Skip to main content

Taylor Swift, Global Literacies, and ELT: Are You Ready for It?

by Spencer Salas |

Happy March and Women’s History Month from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte! For this month’s post, I’d like to write about global literacies and an experience I had this past October in Kuwait City with an amazing cohort of English as a foreign language middle and secondary public school teachers.

But first, let’s talk about Tay Tay.

I have six nieces — now all in their early twenties. They grew up listening to Taylor Swift. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to her, although I do remember some of the songs that they played over and over and over. I learned some of the words, too: “Cause when you're fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you're gonna believe them.” And I sang along with my nieces in the car. But truth be told, for the longest time I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

I did see, however, the 2009 MTV VMAs incident when Swift accepted the award for Best Video by a Female Artist for “You Belong With Me.” Kanye West grabbed the mic from her hand to tell the audience that Beyoncé should have won instead. When Queen Bey did take the stage later that evening, she invited Taylor back onstage to honor her. In the days that followed, even President Obama had something to say about the incident, and more specifically, about Kanye. It was national news.

Over the years, I’ve slowly become something of a Swift admirer, too—especially after watching the 2020 Netflix documentary, “Miss Americana,” and getting a glimpse into Swift’s songwriting process.

Just this past year, her record-breaking Eras Tour was said to have caused two consecutive 2.3 magnitude earthquakes or “Swift Quakes” in Seattle, Washington, USA during her 22  and 23 July renditions of “Shake it Off.” Four of my nieces attended her concert in San Diego. One even went twice.

Anyhow, in October 2023, in the middle of the Eras Tour, I traveled to Kuwait City to work on adolescent literacy development with those aforementioned amazing groups of public school teachers. We spent the week looking at ways to increase adolescent readers’ engagement with the required national curriculum.

At some point during the seminar, we started talking about popular culture as an access point for reading. I posed the following question to everyone and no one in particular: “Who’s your favorite recording artist?”

A chorus of young Kuwaiti women teachers spontaneously responded (almost in unison): “Taylor Swift.”

I asked which was their favorite song of hers.

“Love Story.”

I was “shook” — kind of.

Kuwait City is a bustling and modern metropolis. At the same time, its people are immensely proud of their culture and traditions. Every day, I’d drive across the sprawling city to the high school hosting the seminar. And every day, my teacher colleagues would all come dressed in their traditional (and, to me, conservative) finery.

It surprised me when my Kuwaiti colleagues named Taylor Swift as their fave, and “Love Story” as their number one. But maybe it shouldn’t have.

Thinking about global literacy and education, Sally Sieloff Magnan said:

Global literacies, according to the thinking of our group, are founded in an ability to understand and enter into other cultures . . . .They come through "the nexus of language capacities, cross-cultural awareness and sensitivities, and knowledge about nations, cultures, and peoples around the world." To gain that ability, learners need command of multiple languages other than English. They need repeated sojourns in other countries, where they interact with a wide range of peoples and their cultures. They must reflect on international issues and how they relate to diverse cultural practices. Global literacies are founded in, and foster, cross-cultural awareness and sensitivities.

That's what I think my Kuwaiti colleagues’ choral response was getting at. The lyrics and sounds of Taylor Swift’s music allowed them (on the other side of the globe and within a completely different cultural context) to connect with the lived experiences of a young woman from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, USA—to understand her, to enter her words and her worlds, to make them theirs.

That’s one thing that music can do. It’s one more reason why we need to bring it into our classrooms.

“Are you ready for it?”

About the author

Spencer Salas

Spencer Salas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he leads the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction Urban Literacies/TESL subconcentration. An award-winning District of Columbia Public School ESL teacher (1994–2001), he has been a Fulbright Fellow to Romania (1998), Guatemala (2007), and South Africa (2013); and, a frequent U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2003–present). His scholarship focuses on Black and Brown teachers’ lives and the potential of humanizing dignity and care as K–16 best practice.

comments powered by Disqus

This website uses cookies. A cookie is a small piece of code that gives your computer a unique identity, but it does not contain any information that allows us to identify you personally. For more information on how TESOL International Association uses cookies, please read our privacy policy. Most browsers automatically accept cookies, but if you prefer, you can opt out by changing your browser settings.