Understanding the Impact of Culture on the TESOL Classroom

Risse, M. “Understanding the Impact of Culture on the TESOL Classroom: An Outsider’s Perspective,” TESOL Arabia’s Perspective 18.2 (2011): 15-19.

It is important that TESOL teachers in Arabia are aware of possible cultural miscommunications. Hall states, a “full understanding of what happens inside a classroom must… be based on an understanding of the sociopolitical forces with which students must contend outside the school” (2002, p. 87). As students’ behavior in class is influenced by the students’ cultural background, it is vital to make both students’ and teachers’ cultural expectations clear in order to decrease the chance of misunderstandings (Hung, 2009, p. 68). To help facilitate cross-cultural understanding, I believe it is important to explicitly define aspects of a culture which effect behavior in educational situations, then one can suggest how teachers can teach effectively within the cultural framework.

Business paradigms are well-aware that understanding the cultural milieu is vital for success. For example “Understanding the Role of Culture” is the third chapter in International Management: Managing across Borders and Cultures (2007). Deresky writes “a critical skill for managing people and process in other countries is cultural savvy…a working knowledge of the cultural variables affecting managerial decisions” (p. 90).

This “savvy” is also needed in the classroom as Scollon and Scollon (2001) explain in Intercultural Communication. They make the point that teachers need to be aware that some Asian students, “find it difficult, at least at first, to deal with the inherent difference between their cultural expectations of a hierarchical system and the commutative classroom expectations of symmetrical solidarity” (p. 215).

Aisha Al Harthi (2005) also illustrates the importance of understanding cultural difference in the classroom in her article “Distance Higher Education Experiences of Arab Gulf Students in the United States: A Cultural Perspective.” She explains how basic differences between Western and non-Western world views can impact student learning, for example, the importance in Arab cultures of avoiding direct confrontation and not appearing “too eager” in the classroom (p. 9).

The purpose in explicating culture is not to encourage teachers to ‘molly-coddle’ students, but for TESOL teachers to understand that student behavior is, in a large part, a manifestation of culture. This understanding helps avoid unexpected and unnecessary conflict. Below are a few examples complied by teachers, staff and students at Dhofar University.

Example 1 – Before Teaching

Aspect of Culture: In Omani culture, friendship and working together is very important.

How this is manifested in Dhofar University students: During the advising period, students will often ask that they are put in the same class as their friends or relatives. In class, students will often sit in the same seat, next to the same person every day.

How a teacher can react:

When registering students:

  • Advisors should try to get friends/ relatives in the same class if it is possible.
  • If it is not possible for friends to take every class together, advisors need to explain the situation clearly and give the students choice (i.e. “the 1pm class is full, but you can both take it at 8am”).

In the classroom:

  • Teachers cannot allow students to switch sections/ show up in other sections to be with friends/ relatives.
  • If students talk or act out in class, teachers should separate students from their friends/ relatives.

That friends sit together in a class might seem normal or expected to teachers from certain cultures, but some cultures encourage students to be competitive in college classrooms or have students sit in assigned seats by alphabetical order or some other classifications, i.e. the idea of taking the exact same university schedule as a friend, sibling or cousin is very unusual. For example, students might choose classes depending on the time, their major or their interests.

In the Middle East, however, sometimes a family will hold a cousin or a sibling back for one year so that two relatives can be at university at the same time. Sometimes relatives or friends who live near each other will want classes at the same time to make car-pooling easier.

This information is also vital for new teachers who are planning first day activities. For example, group work in the first days of class will not work as well as pair work, as students will probably have one or two friends in the class. Pair work will feel comfortable and familiar, whereas group work will throw students into new relationships. This is especially important for beginning learners who may feel ‘shy’ or uncertain speaking in front of the class.

Example Two – Cultural Understanding of Good Behavior

A – Aspect of Culture: It is expected in Omani culture that people will hold their temper, control themselves in public and not get upset over unimportant issues.

How this is manifested in DU students: Students will be genuinely bewildered if a teacher becomes angry over issues such as a student coming late, attending class without materials, or asking the same questions repeatedly.

How a teacher can react:

  • Teachers need to keep their temper, repeating calmly what the rules of the class are and how the students need to behave.
  • If students ask the same questions repeatedly, ask other students, “What is the answer?”

B – Aspect of Culture: In Omani culture, it is not polite or normal to make negative comments in public.

How this is manifested in DU students: If a teacher says “You are bad students” – students will take that to heart, making the classroom more confrontational than it has to be.

How a teacher can react:

  • Teachers should never make general statements such as “you are stupid” or “this is the worst class I have ever seen.”
  • If a student or class is disruptive, teachers should comment on the behavior and explain the problem: “I don’t like it when you come late because it disrupts the class.”

