Is There a Place for Internet Slang and Emojis in the Classroom?

Any teacher who walks through the halls of their school will encounter new words and phrases that students pick up online. Maybe the drama teacher was being “so extra” by scheduling too many rehearsals. Maybe a funny online video has kids screaming “this is sending me!” 

But what happens when hallway talk transitions to the classroom? Is there a place for poop emojis in algebra class? How can teachers use slang to connect students with the material, without looking like the “fellow kids” meme? 

There are a lot of ways to use “Internet speak” in your lessons – regardless of the grade and subject you teach. Here are a few ways to get inspired and make your classroom bussin’.  

The Benefits of Using Emojis

It’s easy to discount emojis as fun images used in text and Zoom lessons, but these miniature pictures play a significant role in modern communication. In online communication, emojis provide context for tone and emotion in ways that text can’t.  

“Because the digital world is abstract and void of facial expressions or body language cues, much of the feeling between two people can be lost during textual conversations,” writes the team at Onomojis. “Thus, emojis are an emotional shorthand for social cues that ultimately affect our emotional reception and development.” 

Think about how emojis change your email and chat communication with colleagues. Responding to a request for assistance with “I’ll get to it this afternoon,” can sound completely different whether a smiling emoji or an eye roll emoji is included. Emojis help kids and adults understand the tone of the conversation. 

Some experts have tracked how emojis can help our brains process words and sentence structure at a young age. Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch, author of “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language,” says kids use emojis as a precursor to reading. They learn what digital symbols mean and how to share them. 

“Kids start out learning spoken and signed languages…by babbling nonsense syllables, which teaches them the rhythm of conversation and trains them to make fine articulatory movements,” says McCulloch. “The silly strings of emoji that young kids send could serve a similar purpose.”

The use of illustrations to depict actions and emotions isn’t new. It’s just that emojis have expanded from children’s picturebooks into the daily communications of kids, teens and adults from all walks of life. 

“Teachers all know that illustrations and pictures help children visualize what they’re reading and increase comprehension,” writes Jeanne Sager at Teach Starter. “And, well, it doesn’t exactly hurt that there’s plenty of potty humor associated with emoji.”

Group of kids in kindergarten play games with teacher; emojis in the classroom

Using Emojis in Social-Emotional Learning

So how do you take the concept of emojis and apply them to your classroom? First, tap into emojis to improve the social-emotional balance of your classroom. 

Monica Burns, Ed.D., curriculum and edtech consultant and founder of Class Tech Tips, says emojis can be used as a way for teachers to check in with their students each day. Students can select an emoji that reflects how they feel and write a few sentences explaining why. This can be part of a daily writing exercise or a way to know when a student needs help emotionally.

There are also more subtle ways that teachers can use emojis to help struggling students. In an article for Chalkbeat, teacher Christina Ramsay says one of her students struggled to ask for help when learning remotely. The student didn’t like how a teacher called her out in front of the whole class to see if she understood the material. Ramsay developed the “hamburger emoji” solution. When that student needed help, she would put a hamburger emoji in the chat and the teacher would enter a private breakout room to assist. This gave the student the courage to ask for help because she wouldn’t feel embarrassed in front of their peers. 

You can even use emojis to see if students are enjoying your lesson plans or the material you are covering. While your students still need to learn core concepts, a big part of SEL is identifying and validating emotions. 

“Students are traditionally not asked if they like what they are doing or if they are being challenged to the point where the experience is stretching them — but not so difficult that it’s too frustrating,” says educational psychologist Lilla Dale McManis. “We know from research that using emojis in classroom activities helps students better understand what they have learned — especially in online learning.”

If your class isn’t enjoying a particular concept, you can adjust your lesson plans or reason with your students. Ask yourself how you can make the lesson fun.

two smiling teens in a classroom; emojis in the classroom concept

Emoji Lesson Plans for Your Classroom

Outside of social-emotional learning, there are other ways to use emojis to engage students. High school teacher Andrew Kozlowsky uses emojis to encourage students to use critical thinking in their day-to-day tasks. 

