Holler at Your Boy! Using Slang in the ESL Classroom

Holler at Your Boy! Using Slang in the ESL Classroom

Slang in the classroom is not for every ESL teacher. Those whose students’ future language usage will be limited to formal situations in which slang is not used may want to spend precious class hours on other topics. Most ESL students, however, will need to know at least some degree of slang if they plan to interact with native English speakers either socially or in the classroom.

Besides, many ESL students find lessons on slang entertaining and enjoyable and give them a nice break from the standard textbook lessons, so most ESL teachers find lessons on slang a welcome addition to the curriculum. If you are looking to make slang a regular part of your lesson plans or are just looking for an occasional break from the standard curriculum, here are some ways you can use slang in your ESL classroom.

How to Teach Slang in Your ESL Classroom

  1. 1

    Slanguage Quiz

    Start by giving groups of students two sets of index cards. On one set of cards, write an assortment of contemporary slang. On the other set, write more traditional synonyms or phrases for the slang expressions. (You can find a set of 20 common slang terms and their definitions here or compile your own collection from an online slang dictionary!) Using both sets of cards, groups should try to match the correct slang term to its definition. Give students enough time to attempt their matches before giving them the correct answers. Afterward, ask your students why slang can make it difficult to understand English speakers in real life. When has slang posed the biggest problem for them and their English skills? Allow several students to share with the class. Why do they think English speakers enjoy using slang in their speech? You may also want to encourage your students to discuss how they feel about slang usage in their native languages.

  2. 2

    What is Slang?

    After they have become familiar with the examples from the last activity, ask your students to attempt to define slang. Point out that slang may include specific vocabulary, phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions all of which are used in casual English conversation. Do your students think slang is a valuable form of speech? How might a person go about putting together a dictionary of slang terms? Why might that be difficult? Point out to your students that dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary make updates to their vocabulary compilations each year, and slang regularly makes its way into this official book. March 2012 was the most recent online update for the OED, and it now includes such slang terms as LARPing, scratchiti, soz (British slang), and boofy (Australian slang). Give your students some online time at oed.com to look up some of the slang words they already know, and challenge them to see if they know any slang terms that cannot be found in the dictionary.

  3. 3

    Bringing it Home

    Your students now have a theoretical knowledge of slang, but what about practical experience? You have many options for the means of bringing slang into your classroom. When you do welcome slang, your students will learn more lifelike English than is sometimes found in the text books, and they will be better able to understand and communicate with native speakers.

    Here are some ways to bring home the slang.

    • Find conversation partners for your students. If you teach in a school that also has native English speakers attending, you and another class may be able to mutually benefit one another simply by scheduling times to talk. Classes studying international business, public relations, language instruction or anthropology may all be eager to talk with the internationals in your classroom. Seek out the teachers of these classes, and when they and their classes come to speak with your students, have your students take note of any unfamiliar vocabulary that they use.
    • When you cannot get native speakers into the classroom, bring your classroom to the native speakers. Reality television is more than just a source of entertainment for those who watch. Since the dialogue is not scripted like in other programs, your students will gain exposure to real life English as spoken by the typical American. Try showing your class popular programs that have a lot of interaction among contestant like Survivor, Celebrity Apprentice, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, or The Amazing Race (many of which offer full episodes online at no charge). Again, encourage your students to take notes as they listen.
    • Public places are a great place for your students to overhear conversations prime with slang. Send your students out to coffee shops, restaurants, shopping malls or other locations where people gather to talk. Challenge your students to sit down with a cup of coffee and listen for unusual English expressions as they write them down in their notebooks. Then bring your class back together to swap notes and define the expressions they gathered. Try using the Urban Dictionary or other online resource if you get stumped.
    • Another resource for conversational English that keeps your students in the classroom is YouTube. This site offers a never ending selection of videos made by real people. You may have to do some digging to find the best videos for your students, but if you enjoy watching popular videos on your own time, just make note of the ones that would work best in your classroom and that showcase some unique slang expressions.
    • No matter where the words come from, make sure your students are keeping track of the slang expressions they learn, and encourage them to use the expressions themselves if they are comfortable doing so. You may also want to start a class collection of slang terms. Try keeping a set of index cards near a bulletin board. When a student learns a new slang term, he writes in on one side of the card and then writes the definition on the other side. Pin it up on the board and your students can check out the unusual words at their leisure.

Though not necessarily required classroom fair, slang is essential for English speakers who hope to interact with the public in casual conversation.

For that reason, ESL teachers actually help their students become better English speakers when they include slang in the classroom. Though it may seem like a waste of time when the final exam is drawing ever nearer, your students will appreciate the exposure to and understanding of what real English speakers say! So take a chance, change it up and let your students add some flavor to their English lexicons with a lesson on slang.


What are your favorite slang expressions to teach your students?

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