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Using the silver screen

A film is worth a thousand visual aids, says ELT teacher Rick Haill

Scene 1 A 15-year-old schoolboy fully holds his classmates’ attention as he describes how he trains a wild bird.

Scene 2 Just before she says her wedding vows, a young woman punches her would-be bridegroom in the face.

These scenes are from two wonderful British films (Kes, from 1969, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, from 1994) which have gripped and entertained audiences around the world. Each scene can be used to illustrate aspects of British society or analysed for its use of language, its portrayal of character or the way that the scene is presented in the film (the setting, camera angles, editing, etc).

Hundreds of films could serve similar purposes, but perhaps you may find it more satisfying to watch a whole film with your class? Using short video clips, of course, has its place in the ELT classroom, as I will show, but having whetted your students’ appetites with a short extract, is it possible to arrange a viewing of the whole film? I believe that this is the ideal arrangement and will go on to discuss the skills which such viewings – short or long – might require and develop in the student,

“This experience taught me that the stimulus of a good film prompts even 
the less proficient speakers to wish to contribute to the post-film 
discussion”

as well as suggest teaching techniques and films which can prove great source materials. As Daniel Xerri comments in ELTJ (2019), “…as a communicative device, most feature films expose learners to language scripted for an L1 audience… Films are still authentic resources that can be harnessed for language teaching purposes”.

Cinema is an infinitely flexible and accessible medium which can appeal to students at any level of language ability. For many years I taught a course for international students entitled Modern British Cinema and Society at a university in the UK. My aim was to show the students aspects of British culture and society, while also motivating them to watch closely, share their findings, put across their views and improve their language skills. This experience taught me that the stimulus of a good film prompts even the less proficient language speakers to wish to contribute to the post-film discussion. In using film – just as when dealing with a written text – there is a range of techniques that, given careful planning and preparation, can encourage a class to improve these key skills:

Widely applicable (or ‘transferable’) skills

– guided observation
– cultural awareness
– interpretation of content
– textual (in this case film) analysis – cooperation (group/pair work)
– creative thinking

Specific language skills

  • listening comprehension
  • vocabulary development (both active and passive)
  • awareness of accent varieties
  • intonation as a conveyor of meaning
  • expression of opinions

Teaching tips and techniques

A) Using mainly short clips:

  1. Play the clip with no sound: what is the relationship between the characters, where are they and what might they be saying?
  2. What language are the characters speaking? In which country does this scene take place? Any visual clues?
  3. (With the sound on…) What is the mood of the characters in the clip? How can you tell?
  4. How many different shots or camera movements are used in this scene?
  5. Was music used to accompany the scene? If it was used, was it effective? How? Why?
  6. What is the attitude of the characters towards each other in the scene? Positive or negative? How can you tell?
  7. Where do you think this scene comes in the whole structure of the film? What might precede – or follow –this scene?

For added language focus in some of the above activities you may choose to highlight sentence structure or intonation patterns in some, specific lexical items or features of register and appropriacy in others.

B) Using full-length feature films:

  1. Fill in a table listing a character’s good and bad actions or attitudes.
  2. What for you is the key scene in the film? Why do you think it’s so important?
  3. Do the film-makers show or suggest their own point of view on the topic or theme of the film? If so, how?
  4. If you could introduce a new character into the film, who would it be? Give reasons for your choice.
  5. Can you think of a better or alternative title for the film?
  6. What is the film’s overall ‘message’ for us the audience?
  7. Does the story proceed in a linear way or are there jumps forward or flashbacks? If so, why are these used?

Using the above ideas (many of which and more can be found on my website, www.teachbritishfilms.com), more holistic skills are required: general comprehension of story and character, interpretation of actions and motives, and imaginative thinking. Relevant language focus might target the clear expression of opinions and the relevant structures and phrases to enable this, such as “In my view…”, “Yes, but then why did …?” or “I totally disagree!”

C) Longer tasks for group discussions or homework could include:

  1. Discuss how the main characters’ lives might develop after the end of the film.
  2. Write an angry – or appreciative – letter or email from one character to another.
  3. Write a journal entry by the main character looking back on the events portrayed in the film.
  4. Imagine you are the main character’s boss. Write an honest reference for him/her.
  5. A class debate based on a main theme from the film: for or against, eg, the monarchy, space exploration, euthanasia….
  6. Work on specialised or idiomatic vocabulary from the film, eg, from the field of politics, sport, cooking….
  7. Using short quotes taken from reviews of the film, rebut or agree with the critics’ opinions, creating your own written review.
  8. Design a (better?) poster for the film.

This last set of activities again encourages students to think outside the box, to analyse, discuss and deploy a full range of language skills in working collaboratively on tasks in pairs, groups or individually.

Which films could I use?

Everyone has favourites, no doubt, but below is a sample of some that I have used successfully in my classes. Much will depend on what you wish to achieve: whether to work on specific language items, to stimulate creativity and lively discussion among your students, or to encourage them to look at aspects of the country they may be studying in. The following list is all British (no surprise, given the title of  the course I taught). I make no apology for the age of some of these films: to me, quality is what counts!

  • In Which We Serve (1942)
  • A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
  • Kes (1968)
  • If… (1968)
  • Local Hero (1983)
  • Hope and Glory (1987)
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
  • Billy Elliot (2000)
  • Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
  • The Queen (2006)
  • Once (2007)
  • Made in Dagenham (2010)
  • Dunkirk (2017)
  • Bait (2019)

So, if you have the chance to introduce films as a regular part of your syllabus, either to show the occasional full-length film (perhaps set up a regular film club?) or use just an occasional short clip, then plenty of good ideas can also be found in the sources below.

REFERENCES

  • Daniel Xerri, ‘Feature Films in English Language Teaching’, ELT Journal, Volume 73, Issue 1, January 2019.
  • Martin Bradley, Teaching with Film (three books), 2013-2021, Stone River Books, Vienna. Kieran Donaghy, Film in Action (2015), Delta Publishing.
  • Susan Stempleski & Barry Tomalin, Film (2001), Oxford University Press (Resource Books for Teachers series).
  • British Film Institute: bfi.org.uk

Rick Haill worked for many years at Oxford Brookes University,where he taught language teaching methodology, study skills and British Studies. Before that, he taught for the British Council in France, Croatia, Egypt and Singapore. Since his retirement as Professor Emeritus, he has been working on his website for teachers worldwide: www.teachbritishfilms.com

Images courtesy of PHOTOS SHUTTERSTOCK/PIXABAY, Shutterstock and Library
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