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The Impact of Teaching Culture on Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary

Knowledge in Iranian EFL Learners

Saeed Ghaniabadi, Ph.D, sghaniabadi@yahoo.com

Neda Alavi, MA, ne_alavi@yahoo.com
Abstract: The language picture of the world is different for every nation. It
depends on many reasons but the most important of them is culture. Culture
is the way people of any community see the world around them- their way of
thinking, behaving and reacting to the world and to other people. Language
teachers must have knowledge of how learning is shaped by culture. Second
language reading and vocabulary skills are challenging tasks for foreign
language learners. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether
teaching culture in EFL classes and EFL students' knowledge of target culture
influence their understanding of vocabulary and their reading
comprehension. To accomplish this study, a true-experimental design was
employed. It was carried out at Hakim Sabzevari University and Samen
Tarbiat Moallem of Mashhad, Iran, with 2nd grade students at the ELT
department where the participants were homogenously placed in different
groups according to their TOEFL scores. All the participants in this study
were given a pre- and a post- test on vocabulary and reading
comprehension, though the treatment process was used only for one of the
groups (the experimental group). The main finding of this study is that
incorporating cultural aspects of English-speaking countries into teaching
process is essential for improving the students' understanding of the
language and reading comprehension. T-tests determined that the treatment
group, who were exposed to the cultural schemata during the process of
teaching vocabulary and reading, outperformed the other group. The
researcher hopes that the findings of this study will provide insight into the
connection between EFL learners' vocabulary knowledge, reading
comprehension and cultural knowledge.
Key words: Culture, reading comprehension, vocabulary breadth of
knowledge, foreign language teaching


Defining culture is difficult because anthropologists have not agreed upon

its definition. They have multiple answers to the question, what is culture?
Each school of thought has a different perceptive of culture.
According to the view of some anthropologists such as Mead (1961),
culture is the patterns of behavior and thinking that people living in social
groups learn, create, and share. Hofstede (1991) defined culture as "the
collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one
group or category of people from those of another". According to the foreign
language teaching professionals in the United States, there was a
comprehensive set of standards for foreign language education, including
culture standards. Their definition of culture was based on three interrelated
dimensions: products, practices, perspectives (National Standards in Foreign
Language Education Project, 1996). Moran (2001) adds two important
dimensions to the components of culture: persons and communities. He
defines culture based on these five dimensions and believes that culture is
the evolving way of life of a group of persons, consisting of a shared set of
practices associated with a shared set of products, based upon a shared set
of perspectives on the world, and set within specific social contexts (p. 24).

A culture is the way people of any community see the world around them
their way of thinking, behaving and reacting to the world and to other
people. Culture also shows the life style in the target community. Culture and
teaching language cannot be separated, thus culture must be taught while

teaching a target language. According to Chastain (1988), teaching culture in

EFL classrooms has got a crucial role of the course. It is a well-known fact
that language teaching and culture are bound and during international
communications students require social and cultural awareness. As we know,
language cannot be separated from the culture in which it is embedded. If
we cannot be successful to draw students attention into cultural elements, it
will produce some misconceptions in the students minds.
Culture is a set of rules and behavior pattern of the people who live in a

Language, as a container and creator of meaning, also is an

important aspect of culture of each nation and these two aspects - language
and culture - can never be separated. A proper understanding of a language is
impossible without a full awareness of the cultural context in which it is used. Since language
and culture are closely interrelated to one another, English learners encounter some difficulties
when they tend to learn English as a foreign language. From 1930s, the anthropological
linguistic works of Hall (1976), Sapir (1949), and Whorf (1956) urged
linguistics to recognize the fact that language was not simply a system of
signs to be coded and decoded on paper, but it was a system concluded from










communicating human needs, wants and desires which vary from person to
person, from community to community. For L2 students, language study seems senseless
if they know nothing about the people who speak the target language or the country in which the
target language is spoken. According to Bada (2000, p. 101), the need for cultural literacy in ELT
arises mainly from the fact that most language learners, not exposed to cultural elements of the

