Case study: The Cultural Twist Project: a language learning framework with cultural awareness activities

Author: Hitomi Masuhara


The Cultural Twist Project attempted to offer solutions to the problems of 'Less Widely Used Lesser Taught Language (LWULT)' teachers (i.e. academic isolation, lack of expertise and materials) by providing a Cultural Awareness Materials Development Workshop and the Cultural Twist Website. The workshop provided the participants with cultural experience and helped them discover for themselves their implicit assumptions and sense of values that underlie their language use. Using the evaluation criteria and materials development framework, teachers were guided to produce their own language teaching materials with cultural awareness elements in them. The website was designed to offer all the necessary tools, sample materials, and useful links.

Table of contents

This case study was produced as part of the Extending good practice in less widely used less taught (LWULT) languages project, funded by the Subject Centre.

1. Context of the project

The School of Languages (SOL) (formerly The Centre for Language Study (CLS)) in Leeds Metropolitan University (Leeds Met) has been one of the major centres in the north in offering 18-20 Less Widely Used and Lesser Taught Languages (LWULT) (e.g. Arabic, Finnish, Hungarian, Japanese, Norwegian, Punjabi) since the 1960's. SOL has also been promoting research into Cross-Cultural Capability and has hosted several international conferences. SOL has an international reputation in research and practice in Materials Development for Language Teaching and offers annual international conferences and postgraduate courses. SOL has also been involved in the development and promotion of two FDTL projects (DEVELOP and CIEL).

Through our activities, needs and wants had been identified for language learning materials that help learners to become sensitive to language use and to discover cultural assumptions that drive language use.

Our systematic materials evaluation (Tomlinson et al, 2001) revealed that such needs and wants are rarely, if at all, addressed by currently available materials, which tend to focus on teaching discrete vocabulary and structures using a PPP method (i.e. Present, Practice and Produce). Cultural elements may occasionally feature but the methodology remains knowledge transmission of cultural anecdotes that do not lead to learners examining implicit cultural assumptions made in the target cultures and in their own culture.

This problem seemed even worse for the LWULT teachers because they are mostly part-time native speakers who do not always possess academic or pedagogic expertise. They may wish to produce better materials but they need time, a place, resources, expertise and strong encouragement to do so.

Leeds Met has relevant fields of expertise and a remarkable number of teachers and learners of LWULTs. There seemed to be a great opportunity to create synergy in Language Learning and Teaching, Materials Development and Cross-Cultural Capabilities in Minority Languages as well as in ELT. What was needed was funding to support systematic staff development and materials development programmes.

Hitomi Masuhara ( decided to design and launch the Cultural Twist Project as HEFCE Minority Funding Subject Leader and Coordinator for Lesser-Taught Languages.

Her role responsibilities included:

  • Staff development (pedagogy, specialist subject knowledge, research, professional skills, IT)
  • Overseeing the implementation of the Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategy among LWULT teachers
  • Liaising with learning support in improving subject-based resources for the library and the Open Access Centre
  • Counteracting academic isolation by creating subject-based networks and links
  • Developing Open and Flexible Learning materials to support teaching, learning and assessment.

2. The project

The Cultural Twist Project was selected as one of the seven projects for the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) funding in 2002-2003, which was given for projects focussing on the dissemination and transfer of innovative practice in the area of Less Widely Used and Lesser Taught languages (LWULT).

Furthermore, the Project received the Highly Commended Award in the category of Innovation in Teaching and Learning of Chancellor's Awards in Leeds Metropolitan University in 2003.

The Cultural Twist Project intended to:

  • produce materials evaluation criteria, a flexible framework for materials development for cultural awareness and sample units in different LWULT languages.
  • help the participating LWULT language teachers gain self-confidence and expertise in materials development through workshops and writing experience.
  • disseminate and transfer good practice by sharing the criteria, inventory, framework and sample materials on the web.

3. Innovative features of the project

Firstly, The Cultural Twist materials employed a Cultural Awareness Approach in which participants were given cultural experiences and encouraged to discover for themselves their implicit assumptions and sense of values that underlie language use. The Cultural Awareness Approach tries to explore the multiplicity of cultures amongst individuals and tries to address the needs for internal awareness or sensitivities that could serve any cultural encounter.

