Youth, Popular Culture and the Wardrobe: Two Actions for International Language Schools with Tiny Libraries

I work in an international language school for adult learners learning English as a second language (ESL). Although it is a well-resourced school technologically, the ‘library’ is so small that it all fits in a wardrobe. It is a tiny library. Loh and Sun (2019) recommend that schools choose contemporary books when stocking a library, but our books are mostly donations from teachers. What little budget exists for books is spent on a few sets of specially adapted texts for ESL learners. At a time when reading for enjoyment may be declining globally (Rutherford, Singleton, Derr, & Merga, 2018), this post explores the importance of choosing literature that connects with popular culture. It will suggest two achievable actions that schools with tiny libraries can follow to ensure students still have access to relevant and contemporary reading resources.

Reading is an important skill for ESL learners. It helps them to move beyond speaking and listening and to integrate with new cultures and vocabulary (Horwitz, 2013). Students often complete intensive reading in class, reading short passages designed to test comprehension or vocabulary. However, it is important that they also complete extensive reading, reading for gist and enjoyment (Horwitz, 2013). Practising extensive reading helps learners to increase their language ability and range of vocabulary faster than only doing intensive reading would (Suk, 2017).

Popular culture is important for young ESL learners because it can make course content relevant and reduce culture shock. The culture around us, including the things we do, say and interact with, has an impact on our identity formation (McGraw, 2017). Using popular culture in the curriculum can help decrease resistance to studying (Luk & Hui, 2017) because students feel the content is relevant to them. Additionally, international students sometimes feel isolated (Taliaferro, Muehlenkamp, & Jeevanba, 2019). Interacting with familiar popular culture and sharing interests with peers might reduce this culture shock. Popular culture helps people interact with new ideas and can change their thinking (Takacs, 2015). Having a range of texts in the library relevant to popular culture is therefore very important.

A problem with tiny libraries is their limited range of texts. Pop culture texts (which could include films, books, magazines, and social media) are an integral part of the way that young people understand the world, and integrating these texts into the curriculum can help students find relevance in more academic texts (Hall, 2011). As the selection available in the library is limited and outdated, integrating the texts would be problematic. A lack of class sets might also require teachers to break copyright law. By failing to have a functional library and by failing to promote reading for knowledge and pleasure, language schools can miss an integral part of higher education, but there are possible actions that can reduce this risk.

The first potential action is to utilise local council libraries. Libraries exist to help people improve their literacy (McShane, 2011), so discovering the huge range of books, resources and technology could be beneficial for ESL students. Groups such as book and conversation clubs provide opportunities for connecting and learning. To encourage this interaction, the school should find ways to introduce students to the library early in their course. Informing the library of the visit of many students would be both courteous and might also result in a guided tour being offered and some further opportunities being shared.

The second action is to use electronic books. Reading is no longer the simple practice of using a printed resource. Modern learners need to be able to interact with a range of online resources and applications (Leu et al., 2011). Students often prefer using electronic resources and are sometimes inclined to work harder when they are available (Coiro, 2012). This means that schools might receive less resistance when encouraging students to read if they have access to an electronic library. Loh and Sun (2019) state that schools should aim to have both electronic and physical resources. Schools could consider incorporating a subscription to Kindle Unlimited, Apple News+ or Audible into their school fees. By providing or encouraging access to these services, students would then have access to a huge range of contemporary texts.

Reading using applications such as Kindle also adds a range of functionality not possible with a printed book. According to (Evans, 2017), this can include notetaking, highlighting sections or finding definitions of unknown words. However, according to Rutherford et al. (2018), due to the relatively recent introduction of e-readers and tablets, more research is needed into young people’s reading preferences. Indeed, many readers still prefer traditional books (Evans, 2017). Still, having access to electronic versions might provide opportunities for reading when physical books are not available.

Having a tiny library need not hold students back from reading relevant and enjoyable texts that link to their perception of popular culture. If language schools can suggest the right resources and community partners, international students may still be encouraged to enjoy reading for pleasure and language development.


Coiro, J. (2012). Understanding dispositions toward reading on the Internet. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(7), 645–648.

Evans, E. (2017). Learning from high school students’ lived experiences of reading e‐books and printed books. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 61(3), 311–318.

Hall, L. (2011). How popular culture texts inform and shape students’ discussions of social studies texts. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(4), 296–305.