society in question, seem to encounter significant hardship in communicating meaning to native

speakers. Cultural mistakes and linguistic misinterpretations can be avoided if

the educational system places importance on the cultural literacy and

linguistic proficiency (Simon, 1980).
The dialectical connection between language and culture has always been
a concern of L2 teachers and educators. Recent studies focus on the
seamless relationship between L2 teaching and target culture teaching,
especially over the last decade with the writings of scholars such as Byram
(1994), Byram & Morgan (1994), and Kramsch (1993). Pulverness (2003) also
claimed that due to the undeniable growth of English as an international
language, cultural content as anything other than contextual background
was included in language teaching programs.
A language does not exist on its own but it is embedded in the culture of
a people and reflects the beliefs and thoughts of the speech community. For
many university students who study a foreign language as part of their
educational requirements, reading comprehension and vocabulary learning
have long been considered as essential skills of their English learning.
Language is the carrier of culture and vocabulary has been known as the basic ingredient of
language. We should know there is a big difference in the connotative meanings of vocabularies
in the target language. These cultural differences are inevitably exhibited on the vocabulary and
we can say in a word, culture is a comprehensive composite with abundant implication, and each
factor in it may be exhibited on words (Zhang Xue-Wei & Yan Ying-Jum, 2006).

Learners of foreign language may rarely find chances to communicate

with native speakers orally, but they can read different texts in different
subjects with varying degrees of detail and difficulty. As stated by Bernhardt
(1991), the ability to read is accepted as the most stable and durable of the
second language modalities. In other words, reading plays a vital role in
second language acquisition. Reading is a process in which the knowledge of language,
the cultural background knowledge, and other specialized knowledge are altogether in effect.
The cultural background knowledge plays an important role in reading comprehension (Zhang
Xue-Wei & Yan Ying-Jum, 2006).
Because words help us to improve reading and since language and
culture cannot be broken off, cultural instruction for foreign language
learners is extremely crucial especially in reading and vocabulary teaching.
The present study intends to investigate the impact of teaching cultural



the learners




vocabulary knowledge among Iranian learners of English as a foreign

Review of Literature
Reading is defined as the most important academic language skill (Carrell,
1988a; Grabe & Stoller, 2001). Richards and Renandya (2002, p. 273) also
point out the special role of reading comprehension. They believe that there
are two reasons for considering reading as the most important skill in
language learning. First, many foreign language students often have reading

as one of their most important goals. Second, various pedagogical

purposes served by written texts help reading to receive this special focus.
Transformational Generative Theory asserts that reading comprehension
begins at the smallest and simplest language units and each single word,
sentence and passage carries its own meaning independently which has no
direct link with the reader. Accordingly, teaching reading becomes teaching
of language points known as grammar and vocabulary. When students have
problems in comprehending the text, they are told that they fail because of
their poor grammar or limited vocabulary. In this point of view, reading is
simply decoding. When decoding ends, reading comprehension is realized. In
that case, if comprehension does not go on successfully, it is the reading
material that causes the problem grammatically or lexically. This theory
highlights the influence caused by language structure more than the readers
own influence.
Recent scholarship indicates that reading comprehension is not simply
unidirectional information - receiving activity or only an activity of
comprehending words, sentences, and texts. Reading comprehension is the
process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through
interaction and involvement with written language. Reading was accepted as
a passive skill in early accounts, then the role of the reader changed and was
...typically described as extracting meaning from a text (Wallace, 2001, p.
22). Lately, reading has started to be described as interactive rather than
simply being active. Wallace defines the bottom-up model reader as passive,

