Recently I wrote about how English teachers use movies in their classrooms for baby-sitting purposes or in misguided attempts to help their students acquire authentic language as they watch incomprehensible blabber on the screen. I now realize it must have sounded a bit nasty and I didn’t really mean to be like that at all. If anything, I was no different from anyone else because I was simply ignorant of the research regarding language acquisition and comprehensible input theories.
But it’s not all doom and gloom after all. Here’s something to cheer you up: English movies CAN be effectively used in language teaching, even if your class entirely consists of high beginners. The technique I want to share is called focused movie watching and is intended to teach real-life language in a meaningful and understandable way.
Let’s assume I have a classroom full of intermediate or pre-intermediate students. Ninety minutes of teaching time will be enough to work through a 30-minute episode of a TV show, the choice of which I leave up to my students. Peruvians seemed to love the Simpsons and Two and a Half Men. My current private students really enjoy Sex and the City. The choice of material needs to be entirely up to the students, of course.
Once we’ve determined which show to watch in class, I look through the first episode at home once or twice. I do this because I need to be aware of the difficult language my students may encounter and also to get a good idea of the plot, characters and the sequence of scenes.
Before running the movie in class I tell my students to relax, observe what’s going on on the screen and not get discouraged if they don’t understand much. At this stage my task is to break through their mental conditioning that goes like “I’m a loser because I don’t understand what they’re saying”. I want to make them comfortable in a situation of uncertainty while watching mostly or partially incomprehensible material. I want them to focus entirely on what’s going on on the screen, trying to guess the what’s being said and observing the visuals. I do my best to instill confidence in my students and let them know that I won’t let them down no matter what. They will be persuaded to take a leap of faith and believe me they’ll fully understand an entire 30-minute episode of real, authentic material created for native speakers, in contrast to the bland and sterile language they are spoon-fed by textbook authors.
Time to show the movie. I run the first scene, which may take 3 to 5 minutes, an eternity of frustration for the students who don’t understand much. I then rewind the scene back to the beginning and run it again pausing after each sentence or an entire utterance depending on how comfortable my students feel. Now here comes the crucial part: after I hit the pause button I explain what’s just happened in simple, easy-to-understand English. Then I move on to the next sentence or utterance, then show the next scene, rewind it, explain etc, etc.
I make heavy use of the opportunity to interact with my students. I mime, I pretend to have gone nuts and generally look like a very silly teacher. Not only is it fun for me but my students seem to understand and retain the language better if they’re engaged emotionally, if they feel outraged, entertained or excited thanks to me. Of course, I notice when my students’ eyes start to glaze over – that’s a sign telling me I need to slow down and paraphrase the screen dialogue/action more clearly.
Whenever I can I try to use very emotional, exaggerated and powerful verbal and body language as I patiently explain the movie sentence by sentence, utterance by utterance and scene by scene. I don’t need to elicit every single word they don’t catch. All I’m interested in at this point is to make sure they understand 85 to 95 percent of what they see because that’s the point where the the most rapid and effective language acquisition kicks in.
As I comment on the material my students are watching I have plenty of opportunities to point at the screen to draw their attention to any details I may choose. I can rise above purely linguistic work and explain (or elicit) plot twists, character motivations and even ask them to predict what’s going to happen in the next scene.
If the movie characters make obscure jokes or refer to the ideas my students aren’t familiar with (e.g. baseball slang, legal slang, area-related references etc.) I typically don’t bother explaining them. There two reasons for that: a) it takes too much time and b) a joke that’s been dissected always falls flat. The game is frankly not worth the candle in situation like that.
Since I’ve watched the material before I have a very good idea about the kind of language my students will have to deal with. There are countless variations to this technique. I can go as fast or as slow as I want; I can go into details or just scratch the surface of the screen action, and for this I need to have a good rapport with my students and ideally have a trusting and inquisitive atmosphere in my classroom. As long as I provide meaningful and emotionally compelling input at the “i+1” level, that is 85 to 95 percent comprehension, my students are rapidly acquiring the language and enjoying themselves. At the end both them and me feel a sense of tremendous accomplishment and satisfaction.
Ideally, they can watch this same episode at home again to consolidate their understanding and for the warm fuzzy I-don’t-suck-at-this-after-all feeling.
This is the essence of the focused movie-watching technique. I believe using it in class turns teaching a form of art: student-centered, compassionate and extremely meaningful. And it never gets boring either.
What do you think are the limitations of this approach? How would you make it better? Would you like your language teacher to use this technique? Let’s start a discussion. I’m really interested in your opinion both from a student and teacher perspective.
Love one another,