Initial Publication Date: June 8, 2017

Cultural Challenges and Recommendations for Working with ELLs

Jump Down To: Role of Silence | Class Participation Expectations | Concepts of Time | Narrative Styles | Science Teaching

Many everyday assumptions and expectations regarding human behavior stem from societal views that can vary from one culture to another. We respond to the behaviors of others in subconscious ways that are deeply ingrained. As a result, we fail to realize that such behaviors may reflect cultural values different from our own. Understanding students relies less on learning the traits of specific cultures and more on the awareness that our interpretation is always subject to some cultural bias. Mindful of this fact, we need to remain open to multiple interpretations based on the cultural backgrounds of our students (Trumbull and Pacheco, 2006).

Understanding Non-verbal Behaviors

American school children are explicitly taught the importance of eye contact in the classroom. They are encouraged to "follow the teacher" with their eyes, to smile slightly, and to occasionally nod their heads. All of these behaviors serve as non-verbal signals to the instructor that students are paying attention (eye contact), and that they comprehend the lesson being taught (head nods and/or slight smiles). American instructors have come to interpret these signals as confirmation that students are "on task," and they continue teaching, believing that the slight nodding also indicates comprehension of the material.

In other cultures, however, the same non-verbal behaviors may carry a very different meaning. For example, many cultures consider it appropriate for students to keep their eyes cast downward toward their desk, their notebook, or textbook. Viewed as a sign of respect for the instructor, the lack of direct eye contact is intended to convey attentiveness - that students are listening and taking note of what the teacher is saying. To make eye contact with an instructor may be seen as rude or disruptive behavior (Helmer and Eddy, 2012).

Head nods and smiles may simply indicate polite listening and are often not intended to convey comprehension or agreement. In some cultures, students who make eye contact with the instructor do so only as a sign of confusion (that they have not understood what was said).

RECOMMENDATIONS: In courses with students who are non-native speakers of English, instructors will need to refrain from drawing conclusions based on the body language of their ELL students. At the same time, they need to be explicit in how they would like students to convey their understanding or confusion regarding course content. Note that, for instructors and students alike, these cultural perspectives can be deeply ingrained and often difficult to modify.

Interpreting the Role of Silence

Mainstream American students and instructors are often uncomfortable with prolonged silence. There are several reasons why non-native speakers of English may exhibit a slightly longer period of silence when asked a question in class: (1) the student may need just a little longer to process what was said, to interpret the question, and to formulate an answer in English; (2) in some cultures, it is more respectful to pause before responding, rather than offering an immediate response, as a sign of respect for the individual who posed the question; (3) when a student does not know the answer to the question, some cultures consider the most appropriate response to be "no response" at all. It can be viewed as wasting time (the teacher's time, or other students' time) to speak when one doesn't know the answer (Helmer and Eddy, 2012).

RECOMMENDATIONS: As instructors, allow a little longer wait time when directing questions to students who are non-native speakers of English; sometimes all it takes is just a little bit more time. It may be helpful to give all students a chance to write their response to a question, or to generate ideas with a partner before asking for answers. We can also be reassuring to our students that we value their responses - even when the answer may be wrong - and that we view trying to formulate an answer as part of the learning process. See topic of class participation below.

Addressing Class Participation Expectations

The concept of class participation and the expectations for student engagement vary from one culture to another. Beyond possible language issues, there are many cultural reasons why English Language Learners may be reluctant to respond to questions in class or to voice their opinions (Trumbull and Pacheco, 2006).

Asking Questions
In some cultures, pedagogical approaches do not include the interactive 'question/answer' format found in many American classrooms. It may even be considered selfish to take up class time (and the instructor's attention) by asking questions for clarification, or to confirm understanding. Individual students may feel that drawing attention to themselves in class runs counter to the strong cultural value of modesty that has been instilled in them from an early age

Giving Opinions or Offering Alternative Suggestions
If students come from "a culture in which respecting authority is highly valued, it may be difficult for them to challenge ideas and propose alternative hypotheses" (Deussen et al., 2008).

In some cultures, voicing an opinion or hazarding a guess in class may be viewed as inappropriate or out of place. Often these societies place great value on education and consider time in class with an instructor to be especially important. To make the most of such a learning opportunity, students will speak less in order to learn more from the expertise of the instructor.