the top-down model reader as active, and interactive model reader as

Carrell (1991) believes that bottom-up processing mainly stresses on
literal comprehension, surface meaning, translation into L1 and use of
dictionary which have specified this model as data driven. Contrary to
bottom-up models, in top-down models the reader is expected to bring her
background knowledge to the text. In this model it is evident that the flow of
information proceeds from the top downward so that the process of word
identification is dependent upon meaning first. The top-down model includes
skimming, scanning, activating background knowledge, predicting, thinking
of the authors main idea, finding clues, contextual guessing, and associating
image which have specified this model as conceptually driven(Grabe and
Stoller, 2002).
The criticism against bottom-up and top-down models led the theorists to develop a new
approach: the interactive model. Rumelhart (1977) proposes an interactive model as a model in
which both the letter features or data-driven sensory information and non-sensory information
come together in one place. In this model, reading is not viewed simply as either a bottom-up
or a top-down process, but instead as a synthesizing of patterns, calling for the application and
integration of all the previously identified knowledge sources.
Experience teaches us, and different studies confirm the indispensable
role that words play in human communication. Without words, language
would be reduced to mere gestures and symbols. Laufer (1998) argues that guessing

the meaning of words is not possible unless one knows at least about 95% of the neighboring
words. Many authors have discussed the importance of context (Nation, 2001). They claim that
speakers cannot assign any meaning to words in isolation. From their views, meaning emerges
from the connection between words in context. When reading a story with a familiar
theme, especially one from the native culture, L2 readers might more easily
activate the appropriate background concepts and hence more efficiently
process the text. Not only is it important for the learner to have the
background knowledge to read more efficiently and understand the meaning
of words appropriately, but that knowledge also needs to be activated.
Culture and language learning involve a dynamic relationship between the
situation and the actors in which cultural context, prior experience, and other
factors come into play (Street, 1993). Many English teachers ask a question: Is it really
important to teach British, American or English speaking countries culture? Does it really help
students understand the language better?

Tavares and Cavalcanti (1996) answered these

questions. They believed that culture and language are interrelated and language is used as the
main medium through which culture is expressed. They pointed out that culture is not only
present in the classroom setting but also in the language that is being taught (p. 18). They also
agreed that bringing cultural studies of English speaking countries closer to students will help
them to better understand the language, its background and usage (ibid.). Linguistic
competence alone is not enough for learners of a language to be competent
in that language (Krasner, 1999).
Culture is often neglected in EFL and ESL learning/ teaching. But changes in
linguistic and learning theory suggest that culture should be highlighted as an

important element in language classrooms. Ideas originating in sociolinguistic
theory and schema learning theory forced experts to try to find a link between
culture and language learning. Sociolinguistic theory focuses on the social and
cultural aspects of language. In a sociolinguistic perspective, competence in
language classes is determined not only by the ability to use language with
accurate grammar, but also to use language appropriate to particular contexts.
Thus, successful language learners should know the culture that underlies the
language. Schema theorists also propose culture as key to language learning.

Schema theorists think about the concept of culture from the cognitive point
of view whereas sociolinguists think about it from a social point of view. In
addition to these two theories, cultivation theory also provides a rationale for
addressing culture in a foreign language classroom. According to cultivation
theory, culture effects changes in individual perception and is vital for
expanding an individuals perspective of the world. From this point of view,
learning about culture changes a person from a nave individual into one
who understands the ways in which he is shaped by cultural forces.
When the main aim of foreign language teaching is to develop students ability
to communicate effectively and appropriately in various situations, the teaching of
culture should facilitate intercultural communication and understanding. Valeete

(as cited in Stern, 1992, p. 213) summarizes the goals of culture teaching in
five categories:

Cultural awareness, including geographical knowledge, knowledge

about the contributions of the target culture to world civilization,











understanding of values and attitudes in the second language

Command of etiquette, i.e., polite behavior;
Understanding daily life, including unfamiliar conventions;
Understanding the cultural values, requiring the interpretation of

the target culture and the learners own culture;

Analysis of the target culture.

