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, there’s 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, I’ve 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, it’s easy to share these clips with students, even if they can’t access YouTube or Netflix on their own computers.
Here are some examples…
Teaching Prepositions of Place with Maroon 5
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 “in” and “at” when talking about location (e.g., “I’m 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 “at” and “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
– I’m at a payphone, trying to call home
– All of my change I spent on you
With prepositions of place, “at” is generally used to specify a specific location — at the restaurant, at the entrance to the park, at 100 Main Street. Conversely, “in” is 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 students’ interest 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 “in” and “at” in terms of specificity (e.g., at 8:53am on Friday in January).
Indefinite Articles with Wayne’s World
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., “the” and “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 Wayne’s World, in which Wayne’s 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 don’t 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 couldn’t view the Wayne’s 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 , a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. You can check out their free and other language-learning resources on their website. Feel free to visit their or contact firstname.lastname@example.org 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.