Cultural mirrors – Television drama
in the EFL classroom
In the first article in this series, I explored some ways in which television can be a valuable resource for the EFL or TESOL teacher. In this article I describe my experience with a short segment of a British TV comedy in 6 classroom settings over two years. The lessons start with my language teaching aims – a focus on Language Use, followed by an examination of Language Forms. These are soon appropriated by the students (mainly upper intermediate/advanced) who develop a focus on Language as Social Practice. This involves two aspects of learning Culture: i) learning about British culture, and ii) learning about the relationship between culture and language through relating the social interaction in the television segment to their own social and cultural context.
In this article I set out some background details of the TV programme and my own reasons for using it. Then in a table I set out the 6 instances of classroom use, and how it gradually moved from being an teacher-led activity to a student-led project. In the final section I relate this to some wider issues in teaching culture in (and beyond) the EFL classroom.
The social context of television viewing
Television is an important mass medium for both information and entertainment, a cultural phenomenon which prevails in most societies. It is thus a culturally shared phenomenon, occupying a central place in family life in a range of socio-economic contexts in different parts of the world, and differing only in such respects as:
Television viewing was thus, for my students a major cultural practice in their home communities which continued in their daily routine with host families in Britain. It was also the dominant context of interaction and communication with members of the host family - students reported discussing a range of TV programmes in these contexts, and having ‘British’ aspects of the programmes explained to them. It may be that communal TV viewing of this type presents opportunities for, in socio-cultural learning terms (Lantolf 2000), scaffolded interactions which facilitate communication and learning. The visual and contextual clues in the broadcast material, together with glosses, comments and queries from host family members provides an enhanced opportunity for comprehension and engagement, as well as a context for response and discussion. Thus, for learners residing in the target language communities, especially where they live with host families, television is an opportunity for learning which activities in the classroom might be expected to initiate, prepare for, and support.
Television is not only characterised by the local or context-specific. There have always been shared generic formats for television programmes in different contexts – films, news, etc. This sharing might be seen as increasing, with game show and quiz programme formats such as Blind Date,Big Brother and Who Wants to be a Millionnaire? representing a form of globalisation and universal branding of programme formats. The representation of drama on television presents a slightly different case: there are common formats with predictable narratives, such as soap opera and police drama, but the differences are significant. Drama represents relationships and interactions which are configured by community and linguistic norms. TV drama thus provides a useful resource for exploring cultural differences and similarities and engaging with the language features which encode these in the EFL classroom. The TV drama which this article is based on is The Royle Family, a situation comedy made for and broadcast by the BBC in 1997-1999.
3. The Royle Family
I decided to make use of The Royle Family for a range of reasons:
The data for the analysis of the pedagogic use of this material are teacher-made field notes and worksheets which evolved through six uses of the material to different groups of advanced students of English (some of them non-native speaking teachers of English) over a two-year period. While these data are not primarily research-oriented, they represent a pedagogical evolution – the notes were written during or soon after lessons on the handouts, and noted points raised by students, and ideas to incorporate in future uses. This pedagogical evolution illustrates a move from a conventional, language-based approach to the lesson, to one which engages initially with issues of culture, and seeks linguistic evidence to support hypotheses and perceptions.
A transcription of The Royle Family segment of the programme used is attached to this article as an appendix.
4. Six Lessons
Table 1: Summary of development of lessons using transcribed segment of The Royle Family.
The development of how this piece of television exploited in the classroom shows three main features:
1. Questions arise at different levels as the students’ curiosity is stimulated: Language form: the meaning of words and phrases;
2. The cultural elements are accessible to students of English through both the exploration of differences and similarities. Approaches to teaching culture often focus on the differences, a kind of othering which can lead to stereotyping and language learner alienation (Kubota 1999; Kiely 2003). In the case of this television segment, both the cultural content – family life – and the medium – TV situation comedy drama – were familiar to most students. What they observed and discussed could be related to aspects of culture in their own national context, or some community within this. Responses to The Royle Family segment viewed also had a strong personal voice, particularly evident in gender terms: female students tended to see the interactions from a woman’s standpoint, identifying with (or at least recognising) Barbara’s discourse of long-suffering wife fed up with husband. While this feature was less evident among male students – there were always fewer of these anyway – some noted understanding Dave, particularly his not wanting to be involved in his in-law’s family row, and not wanting to discuss the menopause with his father-in-law.
