Sitcoms as a tool for ELT

English teachers have been using videos in the classroom for decades and, more recently DVDs and online video clips from YouTube or Myspace. Sitcoms are an excellent classroom resource for a number of reasons.

Katherine Bilsborough, British Council, Spain

An episode generally lasts 30 minutes - so we don't have to worry about students getting bored or losing the plot - as sometimes happens when we watch a feature film. Sitcoms are often repetitive too. Students who watch more than one episode become familiar with the characters and their catchphrases. As students begin to predict how a character might behave in a particular circumstance they will become more motivated and enjoy a sense of achievement.

Authentic English
Sitcoms provide us with authentic English in all its guises. The situations that the "sit" refers to are often situations that are universal. Students are already familiar with the basic set up - even though things are never quite the same in another country. ‘Dodgy Del Boy' (A character from the TV show ‘Only Fools and Horses') characters exist all over the world although rather than dealing in fake antiques or stolen perfumes they might instead be involved in olive oil deals, pirated DVDs or bogus wine labels. Who isn't familiar with the ‘Sybil Fawlty' (A character from the show ‘Faulty Towers') type - complete with illusions of grandeur and an exasperating realisation of having married the wrong man?

Traditional English teaching videos that are specifically designed for the classroom lack a vital element that only authentic material can provide. The speech is often slowed down and laboured; the situations at best implausible, at worst banal.

Very often teachers underestimate the ability of their students to understand authentic language and so they shy away from real material in favour of these purpose-made recordings. Or worse, they don't use any videos - thereby denying their classes the opportunity to get used to real English, spoken by real English speakers, in realistic situations. Students get listening practice with tapes and CDs but we shouldn't underestimate the value of the visual element a video provides. A large part of communication is non verbal. Being able to see gestures and facial expressions helps students grasp the meaning of the words spoken and also any underlying insinuations. Sitcoms are full of unspoken innuendos.

Sitcoms are funny and everybody enjoys laughing. Watching a humorous video clip in class can be rewarding for students and helps to create a positive classroom atmosphere. This in turn can only have a positive effect on the learning experience. Even if the comedy isn't all that funny it only takes one person to laugh and everybody else will soon join in. As the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox said "Laugh and the world laughs with you". To watch, enjoy and understand a clip of an authentic British sitcom can be highly motivating. And if a teacher prepares their students effectively for what they are about to watch there should be few problems in understanding.

Cultural references
Sitcoms are full of cultural references. Depending on the situation these references might portray regional differences throughout the UK, the British class system, family issues, religion, race and ethnicity, gender issues, social issues, politics and numerous others. Think about it! First think of an episode of your favourite sitcom. Now imagine watching it through the eyes of one of your students. Everything that passes almost unnoticed by somebody brought up in the UK will be picked up on and stored by your student; the clothes, the furniture, the velvet curtains or the three flying ducks on the living room wall.

Varieties of English
Every successful British sitcom has its trademark English, from Del Boy's Cockney accent and attempts at talking "posh". There are sitcoms from up north, down south and everywhere in between. This exposure to different varieties of English introduces the idea to learners that there isn't just one standardised version of the language. All too often the only reference to spoken English that students have is the accent of wherever their teacher happens to come from or wherever their teacher's teacher came from. How many times have we heard "I understand everything in class but when I went to the UK in the summer I didn't understand a word!"?

Availability of materials
All of the successful British sitcoms are available on video or DVD. Whole series can be bought through websites like Amazon or e-bay. Another great source is YouTube. A simple search for any of the major and even lesser known sitcoms throws up scores of video clips. Sometimes whole episodes are serialised into five or six short videos making it possible to watch a whole 30 minute programme in five or six ‘bites'. There is always a risk that a video clip you are planning to watch will disappear from the website but with the most popular sitcoms this is less likely to happen.

Comparisons with L1 culture
Students love watching videos that reflect Britishness. They like to see how British people live, what they eat, how they spend their free time. They love seeing typical British homes and institutions, British countryside and British weather. Our students like to confirm their perceptions of British stereotypes and they like to be surprised by aspects of British culture that they didn't know about before. This is usually true for students of all ages and backgrounds. By learning more about the culture of the country they stop seeing English as a language in isolation but start to understand the wider implications of a language's link to its culture(s). This is the same for learners of any language. The more we know about the culture of the language we are learning - the better our understanding of that language will be.

If you haven't used a sitcom as a classroom resource I'd recommend you to give it a try. Students will appreciate the opportunity to watch something that is so British. Whatever they think of the programme itself, they will have the chance to hear a variety of English accents and to pick up some new expressions. If they share the British sense of humour they will find the experience even more rewarding. And who knows? One of the classic British sitcoms might even acquire some new overseas fans.

Further reading

First published 2009


Submitted by Abdussami on Fri, 08/14/2009 - 12:11


No doube that the use of multimedia in learning English through video clips is a great way of improving the language and since the establishment of Internet it has become more easier to find ways on any kind of required knowledge about anything and that has been to a great extent useful for both the teacher and learner.

