It's Not Rocket Science: Teaching Slang and Figurative Speech in English Classrooms
Understanding the use of slang in a different language is a benchmark for fluency. Once a speaker is able to navigate society by listening and speaking slang, they are better able to assimilate among native speakers. But whether or not colloquial speech has a place in English classrooms is debated among teachers. While formal English takes precedence in many classes, teaching slang can be important depending on students’ reasons for learning English and their experience with the language. Incorporating slang can also be a motivational tool for teaching disengaged students.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Emma M. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Get to Know Your Students
On the first day of class, the teacher already has an important task at hand: getting to know their students. This involves more than just names. In order to properly structure their lessons for the remainder of the course, teachers must understand the level of their students, their strengths and weaknesses, and their reasons for taking the course. The last of those is particularly important to keep in mind. If the instructor does not teach their students the skills they are interested in learning, students will be less likely to be engaged or participate. Some students may be interested in learning just enough English to be able to travel to an English-speaking country or understand texts like news articles or blogs. If this is the case, learning slang may not be necessary beyond a couple of key phrases. However, if students are hoping to use their English to go to school in an English-speaking country or network among professionals in multinational corporations, learning slang may be crucial to their ability to form connections with others. If the latter is the case, teachers must incorporate slang into their lessons to properly meet the needs of their students.
Consider Their Level and Needs
If a student expresses a desire to learn slang, teachers should consider the student’s experience learning English before incorporating it into the course. Slang can confuse students if they do not have a solid foundation in formal English first. This is because beginner students take the meaning of English words literally. If students have not seen much English through texts, media, or conversations, it is difficult for them to detect when a phrase is meant to be taken figuratively. Take the common phrase, “the cat is out of the bag”. Without an advanced understanding of grammar and context, a beginner would read this sentence and envision a cat jumping out of a paper sack. But after repeated exposure to books and videos where this phrase is used, they would understand this phrase actually refers to a secret someone has revealed. Therefore, advanced students have a greater ability to wrap their heads around figurative phrases. However, this does not mean beginners will never have the chance to learn slang. After ample time studying the language, they may also add slang to their repertoire of English-speaking skills.
Many teachers are familiar with the struggle of working with unmotivated or disengaged students. It is hard to know what to do when a student who does not seem interested in the class. One tool teachers might use to battle this issue is slang. Learning slang is fun for most students. Explaining figurative phrases often involves explaining humorous or outrageous scenarios that are entertaining for students to listen to. For younger people, it is a way of feeling engaged with other English speakers their age. Teaching slang can almost feel like letting people in on a secret, and this makes students feel empowered to continue studying the language. If teachers sense students becoming bored with typical grammar exercises and classroom activities, they may consider adding a little variety with a lesson on slang.
Do you want to teach English to ESL students?
Just like most other elements of English, teachers must take their students’ needs, limitations, and desires into account when deciding to incorporate figurative speech into their syllabus. But under the right circumstances, figurative speech has an important place in EFL classrooms.
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