3. The relationship between culture and language across these lessons changed in a way which informed my pedagogic approach, and provided the spur to write up the experience. I began using this video segment for listening comprehension, as a sample of language to be a) understood, and b) mined for instances of language which the students could generalise from, which would raise their language awareness, and which they could use appropriately in their own interactions in English. The cultural elements provided both a frame and a background for this linguistic tableau, one which would have impact as teaching material, and which would have a learner-training function through raising awareness of the value of television viewing. In class the language focus, even with advanced students proved difficult and frustrating. The gap-filling, the activity assigning personality adjectives to the different characters, and comprehension questions to clarify the main narrative, did not work well – they seemed imposed on the text, lacking engagement with the cultural elements which resonated with the students. By the third exploitation of the segment (see Lesson 3 in the table above), the focus was on brief prediction tasks, and then comprehension questions (Why is Barbara unhappy? and Why is Jim unhappy?). The student activity was to attempt explanation from the viewing the video segment, and then find supporting evidence using the complete transcript of the segment as a resource. Working in pairs, students invariably provided complex and culturally coherent accounts of the unhappiness observed. Significantly these accounts derived from a bringing together of the viewing/transcript data, and their own understanding of relationships and family life. At one level, this represents the fundamental communicative teaching principle of meaning first. In relation to the role of culture in EFL, it illustrates, in addition, the value of exploring first the purpose and context of interactions, then analysing the linguistic forms which realise these. An ongoing reflection theme, focussing on the resources students draw on to produce and support their coherent accounts, complements the cultural and linguistic dimensions to provide opportunities for a critical and complex perspective on culture and language use.
These three features of the pedagogic approach embedded in the six lessons in Table 1 can be related to wider issues in integrating an explicit culture-learning dimension to the EFL curriculum. The next section sets out four ways in which culture can be integrated, and related The Royle Family segment to these.
5. Culture in the EFL curriculum
There are four identifiable approaches to pedagogic constructions of culture in ELT, and the various elements in the six lessons reflect these in different ways. These four approaches relate to culture as a dimension of language learning, and cut across the conventional distinction between high culture (aspects of group identity of which the group is especially proud such as the arts) and low culture (the way life is lived in a community). This section sets out these approaches and discusses how the six lessons relate to them.
i) Life and institutions
This is the traditional approach to linking culture and language learning in higher education. It is linked to concepts of nation and/or state – courses are often labelled ‘British Studies’ or ‘American Studies’. The focus is on difference, with topics such as the political constitution, education, and the arts (especially literature and film) explored in terms of how they differ from the students’ national group. This approach, especially in universities, involves complex subject matter, and specialised constructions of knowledge (within fields of literature, sociology, economics, political science, etc). A number of published course have developed this approach for lower level students, e.g. Harvey and Jones (1992). Learning activities typically revolve around texts, and include reading and listening comprehension, discussion and writing. Atkinson (1999: 627) described this approach as a ‘received view’ of culture, a packaged body of knowledge about target language users which focuses on difference from other language groups, but with little attention to intra-group variation. Life and institutions issues addressed in this segment from The Royle Family include the socio-economic aspects of Britain, and the role of the BBC, and institutional perspectives on potentially offensive language in the media, for example the British notion of watershed: the boundary (usually 21.00) before which programme unsuitable for children should not be broadcast.
ii) Culture as implicit knowledge
While this approach is also knowledge-based, its focus is the knowledge which is taken for granted, inherited shared wealth (Bowers 1992:31) as opposed to structured, taught knowledge. Bowers sets out four categories – memories, metaphors, maxims and myths – which constitute a broad umbrella for a language community. Within this, individuals share a range of other, perhaps specialist interests – religious affiliations, occupations and sports interests. The Bowers model is exemplified by a series of quizzes, and these probably represent the basis for learning activities in many classrooms: I have adapted and used these as classroom quizzes and as research projects, involving library and Internet research as well as ‘Find out from a native speaker’ activities. This again works with Atkinson’s ‘received view’ (op. cit.): while there is potential for attention to variation within the target language group, the approach to culture is essentialist in that there is an implicit association between group characteristics and behaviours.
