Teaching Culture in Portuguese Class

Alanna Breen, Instructor of Portuguese and Spanish, University of South Carolina

Encountering culture through life experiences is natural, memorable and engaging, but teaching culture sometimes seems forced and forgettable. Yet cultural sensitivity and a bit of specific cultural awareness may be the only things that stay with students taking languages just to graduate. For the past few years, I had freedom over my own courses, and one of the things I overhauled was how I approached culture. For example, in second semester Portuguese, I dedicated four classes to culture with the themes of music, sports, Carnaval, and history.  Full disclosure: I ran those class periods in English because it was more important for the students to discover and absorb a great deal of cultural input. Follow up was done in the target language. The culture days were more like culture weeks as they were preceded and followed by work at home, including posting and responding to posts in a private Facebook group that I had set up for each class. For that, I had a professional Facebook account, but if I were to do it now, I would use Google Scholar.

`           Before the class on music, students had to read a page in their textbook about music in Brazil and answer the brief comprehension activities;  write five new words learned from the reading; search for a very recent news article in English that discusses news directly related to Brazilian (or Lusophone) music culture, print it and write a one to two sentence summary in Portuguese on it; and search for and choose a song that they personally like (in Portuguese but from any country), listen to it and figure out the gist of what the song means, print the song lyrics, and arrive at class  explain (in English) how they found/chose the song plus what it is about.  During class, the students get in small groups (or one big group) to share their song and music-news discoveries. After talking in groups for a while, we listen to clips of songs that they call out as well as a couple bits of significant or famous songs that I briefly discuss. Before the next class, they must post their songs on the wall of the Facebook group along with a sentence in the target language about it.  Then, before the following class meeting, everyone must comment in Portuguese on two other songs that have been posted.

Through these steps, a culture reading evolved from a comprehension spot check activity to an enthusiastic conversation in which everyone came ready to say “I found this song I really like and I get what it means.” This kind of cultural experience, combined with using songs for teaching, gives us all a greater appreciation for music as a universal culture.  Moreover, students tell me months later that they certain songs on their Spotify lists came from our class.


My Three Go-Tos

Erin Carlson, Instructor of Spanish, University of South Carolina, ecarlson@mailbox.sc.edu

Regardless of whether you are like me—a slave to a procedure—or more free-spirited, I wholeheartedly believe in the routine I use to start each of my classes. These three activities have served my students and me very well as class starters, but they can be employed at any point during your daily lessons. They work well in a communicative classroom and help prepare students for the IPA. But if you or your school haven’t made the leap to the communicative model or to the IPA as your assessment yet, they still work well.

I always start my classes with a diario, a phrase of the day, and questions of the day.

The diario is an authentic reading that matches the themes of your unit—the culture, the grammar/ support structures, and the vocabulary—and the students answer 3-4 comprehension questions about it. If, for example, your unit is centered around life after school—the job hunt—then you could have students reading authentic resumes that you find online in the target language. If your unit is centered around the house—rooms, furniture, chores—you could find ads describing homes for sale in the target language. It can be tougher to find readings for the beginning of level I, but it’s still possible to do: focus on small bit of language and cognates! I have photocopied the contents page of a magazine and asked about page numbers, I have used job or passport applications and asked what might be written in a certain sections, etc. If all else fails, you are certainly able to use readings that you find in your textbook’s materials and use them. The goal is to have your students reading Spanish everyday—that’s hopefully authentic—not to exhaust yourself while trying to find an authentic unicorn.

Create questions that focus on the vocab, grammar and themes from your unit as well as on cognates. These readings are meant to warm up the students, not beat them down mentally before class has really begun. They are also a great way to ‘sneak in’ culture; you can point out word variations, cultural differences, and more.

Have the reading available to your students as they enter the room and the questions posted somewhere. I would print and photocopy the readings and have the questions on a PowerPoint slide already up and ready for them to get started. I found that doing the diario at the beginning of class got the students seated and working quietly each day, it gave them a chance to ‘switch on’ their ‘Spanish brains’ and warm up in the language, and it gave me a chance to get myself adjusted to that class. The rush of switching between levels and taking care of administrivia (attendance, absences, giving back papers…) during the first few minutes of class is always so obnoxious when I am also trying to corral students, but they work on diarios while I do what I need to do, and then we can start class smoothly when the diarios are done.