Such an experiential approach contrasts sharply with the approaches employed in currently available materials in Minority Languages. Most of the Minority Language materials tend to focus solely on teaching discrete vocabulary and structures using a PPP approach without any reference to cultural elements in language use.

Cultural discussions may occasionally feature but the topic coverage is often limited to stereotypical national cultures (e.g. British vs Romanian Culture based on a personal opinion) which do not take into account the dynamic and individualistic nature of cultures (e.g. a child born from a Russian & Finnish mixed marriage growing up in France working in England; a Hungarian professor having a dinner conversation with Russian, Romanian, Turkish, Punjabi and Chinese scholars at an international convention in the United Nation). The methods used in current Minority Language teaching materials are heavily based on knowledge transmission.

Table: A comparison between traditional language materials and materials using Cultural Awareness Approaches
  Currently available materials arrow Innovation using cultural awareness approach



Culture as well as language

Learning philosophy

Learn by knowledge transmission

Learn through experience

Learn through discovery

Language teaching method

PPP method (i.e. Present, Practice and Produce)

Holistic and experiential learning

Discovery approach to language and culture

Method for teaching culture

Explanation of target cultures often involving statistics, generalizations, anecdotes and experts' explanation.

The knowledge tends to be:

  • external, in that it is given to us by someone else
  • static, in that we do not modify it from experience
  • articulated, in that it is reduced to what words can express
  • stereotypical, in that it refers to general norms rather than specific instances.

Procedures that will encourage:

  • gradual development of an inner sense of the equality of cultures
  • an increased understanding of our own and other people's cultures
  • a positive interest in how cultures both connect and differ.
  • broadening of the mind
  • increasing tolerance

These perceptions are gained from experiencing the culture, either directly through visiting a culture or indirectly through the internet, the media, literature, films, songs, etc.

For the discussions of principles and procedures of Cultural Awareness Approaches see Tomlinson and Masuhara 2004

Secondly, The Cultural Twist Project was innovative in terms of offering a way towards solving the problems of LWULT teachers through Materials Development Workshop as part of SOL (then CLS) Staff Development, and through the Cultural Twist Website.

Table: Tackling the Problems of LWULT teachers

Current Problems


Innovations of the Cultural Twist Project

academic isolation


Through Materials Development Workshops

  • Experts give stimulus to teachers through demonstrating experiential approaches to using their materials.
  • Experts, English language teachers and LWULT teachers discuss theory, issues, problems and solutions.
  • Teachers are given time, place, resources and peers necessary for writing materials.

Through The Cultural Twist Website

  • The Cultural Twist Website explains the theory and practice of developing Cultural Awareness Materials.
  • The website will contribute to creating subject-based networks and national and international links.

lack of experience and expertise


Through Materials Development Workshops

  • LWULT teachers experience Cultural Awareness Materials in English first to understand the principles that can be applied to any Minority Language.
  • LWULT teachers receive stimulus, advice, feedback and support from experts all through the material writing workshop.
  • They are given materials development tools that they can make use of (i.e. generic evaluation criteria, an inventory of activities and a materials development framework).
  • They experience team writing and peer feedback.
  • They have opportunities to present their materials to other peers to receive further feedback and ideas.
  • The materials are trialled in teachers' classes and revised.

Through the DEVELOP project

  • Tandem Observation is encouraged during the trials of the materials.

lack of appropriate materials


Through Materials Development Workshops

  • At the end of the Cultural Twist workshop, participants have units of materials for their languages.
  • At the end of the workshop, teachers exchange the materials that they have produced. This means each teacher has a number of units of materials that can be adapted for each language.
  • Experience of materials development and understanding of the principles and procedures helps teachers to produce further materials.
  • Teachers can use materials development tools for further materials writing.

Through The Cultural Twist Website

  • The Cultural Twist Website explains the theory and practice of developing Cultural Awareness Materials.
  • The Cultural Twist Website has materials development tools (i.e. generic criteria, an inventory of activity types and a materials development framework) that teachers can make use of.
  • The Cultural Twist Website has sample materials that teachers can get inspiration from for their own materials development.
  • The Cultural Twist Website has a link with the CIEL project (i.e. Independent Learning with the use of the internet).
  • The website will contribute to creating subject-based networks and national and international links.