Abdussami Bajwa

I agree with the amount of rich linguistic and cultural resources that reside in sitcoms. However, I have found that "teaching using sitcoms" has presented a number of problems.

Whilst there is a great deal of culture, language, cultural/political satire etc. to be found within the sit-com genre(s), these are delivered through culturally specific language and behaviour which has negative implications for both interpretability and appropriateness for the classroom. Almost all sit-coms are representative of particular social groups and their "others". Also, many obtain "cult status", involving non-conformist stances (which is of interest to second language learners) but restricted linguistic and cultural codes. It is the way that such positioning is encoded that has caused many problems for learners that I've taught - understanding this, and their role within this, that's important.

Why should we (native British English teachers) expect our students to overcome such hurdles in gaining access to culturally specific text which are designed to deny (or at least have the illusion of restricting the access of) mainstream audiences (perhaps I refer here to the latest varieties of sit-coms)? Why should we expect them to be interested to the extent that "teaching" sit-coms becomes an important classroom resource?

Perhaps what is missing here is the difference between "teaching British culture through sitcoms" and "using sitcoms to allow for insight into British culture and dialogue between cultures". In most cultures, it is comedy that, except in its slapstick representations, is most often avoided in conversations that I've had. As teachers, as well as ensuring that we are sensitive to our learners' beliefs / cultures / perceptions, we must also recognise that sit-coms present to good teachers a site for communication, exchange of ideas and cultural comparison - not for learning the culture of Britain (which is an odd goal for most ELT classes anyway, and is a difficult task to pull off through sit-coms).

I am not against the use of sit-coms, nor against this proposal; I am concerned about how such ideas could be used to "teach" something that's (linguistically) necessarily hard to teach - and potentially inappropriate/ineffective if teaching "your culture" without dialogue - rather than "engaging", "interesting" and "exposing" learners through cultural and linguistic dialogue.

Any similar experiences?...

Submitted by Andy Webster on Thu, 09/15/2011 - 17:19


Great post.  I'm very encouraged to use more sitcoms in the classroom.  I think that American sitcoms such as friends are excellent resources but I can't think of any British ones.  Only Fools and Horses is very old now and I was wandering if there are more modern ones to show.  What can you suggest.

Submitted by shivanikaul20 on Thu, 09/15/2011 - 19:09




Please can I list of Sitcoms for Intermediate ESL level students.




New Delhi


Submitted by Little_Miss_Smarty on Tue, 09/18/2012 - 13:56


I like this article - I am a student of English and learning by TV helps to put perspective on the language and culture - including all it's aspects. I hope to integrate more English Sitcoms in my English lessons.

Little Miss Smarty

Submitted by miss Inna on Sat, 03/02/2013 - 13:32


Thank you Katherine for sharing! I personally haven't known this term 'sitcom' until having read your article. Then, I have researched Wikipedia (Russian and English). A sitcom is a shortened way for 'SITUATION COMEDY'! Oh my goodness! This is something I always was attracted to as a TV viewer while staying in the US! I mean 'The Cosby Show' is one of my favourite (the top series of 1980's in the USA!) I have been always wondering why they have never showed the Cosby Show in Ukraine... It's hilarious and very family-oriented. While watching it in American English in the USA, I could understand almost everything... The only problem is that in Ukraine, for example, it's hard to get a sub-titled version of this sitcom; and buying it via Internet, it's also a little costly. I think it is the main hindrance for me. I guess, inspired by your article, I will be looking for the ways how to get and incorporate The Cosby Show sitcom in my ESL lesson context. Thank you!

Submitted by Silvio Pilone on Tue, 08/13/2013 - 07:36


The use of sitcoms is coherent with the employment of new teaching media n the classroom: the article makes some interesting points; I would like to add that it would be nice if there were sitcom series with subtitles.

Submitted by AygulEJ on Tue, 12/23/2014 - 14:01


I really liked this article, because it could be useful for many English language teachers. I study in Uzbekistan and we during Speaking and Listening classes watch sitcoms or movies in British English mostly. Our teacher and we think it will help us a lot, firstly for Listening and Pronunciation. Some of my groupmates have problems with pronunciation and they find it helpful and now they feel progress. Also sitcoms get acquainted us with culture and real life of English speaking countries.

Submitted by smartcookie243 on Wed, 01/06/2016 - 13:27


Someone pointed out that "Friends" are a good example of American sitcoms. To some extent because of content and vocabulary. English sitcoms that I really like and I also use it with my students are: "Keeping Up Appearances" ( all seasons available online and in good shops in different countries in Europe and "Allo Allo" ( here you have to be careful as the sense of humour is quite peculiar and may not appeal to everyone).

Partially agreed. I'd be very hesitant to use a full episode in the classroom unless it was *absolutely core* to a specific teaching plan. However I've certainly used clips from sitcoms and sketch shows in the classroom either as the basis of an activity or to launch a discussion point.

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