Horwitz, E. (2013). Becoming a language teacher : A practical guide to second language learning and teaching (2nd ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.

Leu, D., Mcverry, J., O’Byrne, W., Kiili, C., Zawilinski, L., Everett-Cacopardo, H., … Forzani, E. (2011). The new literacies of online reading comprehension: Expanding the literacy and learning curriculum. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(1), 5–14.

Loh, C., & Sun, B. (2019). “I’d still prefer to read the hard copy”: Adolescents’ print and digital reading habits. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 62(6), 663–672.

Luk, J., & Hui, D. (2017). Examining multiple readings of popular culture by ESL students in Hong Kong. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 30(2), 212–230.

McGraw, K. (2017). Identity formation: Consumerism and popular culture. In B. Gobby & R. Walker (Eds.), Powers of curriculum: Sociological perspectives on education (pp. 243-266). Retrieved from

McShane, I. (2011). Public libraries, digital literacy and participatory culture. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 32(3), 383–397.

Rutherford, L., Singleton, A., Derr, L., & Merga, M. (2018). Do digital devices enhance teenagers’ recreational reading engagement? Issues for library policy from a recent study in two Australian states. Public Library Quarterly, 37(3), 318–340.

Suk, N. (2017). The effects of extensive reading on reading comprehension, reading rate, and vocabulary acquisition. Reading Research Quarterly, 52(1), 73–89.

Takacs, S. (2015). Interrogating popular culture key questions. Retrieved from

Taliaferro, L., Muehlenkamp, J., & Jeevanba, S. (2019). Factors associated with emotional distress and suicide ideation among international college students. Journal of American College Health, 1–5.

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Youth, Popular Culture and Minecraft Earth

As a child of the seventies and eighties, I was lucky enough to experience a cultural revolution: the birth of video gaming. From pumping coins into Space Invaders and Asteroids to sitting in the cockpit of a Star Wars X-Wing fighter or driving a Ferrari Testarossa in Outrun, these experiences were shared ones. Watching my friends play, laughing, shouting and ‘encouraging’ them was (almost) as much fun as playing. The bonding that happened around gaming was part of my friendship group’s shared culture.


The popularity of gaming waxed and waned in the intervening decades, but with the advent of tablets, phones, and portable systems like the Nintendo Switch, collaborative gaming is once again part of popular culture. Games such as Fortnite and Overwatch have become particularly popular due to their cross-platform availability, but perhaps the most well-known of them all, with 91 million active users worldwide (Crookes, 2019), is Minecraft.

Minecraft allows players to build worlds using resources collected from the game’s environment. It’s possible to play solo or share worlds and work collaboratively with others. Through YouTube, it has spawned a vibrant maker culture where people create and consume content around the game (Niemeyer & Gerber, 2015).

The development of augmented reality (AR) adds exciting new opportunities for real-world interaction, gaming and collaboration. AR allows users to see and interact with virtual objects while working in the real world via phones and tablets and is therefore potentially accessible for many young people (Khan, Johnston, & Ophoff, 2019). This space between the real and virtual worlds has been termed the Third Space (Schuck, Kearney, & Burden, 2017), and its educational benefits are starting to be explored, particularly the way it interacts with communities (Chen, 2018).

Minecraft Earth (ME) is an AR version of Minecraft allowing users to create and share virtual constructions in the real world. It has a head start on other educational AR applications due to being free, and a ready-made user base already familiar with Minecraft’s concepts and operation. Sharing structures with the wider community will encourage exploration and interaction. Exploring, creating structures, finding resources, having adventures and discovering other users’ constructions will be an important aspect of this interactive experience (Crookes, 2019). With collaboration central to using ME, it could become a sophisticated tool for encouraging interaction and communication amongst students.

This collaboration might result in the creation of a participatory culture (PC). There are several defining markers of PC which ME could align with. These include having few barriers to entry, an aspect of mentorship and an ethos of sharing (Jenkins, 2009). An advantage is students can take greater ownership of learning, unrestrained by location and time.  Learning experiences started during school hours can potentially continue and be built upon during pupils’ free time (Schuck et al., 2017). Communication within this culture can also occur within the application, face to face and through other forms of social media such as YouTube, which extends the community’s reach (Kuhn & Stevens, 2017). This could create ever-expanding circles of interaction and learning.

