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The Creative English Teacher: Using Motion Picture and Television as Teaching Tools

Updated on September 29, 2017

Introduction to the Methodology

In the modern age of information, scholars have at their disposal a plethora of mediums for study and education. Students watch movies in science classes, research papers on internet databases, and even use intricate computer programs designed for teaching language. With this said, educators have scrambled to find new and improved methods for educating in their respective fields. Still, within the language arts, little change has occurred in teaching methods. Text books still dominate the curriculum, and it seems little experimentation has been done to implement new methodology. Because of this lack of change, many students have grown restless and uninterested with course materials. It has become increasingly clear that some kind of change must occur.

I remember how helpful films were in high school. During science classes and history courses my teachers showed documentaries and historical films to further explore class topics. These visual aids provided a reprieve from the traditional course material and were able to explain topics from new and fresh angles. I wonder what stops this method of teaching from working in the language classroom as well; especially in the non-native speaking classroom? Films display characteristics of language not present in textbooks; sarcasm, humor, terminology and slang changes between the years. Films can enrich the learning experience by bringing the concepts out of the textbooks and into working reality. Lecturers refuse to express real life situations to English learners. Films can prove to be a useful supplement to the standard practices in the English educational realm.

Thomas A. Edison
Thomas A. Edison

A Literary Review

Technology is becoming an increasingly important tool in the modern classroom. Standard lecture and text based education is beginning to grow old and ineffective in attracting enough interest to properly instruct the up and coming generation of students. While it is common practice to use film in educating history, science, and other more fact based disciplines of academia, language education has yet to employ film as a standard tool for demonstrating different nuisances of language. However, with its success in other fields of education, it has become irresponsible for current language educators to ignore the possible advantages of introducing popular film into their curriculum. There is no shortage of educators who have realized the possible benefits of employing these new strategies. Research, along with proposed methodology, have begun to dominate the linguistic education community.

In Teaching With Motion Pictures, a 1926 article authored by A.L Young, the author mentions that Thomas A. Edison was once quoted by the daily press as saying that “eighty-five percent of all acquired knowledge comes through the eye, and that, because of this fact, moving pictures would within decades revolutionize educational methods by supplanting both teachers and textbooks (Young 321).” While his dream may have been a bit lofty, this article, nonetheless, argues that motion pictures may be used as a “supplement” rather than a “substitute” for traditional educational methods (Young 321). The author outlines a study that was conducted at McComb Junior High school in the months of February through April of 1924. Even as early as this, in a time when motion pictures were less refined, scholars were aware of a possible connection between Film and Effective Education.

The study involved 17 ninth graders, 11 eighth graders, and 26 sixth graders who were being taught about agriculture. Each grade was separated into two groups – X and Y. In the first part of the study, group Y was educated via educational films, while X was lectured in the traditional sense. Each group was then administered the same test and scores were recorded. Before any conclusions were made, the groups were switched and taught different agricultural topics via the opposite method as they were taught by before. Again the same tests were administered and scores were recorded. In both instances, those who were educated via motion pictures scored considerably higher scores on their exams. The difference in scores between the first group of motion picture learners and lecture learners were as following; sixth grade 14.2% higher; eighth grade 14.1 %; ninth grade 21.4%. The second groups’ scores were not far from the first groups’; sixth grade 11.4%; eighth grade 16.6%; ninth grade 20.0% (Young 324).

Young makes it clear that, “No claim is made that the findings of the experiment described…are final or conclusive” and that “there are many sources of error in such an investigation” including the fact that a “much larger number of cases would have been desirable (Young 324).” However, the findings are intriguing and do aim towards some correlation between visual observation and learning. Young states that “Learning is a process affected by all the senses (Young 326).” He sees the “supreme value” of motion pictures being in forms of instruction in which “motion, processes, scientific phenomena, and the like are involved (Young 324).” It is at this point where I endeavor to argue against the outdated author. The author ventures to argue that motion pictures “seem to offer little or no advantage” to the teaching of “English, and language (Young 326).” However, he fails to realize that language includes issues of culture, and more importantly motion and the process of inflections and dialogue. Motion Pictures can demonstrate disparities between different forms of English and help both the non-speaker and native speaker better understand a language. Like the students tested on agriculture, the advantages of motion pictures in education could be exponential and should be further explored.