Stern (1992, p. 212-215) also stresses on the cognitive aspect of culture

teaching, i.e. knowledge about the target culture, awareness of its
characteristics and differences between the target culture` and the learners
own culture, and affective goals of culture teaching, i.e. interest,
intellectual curiosity, and empathy.
Damen (1997) also posited that learning culture in the classroom provides
two distinct advantages: 1) As an artificial community, the classroom draws a
culturally protective wall around those within, bestowing less severe
punishment for the commission of linguistic and cultural errors that could be
met outside its walls; 2) The classroom community is managed, unreal,
forgiving, and protective, but it is also an environment that provides unique
opportunities for experimental intercultural communication. If administered
well, this community may provide the first step on a long journey of cultural
discovery that will end improvement in the world outside the classroom.
In the history of the teaching of culture different approaches can be
noticed. They can be classified in different ways. In very broad terms, they
can be divided into two: those which focus only (or mostly) on the culture of
the country whose language is studied (the mono-cultural approach) and


those which are based on comparing learners own and the other culture (the
comparative approach).
In addition to the above-discussed approaches, there are a number of
approaches that are centered on various aspects of a given culture or









approaches concentrate on both giving knowledge and understanding of the

countrys culture and encourage students to compare it with their own.
The theme-based or thematic approach to the teaching of culture is
based around certain themes, for example, symbolism, value, ceremony,
love, honor, liberty, patriotism, religion, and education, which are seen as
typical of a culture. Though this approach is mono-cultural by nature, it tries
to show the relationships and values in a given culture and, therefore, helps
learners to understand it better.
The topic-based approach concentrates on more general and crosssectional topics which involve various cultural issues. According to McLean
(1994, p. 80), a topic-based approach can provide an indirect but original
encounter with British life and culture. It deals with key elements of current
British life, such as class, privatization, education, health, not in isolation but
within a series of unifying contexts.
No matter what approach is used, it is important that the teaching of
culture never loses sight of the individual (Brooks as cited in Seelye 1993,
p. 135). Seelye (1993) also goes on to say that firstly the focus should be on
how societal values, institutions, language, and the land affect the thought


and lifestyle of someone living in the culture we are studying. Secondly,

comparison of ones own and the other culture is also important (p. 135136).
Choosing to use effective and practical techniques to teach culture and bring cultural facts
into foreign language classroom is also very important. Here are some strategies and techniques
for introducing cultural elements while teaching a language in the classroom. In teaching
language and culture to students, there are several strategies of which teachers may profit.
Lafayette (1976) suggested some specific activities for integrating culture and the teaching of
vocabulary, grammar, listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing. He also indicated
that teaching strategies should fall into one of the four main typologies:

Strategies for information and understanding,

Strategies for teaching students to behave appropriately in the target culture,
Strategies that allow students to do cross-cultural analysis, and
Strategies that afford students opportunities to culturally conditioned behavior.

According to Rivers (1981), a very useful way of teaching culture is through textbooks and
readings which provide learners with the knowledge about the foreign culture. Short stories,
poems, scenes from plays, and articles from leading newspapers and magazines have been
treated as wonderful contents for classroom instruction that they all can be adapted in a course
Research question
To achieve the research objectives outlined above, the following research
questions should be considered:
1. Is there any relationship between EFL learners ability to comprehend
reading texts and their cultural knowledge taught in their language class?


3. Does culture teaching bring about any variation in foreign language

learners understanding of English vocabulary?
Research Design
The present study formed with one independent variable - culture
teaching - and two dependent variables including reading comprehension
and vocabulary knowledge of EFL learners. The technique of research used in
this study was quantitative. Therefore, in order to show the relationship
between variables which have been selected, the true experimental design
was used.