If video games reflect the society they are created in (Bradford, 2010), then the popularity of Minecraft is a positive reflection of popular culture and young people’s desire to work together. Some educators, undervalue or are unaware of the sophisticated literacies present in gaming’s social practices (Niemeyer & Gerber, 2015). However, with gaming becoming more popular as an educational tool (Kuhn & Stevens, 2017), Minecraft is beginning to be used regularly, particularly for developing collaborative skills (Davis, Boss, & Meas, 2018). This means ME is also likely to be well-used in educational settings.

The use of AR has been shown to increase learning motivation (Khan et al., 2019; Taskiran, 2019). Motivation and finding tasks meaningful are key if learning is to occur (Chen, 2018). Choosing applications and designing learning experiences that are accessible, inclusive and meaningful is therefore important. Minecraft Earth may be an early contender for being a valuable collaborative AR application for education.

There are some assumptions to be mindful of when advocating for the use of ME or other AR applications. Firstly, it should not be assumed all educators have the necessary skills, knowledge or understanding to use AR and related technology. Schools may need to provide professional development for their staff (Kuhn & Stevens, 2017). Additionally, some educators and learners may find these new roles challenging (Schuck et al., 2017). Continually introducing new technology can be responsible for change fatigue, and schools should try to stagger new initiatives. Secondly, not all play equals learning. Educators should have clearly defined reasons why AR is the best tool for their learning intentions. It will only be a good tool if it is suitable for the learners and helps them to achieve the learning intentions or develop skills.

ME has lots of potential for encouraging collaborative learning in new and exciting spaces. If educators can be mindful of the areas of caution such as staff development and having clearly defined learning intentions, ME and other AR applications could revolutionise the spaces students learn in and the collaborative skills they use.


Bradford, C. (2010). Looking for my corpse: Video games and player positioning. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, The, 33(1), 54–64. Retrieved from

Chen, I. (2018). The application of augmented reality in English phonics learning performance of ESL young learners. 2018 1st International Cognitive Cities Conference (IC3), 255–259.

Crookes, D. (2019). Minecraft Earth. Web User, (481), 38–39. Retrieved from

Davis, K., Boss, J., & Meas, P. (2018). Playing in the virtual sandbox: Students’ collaborative practices in Minecraft. International Journal of Game-Based Learning (IJGBL), 8(3), 56–76.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Retrieved from

Khan, T., Johnston, K., & Ophoff, J. (2019). The impact of an augmented reality application on learning motivation of students. Advances in Human-Computer Interaction, 2019.

Kuhn, J., & Stevens, V. (2017). Participatory culture as professional development: Preparing teachers to use Minecraft in the classroom. TESOL Journal, 8(4), 753–767.

Niemeyer, D., & Gerber, H. (2015). Maker culture and Minecraft: Implications for the future of learning. Educational Media International, 52(3), 216–226.

Schuck, S., Kearney, M., & Burden, K. (2017). Exploring mobile learning in the Third Space. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 26(2), 121–137.

Taskiran, A. (2019). The effect of augmented reality games on English as foreign language motivation. E-Learning and Digital Media, 16(2), 122–135.

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Image credit: Photo by Kirill Sharkovski on Unsplash

Why Teachers in International Language Schools Should Embrace Professional Learning Networks

If you were an international young-adult student learning English in Australia, which teacher would you prefer: one who recycles the same lessons again and again or one who integrates popular culture into their lessons? In this post, I will investigate whether teachers who engage with professional learning networks (PLNs) provide more relevant learning experiences for young people.

Students in Australian international language schools come from many different countries and have diverse personalities and interests. Many of these young people stay connected to their family and friends via social media, which they then also use to connect with new people they meet during their stay. Young people are used to sharing and exploring their interests through social media (Ito et al., 2010; Takacs, 2015), and this gives them a constant connection to popular culture in its ever-changing state.

Popular culture affects many aspects of our lives. It encompasses the things that people commonly choose to do as well as the things they interact with (Takacs, 2015). It is entwined in social media, an ever-changing set of platforms through which popular culture can be reflected. In some ways, social media is popular culture (at least for now) because social media is a thing that many people are interested in. Popular culture existed before electronic social media and is likely to continue once social media in its current form evolves into whatever comes next.