In this piece of television, the implicit knowledge view can be explored through the ways gender roles are dealt with – who answers the door; whose habitat is the kitchen. Students can understand why things are like this from their own knowledge of life. More specific instances of language use, such as the meaning and offensiveness of taboo words can be explored with native-speakers so that an appropriate sensitivity to such words is developed.
iii) Culture through reflection
Whereas the implicit knowledge approach outlined above deals with groups – both in terms of the groups sharing inherited wealth, and the learning activities for the classroom, this approach views culture as individual positioning in relation to these groups. Kramsch sets out the notion of ‘third place’ (Kramsch 1993: 233) a cultural space between the ‘home’ and ‘target’ language identities for each individual foreign language learner to occupy. Thus, the cultural dimension of language learning is a form of intercultural learning, realised primarily through a reflective process where new ways of viewing self and others are developed. Within this paradigm also a range of broad curricular goals for foreign language learning might be located, for example, the Gestalte approach to FLL in a European context (Legutke and Thomas 1991). Since this approach focusses on the individual learner, and his or her response to texts and experiences, classroom activities tend to be awareness-raising, and guidance for reflecting and viewing. The central role of the individual’s response to their learning about other groups, and the possibility of his/her developing an identity and position in relation to these different cultural groups, provides an opportunity for teaching which corresponds to what Atkinson describes as a ‘critical view’ of culture (Atkinson 1999:628). However, the focus on the individual may mean insufficient attention to dominant discourses about cultural groups and resources, a point addressed in Kubota (1999) in relation to constructions of Japanese culture in TESOL, and in Kiely (2003) in relation students’ mutual stereotyping in an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) classroom. The Royle Family segment facilitated a critical perspective in two ways. First, it challenged pre-conceived notions of what the English are like, notions often informed by the other Royal Family or the social life depicted in the novels of Agatha Christie. Second, it stimulated reflection on how the social group presented in The Royle Family corresponds to social groups in the students’ own society.
d) Culture as a verb
This approach represents ethnographic perspectives on the role of culture in foreign language learning. Culture is seen as a ‘lived’ entity, and as such can be observed in the behaviours of community members, and understood through their constructions of it. Barro et al (1993) and Roberts et al (2001) exemplify this approach for the language classroom, with activities based on training in observation techniques for students learning the foreign language in immersion contexts. Legutke and Thomas (1991) describe the ‘doing’ aspects of this approach, for example a project where a group of EFL student organise a Jumble Sale in an English church hall. In my own programmes for students who are lodging with host families in Britain, I use activities which involve exploration of cultural practices within these social contexts, for example, how living space is shared with pets in the house, how family members get their names, or what they have for breakfast. Among these potentially ethnographic activities is a focus on television. Where students watch television with host family members, especially soap operas and other types of drama, they have an opportunity i) to use television as a way of structuring, mediating or scaffolding their conversations in English in this context, and ii) to understand the complexities of culture through the stories recounted through the TV dramas, the explanations and comments of the host family member, and the responses to these of the student learning English. Culture as a verb is evident Lessons 3-6 in Table 1 in the way the students as observers construct ethnographies of the three interactions – mother and father initially, mother and daughter in the kitchen, and father-in-law and son-in-law in the living room. These coherent accounts build on the observed behaviours and linguistic data, and draw on a) their own experiences of family life, and b) their knowledge of the lives of families other than their own. Aspects which students tapped into include the topics broached, for example, as Barbara and Denise express anger with Jim, and the men’s engagement with the topic of the menopause. Observations regarding the body language – touching and eye contact – were made in almost all the lessons described in the table above. Japanese students on different occasions commented on how little eye contact there was – a deviation from what they had been led to expect about interactions in a British context.
All these approaches to dealing with culture within a foreign language curriculum, in this case EFL, have been developed and are implemented to avoid simplistic or negative stereotyping, and to provide a platform of intercultural understanding which supports the more linguistic aspects of language learning. They can all however, emphasise difference, and so run the risk of instantiating and reinforcing essentialism:
A received view of […] culture(s) that sees them in the most typical form as geographically (and quite often nationally) distinct entities, as relatively unchanging and homogenous, and as encompassing systems of rules or norms that substantially determine human behaviour (Atkinson 1999:626).
Even more seriously there is the risk that the focus on difference constructs an orientalist view, where there is a rigid boundary between the two cultures, and this boundary also represents a superior-inferior relationship. Kubota (1999) sets out how this approach represents Japanese culture and Japanese learners as defined by deficits when compared to ‘western’ culture and learners. Pennycook (1998) illustrates a similar process in the discoursal construction of ‘traditional’ Chinese learners of English. These essentialist and orientalist tendencies are likely to be reproduced in the FL classroom where there is a focus on the target culture only, and this focus identifies differences from the unarticulated other, and the curricular process develops the sense of distance between the two. It is in the nature of the received views set out above that they will prevail, i.e. will be the default settings for individual learners of EFL, unless there is an active pedagogy to critique this view, an accessible strategy in the classroom to allow learners to see similarities as well as differences, and grasp the complex nature of both.
