football/soccer,” “Big Ben” or “drinking tea.”
These are definitely all things Great Britain is known for.
But British culture is more than just tea and biscuits.
As an ESL teacher, you’re a valuable tool for students to improve their British English skills. However, you’re also a window into another country.
Use some of your lessons as a cultural exchange to help your students gain a deeper understanding of British culture.
Why Are Cultural Lessons Important?
Lessons on different cultures can be hugely beneficial to ESL students. Giving your students a chance to learn about British culture can help prepare them for many different experiences.
- If they plan to travel to the UK or study abroad, it will help to reduce the culture shock. They’ll feel more comfortable interacting with strangers as well as their their host families and foreign friends.
- If they happen to work with any Brits, they’ll be able to talk to their co-workers while avoiding any social faux pas.
- As well as day-to-day life, cultural knowledge can be especially useful for citizenship tests. If any of your students plan to take the British citizenship test, cultural knowledge from your classes could help to get them through it.
Of course, not everyone has the luxury of being able to travel abroad or the opportunity to work with foreigners. For some, the only chances they get to talk to a native English speaker could be in their classes! Knowing the culture behind the language can give English learners a valuable understanding of the situations and social norms where certain words, phrases and styles of speaking should be used.
12 Activities for Teaching ESL Students About British Culture
British culture might be naturally instilled in you, but how do you implement it in your classroom? Here are a few different ways you can teach it.
One important note before we dive in: Be mindful! When teaching about these topics, it’s important to be culturally sensitive. There’s always a chance that you could unintentionally cause offense, so make sure you’re mindful of what you say and keep students’ conversations in check (especially in the segment about complaining).
Table manners vary from country to country. From the way you eat to how you pay the bill, what’s polite in one country may be extremely rude in another. Avoid awkward situations by teaching your students proper British table etiquette.
Discuss – British Food
Start with a simple discussion of British food. Provide pictures and descriptions of different British dishes, asking students what they imagine them to taste like. You could even turn this into a vocabulary game.
Elicit – British Table Etiquette
Explain the basics of UK table manners to your students. Make sure you include the following points:
How to order
If you should share your food
How to use your cutlery
Who should pay the bill
If you should leave a tip
Role Play – Ordering in a Restaurant
You can put the previous two exercises together in a restaurant role play. In pairs or small groups, ask your students to create their own British menus. Then, have them role play as customers, waiters and waitresses. This should be a relatively free activity, with minimal monitoring and feedback from the teacher.
Politeness and manners are extremely important to British people. A “please,” “thank you” or even subtle body language can go a long way. If your students know the importance and use of this social etiquette, they’ll be much more confident talking to Brits.
Rank – Making Polite Requests
Give your students a situation where they have to ask for something. For example: A boss asking an employee to finish a report, or a child asking their parents what’s for dinner. Have students brainstorm different ways to ask for these things, from the least polite to the most. They can start with the most basic, direct demand and gradually move up to extremely polite requests. This will encourage them to be more creative with their language.
If you’re working with a lower-level group, try giving them the sentences yourself. Then, ask them to rank each request in order of politeness.
List – Polite Language
The last activity will have given you an idea of what your students already know. You can build on this knowledge by giving students more vocabulary and phrases to use when they want to be polite.
Language you could use includes:
Would you mind….?
Is it OK if I …..?
Treasure Hunt – Requests and Responses
Your students can put what they’ve learned to use in this fun treasure hunt game. Split students into groups and give each group a list of items made up of things like common belongings or classroom tools (for example: a pencil, a hair clip, etc.). Each group must work together to obtain the items on their list by finding someone who has each item and politely asking to borrow it. This can include other students in the class, as well as any staff who might be around to help.
This involves some preparation. Prime everyone involved, letting them know that they should only hand the item over if they’re asked politely. Also, make sure the students who are borrowing keep a note of who every item belongs to, so they can return it at the end of the class.
To add some excitement, make it a race. The group who successfully collects all of the items on their list first win the activity.
As much as we Brits hate to admit, we complain a lot. Whether it’s about the weather, customer service or just plain old gossip, it’s something we’re always doing. In other cultures, this might be seen as rude; in British culture, complaining is a part of everyday life. Giving your students the tools to complain and the freedom to do it without consequence can be really fun.
Brainstorm – Topics for Complaint
In pairs or small groups, have your students list people or situations that could be cause for complaints. These could include hotels, traffic, siblings, an overbearing boss or anything they’d like. Then, they can add specific annoyances to complain about for each one (like poor customer service, misunderstandings, unrealistic requests, etc.). Monitor this activity to make sure students remain respectful!
Discuss & Write – Making and Responding to Complaints
Next, your students can brainstorm ways of tackling the situations they’ve listed. Have them write sentences or short conversations for how to make and respond to these complaints.
If you have an advanced group, you could turn this into a formal letter-writing activity. Each group can write a letter of complaint, then switch and write responses to each other. Either way, this is an involved activity which requires lots of feedback and grammar checking from you.
Rules of the Road
Driving in a different country can be daunting. Even if you’re driving on the same side of the road as you do at home, the rules can be completely different. If your students travel to England, this knowledge will help them navigate the roads when they rent a car, use public transportation and even be knowledgeable pedestrians. They don’t have to go to England to benefit, though: Through these activities, students can practice giving instructions, following directions and talking about obligations.
Make Inferences – The Meanings of Road Signs
Present your students with a variety of British road signs. Some of them may be familiar, while others will be completely new. In pairs, ask students to infer the meanings and write a sentence for each one. You could do this either with a worksheet or a PowerPoint presentation.
Once students finish writing, compare their answers to the true meanings and see how many they guessed correctly.
Quiz – How to Drive in England
To wrap up your lesson, give your students a quiz on what they’ve learned. You could use a mock version of the British driving theory test or pluck your questions straight from the highway code. This is a fun way to test their knowledge and make sure they remember the information from the previous activities. If you want to make it competitive, you could offer a small prize to the person with the most correct answers. To get the most out of this activity, make sure students answer using complete sentences.
Questions could include:
If a driver flashes their headlights at you, what should you do?
At a roundabout, who has right of way?
Writing Rules (with Modal Verbs)
The last activity on this list will solidify some ideas about British culture for your students, as well as give them a chance to pick up some new grammar.
Grammar – Modal Verbs
Lots of students struggle with modal verbs, and a cultural lesson is the perfect opportunity to elicit them and learn how to use them. To begin with, give a grammatical rundown.
List – The Dos and Don’ts of British Culture
Once your students are comfortable with the grammar, they can use it to write examples in relation to British culture. In groups or individually, have students write a list of rules for British etiquette using modal verbs wherever possible. The lists could include sentences like the following:
You don’t have to shake someone’s hand every time you meet them.
You must wait patiently in a queue.
You should always say ‘sorry’ when you bump into someone.
If you have time, you could also ask students to write a similar list for their own culture. This forms a great basis for a discussion, in which you could make comparisons between all the different cultures represented in your class.
Adjusting to different cultures can be difficult, especially when a second language is involved. Lessons like these will make it easier for your students, exposing them to glimpses of British culture in the classroom. Along the way, they’ll become confident, well-rounded English speakers, too!
Emma Thomas is an ESL teacher in Bangkok with more than five years of experience in teaching students of all ages. You can read more about her experiences as a teacher in Thailand at Under the Ropes.