Foreign Language Exercises That Embrace Diversity

Malgorzata Maria Wojcik (Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities)


Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.


To: (1) teach students a foreign language, and (2) help students see outgroup diversity in a way that reduces negative stereotypes and promotes an appreciation of diversity

This classroom activity involves 30 exercises for teaching English and promoting diversity at the same time. These action teaching language exercises: (a) emphasize common intergroup identities, (b) illustrate how stereotypes are inadequate, and (c) show some of the ways that discrimination is harmful and unfair. For example, in a language exercise focused on homelessness, students begin by learning vocabulary words related to homelessness and then read true life stories about three homeless people who share certain attributes with the students, such as enjoying nature, dreaming about being famous, or quarreling with parents. As part of the lesson, students are asked to describe the family background, interests, and dreams of each homeless person and of themselves, and to give an oral report describing how the person became homeless, what the person hopes for the future, and what might help the person. Pre-test and post-test results suggest that these lessons are not only effective at teaching English but that they lead students to become more accepting of stereotyped outgroups.


As a high school and university English teacher who recently completed a doctorate in social psychology, I have come to see how an action teaching approach to language instruction can promote diversity and social justice. Using research findings from social psychology, I devised a set of 30 language lessons to reduce negative social attitudes among students learning English.

For various reasons, certain people in my country, Poland, are treated as second-class citizens. For example, people who are homeless, poor, disabled, or Roma are often shunned rather than regarded as rightful members of society. On many occasions I have seen my own students distance themselves from members of these groups and treat these outgroup members as though they are all alike.

To address this problem, I created English language exercises that (a) emphasize common intergroup identities, (b) illustrate how stereotypes are inadequate, and (c) show some of the ways that discrimination is harmful and unfair. These lessons were grounded in psychological theories, models, and techniques such as cross-categorization theory, the Common Ingroup Identity Model, social identity theory, personalization, decategorization, and recategorization. Although each lesson was unique, all shared the goal of promoting an appreciation of social diversity.

A Sample Lesson: Poverty and Homelessness

A unit entitled "Poverty and Homelessness" represents a typical lesson. During this exercise, students read about three homeless people — one in India, one in the United States, and one in Poland. The lesson included four activities that were similar to traditional language instruction except for the social content.

Activity 1. Before students read about the three homeless people, they were presented with new vocabulary words such as "homeless" and asked to match the words with definitions. This activity prepared students to understand the subsequent text.

Activity 2. Students were given brief descriptions of three homeless people, and were informed by the teacher that the stories concerned real people. Students were then asked to skim the text and answer simple questions such as "Who wants to be a poet?" and "Who loves nature?" Here are descriptions of the three homeless people — Kiren, Sunny, and Karol:

Kiren is 47 years old and lives in Delhi in India. Once she lived with her husband Ray in a nice house in the suburbs of Delhi. Ray was an engineer. He worked for a French company and earned a good salary. Kiren managed their home and was well-educated. She loved literature and read a lot; she also cooked traditional Indian food, which her husband loved. They didn't have children, but they helped orphans. That's why they didn't save much, and when Ray died unexpectedly, Kiren was left with nothing. After one year she lost her house and all the furniture. She couldn't get a job because she was over 40 and had no job experience. Moreover, unemployment is high in India. Now 47, alone with no means to live, she is homeless and feels extremely unhappy. The worst thing for her is the way the other people look at her. She is in a horrible situation, but she hopes that one day she will have her own place and a better future.

Sunny, 20, is an American who lives in New York. Earlier he lived with his parents in San Diego, California. The problem was that they quarreled a lot because his parents wanted him to study medicine but he dreamed about being a poet. So he left the family home and tried to get a job in New York. Unfortunately, he didn't earn enough to support himself. One year ago he had to leave his rented room and started living on the street. He is happy and feels that homelessness gives him a sense of freedom and helps his writing. He really hates when people look at him in a way that suggests they detest him. Maybe one day he'll become famous American writer.

