ERIC Identifier: ED358751
Publication Date: 1993-07-00
Author: McGroarty, Mary
Source: National Clearinghouse on
Literacy Education Washington DC., Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse on Literacy
Education for Limited-English-Proficient Adults Washington DC.
Cross-Cultural Issues in Adult ESL Literacy Classrooms. ERIC
Instructors in adult ESL classes in the United States need no reminder that
their classrooms serve as a meeting place for learners of many and often
disparate cultural backgrounds. They recognize, further, that for many learners,
the ESL class serves the crucial function of cultural as well as linguistic
orientation. Yet intellectual recognition of these issues does not always
provide specific pedagogical direction; that demands not only the sound judgment
born of training and experience, but also an understanding of the cultural
factors that shape the actual processes of classroom instruction. This digest
identifies some of the cultural factors that can influence learner and teacher
behavior during classroom ESL literacy instruction.
ROLES OF LEARNERS AND TEACHERS
educational roles that participants bring to the classroom influence not only
their views of the class, but also their willingness to participate in different
kinds of learning activities. In adult ESL classes, learners and teachers alike
bring years of life experience and cultural knowledge to the instructional
setting. Learners may bring to class the expectations regarding teacher
relationships and behavior that prevailed in their home countries, especially if
they had extensive schooling there (McCargar, 1993). Thus, learners from more
traditional educational systems may expect teachers to behave in a more formal
and authoritarian fashion during classes and may be displeased, puzzled, or
offended if a teacher uses an informal instructional style, such as using first
names in class or allowing learners to move freely around the room.
Learners may also want teachers to maintain a clearly ordered pattern of
classroom activity and, perhaps, engage in extensive correction of grammatical
form or pronunciation during all activities rather than at specified points in a
lesson or not at all. Failure to conform to these ideals may give learners the
impression of lazy or inadequate class preparation on the part of the teacher.
Teachers, similarly, bring to the classroom their own expectations regarding
teacher behavior. This includes their views on appropriate adult behavior within
American culture in general, as well as in the classroom (McGroarty &
Galvan, 1985). If the American adult ideal is to be self-reliant, at ease in
expressing and defending personal opinions, and interested in personal
advancement, teachers will expect to provide instruction addressed to these
goals and may unconsciously attribute these same goals to their students. The
potential for conflicting expectations and evaluations of behavior between
teachers and learners is evident.
Related to the issue of expectations
regarding appropriate adult behavior is that of appropriate gender-related
behavior, which can produce tensions during instruction. Teachers need to find
out whether learners have ever experienced mixed educational groupings; whether
they expect male and female teachers to behave differently; and how different
classroom activities, including various group configurations (pairs or small
groups) or activity types (e.g., role plays or dialogue practice), might affect
learners differently because of their native cultural constraints. For example,
in an adult ESL class some years ago, eager to put the desks in a circle to
promote interaction and communication, I was concerned to see that, after a few
minutes, one of the men in the class turned nearly rigid and stared straight
ahead. When I asked after class what was wrong, he told me that with the class
sitting in a circle, and thus moving their heads to look at me and each other
when conversing, he was sure the other men were looking at his wife, a behavior
he considered inappropriate. Had I explained clearly why a different arrangement
of desks might be useful for classroom activities and been willing to alter the
classroom configuration to accommodate specific needs, I might have prevented
such unnecessary distress.
Additionally, ESL teachers need to be aware that shifts in status and
economic and family responsibilities that often accompany immigration are likely
to affect learners'--especially women's--very presence in class, as well as
their attitudes and behaviors. Prospective female learners are often prevented
from attending ESL classes by lack of childcare (Hayes, 1989), a factor that
does not affect men as profoundly. In many Western immigrant-receiving
countries, such as the United States, women may be encouraged to pursue
educational goals that run counter to traditional expectations within their
native countries (Paige, 1990). The need to seek employment outside the home may
put pressure on women to learn English quickly, even as they recognize that this
challenges traditional family structures. Moreover, men from more traditional
cultural backgrounds may discourage or resist the efforts of wives or daughters
to pursue literacy skills (Gillespie, in press).
