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8 Ways to Use Pop Culture in the ESL Classroom

Using pop culture in ESL

No matter what age your ESL students are, it’s important to connect with them and to motivate them by creating relevant and engaging lessons. One of the simplest — and fun! — ways to accomplish this is to incorporate pop culture in the ESL classroom. From using TikTok to listening to Taylor Swift, check out the following ways you can bring pop culture into your class!

If you’re new to teaching, you’ll want to get initial training and qualification with a TEFL certificate. You can explore our online TEFL courses to get started!

Why use pop culture in the ESL classroom?

There are many reasons to spice up your class with some pop culture activities. Here are just a few of the benefits for you and your students.

  • Using pop culture to teach English is a great way to build rapport with your students, as you can choose topics that they’re interested in. Putting in the extra effort to customize your classes and create EFL materials that students are guaranteed to like will certainly result in happier students!
  • Pop culture lesson plans are especially great at getting students to engage with what they’re learning. Students who are having fun and who like the topic they’re studying are more apt to not only pay attention but to participate in class. They may even be so passionate about the topic that they forget they’re studying English at the same time!
  • Pop culture helps students remember what they’ve learned, as they’ll associate certain vocabulary or grammatical concepts with fun content that they actually like. Plus, learning English words through lively examples of celebrities, music, and other cultural icons will definitely help the vocabulary stand out in their minds.
  • Incorporating pop culture in the English classroom makes your lessons relevant to learners. Whether you’re teaching ESL to teens who are obsessed with social media or are providing business English lessons to adults who need to be able to discuss current affairs with their colleagues, your students will appreciate studying English within a real-world context.

What are some ESL pop culture activities?

These versatile activities can be used in the physical or virtual classroom, with individual students or large classes. They’re also easily adaptable no matter which age group you’re teaching!

pop culture meme ESL

1. Caption memes

Memes are everywhere nowadays! You can have students create their own captions to popular memes, which is a great way to improve their writing skills. It also serves as a great warm-up activity at the beginning of class or as a filler activity if you have leftover time. If you want to turn it into a competition, have the class vote on whose meme is the funniest.

Check out these no-prep ESL activities for the last 10 minutes of class.

2. Create your own ending

This pop culture activity example involves asking students to rewrite the ending to a popular novel, movie, or TV series. You can either choose something that most students will be familiar with, like “Harry Potter” or “Pulp Fiction,” or you can let students choose their own story to work with. This is a great way for students to get creative and practice their English writing skills.

3. Have fun with song lyrics

You can easily use popular songs in the EFL classroom to help students practice their English listening skills. You can play the songs in class and create fill-in-the-blank exercises to accompany them, having students write in the words that they hear. You can also use lyrics to identify and practice certain vocabulary words or grammar. For example, if students are learning about verbs, you can have them circle any verbs they see in the lyrics.

Using ESL Songs with Young Learners

A teacher incorporates a song in an ESL class with young learners.

4. Write tweets

Since most students both young and old tend to spend a good amount of time on social media, why not use that to your advantage in the ESL classroom? Have students choose a celebrity (or even a film/book character) and create tweets they think the celebrity would write. Other students can then guess who the celebrity is. This is a fun game that requires students to pay close attention to their English writing, as they’ll only have 280 characters to help students guess who the celebrity is!

Take a look at some fun TEFL speaking activities.

5. Listen to podcasts

While you can use ESL podcasts geared toward learners in your lessons, it’s also fun to use popular shows like “My Favorite Murder” or “Welcome to Night Vale.” There are a number of ways to work podcasts into your lesson. You can use them to do gap-fill exercises, have students write their own episodes, use them to start discussions or debates, or even take turns recording students reading podcast scripts in order to practice their pronunciation.

Take a Micro-credential course in Teaching English Using Podcasts to learn more about creating classroom activities around podcasts to develop students’ listening skills.

6. Play with comic strips

Comic strips are another fun and versatile tool for the ESL classroom. Students can create their own from scratch, or you can have a competition where they fill in the speech bubbles for the same comic and then vote on the best one. For in-person classes, you can also cut up comic strips and see which student or which group of students can put the storyline in the correct order the fastest.

teacher showing video to students

A teacher using a YouTube video in class

7. Watch YouTube videos

A great way to bring popular culture into the classroom is through videos. Show students a popular funny video on YouTube (or TikTok), but mute it. Have them work in pairs or groups to come up with a dialogue for the video. They can then act out the video using their scripts in front of the class. This helps them practice writing and speaking skills at the same time!

  • Pro Tip: You can even let students suggest videos and vote on which one to use. This is a great way to involve your students in the lesson planning!

Take a Micro-credential course in Teaching English Using Video to learn more ways to incorporate this helpful medium into your class.

8. Become journalists

The news provides an endless source of great discussion topics for ESL students, but there are also some fun activities you can do with the news. One idea is to create your own newspaper as a whole class (you can have one student do this as an individual project, but it really works best when teaching English to groups). Divide the students into beats (sports, cinema, fashion, politics, etc.) and have them each write one story. Then, combine the articles to create a full-length paper that you can read together!

  • Pro Tip: Another idea is to have your students act as news anchors. They can write their own stories and then you can record them, compiling a video news segment for the whole class!

Using pop culture in the ESL classroom is a great way to connect with your students and motivate them to participate in class. There are so many activities from which to choose, and the result is a fun and rewarding lesson!

Want even more classroom ideas? Check out these fun ESL games and activities for young learners and teens.

Camille is a content marketing manager, specializing in the language industry. Her love for language and experiencing other cultures has taken her around the globe, and she has taught English abroad both in the classroom and online. When not working or traveling, she can be found spending time with her family or — when not chasing after her two young daughters — cozying up with a good book!