There is no doubt that movies offer tired teachers and classrooms a nice big motivating push! Movies present language in a way that is often more natural than that found in course-books, the fantastic visual context aids understanding and boosts listening, and students just simply love them.
The question is not whether we can use movies in the EFL classroom, but which ones to use and how to use them.
Let’s start with looking at which movies to use. Obviously there are cultural factors and age factors which have to be taken into account. There may even be religious issues. But these are often a matter of common sense. More difficult to gauge is the issue of the students’ level. Some contemporary movies may have too much slang and idioms to make them appropriate for lower level learners, and may be better for more advanced learners who are interested in the nuances idiomatic language.
Some of the older films have a better reputation for lower level learners. Try films like Stagecoach, Groundhog Day, Forrest Gump, and Witness. Films with physical, rather than verbal humour, are readily appreciated by lower learners: Groundhog Day, Freaky Friday and Nine to Five. Besides the fact that movies like these are funny and easy to follow, they have deeper underlying messages that make for good discussions. For the same reason, The Truman Show is good.
When using movies in class, though, there are some very important issues that need to be dealt with. Firstly, students should understand that they are not expected to understand every word. I bet you have had difficulty getting students to accept that getting the ‘main idea’ is enough. It’s the same with movies. But the truth is, we can watch a Russian movie without subtitles and still get a pretty good idea of what is going on just from the scenes, the tone of the actors voices and so on.
Secondly, and this is for both teacher and students, using movies in class is not an opportunity to ‘goof off’. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s preparation intensive and hard work for the students if done correctly; we are, after all, not ‘showing the film’, we are teaching (and learning) English!
Thirdly, avoid showing the entire movie. It’s easy to do this, and students will encourage it, but it surely isn’t what the lesson should be about. Snippets of a movie and a good dose of the ‘pause’ button serves everyone’s ultimate purpose much better.
How you actually use the film in class will depend largely on the level of the students and what the purpose of the lesson is. In a lesson based on culture, for example, the language itself may be secondary. Is the movie meant to develop classroom atmosphere, cement a pre-learnt grammar theme, or introduce a new theme, or perhaps create a context for further teaching? In certain situations the movie and its context can provide the foundation for a classroom discussion.
The theory behind using videos follows closely that of using the cassette player. Build up with a pre-viewing activity, have an activity for while viewing, and follow up with a post-viewing activity. Have a very clear purpose behind using the video, otherwise the lesson degenerates into a baby-sitting scenario. Prepare students for difficulties ahead of time by providing vocabulary, or reassure them that they needn’t panic. When students get restless or lost, pause and wait for questions and comments.
Here are a few ideas to play with. I hope if you are reading this, you’ll be inspired to share some of your ideas with others too:
For a lesson on using ‘going to’ for prediction, show a snippet of a movie, pause and ask “what is he going to do?” Groundhog Day is wonderful for this.
For present continuous, use a Mr. Bean sketch. Have some students turn their backs to the TV while their partner watches and relates the events on the screen in the present continuous tense.
For a lesson on crime and punishment, show the murder scene from The Italian Job and have students discuss suitable punishments. Or turn off the sound during the dramatic court climaxes in any one of a million movies with legal battles, and have students rebuild the dialogue.
For lessons on vocabulary subjects, movies are great too. For a lesson on clothes, try a scene from Mrs. Wildfire and ask students to describe Dustin Hoffman’s clothes in a scene where he is dressed up for work.
For another look into crime and punishment, a good one is Minority Report, although this one requires, possibly, a copy of the screenplay and a snippet of the appropriate conversation. This one makes for a good upper-intermediate level class discussion about crime in the future.
There are plenty of ways of using movies in class. Being sensitive to the cultural insights that movies provide, the language content that is beneficial for learners and a little creativity, using movies is a great addition to the classroom. Having the appropriate resources at your fingertips also helps! But that is another topic!