In some cultures it is expected that teachers raise their voices at students, refuse to answer questions or speak brusquely. In some cultures “negative motivation” is normal in college classrooms. This behavior is not conventional in Oman. Teachers need to be aware that this kind of behavior may result in class management problems as students will react to perceived inappropriate anger. It does not matter if a teacher has the best lesson plan, if the class feels insulted or backed into a corner, learning will not happen.

Example Three – Cultural Understanding of the Concept of “Fairness”

A – Aspect of Culture: It is expected in Omani culture that a person with a grievance has the right to say his or her problem to the person in control who will listen before making a final decision.

How this is manifested in DU students: Students expect that you will hear their complaints.

How a teacher can react:

  • Teachers need to understand that they may need to explain the same policy many times, sometimes even to the same students.
  • Teachers must write down all expectations for student behavior and review this document with students.
  • Teachers need to set and keep office hours. If a student tries to start a debate about a given policy, ask the student to come to your office.

B – Aspect of Culture:  Omani culture believes that fairness (treating all people equally and with respect) is very important.

How this is manifested in DU students: If a teacher, for example, allows one student to come into the class late, all the students will note this and remember it. On another day, if a student comes late and the teacher does not allow him/ her in the class, the students will either remind the teacher or make a note that the teacher is not “fair.”

How a teacher can react:

  • Teachers should try to keep consistent polices for all students.
  • If a teacher needs to make an exception, explain this briefly to the class (i.e. simply say “I am letting X come in late because…”).

In some cultures a teacher’s word is law. Students are expected to silently accept and agree with the teachers’ judgments; teachers do not feel that they need to explain their decisions to the class. However, in Oman, students will note and discuss any unfairness, even to the point of bringing up an incident that happened weeks or months previously. This does not mean the students control the class, but that teachers must be explicit about their actions.

Example Four – Cultural Understanding of Student Behavior

Aspect of Culture: The Omani culture encourages people to be reserved, to not speak up or show emotions in public, especially young women.

How this is manifested in DU: Students will often feel “too shy” to speak in class, will refuse to stand up to go to the board, will not want to engage in class discussions. In addition, it is often impossible to know if students are confused because 1) students will often attempt to cover their confusion and 2) students’ non-verbal signals may be difficult for non-Omanis to understand.

How a teacher can react:

  • Address this issue directly. Teachers should tell students, “I need to know when you are confused so that I can go over the point again, but I can’t tell from your faces if you understand or not. Can you please shake your head/ raise your hand/ call out to let me know what you are thinking?”
  • At the start of the semester – if there are older than average students in the class, use them to translate for a week or two. An older student can sometimes be afraid to say if s/he is confused, but if a teacher asks “I can’t tell if the students are getting this – is the class ready to move on to the next topic?” the older student can judge the other students and speak for them without losing ‘face’. As the students get used to this kind of general question, students will start to respond on their own.
  • If a teacher encounters a sea of perfectly blank faces, ask direct questions to check for comprehension, i.e. “What are the three main stages of childhood?”
  • Teachers need to slowly introduce activities such as writing on the board or speaking in front of the class. For example, create small groups and have each student speak in front of their group at least once before attempting presentations in front of the class.
  • Teachers should be aware that, even if they have previous Middle Eastern experience, they may not be able to accurately ‘read’ a classroom for the first few months and should pay extra attention to the very discrete signals that students are giving them.

Some countries encourage college students to express their ideas in class, to challenge the teacher, to demand further explanations if they are confused and to express their opinions. However, “I can’t tell what they are thinking” is a common refrain from teachers who are new to Oman. At Dhofar University, it is unusual to have a rowdy class; students are typically quiet. Omani students will sometimes declare that they comprehend something that is, in fact, not clear to them because they are too shy to admit confusion in public.

This cultural aspect has two important impacts on teaching decisions. First, new teachers cannot expect that students will be willing to write on the board or speak in front of the class during the first week of classes. Teachers will need to check the class temperament and slowly transition students into performing in front of others.

Second, new teachers cannot depend on asking “Any questions?” “Is this clear to you?” or “Are you ready for the second point?” At the beginning of the semester, new teachers will need to do specific comprehension checks for understanding.

Example Five – Cultural Understanding of Group Work

Aspect of Culture: The Omani culture is tribe-oriented, which means that each member is obligated to help another tribe member in trouble. This is expanded to the general belief that if a person is specifically asked for support, he or she is obligated to assist. At the same time, it is rude to point out if a person fails to help. Thus, people who shirk group responsibilities are not ‘called out.’