In encouraging women students to speak up and take an active role in class,
ESL instructors may encounter reluctance from both men and women from cultures
in which women have historically been constrained by social roles that do not
promote active participation in mixed-sex settings (Massin, 1992). One solution
proposed in Australia has been literacy classes for women only (Rado &
Foster, 1991). Teachers can also make special efforts to structure activities so
that all learners, not just those who volunteer, have equal opportunities for
practice and discussion.
APPROPRIATE TOPICS FOR INSTRUCTION
regarding the nature of education and what is appropriate to talk about may also
affect the kinds of topics students are willing to pursue in class. Cultural as
well as personal sensitivity is vital in knowing if, when, and how to introduce
topics or lessons that may be distasteful or difficult. For example, lessons on
fast food might need to incorporate information on how to determine presence or
absence of pork if learners' cultural affiliation includes religious
prohibitions against eating it. Even apparently innocuous topics can be sources
of difficulty, depending on the experience, sophistication level, and particular
social situation of learners. Learners who are recent refugees from civil
strife, for example, may find it hard to produce descriptions of the homes they
had to flee in fear, particularly during their initial period of adjustment. If
learners are still in the process of resolving their immigration status, they
may feel threatened by question-answer sessions based on individual information
such as "Where were you born?"; "How long did you live in X?"; and "Do you have
Clearly, instructor discretion is essential in these areas. Sensitive topics
can be raised--indeed, some newer adult literacy materials make a point of
acknowledging personally difficult situations of loneliness, isolation, or job
loss that affect adult ESL learners (see Long & Spiegel-Podnecky, 1988, and
Weinstein-Shr, 1992, for two texts that deal tactfully with potentially
sensitive issues)--but the way they are treated and the extent of student
participation expected should allow a range of alternatives, including the
option to simply observe activities or, where possible, respond in writing
rather than speaking up.
BEHAVIOR AT THE SITE OF INSTRUCTION
expectations regarding appropriate behavior in public places such as schools
affect the entire instructional environment, including classrooms, hallways,
cafeterias, and restrooms. Hence, rules regarding appropriate ways to maintain
order; move or not move furniture such as desks and tables; discard litter; and
regulate eating, drinking, and smoking can affect the comfort level of learners,
teachers, and others associated with adult ESL instruction.
Like many areas of cultural customs, these areas can seem trivial until
behavior that is different from the expected occurs; a breach of the cultural
compact related to school site behavior then has a negative impact on
instruction. Teachers, custodians, administrators, and perhaps other students
may become annoyed if some adult learners engage in behavior that is permitted
in their own countries but frowned upon in the United States, whether this
involves smoking at the instructional site or appropriate ways to arrange
classroom furniture or use a Western-style toilet. In one large Los Angeles
adult school, some of these issues were deemed so crucial to a good
instructional atmosphere that a committee of teachers developed special
materials to orient learners to American cultural expectations and provide all
participants--learners, teachers, and other staff members--with guidelines
DEVELOPING LITERACY INSTRUCTORS' CROSS-CULTURAL
Tremendous student diversity, coupled with the part-time and
temporary nature of ESL instruction and the varied backgrounds of literacy
instructors, makes it both impossible and inadvisable to offer a universal
template for cross-cultural training that fits all adult ESL classrooms equally
well. Several staff development formats are available for instructor training,
ranging from in-service workshops, to conferences, to action research and
self-directed learning (Kutner, 1992); cross-cultural topics can be incorporated
into any of them. Models and materials for generic cross-cultural training are
also widely available (for example, Bhawuk, 1990; Damen, 1987).
However, published sources may not be current or particular enough to provide
instructors with the site-specific information and techniques they need
(McGroarty, 1993). Following the growing trend toward participatory instruction,
cross-cultural training for instructors needs to become participatory in a dual
sense: Instructors need to participate in designing their own training
opportunities in local instructional programs, and they need to learn how to
participate with learners in identifying culturally appropriate instructional
processes, topics, and materials that promote language progress (see Auerbach,
1992, for discussion and strategies). Only cross-cultural efforts that require
ongoing mutual discovery and adaptation by both learners and teachers can
provide the concrete guidance needed to insure that literacy instruction is
culturally as well as linguistically compatible for all those involved.
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