The study had two separate groups of participants: (1) pilot studys
participants by whom the researcher could check the reliability and validity
of the culture proficiency test, and (2) real studys participants. The
participants of the pilot study were twenty upper-intermediate students who
were studying English as a foreign language in Sabzevar Shokouh Institute.
About eighty undergraduate EFL learners, male and female, educating at
Hakim Sabzevari University and Samen Tarbiat Moallem center of Mashhad,
aging between twenty to twenty four years old, were the first participants of
the real study from whom the researcher selected 65 according their TOEFL
scores 30 participants from Sabzevar University and 35 participants from


Samen Center. Then the researcher randomly selected each group as the
experimental group (Sabzevar University) and control group (Samen center).
The researcher used two TOEFL tests for this study. Firstly, a TOEFL test
(2001) was selected as a concurrent test to check the validity of the culture
proficiency test. Since the culture proficiency test (pre-test/ post-test) has
been constructed from two reading passages and some questions on
vocabulary knowledge, the researcher only selected the reading section of
this TOEFL test including 45 questions. Secondly, a sample test of TOEFL
(2007) was given to find out whether the participants were homogeneous or
not. This TOEFL test consisted of only these two sections: structure and
written section (20 questions) and vocabulary and reading comprehension
section (including 20 vocabulary questions and two reading passages, each
with 20 questions).
The researcher constructed a cultural proficiency test including 50
questions used as the pre- and post-test for this study. Four reading passages
about Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving Day, and English-American daily
behaviors and customs were also given to the participants of both the control
and experimental groups.


In the first phase of the study, all 80 participants completed the TOEFL
test. Among all 80 students, sixty-five participants were selected based on
their TOEFL test scores. (35 students from Samen Tarbiat Moallem Center
and 30 students from Hakim Sabzevari University were selected). In the
second phase of the study, the researcher took a pre-test for both the
participants of the control and experimental group. In the treatment phases
of the study, the students of the experimental group were guided and
informed about the American idioms, superstitions, their holiday customs,
and their daily behaviors. The researcher taught these topics for four
sessions, one session per a week, asking the participants to compare the
Iranians culture with the Americans, and finding some information about an
American cultural topic to discuss inside the class. Then the researcher gave
a post-test to the students of both the experimental and control group.
After gathering the data and in order to check the null hypotheses, the
subjects performances on the tests (pre- and post-test) were scored and the
researcher used t-test as a proper statistic formula to show the effect of
teaching culture (culture of English speaking countries) on vocabulary gain
and reading comprehension.

Results and findings


The results of pre- and post-tests were statistically analyzed to compare

the means obtained by the two groups to determine the effect of the
Results of the pre-test
The major question addressed in this study was whether teaching culture
would improve Iranian EFL learners vocabulary learning and their reading
comprehension at the upper-intermediate level of language proficiency.
Before the implementation of treatment (i.e., culture instruction), the
researcher administered a researcher- made culture proficiency pretest to
experimental and control groups in order to compare the two groups means
obtained from the pretest. To capture the initial differences between the two
groups means on pre-test, a t-test was applied. The descriptive data and ttest results appear in Table 1 and Table 2.
Table 1.

Characteristics of Culture Proficiency Pre-test













Note. SD = Standard deviation; M = Mean; C1 = Control group pre-test; E1 = Experimental group pretest.
n = 35. b n = 30.

Table 2.

Independent t-test for Pre-tests


Std. Error


Pair 1 C1-E1





p (value)




Note. df = Degrees of freedom; C1= Control group pre-test; E1= Experimental group pre-test.
P < .05 is significant.

The comparison of pre-test scores of the control group (M = 18.14, SD =

7.09) and the experimental group (M = 18.60, SD = 7.12) revealed no
significant differences between the two groups, t (63) = .257, p (value) = .
798 > .05, ns.
The results of pre-tests were supposed to be compared with those of post-tests to measure the
progress of the students in both groups to determine the impact of culture instruction on the
improvement of the vocabulary knowledge and reading skill of the participants.
Results of the post-test
For the purpose of finding the discrepancies between the experimental and control groups on
both reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge, descriptive statistics were carried out
whose results are provided in Table 3.
Table 3.
Characteristics of Culture Proficiency Post-test


















Note. SD = Standard deviation; M = Mean; C2.R = Control group post-test (reading section); E2.R= Experimental
group post-test (reading section). C2.V = Control group post-test (vocabulary section); E2.V = Experimental group
post-test (vocabulary section).
n = 35. b n = 30.


