How to Teach Chinese with Videos: 17 Ways to Make Class Compelling, Relevant and Fun
Video has become ubiquitous.
Our students giggle over videos on their cell phones between classes.
Social media is now inundated with them, and YouTube has over a billion users.
That’s because videos grab our attention, allowing us to take part in real experiences from all over the world—as if we were there.
So as Chinese teachers, let’s use this powerful resource and leverage it for our students’ language acquisition!
Why Use Videos to Teach Chinese?
Videos Provide Compellingly Interesting Content
Videos made without an educational goal in mind are almost always more engaging than those from a textbook series. Use “real” videos and watch your students’ interest rise.
When our students have compelling messages to hear and respond to, their absorption of the language increases without even being aware of it—which is exactly how languages are acquired, say some researchers.
Videos Introduce Cultural Understanding and Comparisons in a Natural Way
Students often find it hard to relate to direct instruction about cultural behaviors and norms. However, they need to develop cultural competence as participants in Chinese culture and life.
Chinese videos allow students to experience culture in a more meaningful context. They see and, especially important, feel the cultural significance of behaviors and situations through the people in videos.
While using a video in class, a perfect time for a brief comment about culture is when students show confusion, surprise, alarm or begin to laugh. For an example, in the hit movie “人在囧途” (“Lost on Journey”), the main character is a businessman who lives hundreds of kilometers away from his wife and child. To many in the West, that would seem like abandonment of the marriage, but it’s not unusual in China today, especially among upper-level business people. 分居 (living apart) doesn’t necessarily indicate a divorce is desired. Without my telling them about this cultural phenomenon, my students would have assumed the main character was even more of a villain!
Of course, videos often exaggerate culture traits, so making note of unrealistic aspects of videos is also helpful. It may also be an opportunity to introduce some Chinese humor.
Videos Are Relevant
As almost every teacher is well aware, our students are looking up and sharing video clips with each other daily. And sometimes trying to do so during class. Buy-in from students is high when compelling video is used.
They’re a generation raised on devices that connect to the Internet. There’s evidence that their brains have changed in response to hours of electronic media per day. While we don’t always want to feed the beast, some thoughtful use of video meets students where they (likely) are. Teachers can model using video more purposefully.
So, add some greater depth of engagement rather than mindless watching–but keep things fun, school-style. Students may watch videos only to get a laugh; we want them to enjoy the video, acquire more language and grow in cultural competence a little bit at a time. It’s a sneaky way of allowing students to think about an interesting video, hopefully forgetting that the video and discussion is in Chinese.
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Where Can You Find Chinese Videos?
Videos are available on many websites, including video sites from Mainland China such as youku.com and tudou.com. Searching video sites by typing your keywords in Chinese can help locate videos that lend themselves to the language you wish to use with your class.
If your school blocks YouTube or video sites, use a downloader such as AmoyShare when off-campus, and then play the video from your computer with or without Internet connection during class. (This is a good tip if your school’s Internet is unreliable, even when you can access video websites!)
17 Incredibly Useful Activities for Teaching Chinese with Videos
For Videos with Too Much Unknown Language, Too Fast
Many authentic videos can often include far more language than our students yet understand, so here are some ways to successfully use such videos in class.
1. Brain Breaks
Listen and watch music videos, commercials and wordless videos for a short break in the middle of class.
For music videos, ask your students for styles of music or songs that they like, and play them Chinese rap, hip hop, rock or ballads based on their interests. Sometimes even a song in a style that your students find silly or cheesy can be a nice break. Here are some songs to get you started:
- ’90s: “I Want It That Way” — Backstreet Boys (Chinese Cover)
- Rap: “Coming Home” — Dragonwell
- Hip Hop: “Call Me” — Miss KO
- Rock: “Sad People Shouldn’t Listen to Slow Songs” by MayDay
- Ballad: “Where Is the Promised Happiness” — Jay Chou
- Cheesy: “Little Apple” — AK A Capella
Allow students to enjoy the music and stand up or dance if they’re so inclined. Movement in class for a few minutes is a powerful way to refresh students and teachers alike.
Commercials are another entertaining brain break. Seeing different products and the way they are advertised can be a lot of fun!
Wordless films are those without any language in the soundtrack at all. They can nonetheless communicate powerfully! As an example, here’s a short video with visuals in paper cut craft-style about a cat and mouse.
