Like any piece of authentic material the possibilities for using a sitcom in the classroom are boundless. Depending on your style of teaching you might like activities that are more - or less - controlled. Informal discussions, structured language analysis, role-plays, review writing .... If it works for you and your students, it's valid.
Choosing a sitcom
There are thousands of British sitcoms. Unless you know where to start the task could turn out to be tedious and time consuming. For teachers who are familiar with British TV the best place to start is probably with a sitcom that you know. For non-native English teachers who have less of an idea or teachers who are just "out of touch" with British TV - don't worry! Help is at hand. At http://www.sitcom.co.uk/list_top.shtml you will find a list of the top 50 UK sitcoms of all time - compiled after a BBC poll in 2004. The list is not necessarily complete and some might disagree with the content, but it is a good place to start because the list includes brief synopses of each sitcom which are useful in choosing a particular theme.
Choosing a scene
Once you have selected a sitcom the next step is to choose an appropriate scene. If you are using a DVD or video you can watch a whole episode and take note of an interesting bit that you think your students would enjoy. This depends on what the focus of the lesson is going to be. You might like to select a clip with some interesting vocabulary, colloquial expressions or a simple dialogue that students can follow. Or you might be more interested in showing your students some aspect of British life; an office, a school canteen, a corner shop ... It's easy to spend a lot of time looking for the perfect clip. If you've got time to spare then that's fine. But for most teachers time is the last thing they've got. As long as the section you choose has interesting language, is appropriate for the level of your students and meets the other criteria you have set, then look no further.
Extracting useful language
What makes language useful? Again, this depends very much on your students and their learning context. A group of workers from a particular sector might be keen to learn specialist vocabulary related to their area of work. Students with a high level of English (and not so high) are usually interested in colloquial language that real people use in everyday situations. Sometimes you can reinforce a grammatical structure through the video clip of a sitcom. Scripts are useful for finding specific language easily.
Useful web resources
Some of the most popular sitcoms have the scripts for some or all of the episodes available on the Internet. Others like "Yes Minister" have selected what they consider to be the funniest extracts from each episode and have posted the scripts for those parts on http://www.yes-minister.com/episodes.htm You can read the script and you can also watch the scenes in ‘Real video' with audio. The Ab Fab link on the BBC page at http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/abfab/ has also picked out the funniest moments from each of the series and you can find video clips and interviews with the actresses. At http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/shows/ there is an index of all the BBC sitcoms and, depending on your choice, you will find reviews, video clips, scripts, interviews and all sorts of other information. Finally the database at http://www.comedy.org.uk/guide/?sitcoms=yes has a list of around 1,500 British TV and radio sitcoms and includes links to the current series that are being shown today.
www.youtube.com is the best place to find videos of British sitcoms. Write the title in the search box and in some cases you'll get clips of every episode that was made. Episodes are usually broken down into shorter clips and numbered so that fans can watch all their old favourites in the right order.
In the classroom
There are lots of different ways that you can exploit sitcoms in the classroom from simply pre-teaching any relevant vocabulary, watching a clip and then having a follow-up discussion - to using prepared worksheets for consolidating grammar structures or lexis. Here are a few suggestions that require little or no preparation. For some generic sitcom ideas with photocopiable handouts go to sitcom activities.
- Divide the class into pairs of As and Bs. Send As out of the room, show Bs the clip and then get Bs to explain to As what has happened. Then show another clip and get As and Bs to reverse roles.
- Play the clip with no sound. Get students in pairs or small groups to work out what is happening just from watching. Stronger groups could try to guess what is being said.
- Divide the class into pairs of As and Bs. Position As with their backs to the TV and Bs facing the TV. Play the clip with no sound and get Bs to give a "running commentary" to their partners.
- Play the clip and keep pausing at relevant moments. In small groups or pairs students predict (a) what is going to happen next or (B) what somebody will say.
Homework / task ideas
Give students a list of British sitcoms (from one of the links above). Get students to choose a sitcom, watch a clip on Youtube and ...
- Write a review for your class.
- Write down five new expressions they heard (then find out what they mean).
- Write a paragraph entitled "What (apart from the language) indicates that this clip is "British".
- Prepare a presentation about the sitcom. Include title, dates, setting, main character(s), your opinion, etc.
As with any other authentic material, using sitcoms will be a question of trial and error. If your first experience isn't as positive as you had hoped - don't give up - change something! Choose a different sitcom or a different clip. Try a different activity or use the same idea with a different group.
Written by Katherine Bilsborough, British Council, Spain
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