One simple lesson Kozlowsky created can be applied to the history classroom. Present students with 10 emojis and ask them to pick one that represents the topic. Ask the student to explain why they chose the emoji and its connections to specific events. For example, a student trying to describe the American Revolution can choose a tea emoji and write about the Boston Tea Party and taxation without representation.

Emoji lesson plans don’t need to be complicated. Richard Graham at Genki English created templates for emoji dice, but you can create your own. Each side of the dice has a different emoji. The sides can include emotions, items (like broccoli and poop), and activities (like swimming and dancing). Ask your students to roll the dice and write a paragraph or a short story based on the emojis they roll. Each student’s story will be unique based on the emojis they roll.  

Emojis can also be used to make math fun. The team at EmojiGuide shares ideas for discussing basic arithmetic with emojis, but they can also be used to review algebraic concepts. While your students might feel intimidated by a formula like 2x + 3 = 21, they may be amused by 2(poop emoji) + 3 = 21, where they have to understand the numeric value of the emoji.

Through these three examples, you can see how emojis can be used to teach elementary sentence structure or AP history and advanced math. There’s no need to ban the smiley face from your classroom.

group of teens walk beside a school; emojis in the classroom concept

Embracing Internet Slang and Netspeak

The internet gave rise to emojis, but it also created a boom in slang. From the classic LOL and OMG acronyms to viral phrases that spread across the web, your students are influenced by Internet language. 

However, not everyone thinks this rapid sharing of slang is a good thing. One school in the UK banned several words from student assignments, including “like,” “wow,” “basically” and “bare.” The goal is to keep filler words and slang out of school. Some linguists have spoken out against this, highlighting how there is a time and place for any language format. 

“It shouldn’t be about good or bad language, it should be about appropriate language for the context,” says Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King’s College London. 

For many students, using slang isn’t just parrotting viral internet trends. The adoption of words and phrases reflects who they are. Alyssa Serrani, an English instructor and freelance writer, highlights how different forms of slang and netspeak are used across the internet. You can tell a lot about the person by the slang terms they use, including their age, social groups and regional background. 

By looking at modern slang terms, students and teachers can watch language and culture evolve before their very eyes. This is why slang is particularly important for language teachers — both for instructors who are teaching students English and foreign language educators. Slang reflects who we are as a people. 

“The only way to fully comprehend what others are saying in another language is to master the slang phrases and idioms,” says David Burke, author of ESL books on idioms and slang plus language books for children. “If you take an idiom literally, you may find yourself totally perplexed.” 

As an example, Burke uses a French idiom (“Ils se bouffent le nez!”). The literal translation is “They are eating each other’s nose,” but it really means that two people are having an argument. Knowing slang can help you fit in when having conversations and prevent misunderstandings. 

How To Use Internet Slang in Your Lesson Plans

Nicole Daniels, staff editor at New York Times Learning, shares a lesson plan based on slang that you can use in your classroom. The lesson challenges students to consider where certain words come from and how they are used. Students can also research other slang words to learn when they became popular and how their usage evolved over time. 

This is an opportunity for students to develop an appreciation of language. You, meanwhile, finally get to learn what “cheugy” means.   

Teachers can also challenge students to create new slang terms, writes Emma Thomas at Fluent U. They have to define it, explain the part of speech, and write a few sentences using the word in context. Your students can also explain how they came up with those phrases. This is a fun activity that could have your whole class laughing — and some of these invented slang terms might stick around throughout the school year.

You can also incorporate slang into your lesson plans and activities to connect with students. Jenna Marcal at BoredTeachers created a guide for using Among Us slang. Just make sure you use terms like “sus” and “crewmates” correctly, otherwise your students will think you’re “totes cringey.”

It’s understandable that teachers can view slang and emojis as classroom distractions. While slang has a place in school, students still need to write cohesive answers and complete assignments that sound appropriate and well-researched. Explore different ways to use internet culture into your classroom so students know when it is suitable to use. 

Images by: gorodenkoff/©, serrnovik/©, Jeswin Thomas, Eliott Reyna