Karol is 48 years old. He lives in Jaslo, Poland. He doesn't have a job now, but in the past he worked as a builder. Unfortunately, he had an accident after which he couldn't work anymore. He doesn't get disability payments, so he has no means to live. In the spring and summer he doesn't mind being homeless because he works picking mushrooms and berries. He loves nature and feels free in the forest and fields. It gets really bad in autumn and winter because he is often sick and doesn't have a warm place to stay. He hates begging, because he sees that people look down at him. Karol often thinks about his family home: his mother, father, and the family atmosphere they created. He can't believe what has happened to him and hopes for better times.

Activity 3. Students reread the descriptions more carefully and completed the table below. The table was designed to highlight two important themes:

(1) Outgroup member diversity — homeless people are very different from one another. They have different histories, interests, hopes, and problems.

(2) Intergroup similarity — homeless people are similar to other people in many ways. This theme helped students see characteristics that they shared with Kiren, Sunny, and Karol, such as enjoying poetry, literature, and nature, dreaming about being famous, or quarreling with parents. According to cross-categorization theory, these similarities should foster recategorization and identification.

Describe each person in the table below:

Home and family
Why has she or he become homeless?
The worst thing

Activity 4. Students wrote about a homeless person and presented their report to the class. This act of personalization helped students think about homeless people as individuals. For instance, students had to report the person's age, name, reason for being homeless, problems, and hopes. They also had to come up with an idea that might help the person. In addition to giving students practice speaking English, this activity built on the intergroup processes begun in Activity 3.

Speaking Activity

Imagine that you are a social worker who needs to give a report about the homeless person you met yesterday. Fill in this questionnaire and present it to the class.

1. First name:

2. Surname:

3. Age:

4. Reason(s) for homelessness:

5. How long has this person been homeless?

6. What is this person's greatest challenge or problem?

7. How can this person be helped?

Evidence of Effectiveness

The Poverty and Homelessness lesson proved to be very engaging. Students were willing to participate in every activity, and they especially enjoyed the speaking part of Activity 4. During the lesson, they practiced using the present simple and past simple tenses, and their English reading, writing, vocabulary, and speaking clearly improved. Equally important, students became more socially tolerant and less ready to use stereotypes when discussing outgroup members. Even though the content of their stereotypes toward homeless people did not show evidence of change, students reported feeling less distance toward members of the outgroup, and they realized these psychological principles:

  • "We" and "they" can be similar

  • Both ingroups and outgroups are complex

  • Outgroup members are individual human beings

Beyond the lesson on homelessness, I wanted to assess the effect of all 30 English lessons, so before implementing any of the lessons, I administered the following pretest measures:

  • Osgood's Semantic Differential (to assess descriptive aspects of stereotypes)

  • A "Liking and Disliking Questionnaire" (to assess affective aspects of stereotypes)

  • The Bogardus Social Distance Scale (to assess relational aspects of stereotypes)

  • Questionnaires on "Openness Towards Others" and "Distance Towards Others"

Immediately after students completed the full 30-lesson program, I administered a post-test to measure short-term effects and a second post-test six months later to measure long-term effects. Both post-tests showed that after the program, students became more open toward outgroup members. Also, even though the content and affective aspects of their stereotypes did not change, students exhibited significantly less social distance toward some of the outgroups, both immediately after the lessons and six months later. Thus, certain measures suggested that students became closer and more accepting of stereotyped outgroups after completing the full program of English lessons.

Potential Pitfalls

Although student engagement tends to be high when foreign language lessons promote social diversity and challenge stereotypes, this high level of engagement can become disruptive if instructors are not careful. While conducting the lesson on homelessness, for example, my students got into a heated discussion that lapsed into Polish, at which point I had to regain control and make sure the conversation returned to English. It's also very important to prepare students by giving them relevant vocabulary words and language training so that they can understand the text and participate fully in classroom discussions.

Concluding Thoughts

Perhaps the best thing about prosocial language instruction is its flexibility. The action teaching approach that I've described can be used at any level of language proficiency, with any ingroup or set of outgroups, and any foreign language (or, indeed, domestic language).

Moreover, this sort of prosocial language instruction is very easy to implement. For instance, elementary school teachers can promote convergence (i.e., perceived similarity between "we" and "they") and decategorization (i.e., the perception of outgroup members as individuals) simply by asking students to write a few sentences describing what they have in common with various outgroup members. By its very nature, language instruction requires text and speech with content of some kind, so why not use content that promotes diversity, perspective taking, and other prosocial values?