8 Intercultural Teaching Strategies

Culture is often taken for granted and so, intercultural communication is not a real issue, until it becomes a problem. Intercultural teaching strategies are increasingly important for two main reasons. First, a highly mobile and globalised world and modern technology give us ample opportunity to travel and work across national boundaries, even if communication can take place for instance in the professional environment, in a virtual setting by means of video-conferencing. And secondly, due to immigration and travel trends, modern societies are increasingly multicultural.

Why are intercultural strategies so important? In intercultural contexts, being equipped with knowledge, respect and understanding of foreign cultures is not only a skill, but also a very significant asset. For these reasons, intercultural competency is essential in our private and professional lives.

However, which strategies are best suited to teach intercultural competency?Whether you are teaching intercultural competence inside or outside the classroom, there are a few strategies that are more efficient than others. As Kolb (1984: 38) explains, “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”

Intercultural Teaching Strategies

Founded on the experiential learning method (source: Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.), the following strategies are presented within Kolb’s experiential learning cycle framework (Kolb, D.A. (1976). The Learning Style Inventory: Technical Manual. Boston, MA: McBer.) to endorse the notion that learners best acquire skills when they reflect on and experience learning (hands-on learning). For instance, when explaining a recipe to a friend, the best way for that friend to learn the recipe is to assume a hands-on approach and assist you in making that recipe (and naturally tasting it afterwards). In this way, the learning approach is active (preparing, making and tasting), as opposed to passive (hearing about a list of ingredients). 

Based on experiential or hands-on learning, these intercultural teaching strategies include methods that engage students in various collaborative exercises to stimulate communication and exchange in small-groups through brainstorming, developing solutions, analysing outcomes and reformulation or restructuration, if necessary. The nature of the activities encourages metacognitive skills development because they promote problem-solving exercises, informal group work, simulations, case studies, and role-playing. Situated within the experiential learning cycle framework (Kolb, D.A. (1976). The Learning Style Inventory: Technical Manual. Boston, MA: McBer.), each strategy below is presented and described with an activity. An illustration is also presented for each one.

Stage I: Concrete Experience

1. Engage Students to Look Inwards in Small Groups

Revisiting personal intercultural experiences is a springboard for learning. Most people love to share personal anecdotes to illustrate a point of view or personal experience. From a sociolinguistic perspective (source: Riley, P. (2007). Language, culture and identity. London: Continuum. Pp. ix, 265), people construct, show and validate their identity in sharing personal anecdotes. In doing so, they use language, in the form of discourse, as the mechanism to communicate ideas or opinions. Cultural attributes are conveyed through this dialogue, but also through the use of non-verbal communication

For instance, ask the students to form groups of four with people from whom they believe they are likely to learn the most in an intercultural setting. The students are encouraged to create a learning environment that offers them the best possible learning experience. Ask them to reflect on and each share an intercultural experience or situation that they previously encountered on vacation or in daily life. While taking turns, the other three students in the group should listen and try to reinterpret the experience, whilst attempting to provide a different perspective of that experience.

Perhaps the intercultural experience has something to do with a situation based on new foods, customs, traditions, rituals or clothing. In any case, to be prepared when confronted with an intercultural situation, we must consider the following questions:

  • How do I perceive this intercultural situation?
  • What do I wish to achieve in this situation?
  • Which strategy must I adopt to achieve my personal goals or objectives?
  • Will I show a lack of respect if I pursue these personal objectives?
  • Must I perhaps politely negotiate an outcome and consider the other person’s objectives?

When people explore these different questions, they undergo a conscious (then subconscious, with experience) process of critical, reflective thinking and acting that enables them to navigate through intercultural environments. In personal and professional contexts, negotiating outcomes is a significant lifelong transferable skill especially from one cultural context to another.

The above questions also provide insight into interpersonal skills and in particular, the nature and respect of the other person’s perspective. This creates an opportunity for an individual to learn, share, teach and exchange while promoting intercultural communication. This process also helps to dismantle cultural barriers, while obliging students to reflect by looking inwards and learning from personal experience.

Illustration (one student’s anecdote):

One day, I was waiting at the bus stop on Main St. and West Ave. and an older Chinese man slowly came up to the bus stop. Just before he sat down on the bench, he made a horrible sound while clearing his throat. I thought he was having trouble breathing, so I looked at him in wonder and got up from the bench. But he simply sat down, ignored me and continued. He was not shy about his actions. On the contrary, just before the bus arrived, he violently hacked one more time and then spat his phlegm at the ground, not far from my shoes. I was so disgusted that I missed my bus!

