Pop Goes the TESL!: Using Pop Culture to Teach ESL

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Can you name all of the Kardashians? What is Fortnite?  Are fidget spinners still a thing? What’s a meme?

Do you use pop culture references in your ESL lessons? I do! Let’s explore some of the disadvantages and advantages of doing so.


1. You Might Accidentally Alienate Students By Using Pop Culture:

One time, for a grammar lesson, I used “sports” as the context. I realized too late, when I was delivering the lesson, that all my sports references were to sports and athletes that I liked and knew. The lesson made references to the Toronto Blue Jays and the Toronto Raptors, and to athletes like Jose Bautista and Demar DeRozan.  My students were newcomers to Canada, and had little to no knowledge of these teams and athletes. The lesson alienated and bored them. When you try to make pop culture references in your lessons, be careful not to make the same mistake I did.

2. You Can Fall Victim To Stereotypes When Using Pop Culture:

As teachers of students from various countries and cultural backgrounds, we can fall victim to making stereotypes about what pop culture they might enjoy. Not all students from India like Bollywood; not all students from South Korea like K-Pop; and not all students from Panama like Reggaeton. Don’t fall victim to stereotypes by assuming that your students only enjoy pop culture from their countries of origin. I am Canadian, but I don’t watch hockey.

3. You Aren’t Cool:

When we, as ESL teachers, make pop culture references in our lessons, we run the risk of looking like an out-of-touch square who is trying desperately to be hip and cool with the youth. I am embarrassed to admit that I once referenced the dance craze The Nae Nae in one of my ESL lessons. Cringe! When we use pop culture references in our ESL lessons, we need to be careful not to appear like we’re trying too hard to be cool.


1. Pop Culture Can Help You Tap Into Your Students’ Interests:

You don’t have to use pop culture that you like and know; you can use pop culture that your students like and know. Early in the semester, I like to poll my students to get an idea of what movies, TV shows, websites, social media apps, music, etc. they like. Then I can integrate these interests of theirs into my lessons. For example, through polling students, I learned that a lot of my students played a game called League Of Legends. This allowed me to integrate references to League Of Legends into some of my lessons, and the students’ ears would perk up whenever I did.

2. We Can Use Pop Culture To Get Our Students Talking:

If you are trying to help your ESL students increase their communicative competence, pop culture can act as a good starting point for discussion. A couple of years ago, my students and I had a debate about whether or not it was OK for Justin Bieber to punch a fan who got too close.

3. Pop Culture Can Add Flavour To A Boring Lesson:

I love grammar. I love teaching grammar. However, my students don’t always love grammar. That being said, I have found that integrating a little pop culture into a grammar lesson can liven it up a bit. Maybe you can make your students use the present progressive to add a caption to an Instagram picture of a celebrity like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. For example, “I am lifting weights. He is eating chicken and broccoli.” You might get them to practice the simple past by having them research the pop culture of a past decade: “People wore bell bottoms in the 1970s. They listened to disco music.” If you know the material is going to bore your students, adding a little pop culture can help. As that Mary Poppins song goes: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

What are some other disadvantages and advantages of using pop culture in our ESL lessons that I haven’t covered here?

Hello! My name is Keith Hunt. I have been teaching ESL on various contracts for about four years now. I still consider myself somewhat of a rookie, but hope to one day become a veteran ESL teacher. Over the course of these past four years, I have had the pleasure of having the world come to me; I have worked with amazing international students from Mexico, China, Brazil, South Korea, India, Saudi Arabia, Panama, and Yemen. Sometimes I am a rockstar teacher, and other times I fall flat on my face. I try to learn from both experiences by writing reflections on my successes and failures as an ESL Teacher. I have decided to turn these reflections into blogs, in hopes that my insights may also prove useful to the TESL Ontario community at large. I look forward to starting a virtual dialogue with all of you: my fellow TESL Ontario colleagues!


4 thoughts on “Pop Goes the TESL!: Using Pop Culture to Teach ESL”

  1. Agree with your points. We really mustn’t ‘assume’ that pop culture is necessarily the students’ ‘thing.’ I would say try to include as many ‘local’ references as possible, too, ‘just in case.’ K-pop would actually go down very well in Thailand, funnily enough. As a 55-year-old Western male, I am definitely not ‘cool,’ but you can ‘concept check’ some of your ideas informally ahead of the week you plan to do it, if you’re a planning kind of person …

  2. Hello. Thank you for your feedback! That’s a good idea about concept checking your ideas ahead of time! P.S. I’m sure you are cool, haha.

  3. Interesting points, thanks Keith. I wouldn’t rule out North American sports (like basketball and hockey, because they have stars from several countries), but “real” football (aka “soccer”) and tennis have fans and stars from around the world. I guess the students’ ages may play a role, too.

    1. Hi Peter. Thank you for your feedback! Great points about why we shouldn’t entirely rule out using North American sports as a context! It’s always a delicate balancing act how we choose to use certain themes in our lessons. I definitely am tempted to go on a Toronto Raptors rant in my upcoming lessons, haha.

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