Pop Culture in Online English Lessons

Utilizing Pop Culture in Online Lessons: Guest Post by Paul Mains

Pop Culture in Online English Lessons

The following is a guest post from Paul Mains…

As any online teacher can tell you, using the Internet to teach English comes with a host of benefits.

You can work from home, giving you the flexibility to choose your own hours. If you so please, you can even continue working while traveling the world, so long as you have a stable Internet connection. And with the vast collection of lesson ideas, tips and tricks, and other useful resources that is available online for free, theres never a shortage of materials to use for online classes.

My favorite aspect of teaching online, however, is that it opens the door for meeting diverse people from different cultures. Indeed, given that your students will be from all over the world, teaching English online gives you the unique opportunity to meet people with different stories, opinions, and life experiences. In this way, online English teachers serve as both linguistic and cultural liaisons for the English-speaking world, a role that is both challenging and extremely rewarding.

A great way to teach students about both language and culture is to incorporate elements from pop culture into lessons. Specifically, Ive found it particularly fruitful to introduce grammar points with clips from popular music and television. And luckily, with the technology available on video platforms like Skype and Zoom, its easy to share these clips with students, even if they cant access YouTube or Netflix on their own computers.

Here are some examples…

Teaching Prepositions of Place with Maroon 5

Maroon Five

The members of Maroon 5. Image: Eva Rinaldi / Wikipedia

As an online teacher, your students will come from all over the world. As such, they will struggle with different grammar points, depending on their native language. Notoriously, Spanish-speaking English learners struggle with the difference between the prepositions inand atwhen talking about location (e.g., Im at the mall in New York), as in Spanish both concepts are expressed with the same preposition, en.

Using a popular, upbeat song is a gentle, entertaining way to introduce this kind of challenging and often frustrating semantic subtlety. For the difference between atand in, I recommend using Payphone by Maroon 5, which is embedded below:

Specifically, the following lyrics illustrate clearly the difference between the two prepositions:

– Still stuck in that time
– When we called it love
– But even the sun sets in paradise
– Im at a payphone, trying to call home
– All of my change I spent on you

With prepositions of place, atis generally used to specify a specific location at the restaurant, at the entrance to the park, at 100 Main Street. Conversely, inis used to indicate a general, imprecise location in the city, in New York, in the ocean. Sure enough, the lyrics to Payphone show this: the singer is at a payphone(a specific location), and laments that the sun sets in paradise(a vague, general place).

In addition to giving students a real-life example of prepositions of place being used in English, this is a great way to pique studentsinterest and open the door to other topics. For instance, after talking about prepositions of place, you can segue your way into prepositions of time, which follow the same pattern of specificity (e.g., at 8:53am vs. in the 1990s).

And if you (and your student) are feeling brave, you can introduce on, which generally falls somewhere between inand atin terms of specificity (e.g., at 8:53am on Friday in January).

Indefinite Articles with Waynes World

Wayne's World

Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, the twoWayne’s World lead actors in Wayne’s World. Image: -alice- / flickr

As I mentioned before, the aspects of English that students find to be difficult will depend on their native language. Whereas Spanish speakers may struggle with pronouns, Mandarin Chinese speakers may struggle with the concept of definite and indefinite articles (i.e., theand a), as Chinese does not contain articles.

One of my favorite ways to introduce the complex topic of articles is to use the following clip from Waynes World, in which Waynes ex-girlfriend gives him a gun rack as a birthday present:

Wayne responds, bewildered:

“A gun rack… a gun rack. I don’t even own *a* gun, let alone many guns that would necessitate an entire rack. What am I gonna do with a gun rack?”

Though the grammar underlying English articles is littered with exceptions, in general, definite articles refer to a specific object or person (e.g., Look at the man over there), whereas indefinite articles refer to any non-specific item in a group (e.g., I want to see a movie).

And in just three sentences, Wayne produces five instances of the indefinite article a. His emphasis on the article when he proclaims, I dont even own a gun!is both humorous and really drives home the essence of the indirect article: Wayne speaking in non-specific terms; he does not own any gun.

You can follow up this scene with several questions that further illustrate the difference between definite and indefinite articles. For instance, you could ask your student if they have ever seen a gun rack before, and if they recognized the gun rack that the woman was holding.

And further, depending on your comfort level with your student, this could potentially open up an interesting cultural discussion about gun ownership. In China, gun ownership is highly regulated by law my student was surprised that owning a gun is both legal and fairly common in certain parts of the United States, which led to an interesting discussion.

Whether teaching prepositions, articles, or anything in between, showing a clip from a song or movie is a great way to ease students into grammatical topics that can otherwise be frustrating or tedious. And with the possibility of screen-sharing on Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts, you can share these materials with your students even if their access is limited by their location (my student couldnt view the Waynes World clip, for example, from his computer in Shanghai).

Ultimately, as online English teachers are often tasked with the dual role of linguistic expert and cultural ambassador, sharing clips from pop culture is a great way to teach your students simultaneously about both language and culture.

Paul is an English teacher who gives classes in-person and online in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. You can check out their free English accent game and other language-learning resources on their website. Feel free to visit their Facebook page or contact paul@languagetrainers.com with any questions.

Over to You

Do you have any resources, lessons plans, or tips for using popular culture in English lessons?

If so, let us know in the comment section below.

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  • Bob Lejkowski

    I have a blog where I have collated songs that I have used to introduce/practice grammar and also introduce topics

    bobsgrammarsongs.blogspot.com

  • Charles Cornelius

    Thanks for the ideas, Paul. Some good stuff here. Funnily enough, I used to use songs in the classroom a lot, but hardly ever when online. I should give it more of a go.

    The tricky bit I always find is getting material with the right language which the student can also get the gist of. I suppose you could ask students to tell you their favourite TV programmes, movies, documentary topics, songs, singers and so on, and then find clips of them which you then mine for the language. Using transcripts of the songs or movie clips is very useful.

    I sometimes use the Simon’s Cat videos on YouTube (I guess this is popular culture – I’m a bit out of touch these days!) but as a way of encouraging student output which I then help them reformulate. Also, TED Talks are fantastic resources – they come with transcripts both in English and translated into other languages, so you could use them as parallel texts.

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