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Website of the Month - January 2003

Language Assistant - Essential UK
http://www.britishcouncil.org/languageassistant/index.html     Editor: Clare Lavery  

Value for ELT: culture themes/ language activities/ links

Producer of site (and intended audience)

The British Council and the BBC, while the authors are largely freelance ELT professionals. The intended audience are UK university FL students (mostly of French but also Spanish, German and other languages) on their year abroad, as in a UK university you must spend ayear in a country where that language is spoken. This is usually spent as a language assistant in a state school - in UK universities however there is no pedagogical training and you are not qualified to teach when you leave - so the main intention is to support such students with elementary methodology and materials for use in their classes (click on About this site on the site to find more background).

Description of site

It is produced weekly - so in a sense is a magazine - and not solely directed at culture. There are four main sections: Clare’s Tips - simple language activities and common sense advice for new teachers; Essential UK - usually ‘cultural’ with extended activities (and also links) in both a language assistant and a class version; Web links - with a Website of the week - usually language centred, and Discussion - a chat room. More links (a part of Web links) is very strong on ELT but cultural sites are few. Also on the site is a Language Assistant Manual of which Unit 10 is entitled Cultural Content. This review focuses on the Essential UK component.

Accessibility*****

Very easily accessed. It has an archive of the year’s weekly contributions (from Sept) but unfortunately removes the entire archive at the end of the school year so there is almost nothing available in the autumn. If you like an activity - download it just in case.

Range of themes covered **

A mixture of ‘traditional’ themes (therefore festivals and customs - though all are given a contemporary perspective and coupled with potential activities) - and current issues e.g. strong on the range of cultures found in the UK. Focused almost entirely on the immediate interests and ‘received culture’ of teenagers and on popular culture which means large gaps in coverage.

Language level

Not especially demanding and in ‘coursebook’ register. There are few authentic English-language materials.

Value for students  

Age:  13+ *** 16+ **** 19+ *** Lang. level:  pre-int/ int *** upper-int/ adv *** 

The activities themselves are appropriate for school - an age range is given for each (usually 12-18 which begs a few questions). They are teacher-centred so little value to students outside the lesson itself, though texts and links could be used as a resource by students themselves regardless of the surrounding activities.

Value for teachers****/*

It depends on your attitude to culture. If it is the introduction of target culture knowledge emphasising youth culture, festivals and customs, or simply colour for language skills, it is valuable. If you emphasise intercultural approaches based on everyday life and the exchange of cultures through the medium of English, it has little of value. To take an intercultural approach you would need to reconstruct these lessons.

Overall value ***

Certainly useful, up-to-date and effective at introducing cultural themes (especially to younger learners with less developed English) but its value does depend on the approach of the teacher. Good as a starting point, a source of ideas (the links are useful where given) and a way in to bringing culture in to language lessons.

Unfortunately the intercultural arguments in Unit 10 of the Language Assistant Manual are not followed up in a serious way and many lessons seem little more than a collection of ideas. What will the learners take away with them after such lessons? How are their communicative awareness and skills developed to be able to express their own cultures through the medium of English? Is there a systematic approach to cultural understanding? This is disappointing and an opportunity wasted. The implications of giving these activities to future FL teachers in the UK as a model for their future practice as teachers is of concern to FL education in the UK.

The stresses of the weekly deadlines are sometimes evident though it seems more disciplined and better written than last year. The editing could be better as regards language e.g. No child should be allowed to work it’s cruel and in facts e.g. the most popular sport in the UK for men is walking. The removal of the entire previous year’s archive was extremely unhelpful - simply replacing with updated versions when available would have been much better.

Some further comments from a cultural methodological angle

There are a number of reservations, and although the language methodology is often contemporary, and the themes less institutional than 20 years ago, otherwise it is disappointing to find such a traditional approach with no opportunities to develop culture through new cultural methodologies. Its perspective on language is as a national not an international medium - how do these lessons enable learners to use English with FL speakers from other countries?

The themes are a good example of learner-centred but teacher-based, as they are chosen and introduced by the teacher ‘on behalf of’ what is felt to be important to teenage learners. The themes are almost entirely based on the popular cultural experience of UK teenagers without giving space for national or other cultural variations let alone anticipating learners’ future needs. This takes a great deal for granted and not only the universality of teenage culture. Why not have lessons introduced by the learners on what is culturally important to them with the teacher responding with a UK perspective (if there is one)? This would enable learner-based lessons (equalising the teacher-based), give opportunities for genuine cultural exchange and thus develop real communicative skills.

A further point concerns the standard headings Lexical and Cross-curricular, both of which suggest forethought in these areas. The reality however seems to be that they were added after according to whatever ended up in the lesson. There is no consideration of the issues of using English to express the learners’ own cultures which is necessary for a successful communicative encounter. The Cross-curricular entries are often very tenuous and at most in terms of general knowledge, as if discussion of a theme is automatically helpful in the understanding of the academic subject in which it is found. Cross-curricular surely means working with other subject teachers, each contributing according to their subject roots. Here it simply seems fashionable.


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