Stage II: Reflective Observation

2. Improvisation and Examination as a Group

To better illustrate the situation, an anecdote can be brought to life through improvisation. Through reflective observation, the opinions of the students on the various cultural experiences will likely converge or diverge. The divergence is of particular importance and significant value, since the inconsistencies between experience, perception and understanding will lead to further reflection, discussion and debate. They should however, refrain from judging or expressing opinions when the anecdote is being told. Perhaps they will need to ask several questions after listening to clearly understand the situation. 

Reviewing and reflecting on the experience and these differing perspectives will engage the students in the understanding that sometimes, the logic behind a cultural situation is not clearly defined, but rather negotiated. The other members of the group should have a moment to contemplate the situation. 

Illustration (fellow student’s reactions):

Perhaps this man was ill and suffering? Or perhaps he wasn’t “all there”? Maybe this was “normal behaviour” and part of his culture?

3. Case Study: Research the Behaviour

Before pronouncing a final judgment on certain behaviour, encourage the students to adopt another methodology. Teach them to conduct research while fact-checking. This will also assist in pushing previously acquired stereotypes or clichés aside. When in doubt, an investigative practice is a very important method to adopt in our 21st century which is plagued by fake news, misinformation and disinformation. Consider all of the logical perspectives and have them weigh the solutions and eventual outcomes.

Illustration (student’s rationale as a group after the research phase):

‘If someone tried to spit at me, I would scold them and not put up with the behaviour!’ retorts one student.

In fact, spitting (expectorating) is considered normal behaviour in Chinese culture. A relevant and necessary action, it is embedded in Chinese culture and perfectly acceptable there. This is the problem. This action may be acceptable behaviour in China; however, it is considered revolting and rude elsewhere (in the Western world). In fact, spitting is also acceptable behaviour in some parts of Indian, South Korean and some Arab and East African cultures.

Stage III: Abstract Conceptualization

4. Polling and Consulting the Other Groups

Ask the students to poll the other groups in the classroom to see if this particular situation has been experienced by a different student in a different context. The reflection on the case study gives rise to an investigative activity to study if this behaviour has already been witnessed (in daily life or perhaps on vacation while travelling). Note-taking is important to assimilate the facts and information. Was there perhaps a modification in the behaviour or reaction of either person? What has this group learned from the experience, before, during and after in the polling stage?

Illustration (after poll):

Only one student experienced and observed an incident while vacationing in India. However, in this case, the expectorating was limited to dribble around the mouth, while an elderly man, sitting beside his table at the outdoor market was chewing a sort of tobacco. There was no coughing or hacking involved. He simply smiled as the student passed and did nothing to clean his teeth or face.

5. Assessing Reactions

While polling the other groups, ask the students to note down non-verbal or verbal feedback (positive or negative) to evaluate and assess their reactions. The students who are doing the polling are involved in attentive observation and analysis, while the other students are consciously engrossed in reflection, communication and discourse.


While the majority of the students frowned upon spitting, a few soccer players admitted to occasionally spitting on the field during or after a game. The act of spitting was greeted with disgust and disapproval. Some said it was a lack of education and respect for others. Most students expressed that their reaction would likely be expressed nonverbally (a look of disgust or disapproval) and in terms of proxemics (distancing themselves from the person who spits). They would not engage in a verbal discussion.

Stage IV: Active Experimentation (Co-operative Student Projects)

6. Simulation and Teamwork through Interaction

With this strategy, the objective is to encourage students to immediately apply the knowledge they have acquired to adopt different cultural behaviors: the more unexpected, the better. This is done to test their classmates and see what happens around them. Ask each group of students to two find similar non-verbal or verbal acts, which reflect cultural behaviour codes. This strategy is based on the idea that students must show how culture can influence people’s expectations and behavior. One student in each group will assume the role of secretary and observer, while noting down the (verbal and non-verbal) reactions from the other students in the class. This role is very important, since it is often human nature to make unilateral judgments, and act or react upon these judgments. After this activity, the students can then report back to their own group or the class.


In this group, the students decided to base all of their communication on non-verbal actions. There is a fellow who coughs loudly and expectorates (pretends to); a woman who smiles and bows when she encounters all of the other students, and a nervous young man who avoids eye contact.

