Have you had some interesting experiences when attempting to integrate video into your lessons? Jamie Keddie answers a question on how to get the most out of film-related resources.

My name is Elena and I'm from Russia. This summer I'm going to tutor a videoclub (in English) in a summercamp. My students will be 13-14 year-olds and I really need your help. What kind of movies should I choose for this age group? I'm 20 and I'm just a beginner at teaching, but I want to make this course really effective and beneficial both for the students and for me. Thank you.

Hello Elena

Sounds like you have an interesting summer ahead of you. With a bit of thought and planning, language teachers can use films and film-related resources to engage learners and get them thinking, talking, debating, creating, writing, acting, listening and more.

It is very important that teachers learn from their experiences (both good and bad) and I would like to tell you about my first experience involving film in the classroom. Coincidentally, my students at this time were also 13-14 year olds.

It was a Friday afternoon and in an attempt to reward my learners for their hard work over the previous few weeks, I decided to show them a film. I think I chose Babe - the one about the little pig that wants to be a sheep dog. The film was in English and it also had English subtitles. I told my students to watch the film, to try and understand the dialogue and to use the subtitles only if absolutely necessary. So how do you think the class turned out?

The answer is that it wasn’t a success. I think that after about 10 minutes, everyone had lost interest and I panicked because I hadn’t planned anything else for them. Now, before we look at some of the tricks of the trade, can you work out why my idea for a relaxing Friday afternoon didn’t go according to plan? What mistakes or bad decisions did I make?

I can see quite a few reasons why my film class (if you can call it that) didn’t work out. Let’s look at three of these and in each case decide how things could have been done differently.

1) Bad film choice

13 and 14 year-olds are at that age when they want to break ties with their childhood and demonstrate that they are grown-ups. I’m in my thirties and I love films like Babe but when I was 13 or 14, I probably wouldn’t have wanted anyone to know that. On the other hand, however, we can’t take this “grown-up” thing too seriously and show films such as Pulp Fiction, Basic Instinct or anything else that might result in complaints from parents and course organizers.

One solution is to make a list of films that you think your learners might like and allow them to choose the one(s) they would like to study. Here is one way of going about it:

Compile a list of about 25 films or so. For example:
Casino Royale                                         
Four Weddings and a Funeral                                                                                             
Mars Attacks                                           
Men in Black                                           
Ocean’s Eleven                                       
Scary Movie                                                                                          
The Godfather                                      
Bridget Jones's Diary
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Charlotte’s Web
Charlie’s Angels
Gone with the Wind
Harry Potter
I Know What You Did Last Summer
How to Eat Fried Worms
Meet the Parents
Mulholland Drive
Pirates of the Caribbean
Star Wars
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Ask your students to read the list and work out which films they have seen and which films they haven’t seen. In order to do this, they will have to work out what the names of the films are in their own language and this is part of the fun. Internet access is very useful if you want to see the advertising posters for any of the films. Simply go to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia (www.wikipedia.org), and type in the film. Alternatively, do a Google image search (go to Google, click on Images, type in the name of the film and click “search images”). If you don't have Internet access, try taking some of the video/DVD boxes into the classroom if possible.

Once this has been done, have students mingle and compare their experiences of the films on the list.  In order to help them, write a few helpful pieces of language on the board such as:

  • Have you (ever) seen…?
  • I’ve never heard of it.
  • I’ve heard of it but I’ve never seen it.
  • I would like to see it.
  • I’ve seen it and I liked it.
  • I’ve seen it and I didn’t like it.
  • Me too.
  • Me neither.

Next, tell your students to imagine that they work in a DVD rental shop. They have to decide under which section they are going to put each film (horror, drama, children’s, thrillers, action, science fiction, comedy, western, musical, etc.). Everyone will categorize the films differently and this can lead to some interesting debates.

Finally, have everyone give you a list of the 5 films that they would most like to see. This will give you an idea of what to go for.

2) I attempted to show the whole 90-minute film in one class

Judging by my students’ loss of interest, that was a bad idea. A different way to go about things would be to select and use excerpts or individual scenes from the film and exploit them to their full potential.

For example, try working with a part of the film that contains a page or so of interesting dialogue between two of the main characters (soppy love scenes not recommended). In preparation for the class, isolate a number of good lines from the dialogue (6-8 would be an ideal number), write them all on individual pieces of paper and stick them on one of the classroom walls.

