Teaching Culture: A Variation On Jigsaw Reading

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Helen Korengold, ESL Department, Minnesota State University-Akita


  • Key Words: Reading, Culture
  • Learner English Level: High Intermediate to Advanced Learner
  • Learner Maturity Level: College or University
  • Preparation Time: Varies -- time needed to locate appropriate readings
  • Activity Time: About 90 minutes

One of the challenges of developing a content-based English for Academic Purposes (EAP) course is how exactly to exploit authentic, academic text so that students improve reading and other language skills in a communicative, meaningful context. Although there has been some debate about the usefulness of authentic materials for the language learner, an EAP program that is training its students to eventually attain the necessary skills to function in a foreign (British, American, etc.) university has no choice but to expose students to authentic materials as early and as much as possible. What teachers do with this sometimes very difficult material in order to address skills such as speed, skimming, guessing at meaning, developing vocabulary, critical evaluation, and other competencies needed at higher education levels, is a critical factor both in course development and in day-to-day teaching methods.

One reading activity which can be used with content-related articles or portions of a textbook encompasses a variety of reading skills and also involves interaction and cooperative work with the aim of mastering a specific content area critical to the subject area. The activity is a variation on jigsaw reading.


Two very similar readings of about equal length within the content area are required; for example, readings about two cultures within the same environment would be ideal. The activity could also be used for a comparison of animal or plant species. For an EAP Sociology class I used text extracts of two case studies by Margaret Mead about two tribes of Papua New Guinea that she researched, the Mundugamor and the Arapesh. Although the tribes lived within very close proximity of each other in an almost identical environment, they developed radically different cultures; each text extract summarizes the values, cultural practices, family life, economies and work systems, personality traits, and rituals of one of the tribes. Although the cultures differ greatly, the two articles have a similar structure, length (about 1000 words), and topic organization.


Students are initially paired so that their partners have the same article; the room can be divided in half accordingly, "A Article" on one side and "B Article" on the other. Because both articles deal with tribes in the same country, pre-reading activities can be carried out with the entire class. Students locate New Guinea on the map and briefly discuss what they already know or may have heard about the country. What kind of terrain and climate might they expect? What kinds of cultures may have developed in such an environment? What impressions or stereotypes do students have of the tribes that live thee? Other such points can be briefly elicited and discussed.


  1. In pairs, have each student read three random sentences from the article, and state their impressions to their partners.
  2. Carry out a three-minute timed reading in which students skim for general meaning.
  3. Turning over the article, students write two or three sentences about what they recall. Partners can then compare what they wrote.
  4. Students read the first paragraph without a dictionary and lightly mark any unknown words. Together pairs guess possible meanings and compare their words.
  5. Students now have five minutes (or more, depending on reading levels and text difficulty) to read the entire excerpt. Students may take notes on important areas or use highlighters, whichever is preferred. They can then work with their partners to clarify meaning.

Presentation Preparation

Students now prepare a short talk about the tribe they've read about. Together partners:

  1. Outline the key points they want to cover,
  2. Practice a three-minute presentation of the tribal culture,
  3. Prepare a list of questions they want to ask the other group about their tribe.


  1. Students now pair up with someone who read about the opposite tribe.
  2. One student gives a presentation and the other asks the questions already prepared. Other questions will probably arise and should be encouraged.
  3. The students then change roles and everyone in the class now has an overview of both tribes.

These particular readings, and many others which deal with two cultures in similar environments, are an eye-opening study which demonstrates clearly the premise that culture is learned. Students are routinely amazed by the radical differences between these two tribes, and further activities can focus on comparing them and on exploring the real meaning of culture. Because of the communicative aspects of the reading activity, the content has become mastered in a meaningful way and, at the same time, various language skills have been practiced.