I typically gave the students about 5-10 minutes to do the reading and then we went over the answers together as a class. You can also ask for volunteers to answer individually or call on random students to keep them on their toes and to ensure completion and participation.

Don’t reinvent the wheel: Try to find longer readings from which you can squeeze three to four days’ worth of questions. It’s a pain to find a new reading every day, to copy it, etc. Also, you can find pins on Pinterest with links to lots of authentic readings and resources. Try this one for telling stories, for example: http://www.spanishplayground.net/online-spanish-stories-kids/

I like to follow the diarios with the phrase of the day. These phrases can serve many purposes—teaching beginning students handy phrases, like ¿Cómo se dice…? or ¿Me permites ir al baño? They can expand on the given vocabulary list for a unit—additional ways to talk about the weather, for example. They can be phrases to strengthen their speaking and writing—like sentence connectors, ways to agree/ disagree, etc.

After each set of 10-ish, I quizzed the students on the phrases. I also required them to use their phrases in both the speaking and written portions of their tests and quizzes. It worked really well, and my students sounded less like Spanish robots and more like Spanish speakers, because their production was sprinkled with these phrases that improved what they were saying and writing.

Don’t reinvent the wheel: Because I am human, I simply had the same set of phrases of the day that I recycled every year and used the same set for all levels, but you—daring, exciting teacher that you are!—could have different phrases of the day for each of the levels that you teach. You can also find pre-made lists on Pinterest; try this site: https://lenguajeyotrasluces.com/2016/01/31/expresar-la-opinion/

Because I required phrases of the day on tests and quizzes, I also required them in students’ daily practice. One place to practice using them in speaking is in the questions of the day—las Preguntas del Día, or PdD. Oh, how I loved PdD! They serve so many purposes: 1. Students practice speaking in the target language. 2. They are an excellent gauge of how well students are acquiring the content of the lesson. 3. They prepare students for the speaking portion of the IPA.

I would write the questions of the day on the back board of my classroom, but putting them on a PowerPoint slide or writing them up as you start the activity—or some other way that you like—also work well. I created questions that reviewed the content that we covered in class the day before and that set them up to be successful for the speaking portion of the IPA (review where we’ve been while steering them toward the final destination.) If we struggled with one of the questions one day, I might repeat it—or a similar variation—the next day or two in class, as well.

Each day, we looked at the questions, discussed what they were asking, and discussed what some possible answers could be—all as a class. Then I gave them time to work with partners to practice with each other one on one for about two minutes. Then I had the students do a double circle (Half of the students stand in a circle shape, shoulder to shoulder, facing out; the other half of the class stands in a circle around this inner circle standing shoulder to shoulder facing in—so that each person in the outer circle is facing a person in the inner circle. See the visual and forgive my drawing skills.)


In this formation, the students then practice with a different person from the class, and then I would have them move—outside circle only—two or three students either right or left to practice again, and then, depending on time, perhaps another move around the circle to practice a third time.

My classroom is set up in a semi-circle purposefully to allow space for this double circle formation (which I use for other speaking practice activities, as well.), but there are lots of ways to partners students up to practice—or perhaps you stop after they practice with a partner near them for two minutes. You do what works best for you, your students, your curriculum, and your specific needs and limitations. Just because you don’t do it exactly like I did doesn’t mean that it’s not amazing—and maybe even better than how I do it.

Don’t reinvent the wheel: Keep a list of your PdD as you go in your first year. Make note of which questions worked well and which were a bust. Note which required extra practice, as well, and that can inform how you plan this unit the next year. I also used these questions—or very similar questions—on both my writing quizzes and as part of the speaking portion of the IPA. The students knew that they were likely to see the questions—or similar ones—later on important assessments, so they took the practice time more seriously and it cut down on my prep time in creating the assessments, as well. (two birds, one stone!!)

I love these activities, and I found that they really helped to lay a great foundation of skills for my students—not just within the unit or class, but as Spanish speakers in a world where they can actually walk out the door and use the language. They are short but mighty; even if all I could squeeze into my lesson on Pep Rally day or Fire Drill day were the diario, phrase of the day and questions of the day, then I felt great that my students read authentic Spanish every day and had conversation in Spanish every day. I hope that you will find them to be helpful as well, and if you would like any more information or explanation, please feel free to email me!