Standard Lesson

Highlighting Out-of-School Language Expertise with Pop Culture Dictionaries

6 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 50-minute sessions
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Validate students' out-of-school language use by asking them to share details on the use of words and phrases from movies, television shows, books, and other texts. In this activity, students compose dictionary entries for words and phrases from pop culture texts, connecting the definitions to their personal use of the terms. Their work is published individually, or if desired, collectively in a class dictionary.

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From Theory to Practice

All students are language experts. They know and have used language extensively before they come to the classroom. The linguistic knowledge that they bring to the classroom is wide-ranging. They may still be learning the demands of academic language, but they are well-practiced in many other kinds of language use.

The language expertise students bring to the classroom is central to this activity. Students take on the role of experts by explaining popular culture words and phrases that they use in everyday conversations. As a result, this lesson plan validates out-of-school literacy and encourages students to explore how audience and purpose govern language use.

This kind of validation of language expertise and the related deep comprehension of the ways that language works is critical to developing students’ literacy skills. The Common Core State Standards for Grade 9–10 and Grade 11–12 both suggest that students need to “Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening” (54). This lesson plan touches on all aspects of this standard, as students consider how language choices are made within pop culture texts and how they extend to audiences and purposes outside those texts.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Computers with Internet access
  • Several dictionaries or links to online dictionary sites



Merrian-Webster provides this standard dictionary site, which includes audio pronunciations of the terms.

This site offers a collection of dictionaries, including American English and British English dictionaries.


  1. Make sure students are familiar with dictionaries and know how to read the different parts of a dictionary entry. You can use the Brave New Words: Novice Lexicography and the Oxford English Dictionary lesson plan to review this information before beginning this activity, if necessary.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the items on the Word and Phrase List. You can add or delete items from the list to make it more appropriate for your students. Check the Word and Phrase Links handout for the Wikipedia entries for any words or phrases on the list that are not familiar.
  3. Test the Alphabet Organizer student interactive on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the Technical Help page.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • explore and expand their definitions of texts.
  • compile a list of words and phrases from pop culture texts.
  • determine the criteria for effective dictionary entries.
  • explore the ways that purpose and audience influence a message.
  • compose dictionary entries that demonstrate their language expertise.


Session One

  1. Display the Word and Phrase List using an LCD projector, write the list on the board, or pass out copies. Students should immediately recognize many of the words and phrases.
  2. Ask them to share what they know about each item on the list. There are no wrong answers here. Loosely guide the discussion with the categories on the Pop Culture Dictionary Entry Form. If you have computers and Internet access, students can look up terms that no one recognizes.
  3. After students have worked through the list, ask them what the words and phrases have in common. As you discuss them, emphasize that all are words or catchphrases from pop culture texts (that is, texts that are watched, listened to or read by mainstream audiences, texts that are popular and generally familiar with members of society or a community).
  4. Ask students to consider how they use terms from pop culture texts in their conversations. Encourage them to explore how language choices, like adopting language from pop culture texts, builds relationships through shared understanding of the meaning and context. Have them think about who they might use such language with, who they would not use it with, and how they decide. Support the idea that such language choices allow fans to identify and connect with one other.
  5. Invite students to add words and phrases to the list from other pop culture texts. If necessary, add a warning about sharing only pop culture words and phrases that are appropriate for the classroom. Both the words and the texts they come from should be acceptable for the classroom.
  6. Pass out copies of the Pop Culture Dictionary Assignment and the Rubric for Pop Culture Dictionary Entries, and review the requirements with the class.
  7. Arrange the class in small groups, based on interests: television shows, movies, online and console gaming, Internet sites, and so forth. If any groups are too large, students can break out into smaller groups based on genres such as sitcoms, reality TV, and crime dramas for television shows.
  8. In their small groups, ask students to brainstorm pop culture texts. The lists can be rather general. Students do not need to focus on specific episodes of television shows. The general show name will suffice. For instance, students can list The Simpsons (rather than the specific episode “Lost Verizon” or “Treehouse of Horror”).
  9. Circulate through the classroom, providing help and pointers.
  10. As brainstorming slows down, have students transfer their list to chart paper or an area of the board. Be sure to save a copy of the lists for reference in later sessions.
  11. Gather the class and review the lists, making additions and changes as necessary.
  12. For homework, ask students to think about the assignment (referring to the Pop Culture Dictionary Assignment sheet) and jot down texts from the lists in their journals that they might explore for their dictionary entries.

