5 Lessons Working at MTV taught me about teaching ESL

Spread the love

Last Updated on July 7, 2021 by Christine Kaaloa

IMG 3236On the set of MTV’s Little Talent Show in Los Angeles

Before moving to live and teach in Korea, I had a career in producing and shooting  some of MTV’s hit teen reality shows.

What did this teach me about teaching ESL?

1. Directing a good soundbite (aka Focusing on Pronunciation)

Did I just hear someone utter pibe vs. five?


My students may not be TV talent, but clarity and good pronunciation is important for an audience’s ear. You don’t know how it sounds like nails against chalkboard when I hear the stars on Korean dramas (read 10 Things I’ve Learned from Korean dramas) mispronounce words. Common, acting is your career!

If I don’t correct their speech habits, their pibes will grow to sebens and to elebens… until their ” Pishes swim in a Riber.

ESL students aren’t the only ones afflicted with bad pronunciation habits, though. It plagues English-speakers too.

I was sitting in a Super Sweet 16ers‘ bedroom with a lav mic on the talent, directing interviews and promotional reads. She was tired and mixed with her Southern drawl, she sounded like she was talking with food in her mouth.

Sometimes, I’d have to work with teen talent, which would give me a delivery, as if they exhaled their words into one long, run-on sentence. Other times some of my show kids were just really incomprehensible…

I gave the one favorite word that I use today–



2.  Asking the questions, which will produce great sound bites.

Now some reality show secrets… Many MTV reality show stories are told through voiceover narration. You hear the talent speaking about how they feel, what they’re thinking as the storyline progresses. To get this kind of narration, I need to ask the right questions. This is what I do as a field producer. I create the streams of a story so the audience can follow along, relate and understand what stakes are involved with the character.

What I want are from my talent, are short and sweet, confident answers which will tell my story. So my questions must direct my talent’s answer.

When your mom said she ‘didn’t want you to get married so young’,  what did you feel like saying to her?

– When my mom said ‘she didn’t like me marrying so young,’ I felt like…

If you don’t get that $70,000 sportscar for your birthday, what will you do?

– If I don’t get that $70,000 car for my birthday, I’ll….

If I give talent an open-ended undirected question like “How did you feel today?”, I might get a lengthy monologue about my talent’s schedule starting with what they ate for breakfast. My questions have to be targeted.

Similarly, working with elementary ESL, my questions and instructions must be more pointed and shorter. I never ever ever use compound sentences. Speaking long-winded sentences or phrases will just confuse them and I can’t give them English words they haven’t learned yet or they won’t know what I’m asking.

What is Mina doing?

– Mina is eating dinner with her family

What did Thomas say?

– Thomas said “Don’t touch that Mina”.

Eliciting great answers is the hardest part of a field producer’s work and it’s one of the hardest skills for an ESL elementary teacher, too (Read more tips on how I create good questions for my students).


3.  The Art of “Show, Don’t tell”

If you were an ESL student, what would you prefer… to listen to your teacher give a lecture on grammar or see pictures and watch action involving that grammar?

This is the premise of show don’t tell. It’s very boring to listen to someone talk, because no one can see words. This is why the Korean classroom doesn’t want to focus on students learning English grammar. If they have to listen to a lecture, they won’t want to learn English. It’s just not fun.

People want to be entertained and you can only do this by providing visual reference . Students will be more engaged in their learning if you “perform” what you’re saying or show pictures and this is why many expat teachers in Korea use Powerpoint presentations and games when we teach.

As I said, my reality shows often uses voiceovers a lot. If my talent talks about a fight which happened earlier between her and her Mom, and how her mom said this and she said that, but we don’t show you that fight, … chances are you’re going to lose interest or zone out while she’s talking. You won’t follow the story.  When we show you the fight, all of a sudden, you’re hooked back in, you’re entertained… you understand how the characters are feeling.


4.  Everyone wants to be entertained

MTV first caught our attention with a funked out logo and racy music videos. From there they developed “tricks”– quick video cuts, driving beats, color-pumping motion graphics… It roped people in, charged their adrenaline and whisked them off for a wild ride.

Likewise, as a language teacher, I must devise “tricks” to keep my students actively engaged in learning. Whether I teach young kids, adults or teachers, each group secretly wants to be entertained. So I must become a teacher-tainer. It’s partially my job to make learning fun. If my students are half-asleep or bored, then guess what? They’re not hearing a word I’m saying. They’re ears are turned off.

So Teacher-taining is my chance to be terrifically dramatic, thrilling, off-beat, even monsterously silly. And you know what? It wakes my students, turns on their ears and keeps them interested.