7. Requesting Coaching and Feedback

Thus far, the proposed strategies reflect a flipped classroom setting, an environment where the classroom time is used to deepen understanding through discussion with peers and problem-solving activities. In this environment, the students are actively searching for and developing their knowledge and skills, while the teacher adopts a secondary role of mediator, consultant or coach.

When and if a problem arises, the students may need or request information from the teacher who responds by providing guidance or instruction and then returns to the role of observing and supervising the activity. In requesting assistance, the group must prioritize their issues, use their judgment and apply critical analysis skills for troubleshooting in order to request or find alternative solutions.


The problem: Within this group, the students were not certain about the last behavior (a shifty young man who avoids eye contact), since it does not have any direct cultural affiliation.

The solution: The teacher encouraged the students to investigate if eye contact has cultural implications. After independent research, the group discovered that a lack of eye contact does not mean that a person is not paying attention. In addition, it does not necessarily signify that the person who avoids eye contact is untruthful, coy or deceitful. In fact, in some cultures, such as Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native American cultures, prolonged direct eye contact is thought to be disrespectful or rude.

8. Intercultural Communication through Role Play

Now that the students have acquired more in-depth experience and information based on research and interaction with fellow classmates, they can proceed to prepare an instructional activity. In their groups, the students can summarize their experience with simulations (see strategy 6) and design an innovative role play based on intercultural communication. Using the research and the reactions or feedback they received, they can proceed to prepare a script and dialogue to illustrate cultural differences.

Based on collaboration, this strategy promotes the use and sharing of acquired knowledge (research and personal or professional experience) to instruct and inform others. It also involves an intricate reflective thought process which requires the development and use of metacognitive skills (judgement, brainstorming, critical and analytical thinking …), because the students will not only amass and structure information, but also prepare, package, and deliver it within the confines of a role play, so as to illustrate intercultural issues and educate others. Furthermore, a project like this one requires that the students interact within a small group to negotiate their suggestions, opinions and priorities. In practice, the process of negotiating demands heightened self-awareness, since the various participants must be willing to explore their own different questions and solutions. Ultimately, to be successful, the group must work as a unit to examine different ways of thinking and doing.

This teaching strategy is implemented to compel students to understand how culture can influence thinking and behaviour. Additionally, it will provide a forum for them to recognize certain cultural behaviour codes and use cultural differences as a resource for active learning and for the design of effective active learning strategies within intercultural contexts. In addition, by means of this strategy, the students will learn through shared experience and expand their intercultural repertoire by making others aware of culturally-shaped interpretations and (stereotypical, acceptable or non-acceptable) responses to a given situation.

While each strategy above is situated within the experiential learning cycle framework (Kolb, D.A. (1976). The Learning Style Inventory: Technical Manual. Boston, MA: McBer.), it should be noted that each of these strategies may be used alone or in combination with the others, outside of the framework. Each one of them engages the students to work towards intercultural competency in an innovative manner.

Related Questions

What is Cultural Competence? Cultural Competence is a lifelong skill and the ability to comprehend and appreciate the fact that cultures can perhaps differ from one’s own world view. It also refers to being able to engage the appropriate communication strategies to successfully interact with people from different cultures. Developing this skill requires an open mind and positive attitudes towards cultural differences, as well as the willingness to continually acquire knowledge of different cultural practices or world views.

What are Intercultural Teaching Strategies? Intercultural Teaching Strategies aim to describe methods that engage students to interact in a way that supports the notion that cultures can be linguistically, culturally or socially different from one’s own culture. Often reflective in their approaches to assessment, these strategies will assist students in becoming familiar with and respecting cultural differences to facilitate communication or dialogue and promote openness across cultures. In addition, intercultural teaching strategies shed light on global issues by integrating respectful, inclusive, and culturally relevant teaching strategies.

Dana Di Pardo Leon-Henri

Dana Di Pardo Léon-Henri is a senior researching lecturer with ELLIADD (EA 4661), currently teaching English for Special or Specific Purposes (ESP) at the University of Bourgogne Franche Comté at the UFR SLHS in Besançon, France. Her research is focused on ESP and LSP Language Teaching, foreign language learning and teaching, pedagogy, didactics, evaluation, artificial intelligence and language teaching, language policy and professional skills development at the higher education level.

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