So what has changed? The Motion Picture Industry has vastly expanded both in size and economy as well as its now massive audience. With this growth, popular films have become a new possible tool for educators to use. Professor Larry M. Lynch, Intellectual Development Specialist, ELT Teacher Trainer, expert author, and professor at a university in Cali, Colombia, has written a series of articles on the usefulness of film as an education tool. Though most of them are short, they do provide interesting insights into both why film can be such a potent tool in educating English, and ways in which this helpfulness can be exploited. His first article is simply titled 5 Reasons to Use Popular Movies for English Language Teaching. Lynch offers a brief yet informing series of five bullet points, highlighting just a few of the most important reasons why popular film can be such an effective tool. First he simply says that “Movies are widely enjoyed.” A wide variety of different people including a “variety of learner types enjoy watching movies (Reasons).” Because of this educators are able to achieve two things; one, they are able to more easily generate interest in the curriculum; and two, educators can “extract considerable mileage on a wide range of themes and topics (Reasons).”

Lynch’s next point is that “Movies in English are Easily Available (Reasons).” A multitude of sources, including but not limited to rental shops, theaters, and internet allow for films to be readily available both to instructors and students. This is true for both America and most other countries, making it a tool available to people of all cultures. Related to this point, Lynch’s third point is that movies “are available” in “different movie formats (Reasons).” Whether a budget holds an educator to a cheap VHS, or allows for blue ray video viewing, the variety of formats allows for even more people to have access to the tool.

His last two points deal more with the actual viewing of the film. First he says that the “length of viewing is controllable (Reasons).” This allows for an educator to have full control over the length of class, and the specific lesson that the instructor is aiming to demonstrate through the film. Text based learning often packages too much unfocused info into a reading and leaves many students lost and searching for a take-home message. Film, with proper guidance can avoid this obstacle, pinpointing specific lessons for an educator to highlight.

Finally, and seemingly the biggest focus of Lynch’s five points, film allows for control over the “use of sub-titles and close-captioning (Reasons).” Lynch emphasizes that the use of “sub-titles in English not only provides listening comprehension support, but aids in vocabulary development and reading comprehension as well.” As the learner advances in his studies, these aides can be slowly turned off, allowing for the instructor to remove the handicap he may have originally provided.

Lynch continues his argument for the importance of film in language education in his article 5 Ways to Use Popular Movies for English Language Teaching. Here the author provides a slightly more developed look at how film can help educators with yet another five point list. Lynch first argues here that “Varieties of English can be demonstrated.” Movies, for him, allow for the audience to see the Englishes of a variety of different speakers to be presented; whether it be British, rural southern, or Creole. Movies provide a wide base of subjects and thus often rely on these different dialects and English forms to tell an accurate tale. These disparities between different Englishes often are the most confusing for non-native speakers. This multitude of other language forms can be explained by the variety of cultures.

Lynch argues in his second point that different “Slices of culture can be demonstrated.” Different customs of different cultures sometimes lead to different terms or vocabulary for different types of English speakers. Movies depict some of these differences and provide a portal of insight into the confusing issue. This also includes the “historical change” of language which is Lynch’s third argument. Different vocabulary, colloquialisms, and grammar were often associated with older styles of English. Movies based in an older period often include some of these issues (Ways).

Lynch also believes that “Using Audio-Visual elements” can aid learning. Lynch sites H. Gardner and D. Lazear who demonstrated through research that “an audio-visual approach” could be “highly effective in both lowering learner affective filters and in language acquisition and learning.” Lynch says that all types of learners “receive, process and acquire communicatively-based language elements quite readily from films.” Whether someone compares a word they hear to the spatial surroundings, or refers what is being said to a certain tone presented in the music, people are able to find a deeper understanding of the language being spoken (Ways).

Above all, however, for Lynch the most important reason why motion pictures have such a powerful effect on students is the fact that “Movies are great fun to watch.” It is nearly impossible to teach an unengaged pupil. Lynch wishes to drive home the point that “Movies can offer a welcome respite to "normal" class room activity while still continuing to promote English language skills acquisition and practice.” For him, “A thoughtfully chosen film (or clip thereof) can breathe new life into a class of the most reluctant learners.” The fact that Motion Pictures are a form of entertainment, allows for the classroom experience to transcend the boundaries of both academia and entertainment (Ways).

Applying Cinema in the Lesson Plan

Though there is much evidence to support film as a viable educational tool, not much study has been conducted in its usefulness in the education of language. Still, it is clear to me that cinema can be a monumental addition to the educational repertoire. If one is willing to accept this challenge, the question then becomes how? How, with the seemingly endless catalog of films and possible methodologies, do you choose films and use them effectively in the educational process? In studying the benefits of film in the use of language education, I have elected to show how specific movies can be used, including brief lesson plans, and showing how these lessons can in turn demonstrate aspects of language not easily found in traditional education.