Teachers can strengthen their knowledge and understanding of popular culture by interacting with PLNs. These are networks that help members to learn by connecting them with each other and useful assets (Oddone, Hughes, & Lupton, 2019). Networks can contain several different strands, for example, face-to-face interactions and online ones. In this previous post, I described how interacting with my own PLN helped me to feel more connected to people in my profession in terms of finding resources and professional development. PLNs can also help teachers to stay up to date with popular culture.

According to Oddone et al. (2019), social technology can be an important element of a PLN because it can facilitate interaction with popular culture and its commentators. Teachers often interact in PLNs via platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and so might be exposed to news and discussions related to popular culture. These types of conversations can also take place physically when teachers interact in the staffroom.

Teachers who interact with their PLN when planning a syllabus can access the latest and most relevant materials and teaching methods. They might ask people in their TESOL teachers’ Facebook group for ideas, curate example activities from Twitter or look for interesting videos on YouTube that might be used to spark discussion. All the while, they will be consciously and unconsciously interacting with popular culture, keeping up to date with events and ideas that are relevant to the unit topic. Being influenced by popular culture, the resulting lessons are likely to be more relevant and useful to the students.

Another benefit of interacting with a PLN is the positive effect interaction with peers can have on mental health. Teachers often experience feelings of isolation and uncertainty. A perceived lack of support from peers and leaders is one of the key reasons for teacher attrition (Suriano, Ohlson, Norton, & Durham, 2018). Similarly, international students often feel isolated and are vulnerable to deteriorating mental health (Taliaferro, Muehlenkamp, & Jeevanba, 2019). However, connecting with others is not enough on its own. For people to really thrive, they must feel they belong to a group. According to Glass and Westmont (2014), being part of events, mentoring and providing a service to a community can help students to develop a feeling of belonging. It stands to reason that this could also apply to teachers. Suriano et al. (2018) state that sharing classroom experiences and discussing current events is very helpful for increasing a sense of belonging in teachers. While schools have a responsibility to ensure they support their teachers’ mental health and professional development, the fact that teachers can make their own connections and have constructive conversations via PLNs must surely be positive.

PLNs can be invaluable for teachers’ professional development. Not only can they help teachers find relevant content that will align with students’ knowledge of popular culture, but they can also ensure that teachers have the vital conversations they need if they are to feel like they belong to their teaching communities.


Glass, C. R., & Westmont, C. M. (2014). Comparative effects of belongingness on the academic success and cross-cultural interactions of domestic and international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 38, 106-119. Retrieved from

Ito, M., Horst, H., Law, A., Manion, A., Mitnick, S., Schlossberg, D., … Antin, J. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Retrieved from

Oddone, K., Hughes, H., & Lupton, M. (2019). Teachers as connected professionals: A model to support professional learning through personal learning networks. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 20(3), 102–120. Retrieved from

Suriano, K., Ohlson, M., Norton, L., & Durham, L. (2018). Here to stay: A case study in supporting and empowering teachers. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 54(3), 127–129.

Takacs, S. (2015). Interrogating popular culture key questions. Retrieved from

Taliaferro, L., Muehlenkamp, J., & Jeevanba, S. (2019). Factors associated with emotional distress and suicide ideation among international college students. Journal of American College Health, 1–5.

Image credit: Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Quizlet Live: Collaborative Opportunities in Game-Based ESL Learning

As a teacher in an international language school for adults, I spend almost 30 hours a week with approximately 20 students for twelve weeks. When spending such a large amount of time together, it’s important to keep things interesting. Maximising collaborative learning opportunities and chances for communication can help to keep classes fun, and one of the ways I do this for learning vocabulary is through the use of Quizlet. This post will explore whether Quizlet is a beneficial tool for learning vocabulary.

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An example Quizlet card

contains a word or phrase to be learned and the other contains a definition. Users can test themselves to see if they are familiar with the vocabulary. Learnt cards disappear and unlearnt ones keep getting tested. The Quizlet community is well established with over 140 million user-generated sets and 50 million active user accounts in 130 countries (Quizlet, 2019). Users can copy and adapt other sets. It is a great way to learn vocabulary and fun to play in group-based games via Quizlet Live.

