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Cross-Cultural Freshman Composition

The native and nonnative English speakers in Anne O'Bryan's freshman composition class explore cultural assumptions as they improve their writing skills. See John Rucynski, Jr.'s article, "A Floating Experience," Essential Teacher, March 2005 (pp. 28-30).

Without leaving the classroom, the students in the freshman composition course I teach--half of whom are from the United States and half of whom are from other countries--explore topics such as education in Japan, nonverbal communication in the United States, and family relationships in Indonesia.

The purpose of the course is twofold: gain the English writing skills needed for university-level academic writing in the United States and gain an appreciation for and understanding of the diverse cultures that make up the campus community at Iowa State University, thereby learning to interact positively with people from different cultures.

To achieve this balance, the students in my class take advantage of readings by writers from different cultures, discuss cultural issues, and write essays that analyze how culture can shape a society and its members--even as they improve their writing fluency, master prewriting and revising techniques, and learn ways to avoid plagiarism.

Culturally Sensitive Lesson Planning

The wide variety of backgrounds and cultures in the classroom merits special consideration when creating lesson plans and preparing for class discussion.

  • I let students choose a topic within a general theme to help eliminate culture-specific or culturally sensitive writing topics.
  • I encourage students to take an audience-based approach to writing in order to avoid making nonnative English speakers feel that their culturally influenced way of organizing material or using language is wrong. Instead, I emphasize the expectations English-speaking readers have when they approach a text and encourage my students to write for this audience.

The writing assignments described below are traditional U.S. freshman composition assignments that have been modified for a cross-cultural audience. They allow students to work on basic writing skills like description, analysis, and organization while challenging and exploring a variety of cultures and cultural assumptions, including their own.

Interview Essay with an Intercultural Twist

A composition class made up of native English speakers may use the interview essay, in which students gather material for a essay from each other, to get to know one another. In a cross-cultural classroom, this assignment is an opportunity for students to explore stereotypes of other cultures or compare views that are personal or specific to their own cultures with those from a different one.

This assignment encourages discussions on stereotypes, nonverbal communication, and cultural concepts of time. In addition, the ESL students practice speaking and listening when conducting their interviews. The focus on integrating interview material with students' thoughts and words makes this an ideal assignment to precede a research paper.

Cultural Artifacts Comparison

For the compare/contrast essay, students choose an artifact specific to their culture (e.g., a distinguishing piece of clothing, traditional music, a household item), and compare it with a similar artifact from a different culture. They then analyze both artifacts for the cultural values and beliefs they convey.

For this assignment, students either do their own research or talk to their classmates to find similarities and differences between the artifacts. Discussions on cultural traditions and rituals naturally follow, and the assignment is great for focusing on organization and use of transition words. The presentations that follow this essay are always very interesting and informative.

Writing and Culture Resources

Here are some useful resources for teaching writing and culture.

  • Purdue University's Online Writing Lab ( has handouts and exercises for both native and nonnative English speakers.
  • "Body Ritual of the Nacirema" (Miner 1956; and "The Lesson" (Bambara 1971; are short readings I've used to generate discussion about and illustrate cultural artifacts.
  • English 104: Cross-Cultural First-Year Composition (O'Bryan 2004; has assignment sheets for the assignments described above and additional information about my course.
  • Figuring Foreigners Out: A Practical Guide (Storti 1999) includes readings, quizzes, and charts designed for people wanting to explore cultural similarities and differences.
  • Developing Connections: Short Readings for Writers (Stanford 2000), the text I use for this class, contains great readings and discussion questions.
  • "ESL Writers in the Composition Class" (Myers 1996) provides helpful information and tips for teachers who have a cross-cultural classroom.


Bambara, T. C. 1971. The lesson. In Wealth and poverty: A hypertext reading unit.

Miner, H. 1956. Body ritual among the Nacirema.

Myers, C. 1996. ESL writers in the composition class. In The Simon and Schuster handbook for writers, ed. L. Q. Troyka, 187-221. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

O'Bryan, A. 2004. English 104: Cross-Cultural First-Year Composition.

Purdue University. Online Writing Lab.

Stanford, J. A. 2000. Developing connections: Short readings for writers. Mountain View CA: Mayfield.

Storti, C. 1999. Figuring foreigners out: A practical guide. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Anne O'Bryan ( is an MA student in TESL/applied linguistics and a graduate teaching assistant at Iowa State University, in the United States.