Offering Critiques or Criticisms
In light of the preceding remarks, it is not surprising that students from other cultures may be reluctant to offer constructive "peer" criticism, or to respond to such questions as "What are the flaws in this hypothesis?"; "How would you counter this argument?"; "How might you improve upon this paper?" or "What should student X have done differently to get better results?". In many cultures, it is not acceptable to point out the weaknesses in another student's work. Thus, not only do such questions place ELLs in an awkward position of appearing to place themselves above their peers, but, in the process, they require students to offer a personal opinion. In some cultures, not only are students discouraged from giving personal opinions in class, they may be penalized with lower grades for doing so.

Collaborative Activities
Many English Language Learners are not familiar with some of the teaching strategies used in the U.S. educational system. They may be uncomfortable with group work and other types of collaborative learning activities. Without prior experience, they may be unsure what their role should be within the group setting and worry about how such activities will be graded.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Be explicit in the expectations for different types of assignments. We cannot assume that we share the same understanding of a student's role in the classroom. Use simple statements like: "I would like everyone to predict what will happen next. There is no penalty for a 'wrong' answer - I want to encourage everyone to speak." It may help to preface some discussions with "During this part of class, I want to hear your thoughts. There are no 'right' or 'wrong' answers to this question. I would like to hear a range of views and ideas."

Introduce collaborative class or homework assignments gradually. Clearly identify the different roles that students will have within the group, and clarify the outcomes that you expect to see at the end of the task or assignment (Deussen et al., 2008).

Managing Differing Concepts of Time

All cultures do not view the concept of 'time' in the same way. For example, there are important distinctions between "clock time" and "event time" (Brislin and Kim, 2003). In "clock" time, the day is divided into chunks that are then scheduled for different purposes. In mainstream U.S. culture, time is highly valued, measured and controlled. Note the common use of similar expressions to talk about time and money: we "spend" time, we "save" time, we "waste" time, we may "lose" time. In U.S. culture, we tend to view time in a linear, compartmentalized way.

"Event time" means that schedules are "determined by the natural course of events" (Brislin and Kim, 2003). Keeping to a schedule may not be as important as completing a task that has been started rather than stopping work early due to a predetermined schedule. Doing a good job may become more important than meeting a specific deadline, and this view is considered a culturally appropriate response to the situation (Matsumoto and Juang, 2013).

In such cultures, relationships take priority over schedules. A promise to help someone, especially a friend or family member, does not contain time limits. In U.S. culture, if a friend asks you to help them move from one house or apartment to another, you might reply with the following: "Sure, I'd be glad to help...I can give you a couple of hours on Saturday morning." Your friend would understand if you left by noon and the move was not yet completed. However, in other cultures, a promise to help a friend or family member is often made without time constraints. In the example above, by agreeing to help with the task of moving, it is understood that you'll provide support for however long it takes to complete the task. The promise corresponds to the task, not to a particular time frame.

Students from an "event time" culture may be late to appointments, or may miss them altogether. They may fail to meet important deadlines for assignments, not realizing that there are negative consequences for doing so (Brown, 2014). They may hold a belief that it is more important to hand in their best work than to meet an artificial deadline. Other variations in concepts of time include those cultures who think of being "on time" as being early and other cultures with a more fluid sense of time, arriving plus or minus 15 minutes of an appointed time.

RECOMMENDATIONS: It is important to recognize that our view of time schedules and deadlines is not universally recognized and that when ELL students miss appointments or deadlines, no disrespect is intended toward the instructor. As in other areas of potential misunderstanding, it is important to be clear when making an assignment to point out to students the importance of meeting the deadline and the consequences for missing the due date, as well as the appropriate steps to take to request an extension, and under which circumstances it might be appropriate to submit such a request.

Recognizing Different Narrative Styles

Written essays or papers may also reflect traditional cultural perspectives on an underlying level. The way in which a narrative is constructed can vary from one culture to another. What may appear, at first, to be a lack of organization, may in fact represent a faithful adherence to a culturally different narrative style (Connor, 1996).

The English narrative writing style is said to follow a straight linear path -- reflecting perhaps the cultural values of directness and getting quickly to the point. Each paragraph begins with a topic sentence, identifying a main idea, followed by elements designed to support that particular idea. A distinctly new idea requires the creation of a new paragraph.

Many Romance languages reflect a similar progression of narrative style, but along the way, there may be one or more digressions, which are considered culturally appropriate. Rather than a simple, straight arrow, one might visualize this style as a lightning bolt.

A carefully constructed narrative piece in Arabic may look quite different and include a series of elaborate parallel constructions, each one reinforcing the main idea but linked in a manner to reflect a specific relationship (e.g. cause and effect).

