Movie Day: 3 Ways for ELLs to Get the Most Out of Films

Anyone who grew up in the American school system has memories of watching movies in class. Maybe the teacher wanted you to see a different historic period or understand a play or novel the class was reading a little better, but either way it was probably a passive experience where someone else talked and you listened until class ended.

For an English language learner, though, this can be much more frustrating. Unfamiliar words will come and go so fast they won’t get a chance to build up enough context to understand the story. This may also be their first exposure to the movie’s setting, so they may get too distracted by the costumes and scenery to pay attention to the language. And, perhaps worst of all, the passivity of watching a screen doesn’t give students the practice they need to learn the language.

To get the most out of movies, we need to make it an activity. Here are some ways for your students to get the most out of their viewing experience.

1. Cut to the good parts. Think about why you want to show the movie, and then decide what parts are the most important. For example, if you’re going to show a (presumably PG version of) Glory to show what the Civil War was like, cut to the battle chapters on the DVD. You can use the time spent going through the menu to reinforce what you want the students to look for (“How do the people on the deck of the Titanic dress different from Jack and his friends?”) and also cut through the scenes students may find objectionable.

2. Give students something to write while they watch. Your students may be attuned to your teacher talk, so this is a good chance to stretch their listening capabilities. You can give them a worksheet with relevant vocabulary words so they can write out the definition based on the context (“How did the land look during the drought?”), have them observe relevant details (“What colors were the uniforms?”), or just take notes on how a scene made them feel and why.

3. Thumbs up or down? Let the students know they’ll have to write or orally present a quick review of what they saw. They can say whether they liked it or didn’t as a matter of their opinion as long as they present reasons for what they think and felt—and, in my experience, it helps to have a minimum of reasons (two would be good for lower-level students and more proficient ones can handle four or five). You may want to model how to take notes during a movie before and during the clip to get students into the habit of jotting down relevant information. As long as students can support their opinions with relevant information, you’ve done something to help their communication.

While clips are a great supplement for content-based instruction because of the visual elements, I still try to make movie days more of a treat than a regular thing. I’d rather not be known as the teacher whose class is a film-fest. Still, films may be a good choice during weeks that are abbreviated or interrupted by holidays or breaks, because it’s hard to maintain momentum when you can’t have regular classes.

How do you use films with your students?

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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One Response to Movie Day: 3 Ways for ELLs to Get the Most Out of Films

  1. Tom Osgood says:

    These are some good tips. When I show videos, which isn’t too often, I try to find videos that have captioning so they can hear and see the words. I also sometimes have them write down unfamiliar words that we can discuss later. It can also help if you have time to watch videos in chunks, and pause to ask comprehension questions as you go along.

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