Learning and teaching English through The Family Circus

Grace Chin-Wen Chien, University of Washington


Quick guide

  • Key words: comic strips, culture, cartoon
  • Learner English level: Beginning levels
  • Learner maturity: All levels
  • Preparation time: 20-30 minutes
  • Activity time: One class
  • Materials:Photocopies of The Family Circus cartoon with caption removed


Language teaching is also culture teaching (Buttjes, 1990). It is difficult to teach a language without a culture base. Increasing learners’ awareness of the target culture will enable learners to understand both their own world and others, encourage them to have a more positive attitude toward differences, and can help to promote appropriate speech act behavior in certain circumstances. An introduction to comic strips is an alternative way to arouse students’ cultural awareness and encourage reflection on identity.

The Family Circuswas created and is written by cartoonist Bill Keane and his son, Jeff Keane. The strip uses a single captioned panel with a round border. Comic strips can be used in numerous ways to teach the four skills—listening, speaking, reading, and writing—as well as culture (Chen, 2003). The following is a lesson plan on how to use The Family Circus in the classroom.


Step 1: Choose four cartoons based on a theme or topic fromThe Family Circus (<www.familycircus.com>). Erase the words from the cartoons. Put these four cartoons on an A4 sheet. Give each student one sheet. Based on these four cartoons, students write down four to five words related to each cartoon.

Step 2: On the board, write six sentences including the original four sentences from the captioned panels. Ask students to find the best description and write it down below the appropriate cartoon. Students work in groups of three and describe why they choose this specific description.

Step 3:Give each student a blank sheet. Students fold the blank sheet in half to make two columns. Students read all the sentences again. In the left column, ask each student to write down words he or she knows. In the right column, each student is asked to write down words he or she does not know. The teacher explains the words, phrases, idioms, sentences, grammatical points, linguistic focus, and cultural aspects.

Step 4: Students work in groups of three. Each group is assigned a cartoon. Students work together to create their own sentences. Each group writes their sentence on the board. The whole class reads and corrects all these sentences.

Step 5:Students write one or two sentences about what they have learned from these cartoons. The teacher calls on students to share their reflections. For homework, students make sentences based on the words in the right column.


The stories and events in The Family Circus are like our daily lives. Through The Family Circus, English as foreign language (EFL) students can learn words (e.g., mitten, glove), phrases (e.g., except for, learn from), idioms (e.g., cold turkey), sentences (Where have you been all morning?), grammatical points (e.g., I wonder if…; I can’t be sick), connected speech (e.g., gonna, wanna), and cultural aspects (e.g., pizza day, under the mistletoe).


Buttjes, D. (1990). Teaching foreign language and culture: Social impact and political significance. Language Learning Journal, 2, 53-57.

Chen, C. Y. (2003). The “self” in American cultural characteristics: Using comic strips to teach cultural concepts in the EFL classroom. Hwa Kang Journal of English Language & Literature, 9, 3-23.