Many written narratives in Chinese reflect an indirect writing style. Rather than following a straight linear path to get quickly to the point, traditional Chinese writing styles often prefer to approach a topic gradually, gracefully turning to view it from multiple perspectives while growing ever closer to the main idea. This indirect writing style can be visualized as a spiral.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Assignments written in a culturally different style can lead the reader to interpret the piece as "lacking focus" or as "disorganized" when it might be more accurately described as "differently" organized. In assisting ELL students, it is helpful to offer one or more samples of writing that illustrate how English narratives are constructed in an academic setting. In addition to providing a clear model, it can be effective to talk about how the paper has been constructed and to elaborate on key features and formats that characterize strong academic writing.

Challenges for ELLs in Writing Tasks and Test-taking

Writing styles reveal much more than simply a form of personal expression. An academic writing sample reflects societal expectations and norms for the content to be included in a writing assignment as well as the appropriate presentation of the content to the readers. The direct or linear approach to writing in the US (as noted above) may be viewed as abrupt or rude in other cultures (Writing Across Borders, 2014). Our expectations for the appropriate format used to document sources and our shared understanding of which items require formal documentation (i.e. a footnote) stem from culturally-based assumptions. Writing and documenting academic research papers according to US standards can be especially challenging for non-native writers of English.

RECOMMENDATIONS: ELL students often need precise instructions of instructor expectations for writing assignments. When is personal opinion appropriate and when is it not? Sample papers or bibliographies from previous semesters can serve as guides for writing approaches and proper documentation format. Instructors need to decide to what extent the writing style or grammatical accuracy of a paper will count in the determination of the final grade for a writing assignment. Sometimes, the focus may be more on the concepts and content of the paper (especially for longer writing assignments), while at other times the structure and grammatical accuracy of an assignment may be of particular importance (for specific types of writing, e.g. book reviews, etc.).

It is also important not to overlook the challenges inherent in test-taking for ELL students. The multiple tasks of comprehending the test questions and then preparing a written response in English - take time. For ELL students, more of their test-taking time is likely to be spent interpreting the language used, and determining what type of answer is expected. In addition to the same stress and tension that all students encounter, ELL students often spend much more of their test-taking time trying to understand the language of the test questions and formulating a response in language that this not their first language. Allowing ELL students more time to take important tests will help to offset the foreign language testing issue that they face.

Appreciating Approaches to the Teaching of Science

"The rules of science inquiry (...) may be incongruent with the values and norms of cultures favoring social consensus, shared responsibility and authority" (Fradd and Lee, 1999)

There are cultures that view the study of science, especially at the undergraduate level, to be most appropriately focused on acquiring a body of knowledge, or facts to be learned. Introductory science courses may be seen as foundation courses in which students learn important information about science, but not necessarily the "process" of conducting scientific inquiry - of identifying one or more hypotheses and conducting studies to confirm, reject, or modify these hypotheses.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Be explicit about the norms and expectations for science courses, including labs. Clarity about how we will approach the study of science in our courses and what we expect from our students will enable ELL students to know, from the start, how we want them to proceed.


Brislin, R. and E. Kim. (2003). Cultural Diversity in People's Understanding and Uses of Time. Applied Psychology, 52 (3), 363-382.

Brown, D. (2014). "Language, Culture and Identity" in Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, (6th Ed). Pearson.

Connor, U. (1996). Contrastive Rhetoric: Cross-cultural aspects of second-language writing. Cambridge University Press.

Deussen, T., E. Autio, B. Miller, A. Lockwood, and V. Stewart (2008). What Teachers Should Know About Instruction for English Language Learners: A Report to Washington State.

Fradd, S.H. and O. Lee. (1999) Teachers' roles in promoting science inquiry with students from diverse language backgrounds. Educational Researcher, 28 (5), 4-20, 42.

Helmer, S. and C. Eddy (2012). Look at Me When I Talk to You: EAL Learners in Non-EAL Classrooms. Pippin Publishing.

Matsumoto, D. and I. Juang (2013). Culture and Psychology (5th Ed). Wadsworth Publishing.

Neuliep, J. (Ed) (2009). Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach, 4th Ed, Sage Publications.

Lustig, M. and J. Koester (1999). Intercultural Competence: Interpersonal Communication Across Cultures, 3rd Ed, Longman Publishing.

Trumbull, E. and M. Pacheco (2006). Leading With Diversity: Cultural Competencies for Teacher Preparation and Professional Development, Pacific Resources for Education and Learning.

Writing Center at Oregon State University (2014). Writing Across Borders.