Audrey Hepburn famously said “everything I learned, I learned from the movies.”
We often think about film lessons as lazy, end-of-the-year activities meant to kill time.
But film lessons are so much more valuable than this.
As mentioned previously, students are motivated just by hearing that they get to watch a film. This level of pre-engagement means that, with just a little thoughtful lesson planning, you can have your students more excited than you thought they could ever be to be speaking English.
The beauty of films is that, by simply being careful with your movie selection, you can tailor your lessons to all ages, interests and abilities. Film lessons are flexible, and there’s an endless range of brilliant activities which you can bring to the classroom to accompany them. Using films as part of lesson plans can range from building an activity around a single scene to building an entire unit around a full film.
As teachers, we often pour a lot of time and energy into finding and creating classroom tools and resources. Well, there are thousands of films—many worth millions of dollars—which are just waiting to be used in the classroom. FluentU has many useful movie clips to get your students excited to use English.
Here are some of the most successful lesson plans which use this amazing resource.
5 ESL Film Lessons That Get Students Actively Watching English Movies
1. Finish the Scene
This lesson starts with an introduction of the film. Building context is important to set up the fun activities, and this can be a great opportunity to teach the many different movie genres.
After brainstorming genres (or teaching genres if this is new vocabulary for your students) show the beginning (or just a short clip) of your chosen film. The students have to guess the genre and explain why they’ve made the guess. The depth of the explanations expected reflects the target level: Lower level students can offer single word explanations, whereas you would expect full sentences from your higher level students.
After this, play “Finish the Scene.” As you might expect, this involves pausing a scene just before it reaches a climax. You then ask your students: “What happens next?”
This activity can take several forms. For lower levels it can be a drawing activity, in which students must draw the conclusion and write a simple sentence to explain. Higher level students can use this as a writing activity, in which they have to paint the scene in several sentences.
For the most fun, I would recommend having students act out the conclusion in groups. Explain that one student has to narrate, whilst the other students act out the action. This goes down as a treat in my lessons, and most students love it.
This lesson is perfect for students to build simple sentences using a wide range of verbs. “He fell onto the floor.” “She shouted at him.” “They played basketball together.” Your students might surprise you with the weird and wonderful scenarios they come up with!
Works well with: “Mr Bean.”
The lo-fi, low-dialogue, slapstick style of the many “Mr. Bean” movies means that your students don’t have to be experts at listening. They just have to follow the action and guess what happens. Hint: He probably does something stupid.
2. Draw the Comic Book
If your students are like mine, then they can’t get enough of the endless number of comic book movies that seem to be released every weekend. Well, after using them for this lesson plan, I love them too.
Start this lesson with a short comic book extract (maybe just a page) which captures the unique artistic style and punchy dialogue of comic book art. Read through and ask your students how comic books are different from regular books, movies or cartoons. It usually helps to write their answers on the board for later reference.
This is because they’ll soon be making their own comic books!
First, decide exactly how you want your students to complete this activity. Do you want them to draw a simple 3-panel progression or a full 20-page comic book? Do you want them to watch a scene and reproduce it? Or do you want them to draw a comic book for the whole movie? Do you want them to work only with dialogue? Or do you want them to write subtitles underneath each story panel?
Exactly how you structure the activity will depend on the students’ level, how much time you have and how much of the movie they can realistically watch and remember.
After you have decided on your lesson plan, hit play and let them watch. Make sure you explain the activity before the start of the movie, so they can make notes, or at least be thinking about how to recreate the scenes.
Works well with: “X-Men.”
This activity works well with almost all superhero movies, but a familiarity with the characters can really help the students to comfortably complete this activity, and so I prefer to use the “X-Men” movies. Of course, to make things interesting you could have your students make their comic book about a non-superhero movie, and see how that translates to the medium.
3. One Year Later…
This is a lesson which really encourages thought and creativity from your students.
Start by introducing (or refreshing) the present and future tenses. I do this by playing a picture ordering game in which students see a list of pictures and have to put them in order of past, present and future. For example, if the pictures are an old man, a student and a baby, then the order would obviously be baby, student, old man.
