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Cultural mirrors – Television drama
in the EFL classroom
by Dr Richard Kiely
- 1

Part two in the three part series

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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:

  • time for TV viewing, say morning and/or evening;
  • place for TV viewing, say a bedroom or a communal space; and
  • silence or ongoing conversation while TV viewing.

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.

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