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Quizlet Live home screen

This is where Quizlet comes into its own. The teacher launches the game from a computer or tablet. Each student needs their own device. The students log in to Quizlet Live (via and input the PIN given to them by the teacher. Quizlet then allocates them into teams, and they have to find and sit with their other team members. Incidentally, this is a great way to get students moving around and learning each other’s names. Once everyone is in their teams, the teacher starts the game. Teachers can even start the game while students are still finding their teams if they want to create a sense of urgency and drama!

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Quizlet Live PIN and QR Code

Each device in the team shows a definition at the top of the screen and a range of answers below. Each team member has a choice of different definitions below, and only one person in the group has the correct answer. If the person with the correct answer selects it, then the team gets a point. If the wrong answer is chosen by anyone in the group, the team’s score is reset to zero. The first team to get to twelve points wins. It is therefore imperative that the teams collaborate as a group to discuss potential answers and choose the best one available before anyone taps their screen. As a result, participation and collaboration are important strategies for winning.

Quizlet is a good way of encouraging participatory culture and collaborative vocabulary learning. A participatory culture is one where members might informally mentor each other, sharing what they know with other members of the group (Jenkins, 2009). According to Anjaniputra and Salsabila (2018), Quizlet can increase engagement with vocabulary learning because the users believe it helps them and they enjoy the experience with each other. Bilova (2018) adds that using flashcards is still a relevant way of learning vocabulary for international students and that technology improves this by adding the possibilities for interaction and fun.

According to Bilova (2018), there is also the potential for students to take control of the vocabulary they learn by working in groups to generate new word lists. Quizlet can help by auto-generating definitions for any term typed. A study by Dizon (2016) recommended the use of Quizlet in EFL classes due to improvements it can scaffold in students’ vocabulary knowledge and their perceived sense of usefulness. The case for Quizlet in the classroom seems strong from students’ and researchers’ reflections. However, there are some areas of caution that should be considered.

The first area of caution is time. Teachers must give students time to become proficient with Quizlet (Bilova, 2018). Some students might struggle with the technical aspects of the application or the rules of the game. This is an opportunity for students to explain processes to each other in a calm and supportive way. Playing a few practice rounds to reduce anxiety and keep the stakes low might also help.

The second area of caution is the temptation to overuse Quizlet. Students seem to enjoy it when it is used at the start of the week to introduce some key vocabulary. However, they also need to see new vocabulary in context. Providing other opportunities for learning and using vocabulary such as reading comprehensions and roleplays might help.

The third area of caution is assumptions about students’ access to technology. Students learning English often have access to a phone (Tran, 2016), and students will often bring devices such as phones, tablets or laptops. However, teachers still need to ensure inclusion for those without access. This could be for financial reasons or personal preferences around technology. Therefore, teachers should be mindful not to embarrass students. Having access to some school devices may help.

As long as teachers are mindful of potential problems, young-adult students in an international language school are likely to find the inclusion of Quizlet Live has a positive impact on their vocabulary learning and collaborative skills.



Anjaniputra, A. G., & Salsabila, V. A. (2018). The merits of Quizlet for vocabulary learning at tertiary level. Indonesian EFL Journal, 4(2), 1–11.

Bilova, S. (2018). Collaborative and individual vocabulary building using ICT. Studies in Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric, 53(1), 31-48.

Dizon, G. (2016). Quizlet in the EFL classroom: Enhancing academic vocabulary acquisition of Japanese university students. Teaching English with Technology, 16(2), 40–56. Retrieved from

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Retrieved from

Quizlet. (2019). About Quizlet. Retrieved from

Tran, P. (2016). Training learners to use Quizlet vocabulary activities on mobile phones in Vietnam with Facebook. JALT CALL Journal, 12(1), 43–56. Retrieved from


Featured image by Roel Dierckens 

@Lightspeed: Supercharging Professional Learning Networks with Social Media


I have been teaching English to international adults at a school in Brisbane since 2008. The school provides high-quality professional development, and I work with a supportive teaching team. Using social media can further improve a professional learning network (PLN) by increasing the number and quality of connections. In this post, I will examine whether my PLN was enhanced by incorporating social media.

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An old phone

Put Your Phone Away!​​

If you work in an office, do people ever come over to your desk and tell you to put your phone away? What about in meetings? How about when you are with friends in a cafe? With most people carrying phones in the early 21st Century, technology has become part of our lives and its place in schools continues to be a hotly-debated issue.

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