I have created public playlists of brain breaks for Chinese classes. Here’s a list of videos including movement and exercise, and here’s another list that covers culture and language (some are mostly in English).
2. Discuss Cultural Topics
Play a video without sound or subtitles on, and ask students questions in Chinese about what they see in the scenes, people and behavior. Pause every couple of seconds to ask students a few questions in Chinese they can understand.
Ask about how the people in the video look, how they speak to each other, what roles they seem to have, what emotions they reveal, what things you see in the scene that might be different from your students’ context, and what beliefs might be guiding their behaviors.
Also ask students to compare to their own cultural experience by asking questions based off topics brought up in the video. For example, in a video of a teenage girl talking with her mom, you might ask, “If you were her, what would you say to your mom?” or “What would your mom do if you said that?”
For students with novice-level Chinese, ask simpler questions, like, “Is the girl happy?” or “What did her mom say? Does your mom also say that?”
MovieTalk was developed by Dr. Ashley Hastings for his college-level ESL students. It involves describing the video in simpler language at the level of your students, and is a very powerful technique to use with either short video clips (for any level of students) or full-length films (especially for upper level students). It doesn’t require the original audio to be comprehensible–or indeed, the video could be in another language than the one you teach.
There are many variations on MovieTalk. You might show most of a 2-3 minute video with the sound on once (saving the ending until later). Then, with the sound muted, go back to the beginning and play only a few seconds of the video. Engage the class through description of the scene, and ask questions about what they see happening. Differentiate by asking comprehension, comparison, prediction and evaluation questions.
Even a short video might fill a class period if you ask good questions and make the most of each detail on screen.
An excellent article about MovieTalk has been published here. A quick web search will also help you find examples and ideas about MovieTalk from more teachers.
Using Videos with Language That Students Can Comprehend
When a video uses language that’s almost all familiar to our students, use some of these teaching ideas.
4. Scaffold Their Viewing with a Preview
Speaking in Chinese that your students understand, briefly describe the people and the situation in the video before watching. For example, you might say, “There is a man and his son. They’re at home, and the boy is hungry.” This will help them to jump right into the video and its meaning instead of being concerned about interpreting the circumstances.
However, don’t give away too much information! No spoilers. Part of the fun of video is not knowing what will happen.
As you describe, use words that come up in the video that may be confusing to your students: Words they’ve not heard in a long time, words that will sound similar to others they know, or words that are critical to understanding but not visually obvious in meaning from the video.
Don’t allow this “preview” scaffolding to take too much time. A few sentences is often enough, perhaps with a question to the students to ask if they have been in a similar situation. Increasing their interest and circumventing possible areas of confusion are the goals in scaffolding their viewing experience.
5. Watch and Discuss with Subtitles
Pause to ask questions about what’s happening in the video, using the subtitles for reading input.
Watching video and pausing to read and discuss the subtitles is similar to MovieTalk, but makes use of an audio your students can understand. You’ll probably need to pause often to let them process the meaning; the original speed is likely somewhat too fast to catch everything.
Linking the sound of Chinese to their written form is more natural when we read subtitles. Students understand the general context because of the visuals in the video, which helps them more easily to comprehend what they read in the subtitles. Reading Chinese characters in a meaningful context (enjoyably!) is a huge benefit of using videos with their subtitles.
6. Very Narrow Listening
Very Narrow Listening is especially appropriate if students know the words in a video, but the speed of speech is too fast for them to understand. This techique has been developed by Judith Dubois and is described in detail here.
Use a highly interesting part of a video, because you will be going very deep and narrow into the language used in it (hence the name). Before class, prepare a sheet with the dialogue, but replace some very familiar vocabulary with blanks.
Your class will then watch and listen to short clips from the video–perhaps one line at a time–while filling in the blanks as much as possible without looking at the subtitles. Students may ask to hear lines several times. Remember, when students ask to hear something again, you know they’re engaged!
Then, show the video clip with the subtitles on and allow students to double-check what they heard. Celebrate how much they understood! When you play the video again after Very Narrow Listening, students will be amazed at how “easy” the video now seems.
7. Student “Dubbing”
After students have thoroughly understood the video’s audio, mute the sound and have the class read the subtitles.
With beginning students, have the whole class read aloud together, or assign groups to read the part of one of the characters in the video. The goal is a fun way to re-experience the language and the video firsthand, not a test of their pronunciation.