However, the question of the current study is whether the improvement in the participants
reading comprehension performance of the experimental group in the post-test is a result of the
treatment or not. Thus, an independent t-test was employed and this time the post-tests of both
groups were compared to obtain statistically the evidence required to test the first null
hypothesis. The results appear in Table

Table 4.
T-test for Post-tests in the Experimental and Control Group (Reading Section)
Pair C2.R- E2.R
p (value)
Equal Variances
Note. df = Degrees of freedom;; C2.R = Control reading post-test; E2.R = Experimental reading post-test.
*p < .05 is significant.

The mean score of the experimental group, which received the treatment for
utilizing cultural knowledge in reading comprehension, was significantly
higher than that of the control group, t (63) = 2.738, p = .008 as a whole.
That is, in spite of the fact that both the experimental and control groups had
similar levels of English proficiency, the participants who had instruction on
how to use target culture to read different texts drew more inferences than
those who only read them with no treatment.
Similar analysis was carried out on the scores of both groups to determine the usefulness of
teaching culture in the students breadth of vocabulary knowledge. To determine the
difference in control and experimental groups performance on vocabulary
knowledge, another t-test was carried out. The results are shown in Table 5.
Table 5.

T-test for Post-tests in the Experimental and Control Group (Vocabulary Section)

Pair C2.V E2.V



Std.Error Difference






p (value)


Note. df = Degrees of freedom; C2.R = Control vocabulary post-test; E2.R = Experimental vocabulary post-test.
*p <.05 is significant.

The above table reveals that the experimental group performed significantly better than the
control group, pointing to the fact that the using cultural points and activities as a new concept of
English teaching process for EFL learners resulted in improved performance of the learners
vocabulary ability, t (63) = 2.351, p = .022 < .05. That is, the experimental group outperformed
the control participants after using these cultural subjects for teaching process.
The purpose of this study was to investigate the effectiveness of culture
instruction on the vocabulary knowledge and reading skill of Iranian EFL
learners. In doing so, the learners were given opportunity to learn about
culture in their language class. The results of the research suggested that
the better performance of the learners in the experimental group indicated
the effectiveness of culture teaching. These findings also confirmed that
there was a meaningful relationship between teaching culture and L2
readers comprehension of texts unlike what was mentioned in the first null
hypothesis of the study. The more cultural knowledge the teachers use and
teach in L2 classes, the better the short stories, novels, and reading texts are
comprehended by foreign language learners. In the ideal foreign language
classroom the teaching of culture should be an integral and systematic


Developing a culture-based approach for teaching will be dependent upon many factors such as
teachers cultural knowledge, natural setting for teaching or classroom setting, the attitudes of
learners towards foreign language, and also implementing a completely culture-based
curriculum. These factors have an impact on the success and failure of culture teaching in
language classrooms. For example, Damen (1997, p. 5) indicates that teachers as cultural guides
and their correct cultural knowledge plays the most important role in language classes.
Textbooks also can serve as one of the decisive factors in culture learning. Wandel (2003)
suggested that textbooks should contain materials allowing and provoking diverging opinions
and discussions on cultural issues.
The findings of this study verified the importance of teaching culture as an effective way to
achieve a good reading comprehension and to have vocabulary breadth of knowledge. Once
cultural competence is recognized as important as linguistic competence, appropriate attention
could be allocated to the teaching of culture to students learning a second or foreign language.
Overall, the main findings of this study are consistent with the suggestions from previous
research that there is a positive relationship between students knowledge of target words and
their reading comprehension (e.g. Carrell, 1987; Chastain, 1988; Johnson, 1981; and Al-Issa,


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