In educating English as a second language, one of the biggest boundaries educators find is finding parallels between words in the speaker’s native tongue and the terms ascribed by the English speaking world. Film is able to alleviate this issue in many ways. For one, films include subtitles that can be displayed in various languages. Showing the scenes in conjunction with unfamiliar terms allows the pupil to connect the context clues of the visual scene with the translations provided by the subtitles in order to make educated hypotheses about what the word said may mean. Still, different words and concepts are going to be harder to understand by different groups of people. How do you pick scenes to focus on?

Take a movie such as Iron Man, an entertaining film that includes comedy, action, and ethical issues worth exploring by the current academic community. On the first day of teaching this unit of your respective classroom, show the entire film. Let the pupils enjoy the film as a piece of entertainment; the more they connect with the film, the more willing they will be to find intrigue in the lessons prepared. Play the film in all English and instruct the students to take notes on unfamiliar vocab and concepts. After the film is complete (It may take two days depending on how long the class period is), lead a discussion in class about what the film was about. This will find out the level of comprehension that the students in your classroom have prior to your unit. Encourage the students to voice strong opinions, favorite scenes, and insurmountable hardships.

Once a list of scenes, including ones that students expressed a lack of understanding and ones high in entertainment value are collected, your class can now shift to a more instructional format. Take a scene (For the purposes of an example I will discuss the scene where Tony Stark and Rhodey are drinking alcohol on Stark’s private Jet) and play the clip unassisted, letting the students know they should use the context clues of the scene to create guesses on what the word in question could mean. When the scene has played through engage the class in a discussion about what they now think the word means. For instance, let’s say my class watched the scene previously mentioned and didn’t know what the word “Saki” meant, and were confused about how the verb drinking is used by Rhodey when he says “I’m not drinking.” In watching the scene, the students could look for clues to explain what Saki is by understanding that Rhodey is not drinking. This reveals that it’s some kind of beverage.

However, why not drink it then? For other cultures “drinking” may not be synonymous with the consumption of alcohol. Still, the scene provides more clues for students to make this correlation. It’s important to guide the students to recognize the drunken stupor the two are in right after he says “I’m not drinking.” If they can figure this out they can better make an assessment of what both Saki is and what “drinking” insinuates. Finally, after the students make their final assessments, have them look the word or words up in the dictionary, and explain any disparities between their assessments and the dictionary definition. This exercise should build vocabulary, comprehension skills, and even aide in problem solving through context clues; all skills helpful in participating in discourse. This exercise can be used for as many words and concepts as you see fit to educate a classroom in, and should be repeated at least once to reinforce the understanding of the vocabulary and skills learned in figuring it out.

This particular scene also brings up issues of sarcasm and humor present in everyday speech. These issues are often not explicit and may even change the meanings of words and phrases. It is nearly impossible for traditional lecturing and text books to express how such sarcasm works. Cinema and television provide avenues to visually demonstrate how sarcasm works. Students can see and hear the body language, the facial expressions, and even the various tonal changes that accompany both a sarcastic statement and a joke. A unit focusing on these issues would be especially exciting for students due to the fact that comedy movies and television shows express the most prevalent examples of such dialogue, and are usually the most watched among younger people.

Pick a movie or TV series that is acceptable for your students’ age group to watch (and is not too below the intellectual level of your students). For my analysis I am going to use the hit television series the Office. Much like the last method, hone in on a specific scene that was hard for your students to understand. Play the scene for your students and ask them to make guesses to what the meaning of the sarcastic remark is. In Season 6 Episode 24 the Cover-up, Michael Scott, the regional manager of Dunder-Mifflin Paper Company is worried that his newest fling is cheating on him. As his employees begin to point out reasons why he should be worried, Pam, his former secretary and now sales person, tells him there is no reason for him to jump to conclusions. He responds, “I live in a fantasy world” to which Jim, the shows main character snidely chimes in “You do?” Michael in this scene doesn’t read the subtext to Jim’s question and answers “Yes, Jim, I do.” For a student who is unfamiliar with sarcasm in our language, it is easy to miss the comedy of this scene much like Michael Scott.

However, the context clues in this scene are enough to debunk this misconception. Do not explicitly tell the students out right what the sarcastic comment means, but instead give them clues helping them see the small nuances in the scene. Point out the complete ridiculousness of Michael Scott’s statement, the comedy of the situation he is in, the sideways smile on Jim’s face after he asks his question. Try to lead the students in a discussion towards using these context clues to figure out the meaning of the statement. Eventually it is important to set the students straight and give them what the meaning of the sarcastic comment actually is, but not before they have time to try to figure it out for themselves. Find other scenes with sarcastic comments and do mini-discussions of these, slowly weaning your participation in figuring out the meanings of the sarcasm off so as to allow the students to be actively able to recognize sarcastic statements on their own. It is even helpful to find in other films similar uses of the same sarcastic comment, especially if it is as common as the one discussed in this scene.

