4 Important Questions to Ask When Sharing a Documentary with Students

If you’re in a position to select authentic materials for upper level students, you’ve likely shared videos of various kinds. Have you worked with any documentaries? Good documentaries are designed not only to inform, but also to provoke thought. Prompting language production is what we want, but of course it must be done with care, especially when the content is controversial.

Here are some questions to guide your use of a documentary within a language lesson.

1. Is this documentary appropriate? I have the advantage of teaching privately and catering to each student’s language level and personal interests. However, as well as I may know a student, I’ve learned to seek a student’s approval, whether it’s  a documentary or short story. Students appreciate having input and gaining ownership over our lesson plans. I might ask, “Would you rather read another short story or watch a documentary about an inventor?” And if I know there’s violence or some other upsetting content, I forewarn the student.

2. Should the students watch all of it or only some of it? Documentaries are often about an hour in length. Some may be shorter, but could be part of a larger series. With an advanced private student, I’d ask the learner to watch the entire documentary before class. Then we could use a list of discussion questions to guide us during the live lesson. This was my approach with PBS Frontline’s documentary Secret State of North Korea. My questions focused on the nature of the current leader and his rule, the relationship between North and South Korea, the standards of living within North Korea, and the role of defectors.

However, a specific subtopic could also prompt a healthy discussion. With CNN’s series on The Eighties, my choice was to focus on only part of a single episode and study the phenomenon of the TV talk show in U.S. culture. In fact, it’s rather fun to limit the focus to this genre only because there are amusing movie clips that illustrate the absurdity of some talk show formats. In this case, you can have the main video assigned as a pre-lesson task. Additional shorter clips that illustrate the American talk show can be viewed and discussed together.

3. What other skills can be practiced beyond listening and speaking? I see a documentary much like an article to be read. It’s authentic language that will prompt thought. But will students have the vocabulary to engage in discussion? At some point vocabulary needs to be highlighted. My decision was to hold the discussion first, supply words as needed to enable the flow of language production, and then recall specific words that were used in the documentary but which the student failed to recall. I had some follow-up discussion questions about the North Korean documentary that highlighted words like antagonism, cease-fire, and sovereign.

I also love to have students write after any kind of discussion. Summarizing their thoughts or exploring one point in greater depth is a chance to recycle some of the language used in the lesson. Often I ask for a one-paragraph reaction to a video, article, story, or poem. I allow longer compositions, but I ask for at least one paragraph.

4. How can learning be extended? A particularly engaged student will be willing to learn more on a topic. I might use excerpts from a related article to expand on a documentary. In fact, I followed the documentary on North Korea with an article about a defector, but I turned the text into a grammar exercise. Verb forms had been converted to base verbs, and the student had to write in the correct forms.

Perhaps you can add some tips or recommendations of your own?


Photo credit: Film, Projector, Movie, Projector by Geralt. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/en/film-projector-movie-projector-596009/.

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