Next, show your class the film scene with the sound turned down. Tell your students who the two characters in the scene are and explain the relationship between them. Ask students to guess what they are talking about. Show your students that on one of the classroom walls there are a number of lines from the dialogue. Get them to copy down all of these pieces of text via a running dictation.

Running dictations have been mentioned before on onestopenglish. What happens is that students are put into groups and each group nominates a runner. The groups should position themselves as far away from the wall with the film lines as possible. The runners have to make repeated journeys between their groups and the texts. The idea is that on each journey, the runner should attempt to remember (accurately) as much of the text as possible and then relay it to his/her group members, who write it down. Once this has been done, allow everyone to compare what they have written with the texts on the wall.

Following the running dictation, get your students to decide who said what (i.e. which character in the film scene said which of the lines on the wall?). Put students into pairs and have them write out a dialogue for the film scene using each of these lines once. They will have to invent and use their imagination for the missing parts.

Before showing your students the film scene with the sound up (and subtitles if necessary), have individual pairs act out their dialogue for the rest of the class.

3) I was using the film as the basis for an intense listening activity

I think that this was my biggest mistake: using a film as nothing more than a listening exercise with moving pictures. There are so many things you can do with films that don’t have to involve the dialogue. In fact, don’t even feel that you have to use films in English to teach - if your learners enjoy films from their own culture more than those from Hollywood, think about ways to use these. Here are some ideas:

  • The back of the box

Tell your students to think of a film that they enjoyed recently. Get them to imagine that it is their job to write a short summary for the back of the DVD box. It is important that the summary doesn’t spoil the ending for the viewer. It is also important that they don’t mention the name of the film. Have students read out their summaries while the rest of the class attempts to identify the film.

  • Compare the directors / actors

There are many possible activities for examining the world of cinematography. One idea would be to use a film that has been remade and look at two different versions of the same scene. Have your students compare the scenes in both films (original and remake) focusing on sound effects, music, set, colour, lighting, mood, emotion, camera angles, number of shots, acting and anything else that you feel might be relevant.

  • What happens next?

James Bond films are good for this. Show a scene in which James Bond has been captured and the baddy has developed an evil plan to get rid of him. Stop the film, put students into groups and ask the teams to guess how he escapes. Have them write down their answers before sharing them with the rest of the class.

  • What would you do?

In Four Rooms, Tim Roth plays a bellboy who is working alone in a large hotel on New Year’s Eve. Two drunken guests offer him $1,000 to take part in a bet involving a hatchet, a block of wood, a cigarette lighter and one of the participant’s little fingers (I’m not giving you any more information in case I spoil the film for you). Once your learners have understood what is being asked of Tim Roth, pause the film and ask them what they would do in his situation.

Some other resources

I have found all of the following resources useful for cinema-related classes:

  • Scripts

You can find film scripts on the Internet. Go to Google, type in the name of a film along with the word “script”.  It is important to differentiate between a transcript (what the actors actually say in the film) and a script (what was planned before the film was made). These will usually be quite different.

  • Stills

Many films have their own websites. Sometimes these websites give you access to stills – photographs of shots from the film. Try this one for example:

  • Pictures of actors and directors

These can also be found online using Google image search (see above).

  • Books

Have students convert a scene from a book (Harry Potter, for example) into a film script. Then let your students compare their work with the actual scene from the film.

  • Trivia

The director’s commentary, which is often a feature on DVDs, can be useful for obtaining a lot of interesting information and trivia about the film.

  • Trailers

Find these on You Tube (www.youtube.com). Tell your class that everybody is going to the cinema but that they have to stay together (i.e. everyone has to see the same film). Show them three or four trailers for new films and have them decide which one you are going to see. Let the group that puts up the most convincing argument win.

  • Subtitles

Choose a film in your students’ own language which has optional English subtitles. Show them a very short excerpt (without subtitles). Give out copies of the transcribed dialogue (in your students’ own language) and have your students make English subtitles. Finally, play the film excerpt again, this time with the English subtitles, and let them compare their work with that of a professional translator (use the pause button on the DVD player each time a new subtitle appears).

Well these are some activities that have worked for me. I hope they come in useful for you. Good luck and have a good summer.

Jamie Keddie