Another issue that non-English speaking students may struggle with in the traditional teaching format is dialect. Whether it is the rural-speak of middle class country folk, or the vernacular speech of African Americans, the grammar and vocab used often varies from Standard English. Once again, film is able to chime in as a saving grace. Many movies demonstrate these different vernaculars and lesson plans can easily be employed to capitalize on their helpfulness. For instance, Hard Ball, a movie about a little league baseball comprised of poor urban African Americans, includes a heavy dose of the African American vernacular. Note: If you are planning on using a movie like this, make sure you are teaching a mature class where vulgar language is acceptable.

G-Baby at one point tries to recount some things that his teammates were arguing about. He says, “Alright, lemme break it down right quick. Lonzo said he could catch any high pop anybody could throw.” Terms like “lemme” and “right quick” are not grammatically correct or standard in any right when it comes to Standard English. However, they are used often in the different colloquial speeches amongst English speakers. For non-English speakers it is important to demonstrate these different forms of English so they can be prepared to converse with a wider variety of people in their everyday lives.

Take a scene like this and show it to your class. I suggest letting them watch the entire movie since it discusses many important issues of race and class. Pick out dialogue like I have presented above, and ask the class to try and figure out what the terms mean. See if they can figure out from their prior English knowledge what the words or phrases mean. Ask them to try and translate the sentence into Standard English: “Alright, let me break it down for you quickly. Lonzo said he could catch any high pop that anyone could throw.” Go around the class allowing each person to translate a piece of the chosen dialogue. It may be beneficial to focus on longer sections of dialogue so more people can participate, or pick numerous scenes. While the students recite their translations making sure to correct only when absolutely necessary. Eventually your students should be able to translate accurately with little to no assistance. This exercise may also help students strengthen their grasp over Standard English grammar.

In general, other more overarching exercises may include handing handouts to the class with questions such as; Why did “Character A” decide to fight “Character B”; what information does “Chosen Character” give about his past; What do you think is the climax of the film? Broad questions like these test the comprehension skills of students, and help develop a keen ear for language in English students. To extend this test of comprehension, after viewing is complete, assign a paper for the students to write, aiding them in writing proficiency as well. Make sure each film asks for a different type of prompt including but not limited to movie reviews, argumentative pieces about theme or issue in movie, character bios, or alternate endings. These papers help to build argumentative skills, writing skills, creativity, and even more comprehension skills.

Another exercise that can be used to further practice comprehension and argumentative skills is debate. After movies are watched split groups up into teams; numbers depend upon class size. Urge both teams to argue their feelings on an issue presented in the film, and encourage well developed sentences and thoughts. This will help the English learner think on his feet and learn to develop his/her words in a coherent and natural manner. It is one thing to learn a language technically and another to learn it in a way you can speak actively in a conversation in a coherent manner.

Movies with deep cultural messages can allow for greater comprehension and discussion.
Movies with deep cultural messages can allow for greater comprehension and discussion. | Source

Katie Chasey, experiences English tutor and ESL expert.

In Conclusion

Using Cinema and Film as a teaching resource is a fairly new concept in academia. Though I have outlined a few possible methods of using this entertaining yet effective tool in educating language, there are many other possibilities that can be developed. The key to using film in education is including quality and meaningful discussion and activity to accompany the viewing. Each exercise I have developed is grounded in discussing the meanings of words, terms, and concepts and presenting the students with activities that engage them in the process of comprehension. In developing new and groundbreaking educational processes, educators need to keep an innovative and creative mind while remembering to always allow open discourse in the classroom. While I have attempted to answer the “How” in using film in education, I hope to have reinforced reasons to “Why.” With so much possibility for creating new methods and lessons, film is truly the educational format of the future. Just look at the fun a clip like this could provide to perspective students!

Works Cited

Lynch, Larry M. "5 Reasons to Use Popular Movies for English Language Teaching." Ezine Articles., 31 Aug. 2006. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <>.

Lynch, Larry M. "5 Ways to Use Popular Movies for English Language Teaching." Ezine Articles., 31 Aug. 2006. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. <>.

Young, A. L. "Teaching With Motion Pictures." Peabody Journal of Education 3.6 (1926): 321-26. JSTOR. Web. 24 Oct. 2010. <>.


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