How this is manifested in DU: Students are happy to work in pairs and groups but if one member refuses to work, the other students will simply do that group member’s work for him/ her. This can lead to resentment and anger over grading issues.

How a teacher can react:

  • For a shorter assignment, teachers can have students choose their own pairs and have students start the work in class so they can check to see that everyone is working.
  • For a longer assignment, teachers can give students a list of what steps they will have to take to do the project and then have students report which student will do which step.
  • For a longer assignment, teachers can have one or two meetings with students one-on-one to check progress. If a teacher asks a group “how are you doing?” the answer will be “fine,” even if there is a serious problem because it is not polite to discuss problems in public. A teacher can usually only find out that there is a problem within the group if the teacher talks to each student alone.
  • At the end of the project, teachers should ask groups to create ‘task sheets’ in which students have to explain what tasks each student did. This sheet must be signed by all students.

In some cultures, students will ‘police’ each other in groups to make sure the work is divided equally. If there a student who is not working, the other students will discuss the issue with the teacher. In Oman, to “tattle on” another student is shameful behavior, i.e. Omani students will usually not make it clear if a student has not done any work on a group project. The problem becomes clear only on the day the assignment is due or when the teacher assigns grades.  New teachers who are used to self-regulating groups will need to build additional structure into group assignments. Teachers should also check on the students periodically to make sure the group work is evenly distributed.

Example Six – Cultural Understanding of the Importance of Family

Aspect of Culture: In Omani culture, the family/ tribe have the absolute priority at all times.

How this is manifested in DU: Students will sometimes come to class unprepared because of family obligations (weddings, funerals, Eid celebrations, taking family members to the hospital or visiting family members in the hospital, etc.) For example, when it rains in the mountains, students may need to go help family members with livestock.

How a teacher can react:

  • Teachers will have to have a policy about accepting late work and make that policy clear to the class.
  • It is impossible to determine if a student was simply sleeping in or if his/ her mother was sick. Teachers should not get into ‘verification’ discussions. If a teacher is told about a family emergency, say, “I am sorry; you still need to do your homework.” If it is a serious problem (death of a parent, serious illness) the student’s friends will come and tell the teacher (see above point about the importance of friends) or the university administration will inform the teacher.
  • Teachers need to understand that even if a student wants to do the class work, the student is never in control of his/ her time. If, for example, a relative stops by the house, the student may be obliged to stop doing the school work to entertain the relative.
  • Teachers can explain to students the importance of school work and can create policies to help students, but even the best students will occasionally say “Sorry, teacher, I missed class because my family needed me.”
  • Teachers should avoid ‘school work is more important than family’ discussions; the framework should be about ‘managing time’ or ‘making priorities.’

Teachers who come from cultures in which college students live alone and are responsible for their time can have trouble adjusting to Omani culture. Similarly, teachers from cultures in which college students live at home and are ‘protected’ (i.e. college studies are seen as more important than family obligations) are confused by the privileging of family over school work. New teachers from non-Arabian cultures need to understand that directly attempting to impose their own cultural values (studying is more important than family) will only result in misunderstandings and anger.

Teachers should never deliberately set up family vs. class work dichotomies. New teachers need to understand that trying to figure out if a student’s parent is “really” in the hospital is a waste of time. Similarly, conversations such as, “Why do you have to help your sister with her wedding? How many sisters to do you have? Why don’t the other sisters help your sister? Your project is more important!” are insulting to students.

Dedicated students are aware of the necessity of meeting both family and university obligations; they need the teacher’s encouragement and helpful suggestions to time management strategies. Students who are less interested in studying will see teacher attempts to explain that homework is more important than family obligations as ridiculous. Teachers should not simply accept “I had to help my family” excuses without comment, but should be realistic and set policies for late assignments, then enforce them.

In conclusion, TESOL programs should be encouraged to collectively write up similar lists and discuss them with teachers and students. If the information is presented in a verbal format, such as during a beginning of the semester workshop, the first two steps can be written down and then the presenter can lead a group discussion to help teachers brainstorm ideas. A classroom in which students and the teacher understand and respect each other is a classroom where learning takes place without unnecessary interference.


Deresky, Helen. (2007). International Management: Managing Across Borders and Cultures. New York: Prentice Hall.

Al Harthi, Aisha S. (2005). Distance Higher Education Experiences of Arab Gulf Students in the United States: A Cultural Perspective. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 6/3: 1-14.

Hall, Joan Kelly. (2002). Teaching and Researching Language and Culture. Essex: Pearson Education.

Hung, Yu-ju. (2009). Reader Response and Ethnicity: A Difference That Makes a Difference. English as International Journal, 4: 66-91.

Scollon, Ron and Suzanne Wong Scollon. (2001). Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.