The use of television material described in this article brings together three separate teaching and research issues in EFL and FL education: television as a source of teaching materials, the teaching of culture within the framework of a foreign language course for upper-intermediate and advanced students, and a form of teacher research which is grounded in pedagogical decisions and actions.
A central point in this account of teaching culture in EFL classrooms underlines the richness of television texts for language learning. In addition to the intrinsic value of the linguistic and cultural elements of the text, their use in this particular context promotes and supports naturally-occurring interactions in the target language community – conversations with host family members. The two roles of television in the curriculum represented in this paper - as source of video extract used in the classroom, and as context for learning through conversations both inside and outside the classroom – illustrate its potential contribution.
ii) Teaching Culture
This article sets out a series of lesson experiences based on a television segment, and related to four approaches to the task of teaching culture in the foreign language classroom. This is an ongoing task for the foreign language teacher, whether carried out in a planned way, or dealt with incidentially as the need for cross cultural explanation arises. Teachers are likely, as in this case, to work with all four approaches, so that the focus of learning involves a constant shuttle between life and institutions of the target language, making explicit implicit notions of the target culture, reflecting both on one’s own (small and large) culture, and living within a target language community. The learning activities in this paper promote all of these, based on observations, inferences from these observations, and exploration of similarities and differences. These lessons show the value of a transcript, both as a means of scaffolding comprehension of interactions, and as a resource for engaging with the linguistic and cultural complexities embedded in these. The development of the exploitation over a number of lessons illustrates the benefits of exploring the cultural content first, and from a platform of shared understanding here, engage with the language forms and the choices they represent.
iii) Teacher research
This article explores how the routine, development work of teachers in their classrooms can be framed epistemologically for a wider understanding of how programmes work. The learning activities presented in this paper have not been researched in any conventional way – the activities were not recorded, no one was interviewed. The field notes are notes made on the worksheets during the lessons, aides-memoire on aspects of the activities planned and issues raised by students for future use. The teacher and researcher are the same person, and the lessons only have participants, no observers or witnesses. The writing of this paper is an assertion of the belief that much can be learned about teaching from such accounts. Teachers’ insights into classroom processes, the problems they identify and the innovative solutions they develop do not always feed into our shared understanding as a profession of how EFL programmes work. Language programmes start with course outlines, lesson plans and learning tasks. In implementation there is inevitable adaptation as these constructs accommodate to the realities of lesson contexts, the affordances of materials and the preferences of students: it is these adaptations that we need to explore, in order to understand how programmes work.References
Atkinson, D., 1999. TESOL and Culture. TESOL Quarterly 33 (4) pp 625-654
Barro, A., M. Byram, H. Grimm, C. Morgan, & C. Roberts, 1993. Cultural Studies for Advanced Language Learners. In: Graddol, D., L. Thompson & M. Byram (Eds.) Language and Culture. BAAL and Multilingual Matters, Clevedon.
Bowers, R. 1992 Memories, metaphors, maxims, and myths: language learning and cultural awareness. ELT Journal 46 (1), 29-38
Harvey, H. & Jones, R. 1992. Britain Explored. Harlow, Longman.
Kiely, R. 2003 What works for you?: A group discussion approach to programme evaluation. Studies in Educational Evaluation Vol. 29 No.4 pp. 293-314
Kramsch, C., 1993. Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Kubota, R., 1999. Japanese culture constructed by discourses: Implications for Applied Linguistics research and ELT. TESOL Quarterly 33 (1) 9-35.
Lantolf, J., 2000. Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Legutke, M. and Thomas, H. 1991. Process and Experience in the Language Classroom. Longman, Harlow.
Pennycook, A., 1998. English and the Discourses of Colonialism. Routledge, London.
Roberts, C., Byram, M., Barro, A., Jordan, S., & Street, B. 2001. Language Learners as Ethnographers. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.Web sites:
These websites provide background information on The Royle Family and allow purchase of video and DVD copies and books of scripts
The Royle Family – Excerpt from Series 2, Episode 5
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