5.  To know your audience, you  must  understand them

When you look at the crew of MTV -New York, you might think:

20-30 young-somethings, tattoos, ripped t-shirts, cool, retro, fashionable.

MTV- New York doesn’t look much like crew at all. I know female shooters who can even wear funky 4″ heels, while they run with the camera a shoot! I’m a bit fan of wearing skirts vs. standard blue jeans. I mean… how boring right? Shooters are allowed to be fashionable.

But when you walk that kind of “Pop & funk” style, there’s going to be a greater chance that you might know your audience, what they want to see, how they think … in order to create shows viewers can relate to.

Likewise, teaching ESL to foreigners/Koreans, I need to know a bit about their lives and cultural interests, so I can build my lessons around things which are relative to the life they know. Whether the cultural icons are G-Dragon, Kim Yuna, Park Tae Hee, Wonder Girls, SDSN… integrating their interests into my lessons will reduce the “foreign-ness” of an alien language.


For more information about teaching in Korea, click here:

Want to teach English in Korea, why teach in Korea

Related Posts

Gap Year Travel, Should you teach in Korea?, Teaching English


  • This amazing and I completely agree. I am currently teaching English here in Korea, Jangsu and this was such a refresher to keep me going and to keep my students engaged.

    Below is also my blog about my experience here in Korea


  • Reading your post,I got your point. Why your MTV job lead you to being an ESL teacher. I would say,pronunciation has a lot to do with it,which is understandable.

  • Some good tips here. As an ESL teacher I agree it’s important to make your lessons as fun as possible!


  • Thank you so much for your insight. I really enjoy reading your perspective on travelling and teaching. This past week I’ve been researching high and low for the perfect lesson plans to teach elementary students, however I have overlooked everything. This post makes my work-life feel more simple. Thanks.

    • @Barbara: As I just wrote Andrew– we all bring our backgrounds with us. I’m certain that who you are/where you’re from has a wealth of inspirations to share with your students, regarding lessons!

      If you’re nervous, begin with the tried-and-true of lesson plan fishing http://www.waygook.org. Can’t say enough good things about this site; many creative minds innovated on lessons to make them fun & kinda MTVish for Korean students. Even some of us K-bloggers have lessons posted for use on our sites. Don’t stress too much about it.

      Another great rule I learned– if you can’t make it fun for yourself, it won’t be fun for your kids. Bring ‘who you are’ into your lessons and play with it. Congrats on your impending arrival to Korea. Annyeong!

  • Thanks for sharing your ESL tips! I can definitely see how going from MTV producer to ESL teacher would be beneficial. Time management, creativity, and keeping things moving are all really important.

    How long do you think you’ll be an ESL teacher?

    • @Andrew: Thanks for your comment. I think we all bring different skills and traits to the teaching table despite our professional backgrounds but yeah, MTV helped. 😉 I enjoy teaching so we’ll see. Looks like I might be taking a hiatus soon though. I’ll keep everyone posted.

  • Laura in Cancun
    January 13, 2011 1:53 am

    I’ve been hoping to hear more about your old MTV job 🙂 Sounds very interesting!

    I love all your comments on pronunciation. (In Spanish, “b” and “v” are also pronounced the same!)

  • This is a pretty cool post. I’ve wanted to read marketing and design text books for quite some time so that I can get better at delivering concise messages that can elicit more emotional responses from students. Do you know of any books that one could read to help in the kind of message handling that you suggest in this post?

    • @3gyupsal: Unfortunately, I can’t say I know of any books that tell you how to do that. I picked that trick up from being on the road and watching a variety of producers who got great responses through their interviews. Eventually I caught on as to how to it all had to do with the kind of questions I asked. It’s like teaching in that after a time, you develop a working formula.

      Questions- keep them short, simple and to the point. If you want emotional responses, make sure your class has learned about them first, so they have the vocabulary to give them. Maybe “model” the Q & A formula for them; entrain them with your new expectations by introducing your new line of questioning as a new precedence for the class structure. Perhaps they will come around. Here’s one technique I used to get my class to give me a bit more Good luck to you. The fact you want to improve means you must be a really good teacher!

      • I think you can write a book for these teaching tips
        so other teachers can also learn teacher-tainment 🙂

  • Yes, kids love to be entertained. But not at the expense of learning. I love teaching and make it as much fun for these kids as possible, given their schedules. What these kids have to go through is mind boggling! Kudos to you for doing such a good job.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by maryanne oxendale. maryanne oxendale said: RT @grrrltraveler: 5 Things MTV taught me about teaching ESL http://goo.gl/fb/78bA6 […]

Comments are closed.