The Internet TESL Journal

Teaching Slang to ESL/EFL Students Using the TV Series Prison Break

Jennifer Louise Teeter
teeter42 [=at=]
(Kyoto, Japan)


Many students in my English as a second Laguage (ESL) classes come to me with questions about the meaning of English words that they have heard on television programs such as Lost and Prison Break, especially colloquial English and slang. Some ESL teachers are reluctant to teach their students slang in class.  However, it is important to provide students with an understanding of the usage of colloquial English and an awareness of the existence of slang expressions so they are not discouraged by non-textbook varieties of English. Furthermore, by practicing colloquial English and slang in the classroom setting, students can be spared potential embarrassment in the future by becoming accustomed to using it appropriately.

My students want to understand colloquial English and they watch many television dramas in English. The pilot of the TV series Prison Break was selected to teach students about using American slang.

To introduce my students to some colloquial expressions (such as: ain’t, wanna, gonna, gotta, etc.), I first showed my students a scene from Prison Break where there was not so much slang or colloquial English used.  Then I showed the students the following scene that was abundant with colloquial expressions and slang. This way the students could not only follow along with the story line, but also compare the difference in language use.

Scenes Selected

  1. The scene with the main character, Michael, and his brother, Lincoln, discussing how Lincoln was “set up” by someone. This scene starts after the first commercial break ten minutes into the program. (Referred to as Scene 1)
  2. The next scene where Michael talks with his cell mate, Sucre, about writing a letter to propose to his girlfriend. (Referred to as Scene 2)

Pre-watching Activity

The following discussion questions help students learn vocabulary and phrases that appear in the two scenes they will watch. Depending on the ability of the students to express themselves, you can use these questions with or without a set of answers. Students first discuss in pairs and then are asked to share their thoughts with the rest of the class.

First Viewing

After the discussion, show the two scenes with English subtitles. Discuss the identities of the characters and their relationships. Ask the students if they can notice any differences in the formality of the English and how it may or may not differ from the language found in textbooks.

Scene 1- Focus

There are two tasks for this scene - matching and fill in the blanks.


1.    deny a motion

2.    Swear to me!

3.    get it wrong

4.    put someone in the ground

5.    set the date for something

6.    look back on something

7.    set someone up

8.    I swear to you!

a. Think about the past

b. Please promise me!

c. reject a request for a ruling in court

d. I promise to you!

e. make a mistake

f. choose a date to do something

f. kill someone

Listen and Fill in the Blanks

Lincoln: They ________ the motion.

Michael: Then do it again.

Lincoln: I can’t. That’s it. May 11th.  That’s the date man. That’s the day they uh…u know they uh…execute me.

Michael: I know.

Lincoln: I didn’t _______ that man, Michael.

Michael: The evidence says you did.

Lincoln: I don’t care what the evidence _______, I didn’t kill that man.

Michael:  Swear to me.

Lincoln: I _______ to you Michael.

Michael: But how did they get it wrong then? The courts, the appeals

Lincoln: Don’t know, don’t know. All I keep _______, looking back on it is that I was set up. And whoever it was who set me up wants me in the ground as quick as possible.

Scene 2- Focus

This scene is a conversation between the main character and his prison mate who is writing a love letter to his fiancé. To prepare for this activity, I transcribed the conversation and then I taped strips of paper with sentences from the dialogue around the classroom.

Scene 2 Activity 1- How else can you say these sentences in English?

Scene 2 Activity 2-Transcript

Sucre: What’s another word for love?

Michael: What’s the context?

Sucre: Oh you know, the "I love you so much I ain’t never knockin’ over another liquor store again" context. Except, you know, classy.

Michael: Hmmmm.

Sucre: I’m proposin’ to my girlfriend if you gotta know.

Michael: In a letter?

Sucre: You gotta better way?

Michael: Face to face works pretty good.

Sucre: This place ain’t exactly da’ romantic spot. I’m gonna have her get on the Stanton Island Ferry. Then once she’s can see the Empire State Building she opens the letter. It’s almost like being there. Except for the fact that I won’t be there.

Michael: Try passion.

Sucre: Oh passion, that’s dope. How do you spell that? P-a-s-h.

Post-Listening Activity

After watching the two scenes and completing the activities, discuss the differences in language in the two dialogues and in what situations colloquial English is usually used and when slang is used.  Then have the students write a dialogue in pairs using at least three new vocabulary words or phrases from the dialogues.  Have the students share their dialogues with the class and give feedback to the students about the usage of colloquial English and slang. As an extra step, you can have the students exchange dialogues. Have the students change the language in their classmates’ dialogue into language they would find in a typical textbook.

This lesson can also be used as a lead-in to a lesson about capital punishment or other lessons related to crime and prisons.


By watching these scenes from Prison Break, the students could not only witness the use of colloquial English and slang in a natural context, but they had the chance to reflect on their relationships with loved ones and life in prison. They are also provided an opportunity to practice using slang in a safe environment.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 1, January 2010