The Movie Clip Trick: How to Make ESL Lesson Plans Based on Feature Films

A picture is worth a thousand words, as the old saying goes.

So, how many words is a movie worth?

Regardless of the actual number, it’s clear that movies are a great way to engage learners.

And the best part is that you don’t have to rely solely on dialogue in a film to teach a new concept or piece of language in class. It sounds counterintuitive, but you can lean more heavily on the visual quality of films to teach lessons.

Using images rather than words to get an idea across is a brilliant way to change things up in the ESL classroom. Visual (spatial) learners can greatly benefit from applying language lessons to actions they see on the screen.

You don’t need to burn an entire class session watching a whole feature film, either. It’s easy to turn a short video clip into a whole lesson plan. Over the course of a semester, having several movie lessons is a great way to add a bit of variety!

Here are three examples of how to create great ESL movie lesson plans. The main focus is on making the most of movie scenes that are low on dialogue but full of visual detail.

Go ahead and use these exact movie lessons in class—and get a sense of the bigger picture along the way, so that you’ll be able to craft your own creative lesson plans based on movie clips.

How to Turn Movie Clips into Entire ESL Movie Lesson Plans

Beginner: “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2”

Lesson Topic: Vocabulary

Why It’s Great

Animated movies are so rich in detail, young learners will often be glued to the screen from the moment you press play. Older learners will surprise you with how much they get into animated movies, too.

“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” in particular is full of rich colors and images, making it ripe for an ESL lesson harvest.

The clip is taken from the movie’s first real introduction to the hilarious concept of “foodimals,” a hybrid between food and animal which is a central part of this movie’s underrated comedic wordplay (more attentive, advanced classes will enjoy the “there’s a leek in the boat” joke, even if it requires a little explanation on your part).

Foods and animals are often one of the first types of vocabulary covered in beginner classes. This is a very fun way to combine the two! Some examples of foodimals are “shrimpanzees,” “watermelephants” and “flamangoes.”

Lesson Plan

Show the clip to the class. They have to watch and name as many “foodimals” as they can. First, start with the ones that are named in the movie clip.

Next have students come up with their very own! They’ll have to make up fun characters combining food and animal. Have them get up and draw them on the whiteboard. The rest of the class have to guess what they are, naming what food and animal they’re combinations of.

Intermediate: “Ratatouille”

Lesson Topic: Active and Passive Voices

Why It’s Great

Once again, the animated movie. I just love the way animators overcompensate for not having real life actors with wild gesticulations and cartoony mannerisms. These types of movies are great for emphasizing and describing actions in the classroom. And who better than Pixar to help illustrate these actions to your classroom?

The passive voice is very commonly used to give instructions. It is very often used in recipe instructions. Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” with its delightful representation of fine cuisine and the unlikely partnership of its hilariously slapstick central duo, is perfect for showing the class how to put this into practice.

This clip, in which the main character, Remy, first learns how to control his human companion in the kitchen, is full of typical cooking actions, as well as one or two general actions for variety.

Lesson Plan

A handout can be made using the actions in the video to revise the formation of the passive voice. Ask students why we use the passive and how it’s formed.

Write it on the board: to be + past participle

Give out the handout. Taking the exercises below as an example, you could use the time the students spend watching the video as a mini-vocabulary activity. Tell them the actions are shown in order in the clip and they have to figure out what each verb (in bold) means.

After going through this activity, get them to fill in the gaps in the correct form for active and passive. Depending on the class’s level you can tell them to leave the last two to the end explaining that let and help follow irregular rules when used in the passive voice.

Active VoicePassive Voice
Remy ___________ an accident in the kitchen. (avoid)

Remy ___________ Linguini. (blindfold)

Linguini ___________ the tomato. (squeezes)

Remy ___________ the pancake. (flip)

Remy ___________ the eggs. (whisk)

Remy ___________ the spaghetti into the boiling water. (put)

Remy ___________ the wine into the glass. (pour)

Remy ___________ the onions. (chop)

Remy ___________ the eggs. (crack)

Linguini ___________ Remy cook using him as a disguise. (let)

Remy ___________ Linguini cook. (help)
An accident ___________ in the kitchen. (avoid)

Linguini ___________ . (blindfold)

The tomato ___________ . (squeezes)

The pancake ___________ . (flip)

The eggs ___________ . (whisk)

The spaghetti ___________ into the boiling water.

The wine ___________ into the glass. (pour)

The onions ___________ . (chop)

The eggs ___________ . (crack)

Remy ___________ cook using Linguini as a disguise. (let)

Linguini ___________ cook. (help)

If there’s still time, you can get the students to write their own recipes in the passive voice and share them with the class.

Advanced: “Aspirational”

Lesson Topic: Speaking

Why It’s Great

When using videos in advanced classes I most often use movies to encourage discussion. The best types of videos for this are those that touch on big themes. Short films are perfect for this type of activity as they usually try to give a concise message that sparks debate.

This short movie, “Aspirational” starring Kirsten Dunst, looks at the role of social media in our lives. It negatively portrays a younger generation so obsessed with capturing a moment for likes that they forget to actually be present in the moment.

The film looks at the role that narcissism plays in social media, whilst also touching on the theme of a celebrity obsessed culture that admires people simply because they’re famous; the end of the movie shows the girls confused Kirsten Dunst for Scarlett Johansson and Kate Winslet at the same time.

Lesson Plan

Watch the short film with the class. I always find that advanced classes are much easier to personalize. Talkative students? Simply watch the video and ask them what they think.

You could start by asking what the theme is, what they think about their fellow students’ interpretations and whether they agree with the message of the film (in this case, that social media is making people shallow).

Is the class a bit more reserved when it comes to speaking? Prepare a handout before class with a few questions on it. This way they can write down their answers before discussing with the class.

For example:

1. What does “Aspirational” say about modern society?

2. What does the film say about social media?

3. Does the film also look at celebrity culture?

4. Is the depiction of young people in “Aspirational” realistic?

5. Do you agree with the film’s portrayal of modern life?

6. Do you think we’d be happier without social media?

Another good example for a short film on social media, though it’s darker in tone, would be the Facebook-themed short film, “What’s On Your Mind.” This could be used for further discussion. Both clips could be used as precursors to a lesson on informal English and text-speak.

You could also ask the students about their own personal experiences. Though these short films are focused mainly on negative aspects of social media, what are the positives it brings to our lives? Has it helped anyone stay connected to friends they know living in different countries? Did anyone find the job they’re currently working at through social media?


These are just three examples of how you can adapt a small clip into a whole lesson plan. Our social media feeds are so full of interesting little clips—social media has its good point after all!—and now we can use them in class. For an all in one resource, you should also consider a FluentU account for up to date and interactive learning resources.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

FluentU lessons are ready to go utilizing flashcards, quizzes and other learning systems to ensure maximum learning outcomes!

As you can see, you don’t have to look for any specific language or grammatical reference in videos to use them in creating a pretty comprehensive ESL movie lesson plan. You can just use them to open up a discussion, or give writing and speaking prompts to students.

All around, technology is a really great tool in the ESL classroom. Hopefully, this gives you a little help in tapping it to its full potential!

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