Really ham it up and make the reading emotional and dramatic! If your class dynamics allow for some light-hearted teasing, ask them to re-do lines with more emotion before moving on–even if they were already somewhat dramatic. Attaching emotions to their Chinese is wonderful! Their new language feels more real.
Follow-up Activities After Videos
Here are some fun activities you can use to follow up after watching videos.
8. Video Retells
In this activity, students tell what happened in their own words.
Tag-team retelling is great for this. One student begins to describe the video. The student then passes to a classmate who continues where he or she left off. If a student gets stuck (even after just a word or two), there’s the safety of passing to a classmate.
Celebrate at the end of a retell with applause for their recall and use of Chinese!
9. Student “Redubbing”
In this activity, students create make an alternate version of the original script. “Redubbing” can be a lot of fun, since students can develop dialogue that suits their preferences and interests more than the original dialogue may have.
Scaffold the “redubbing” process by showing the video again, pausing at each scene and asking questions to prompt students to think about what alternatives to the original dialogue they would enjoy.
At the end, replay the video with the sound muted. Allow volunteers to read the new lines of dialogue the class has created.
10. “Interview” Characters from the Video
Taking volunteers, assign students to roles from the video. Seat one student up front. If possible, have them get into the role with props or costumes.
Ask the student actor questions like, “Why did you take the bicycle?” or “How did you meet your girlfriend?” Encourage students to be creative! Coming up with some background information on the characters or imagining crazy details about them can be a fun way to speak in Chinese. Enjoy their answers.
Include the rest of the class by turning the questions around to them, as in, “He says he didn’t eat the last piece of pizza. Is that true? Did you see him eat the pizza?”
Of course, ask questions that your students already have the language to answer in Chinese. If a student gets stumped, I sometimes handle it by asking the rest of the class that question, getting an answer from the class, and then asking the student actor again.
11. Matching Video Screenshots to Written Dialogue
Screenshots can be quickly taken on a Mac by using Command-Shift-4. Click and drag the area you wish to include in the shot.
These screenshots can be used as speaking prompts, discussion starters or to prepare students for reading about the video because the context is made more familiar.
Using the script of the video, students match sentences from the dialogue to screenshots you show them.
Assessing Student Comprehension of Videos
Finally, to assess what your students have understood after using a video in class, try one of the following activities.
12. True/False and Short Answer Questions
You might ask 5 to 10 questions about the video content discussed in class. That is, create true/false or short answer questions based on your class discussion, saying the questions aloud.
You can use this short quiz as an exit ticket.
13. Comprehension Worksheet
When you have time to prepare questions before class, create a worksheet that students fill in while you’re using the video or after work with the video is complete.
A worksheet with comprehension questions is another great exit ticket.
14. Type or Handwrite a Summary
Give students time after the video to compose a summary of its meaning.
Depending on your students’ access to computers, they may type or handwrite their summary. Handwriting in Chinese takes much more time for most non-native learners, so allow time accordingly.
15. Shrinking Summaries
Shrinking summaries are a way to allow students to process language at a deep level. Provide students with a copy of the original dialogue after you have watched and discussed the video.
Students, working alone or with a small group, write a 10-sentence summary of the video.
Then, they “shrink” that 10-sentence summary into only five sentences, then into three sentences, then into only one sentence, yet without leaving out any critical details from the video.
16. Write a Sequel
What happens next? Give students time to write their own version of what they imagine the video characters do or experience next.
Sequels could be as simple as one sentence or as involved as paragraphs. Aim for a length suited to your students’ language abilities and the time available in class.
17. Rewrite the Video from a Different Point of View
Ask students to write a new version, telling the same story from the point of view of one of the characters.
For example, let’s say the video includes a boyfriend and girlfriend at a restaurant. You might suggest that some of them write how the boyfriend would tell the story, and other students write how the girlfriend would explain what happened.
Videos are here to stay, so if you haven’t already, start using them in your Chinese classes for incredibly engaging lessons. With these 17 activities and useful resources, you know exactly how to get started!
Diane Neubauer is a high school Chinese teacher who has taught five-year-olds through adults. Besides learning and teaching Chinese language, she enjoys raising laying hens and spending time with her husband. She blogs at www.tprsforchinese.blogspot.com.