Effectively Using Dramatic Films for Language Learning

I’ve had the fortune of being able to experiment with film in traditional and virtual classrooms. I’ve learned how to select the right length and target the right skills to fit each occasion.

  • One session, one viewing.

In the past I had opportunities to gather students for movie sessions in which we watched currently released Hollywood films from beginning to end. In those sessions, we focused on general understanding and vocabulary. The time generously allotted allowed me to pause briefly at key points to check how much was understood, note useful expressions, and sometimes invite predictions. After the film ended, we had some time for discussion. Also, I assigned a writing topic (summary, character description, etc.) with requirements tailored for the different levels present. The writing assignment encouraged use of the vocabulary I highlighted in class.

  • Multiple sessions with film segments.

I also recall watching a couple of films almost in their entirety over the course of several classes with groups of advanced students. Using downloaded scripts from sites like Drew’s Script-O-Rama, we focused on pronunciation features at the discourse level. Breaks between scenes were followed by reenactments of what they students had just seen. Students were encouraged to watch the film again on their own. Romantic comedies such as While You Were Sleeping were received well and presented clear speech models.

  • Selected segments for one class.

Conversation classes are, of course, devoted to developing students’ speaking skills. However, I’ve often argued that it’s well worth taking five or ten minutes to read a stimulating passage or watch a thought-provoking scene that will generate thirty to fifty minutes of great conversation. Sometimes all that’s needed to develop a satisfying conversation class is a well-illustrated concept and some key vocabulary. A short clip or series of clips from a film provides both. I once used two scenes from Stephen King’s Langoliers as the basis for a 50-minute conversation class. The scene in which the main characters face a crisis aboard a plane prompted a discussion about different human reactions to an emergency situation. A subsequent scene turned our discussion in the direction of leadership and the qualities one needs to organize action. Of course, we then took time to speculate what would happen later in the film. Students were encouraged to watch the film on their own.

  • One selected segment, one student, multiple skills.

More recently, I decided to use one five-minute clip from Dead Poet’s Society to teach a private student. The scene provided the opportunity to practice several skills this intermediate student was having difficulty with: question formation, modal verbs, and verb tenses. Instead of me writing and asking the usual comprehension questions, the student was charged with this task. I had provided a short plot description, so between this text and what the student understood from watching the scene, a dozen questions were written (and then answered) by the student.  Some of those questions included the use of modals. I added additional discussion questions with modals for further practice. Finally, an oral summary of the scene followed by predictions allowed some practice with verb tenses.

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