Internet memes & concept checking, by Marcelo de Cristo

Internet memes are all around us these days. Whether you like them or not, you are bombarded with them 24/7 through social media. And so are your learners – kids, teens and adults who sometimes find learning about grammar difficult… or just dead boring! So how can you take advantage of internet memes to help your learners understand grammar? In other words, how can you use internet memes for checking key grammar concepts? Read on and find out.

What is an internet meme?

Understanding the definition of the term is key to establishing the relation between internet memes and concept checking. According to Wikipedia, ‘internet meme’ is “an idea, style or action which spreads, often as mimicry, from person to person via the internet, as with imitating the concept.”
meme_teach_English1Got it? Most of the time, there is a pattern being repeated again and again (and again and again…) and which your learners are exposed to through Facebook, Whatsapp and many other social media on a 24/7 basis. In the case of the above memes, for example, we can notice the following:

Concept / function: frequency (not always)
Meaning: not all the time
Time: present
Pattern: I don’t always… But when I do, …

If that isn’t enough to convince you of the potential of internet memes for teaching purposes, let me remind you that your learners can actually be the ones behind the creation, adaptation and dissemination of these very memes. They see a pattern they like, understand the concept behind it, adapt it for their own situation using a photo editor or a meme generator (easily found online) and disseminate it using social media. Here is an example of the kind of personalisation every teacher would love to see happening in their lessons, isn’t that right? It’s just that now, in the 21st century (as always), all the world is a classroom!


Concept checking and humour

Is there a person in the world who doesn’t like having a good laugh? The use of humour as a pedagogical tool has been widely accepted as helping to reduce classroom anxiety, creating a more positive atmosphere and facilitating the learning process. Research also supports the idea that “humour facilitates retention of novel information” (e.g. newly introduced grammar), which means learners are more likely to understand and remember difficult grammar concepts when introduced via humourous situations. And that is exactly what we want when concept checking, defined here as “checking the understanding of difficult aspects of the target structure in terms of function and meaning.” Internet memes can thus be a simple, widely available and very effective resource for you to accomplish this – sometimes painful – goal.

The Willy Wonka memes (above), hugely popular on the web, can be used to check learners’ understanding of the use of MUST for making deductions about present situations where the speaker feels very sure of their conclusion. The concept checking questions (CCQs) below are intended to make sure they understand this particular use of MUST, as opposed to its common use expressing obligation (usually introduced earlier in most text books). Thus, for example:

Does Willy Wonka see the situation as a necessity or is he making a conclusion? (a conclusion)
How sure is he about his conclusion: ‘not very’ or ‘very’? (very)

So how does that work?

Creating CCQs based on popular internet memes is a great way to integrate humour in your teaching and help your learners internalise tricky grammar concepts. So here is a simple procedure which can help you to go from internet memes to concept checking:

1. Find an appropriate internet meme for classroom use – one way you can do this is by typing the target language e.g. ‘going to’ followed by the word ‘meme’ on Google images.
2. Identify its pattern and key concepts – e.g. Look at all… I’m (not) going to…, time, prediction, degree of evidence.
3. Create your CCQs – here you can find some basic tips for good concept questions.


For example:
Is she talking about the present, past or future? (future)
Is she making a decision or a prediction about the exam results? (a prediction)
Is the prediction based on evidence? (yes – she knows she hasn’t studied)

Final thoughts and an invite

The use of humour in teaching has traditionally been frowned upon by many teachers and school administrators. After presenting the talks Humourising the 4 Skills and From Internet Memes to Concept Checking at different events in northeast Brazil, it was interesting to notice a renewed interest in the area as we look for methods to better communicate and help learners to learn beyond the classroom walls. The use of internet memes is not at all restricted to concept checking and this article is an open invitation for everyone to contribute with other ways of integrating them in our teaching. Learners come across internet memes as much as (if not more than) ourselves and I believe we underestimate the potential of memes to help them to learn, practice, and recycle language in new, fun and exciting ways.

marceloMarcelo de Cristo is an EFL Teacher, Teacher Trainer and a life-long learner. He is a Cambridge CELTA Tutor and Oral Examiner and has trained teachers around South America and the UK. He’s also a freelance materials writer and ELT Consultant, local secretary of the BRAZ-TESOL RN Chapter.

Marcelo blogs at


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