Next, introduce the movie. The premise of the lesson means that movies with sequels are preferable, but not mandatory. Show a picture of a character and ask the students simple questions, such as “how old is she?” or “what does she do?” Next, hit play and let it run.
The key activity begins after the end of the film. Students have to describe what happens one year later. This can be done by answering questions and drawing pictures for lower levels, or by acting out scenes and writing scripts for higher level students. Anything goes, as long as students understand that they are guessing what will happen to the characters one year after the events at the end of the film.
This is clearly a predictions lesson, and works beautifully to teach the “I think that x will y” prediction structure.
One way to change this lesson up really well is to change the time frame. Instead of one year later, ask the students to predict what will happen one week later, ten seconds later or even a thousand years later. This can really push the students to be creative, and you’ll be impressed by their imaginative predictions.
Works well with: “Harry Potter.”
This is a no-brainer, Students love the magic, whimsy and exciting visuals of the “Harry Potter” series, and the fact that there are 8 films set (mostly) a year apart means that each lesson has a potential follow up. Students can guess what happens one year later, and then watch what really happens at home or in the next lesson.
4. Film Synopsis
This is a really simple and easy-to-execute lesson plan which enriches any film watching lesson. Instead of just sitting and watching a whole film (and falling asleep), students are made to actively watch and complete small tasks as the film progresses.
The setup is very basic. Introduce the name of the movie and ask your students questions. Have they seen it before? What do they think it is about? Who is the main character? etc.
Then set them up with an active watching activity and start the film.
The activities I use most frequently are very standard. I like gap-fills, quizzes and especially character biographies. Any activity can be adapted for this, as long as students have specific pieces of information that they know they have to be on the alert for.
With character biographies, for example, have a worksheet which has sections to fill in like name, age, species, job, best friend, favorite food, etc. Pre-teach any unknown vocabulary as necessary and then let your students fill it out as they watch along.
This activity works really well to keep students focused on a movie and listening carefully. You can easily have a follow up speaking activity by having the students read and compare their character biographies.
Works well with: “Monsters Inc.”
The large number of easy-to-remember characters and events means that this is the perfect film to watch actively.
5. Track the Soundtrack
This is a different approach to film lessons which can work really well. Rather than just focus on the film, this lesson is centered on the soundtrack and how it relates to the film.
Song learning can be a very valuable method of learning English, and students usually love music to boot. I actually spread this activity over two lessons, one lesson for the song and then another lesson for the film itself.
Start the lesson by listening to the song three times.
First, run through of the song in question (I use Randy Newman’s “You Got a Friend In Me” from “Toy Story”). Ask the students some basic questions about the mood of the song, what they think it means, etc. Then listen again and ask the students to repeat anything that they heard in the song. Finally, hand out the lyrics and listen one more time.
After the students are familiar with the song, go through the lyrics line by line and teach the students the meaning of any words and phrases that they’re unfamiliar with.
Have a go at singing the song with the students and see how they do. Don’t worry if they can only remember one line, as long as they try everything is golden.
If you have time to practice singing the song then excellent, if you don’t then don’t worry. The aim of the lesson is not for the students to be able to sing the song perfectly (although that would obviously be great), but rather the main goal is for them to understand the meaning of the song and how it feeds into the context of the film. This really helps the students to understand the film and keeps them engaged while watching.
Works well with: “Toy Story.”
This is my go-to classic, but there are lots of great movies out there with soundtracks that your students will love. The success of the Disney movie “Frozen” in recent years makes it an obvious choice, but the choice of song and movie really depends on you and your students.
Using these simple lesson plans, movies can go from a time killing device to a really valuable resource in the classroom.
Cal Hudson is an ESL teacher in Sokcho, South Korea. He has taught children from kindergarten to high school, and adults from complete beginners to advanced. Cal’s focus in ESL teaching is developing non-conventional lesson plans to get the maximum motivation from his learners.
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