High impact at lower levels

Chris Burkhard gives a Ted Talk on the joys of cold-water surfing

Interested in using authentic videos with lower level learners? – Lewis Lansford explains how.

It’s a great time to be an English learner, with easy access to a seemingly endless supply of free, high-quality English language input through online videos, social media, podcasts and blogs. Most teachers understand that using authentic materials – anything produced for a purpose other than teaching English – can capture and hold learners’ attention and motivate them to improve.

Take TED Talks, for example. A fantastic range of freely available, relatively short videos (from four to 18 minutes) about some of the most-discussed topics in the world today – big ideas that learners want to talk about. On top of that, they feature a wide variety of English speakers with a range of first and second-language English accents. They also model good presentation skills.

But unfiltered, ungraded content like this can be hard to understand. Speakers often talk quickly and use grammar and vocabulary that learners haven’t yet mastered. Working with such material successfully in the classroom requires more than just playing the video and asking a few comprehension questions, especially at lower levels.

Here are a five tips for using videos such as TED Talks successfully in a low-level class.

1 Listen to everything – not just spoken language

Audio material that doesn’t include speech can also be useful. Tom Thum’s TED Talk The orchestra in my mouth, for example, has a long passage with no speech, just Tom performing music.

In a beginner-level class, you could just play the soundtrack of the video as Tom makes music, and ask learners what they hear: a trumpet, a drum, applause – it sounds like live jazz. But when you play the video again with the image, you reveal that Tom has made all of the sounds with his mouth. This can bring a lot of language into the classroom, even when students haven’t listen to a single spoken word. This sort of exercise is especially useful at lower levels, because the listening itself isn’t just easy, it’s actually fun.

2 Set the level of the lesson with the task

Focus on the level of the classroom activity, not the level of the input. Set a task that is challenging enough to provide a learning opportunity, but not so difficult that learners fail.

For example, rather than have learners try to comprehend individual words or sentences, play a short excerpt and ask students to say or suggest something about the context, the topic or speaker. You could watch two or three short excerpts and compare the three speakers’ voices, and so on.

3 Use the pictures – they’re full of language

Video images can carry a lot of language, even with sound switched off. Mark Bezos’ talk A life lesson from a volunteer firefighter is a great example. Play the first minute or so without the sound off and ask learners what they can see. He’s clearly a firefighter, but what about his personality? Is it confident? Shy? Funny? Serious? Watching the video first, without the sound, can get students thinking about what they’re going to hear, and make listening easier.

4 Choose videos where the pictures and words support each other

Pictures can make the content more accessible to learners, especially at lower levels. In Magical houses, made of bamboo, Elora Hardy describes a house she designed, while showing pictures. As she names each feature of the house – ‘big curving roofs,’ ‘tall windows’ and even a ‘tented bed’ – we see a picture of it. This allows learners to see what she’s describing and thereby get the meaning of her words, even if they’ve never heard them before.

5 Find videos where the unexpected happens

Many people watch online videos for entertainment, and pressing entertaining material into the service of language learning is a win-win: learners develop their skills, and everyone has fun.

Matt Mills’ talk Image recognition that triggers augmented reality takes surprising, sometimes funny turns – many of them visual – making learners curious to know what’s going on. Without understanding everything, students can visually absorb some of the content, thereby giving them something to talk about.

Using authentic video in the classroom is an effective way to engage learners and develop their skills – if you choose the right video to work with. I hope the above five tips provide some inspiration for using this powerful resource for language learning, even with lower level students.

Now for some homework that I hope you’ll enjoy: Choose a short TED Talk, or part of one, preferably one with something visually interesting in it. it . Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Chris Burkard: The joy of surfing in ice-cold water

Daria van den Bercken: Why I take the piano on the road … and in the air

Munir Virani: Why I love vultures

Camille Seaman: Haunting photos of polar ice

Derek Sivers: How to start a movement

Image courtesy of Ted Talks