Building cultural awareness inside and out

Photo by Giulia May on Unsplash

I have been lucky enough to work with students from a myriad of cultures over the years. Had anyone asked me if I promote intercultural skills in my students, my response would be swift. Yes, of course!

After all, I have initiated plenty of culturally themed discussions, readings, presentations, digital narratives, and other activities. But after reading more about Intercultural Competence (IC) and, more specifically, Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC), I realize that I am not going far enough.

What is ICC?

Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) derives from Intercultural Competence (IC). Both refer to the ability to interrelate with people from different cultures. According to Byram (as cited in Bickley, Rossiter, and Abbott, 2014), being interculturally competent means you can communicate effectively with people from diverse cultures in your own language. ICC, however, focuses on the “additional knowledge, skills, attitudes and abilities” to do so in a second or foreign language (p. 138). For EAP, obviously, this distinction is important. 

Why should we teach it?

Before Covid, increasing numbers of linguistically diverse students arrived in Canada to study EAP and pursue higher education (as cited in Douglas and Rosvold, 2018). In this multicultural context, communication breakdowns are common. Furthermore, teachers do not always recognize when they are happening. In their literature review of ICC in Canadian EAP classrooms, Douglas and Rosvold show examples of students mistakenly thinking they are being criticized or treated rudely while other students are misconstrued as impolite or critical by their teachers due to challenges of speaking indirectly (p. 31).

It makes sense, doesn’t it, that when students appreciate their peers’ cultural backgrounds and routines, they can communicate more skillfully and more meaningfully? Being sensitive to other cultures does not come naturally (Lueck, Bailey, & Damon-Bach, 2012); we need to build these skills in ourselves and in our students. I am not talking about cursory “compare and contrast presentations” devoted to food and ceremonial traditions, though these can be a start. We must dig into each other’s daily lives, experiences, histories, values, assumptions, and belief patterns to interact successfully and rid ourselves of discriminatory or stereotyped filters that can lead to communication breakdowns and hinder learning.

What is its status in EAP classrooms?

My culture-themed teachings tend to be more impromptu than systematic. Sound familiar? According to the Alberta Teachers of English as a Second Language organization (ATESL), while teachers think that they are teaching their students to be culturally knowledgeable and sensitive, they are not necessarily doing so (ATESL, 2016). In their study, Göbel and Helmke (2010) found that instructors taught culture as a thematic activity, while those inexperienced in ICC would sometimes not teach it all. And in their literature review, Douglas and Rosvold (2018) isolated a need for more ethnorelative (and less ethnocentric) teaching that moves away from acculturation.

How should we implement it?

First, we should integrate ICC into the curriculum more methodically with set outcomes. To assure this, we need a model such as the Adapted Intercultural Knowledge and Skills Strand of the Massachusetts Curriculum Framework used by ATESL, in which students will:

  • distinguish between cultural stereotypes and generalizations (both positive and negative);
  • analyze the everyday behaviours and value systems of Canadian cultures in relation to theirs;
  • discover the balance between acclimatizing to new cultures and preserving their own;
  • and identify culturally bound behaviours (ATESL, 2016).

Second, we should ensure that faculty receive both preservice training and ongoing professional development in ICC. Third, and most importantly, we should equip teachers with the necessary resources, such as those compiled by AETSL and Norquest College (see below).

What are the benefits for students?

Aside from the obvious benefit of building effective intercultural communication skills, students will meet the criteria for traditional EAP outcomes and employability skills (EES), including critical analysis and language development. And in their literature review, Douglas and Rosvold (2018) equated higher levels of satisfaction and academic achievement with increased levels of ICC. According to these authors, as students move through the ICC process, they will learn to “listen, observe, evaluate, analyze, and relate to others” and these skills will result in both internal outcomes (being more adaptable, flexible, and empathetic) and external ones (being able to negotiate intercultural situations effectively) (p. 26).

In conclusion…

Our role as educators is not limited to teaching language. We should equip students with the competencies they need to negotiate their way through the multicultural contexts of higher learning and daily living.

I am excited by the pedagogical opportunities of integrating ICC more specifically into our curricula. With the proper training and resources, there is no end to what we can do. So, check out the following resources and start planning!


ATESL. (2016). Enhancing Intercultural Communicative Competence: A resource based on the ATESL Adult ESL Curric ulum Framework. Retrieved from

Bickley, C., Rossiter, M.J., & Abbott, M.L. (2014). Intercultural communicative competence:      Beliefs and practices of Adult English as a Second Language instructors. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 60(1), 135-160.

Byram, M., & Feng, A. (2004). Culture and language learning: Teaching, research and     scholarship. Language Teaching, 37(3), 149-168. doi:10.1017/S0261444804002289

Douglas, S. & Rosvold, M. (2018). Intercultural communicative competence and English for        Academic Purposes: A synthesis review of the scholarly literature. Canadian Journal of        Applied Linguistics / Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquée21 (1), 23–42. 

Göbel, K., & Helmke, A. (2010). Intercultural learning in English as Foreign Language    instruction: The importance of teachers’ intercultural experience and the usefulness of         precise instructional directives. Teaching and Teacher Education26(8), 1571-1582.      doi:10.1016/j.tate.2010.05.008

Segura-Robles, A., & Parra-González, M. E. (2019). Analysis of teachers’ intercultural     sensitivity levels in multicultural contexts. Sustainability, 11(11)             doi:

I’m Jennifer Hutchison and I teach EAP and communications at George Brown College in Toronto. I have also taught courses in sociolinguistics in the English Foundation Program at Toronto Metropolitan University. In my spare time, I write short stories, read, exercise, and bake (the last two are codependent). Teaching English is my passion. I am curious about the world around me and feel fortunate to have that world brought to me every day in the classroom. Nevertheless, I took a circuitous route to discover this passion. After my undergraduate degree in French and translation, I worked as a translator and then veered off into writing and editing, which I did from home while I raised my children (four of them!). In none of these positions (except, possibly, childrearing) was I helping anybody, so I returned to school, launched my ESL career, and have never looked back. I look forward to working with you and sharing experiences and strategies on the Blog!


4 thoughts on “Building cultural awareness inside and out”

  1. Jennifer, you’re challenging me to think of ways to do this in an online environment. Thank you for this,


    1. Thanks for your comment, Anna. Glad you found it useful. Hope all is well with you!



  2. This has been such an interesting read. Thank you for explaining ICC and how teachers can go much further with their students in understanding and negotiating their cultural identity and knowledge in Canada. This extend well beyond the EAP classroom as well.

    1. Thank you Sharon, for your kind words. And yes, I agree with you. I think that this is a skill that can be developed in primary though postsecondary to corporate training and beyond. 🙂

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