Number one for English language teachers

Diary from London: It's showtime

Type: Article

In his fourth diary entry, David Foster lets his students take the limelight as he aims to get more out of movies in the classroom.


Q: How do you practise your English at home?
A: I watch movies.

How often have you had a conversation like this with a student? And how should we respond to this as teachers? Sometimes it’s hard to believe our lower-level students will really benefit from or absorb the complex language they are hearing. Yet I feel there is good reason to be positive. The students’ desire to watch films in English is a chance to get learners engaged with English in their free time. In other words, it’s an opportunity not to be missed.

So, ‘watching movies’ is a skill which a language teacher needs to consider teaching. I’ve been thinking about this recently. What skills do students need to profit from watching films? The majority of language learning materials made to accompany movies are essentially comprehension exercises. Students are usually required to answer questions that allow the teacher to test the learner’s understanding of what they have seen. My issue with this type of material is that comprehension questions do not teach the learner how to benefit from films outside the classroom in an independent way.

What I want my students to do when watching movies is to tap into the amazing range of colloquial phrases and expressions they contain. After all, as English speakers, that’s exactly what we do. Snippets of dialogue from film and TV become part of our linguistic personality. Personally, I admit to using Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘Say it ain’t so!’ at any opportunity. Occasionally I might even go for Alan Partridge’s ‘A-ha!’ Why shouldn’t our students do exactly the same?

My opportunity to test out this approach to using film comes after watching About a Boy with my reading group. The students have already read the opening chapters of the graded reader, so they are familiar with the outline of the story. This is the perfect opportunity for them to focus on the language itself.

In the scene we watch, the flippant hero Will, played by Hugh Grant, is asked by friends to be the godfather of their new child. Will is shocked by the threat of responsibility and replies ‘Oh, no, I’m sorry, you must be joking.’ The woman responds. ‘But Will, we thought you had hidden depths.’ His answer: ‘No, no you’ve got me wrong. I really am that shallow.’

The students enjoy watching the scene, but now it’s time to activate the language. I ask the students to listen carefully once more for intonation, pausing and stress then to practise little snippets of dialogue which I have put on the board. Once is never enough at this stage. I get the students to move around, practising the same dialogue with different partners. As confidence grows, the students inject more emotion into the script. I might also start to rub words off the board to encourage memorization. I have found that students really enjoy this type of role-play. Not only are they being movie stars, but they can be confident that they are speaking up-to-date colloquial English.

One way to finish this role play activity is to watch the movie scene again with the volume down and get the students to provide a voiceover. This is sure to provide laughter, enjoyment and good fluency focus.

Most importantly, I think this activity translates easily to watching films at home. Using subtitles, students can capture interesting lines of dialogue when they are watching films. So now if my students tell me they watched a film at the weekend, they can be sure I will ask them to give me a few lines of dialogue. I look forward to hearing what they’ve found.

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