Session Two

  1. Review the Pop Culture Dictionary Assignment and the Rubric for Pop Culture Dictionary Entries and answer any questions students have.
  2. Introduce the Alphabet Organizer interactive and explain that students will use the tool to brainstorm preliminary details about their dictionary entries.
  3. Ask students to choose Option 2 if you want them to brainstorm words only. Have them choose Option 3 if you want them to brainstorm words with short notes. Share the Example of Alphabet Organizer Choice 2 handout or the Example of Alphabet Organizer Choice 3 handout, as appropriate.
  4. Ask students to brainstorm 6 to 8 words or phrases. Emphasize that they do not need to fill out the entire alphabet. The goal is simply to gather some ideas.
  5. Give students 20 to 30 minutes to brainstorm ideas using the Alphabet Organizer, and have them print out their work to refer to as they create their entries.
  6. Introduce the Word Choice Checklist, and work through some examples:
    • Ensure students understand the difference between general words and words specific to the pop culture text. The characters in the television show How I Met Your Mother use the word doppelganger, for instance, but the definition and use is no different than the normal use of the word. A word from the show like lawyered or a phrase like suit up is a better choice.
    • Emphasize the importance of choosing terms that students use in personal contexts. If students never use the term in conversation, it’s not right for a dictionary entry.
    • Explain that character and place names from the pop culture texts are usually not appropriate for dictionary entries. For instance, a place name like London or New York City isn’t specific to any text. Evaluate these terms on a case-by-case basis however. A place like The Room of Requirement from the Harry Potter series would work if the student used the term in everyday conversation. For instance, she might call the garage the Room of Requirement, because her family has a habit of storing random items there.
  7. For homework, ask students to evaluate the words on their lists using the Word Choice Checklist and to choose the five words they will define.

Session Three

  1. Use the Definitions PowerPoint Presentation to discuss the elements of a definition and the details that students need to include in their own entries.
  2. Pass out copies of the Pop Culture Dictionary Entry Form, or display the information using an LCD projector. Review the form, and define any words, if necessary.
  3. Share some example dictionary entries from classroom dictionaries or use online dictionaries such as Cambridge Dictionaries Online or Merriam-Webster Online. You might use the word delish in the Merriam-Webster Online since it is used in the Alphabet Organizer examples.
  4. Match information from the dictionary entries to the Pop Culture Dictionary Entry Form to ensure students understand what information they need for the assignment.
  5. Have students use the remaining class time to gather information on their entries using the Pop Culture Dictionary Entry Form. Students can use multiple copies of the form, copy the form headings into their notebooks, or create their own document with a word processor.
  6. For homework, ask students to compose a full draft of the assignment, using the information they have gathered using the Pop Culture Dictionary Entry Form. Remind students to include an introduction along with their five entries. Point to the Pop Culture Dictionary Assignment and the Rubric for Pop Culture Dictionary Entries for the details on the assignment. Explain that students will share their drafts in class during the next session.

Session Four

  1. Give students a few minutes to proofread their first drafts and make any last minute changes.
  2. Pass out copies of the Pop Culture Dictionary Peer Review Questions, and go over the questions together. Discuss the difference between vague and specific feedback by composing some possible answers together.
  3. Arrange students in pairs, and ask them to exchange their work.
  4. Have students read one another’s drafts and provide feedback using the Pop Culture Dictionary Peer Review Questions.
  5. After students have shared and received feedback, allow students to work on changes to their drafts.
  6. For homework, ask students to finalize their changes to their assignments, based on the feedback that they have received. Explain that you will collect their work during the next session for grading.

Session Five

  1. Give students a few minutes to proofread their drafts and make any last minute changes.
  2. Gather students as a class and ask each student to choose a favorite term from their entries.
  3. Have students share their terms with the class, going around the room and asking each student to state the word or phrase, where it has come from, and what it means. A fun strategy is to ask each student to state the term and then poll the class to see how many already know the term. Since students shared their drafts for peer review, there should always be at least one other student in the class who knows the term.
  4. After every student has shared a term, ask students to talk about any of these topics as they relate to the dictionary entries:
    • What parts of speech are the entries? How are the words used in conversation or writing?
    • How do audience, purpose, and situation affect the use of the dictionary entries?
    • How does language build communities or build connections among people?
    • How do new words, word meanings, or expressions come into being? What sources are there other than pop culture?
    • What classification system might the entries fit into? (Students could arrange words by categories like new meanings for existing words, new ways to combine words, word play, puns, and invented words.)
  5. Collect students’ work for assessment at the end of the session. If you will be using one of the extensions or another assignment that focuses on pop culture and/or definitions, leave the class with some teasers for the next project you’ll embark on, tying the next activity to the work they have just completed.
  6. If desired, combine students’ dictionary entries in a class pop culture dictionary. The document might be published online, or it can be printed and added to the classroom or school library for students to check out and explore in more detail.


  • Now that the class has explored how language works in communities that students consider themselves experts in, shift to a new community that students may be less familiar with. Using the same techniques, ask students can create a working glossary of terms and how they are used for a new unit of study or for academic language more generally.
  • Extend your exploration of the vocabulary student's learn through their experiences with popular culture by adapting the lesson Using a Word Journal to Create a Personal Dictionary (Grades 6–8). In addition to keeping a word journal of words they encounter as they read, students can collect words and phrases that they encounter in movies, television shows, games, and other texts.
  • Reshape the activity by having students use the Trading Cards Mobile App for their five pop culture words or phrases. Students can use the Vocabulary card type for their entries.
  • Ask students to continue their exploration of how they use language with the lesson Exploring Language and Identity: Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” and Beyond or to consider the language practices of pop culture texts in more detail with the lesson Reading Movies and TV: Learning the “Language” of Moving-Image Texts.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Observe students for participation during the exploration and discussion of pop culture texts in Session One.
  • Check each student's Alphabet Organizer for completion and effort after Session Two.
  • As students work on the Pop Culture Peer Review Questions during Session Four, circulate through the room, note which students understand the concepts and who needs more practice. Provide on-the-spot help for any students who need more examples or instruction.
  • Assess students’ final dictionary entries with the Rubric for Pop Culture Dictionary Entries.

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