4. Outcomes

The Cultural Twist Website was produced and placed in the Learning and Teaching Section of the School of Languages webpage in Leeds Metropolitan University Website that included the following materials:

  • Generic materials evaluation criteria that can be used to evaluate the existing materials and new materials in terms of cultural awareness in language use
  • A generic inventory of cultural awareness activities from which teachers can select
  • A flexible framework for producing language learning materials with cultural awareness built into them
  • Sample units of language learning materials that incorporate cultural awareness activities in English (generic model) and Arabic.

A weekend workshop on 'Developing Materials for Cultural Awareness' was held on the weekend of June 20-22, 2003 in Ingleton, West Yorkshire with 15 participants from Leeds Met and also external national and international participants.

The Cultural Awareness Approaches using the English materials have been incorporated in an article and published as a feature article in Modern English Teacher (Tomlinson and Masuhara, 2004).

Furthermore, The Cultural Awareness Approaches using the English materials were also publicised at international conferences:

  • 13th World Congress of Applied Linguistics. Applied Linguistics in the 21st Century: Opportunities for Innovation and Creativity. 16 - 21 December, 2002. Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre.
  • 'MATSDA (Materials Development Association) Conference. Ways Ahead 11 January 2003. Leeds Metropolitan University.
  • 7th Biennial International Conference of MELTA (Malaysian English Language Teaching Association). English Language Education: Transcending Boundaries. 18-20 May 2003. Sheraton Subang Hotel & Towers, Selangor, Malaysia.
  • H.Dillingen, Germany at the International Weekend Conference for Teachers of English - New Approaches in ELT Materials Design and Development - Joint Conference between Dillingen Academy, British Council Germany and MATSDA (Materials Development Association). 19-21 September, 2003. Joint Presentation with Brian Tomlinson.
  • IATEFL (International Association for Teaching English as a Foreign Language) International Conference to be held in Liverpool from 13 to 17 April, 2004. Joint Presentation with Brian Tomlinson. This presentation was chosen as a Key Presentation by Literature SIG of IATEFL.

5. Lessons learned

The plan was well-received. The participants of the workshop held on June 20-22, 2003 in Ingleton were enthusiastic and very positive about their experience. Those who used their materials reported how successfully the classes went.

One of the major problems, however, lay in obtaining commitment from the part-time teachers. Hitomi Masuhara, the organiser, had hoped the venue of the workshop, its content, and the payment and working conditions would attract the LWULT teachers. They said they were interested. Eagerness expressed, however, did not coincide with the final participation number.

LWULT teachers are busy teaching during the term time, they are busy with assessments in June and early July and they go off for a long family holiday, often in their home country, during July and August. All of them are part-time workers so they often work for other institutions or they have family commitments.
Arabic, Russian and Portuguese teachers were going to attend the materials development workshop on June 20-22nd but in the end only an Arabic tutor attended the workshop. She produced the student materials and she has now left for New Zealand with her family.

Solutions may include:

  • Running week-end/ week-day materials development workshops during which teachers can actually produce materials (this requires resources).
  • Forming a core team and producing proto-type units for others to follow (Arabic, Norwegian and Hungarian teachers have contributed so far).
  • Make minor modifications to the plan and producing units in English as examples so that LWULT teachers can modify the sample materials to create versions in their languages.

Another of the major problems lay in the fact that the project was designed, organised, and carried out by a single organiser without any clerical help on top of all her other work commitments. Designing and maintaining the web required specialist support but it has not been available due to the fact that Leeds Met has been undergoing major changes in publicity policy including the design of the web and IT support structures.

Solutions may include:

  • Carefully estimating organisers' work and guaranteeing the hours and human resources for sharing work
  • ensuring the clerical and IT support
  • creating a working team for organising and continuing the Project.

Despite these constraints, the award-winning Cultural Twist Project has produced a useful website, strong publications, and materials development tools that have been highly appreciated by participants at the workshop in Ingleton and many other teachers all over the world who have used them. The design of the project, the tools, and the principles and procedures explained in the article (Tomlinson and Masuhara, 2004) should be applicable not only for LWULT language teachers but also for those involved in teaching any languages and cultures.


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Related links

The Cultural Twist Project

Intercultural Press

The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA)

Teaching English: Intercultural learning

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