esl speaking activities for kids

Movie Magic: Why Making Movies is the Perfect ESL Speaking Activity for Kids

Have you ever noticed how much kids enjoy learning with movies?

Why do you think this is?

Well, to start with, there’s more variety, color and movement involved in watching a movie than in just listening to a teacher.

In an ESL environment, you can give your students fun activities to help them watch movies actively. Plus, movies can demonstrate an interesting variety of voices and dialects to get them used to real language.

Above all, when it comes to learning through movies, attitudes in your younger learners tend to be positive and motivation tends to run high.

So how can you help the kids in your ESL class get the most out of their love for cinema?

Let’s say your students really love a movie.

They’ve watched it several times, talked about alternative endings as well as their favorite characters and they feel quite at home with the plot.

They may even start to quote from it naturally in conversation.

The very natural next step is for them to try acting out parts in a version of the movie they film themselves.

You may have wondered if this is a good idea.

Short answer: Yes, it absolutely is.

Making movies in class is an incredible group activity that can help students get comfortable with their own voices and greatly improve speaking confidence, especially if they’re shy.

But maybe you’re not sure how to go about deciding what to film, preparing your students to speak on camera and then actually having them do it.

Or maybe you’re afraid it might be too much for them.

Not to worry—we’re about to cover everything you could possibly need to know about making movies with your young students, including how to make the whole process a positive experience for everyone.

Step back: It’s time to let your students be the stars.

Getting Started: Using Scripts from Well-known Movies

Not all movies are suitable for language learning or for your students to imitate. While many movies introduce themes that make good discussion topics for more advanced students, this doesn’t mean that they would be the best movies for younger students to act out.

It’s often best to be on the safe side, avoiding anything that may cause religious or cultural distress, or that is just unsuitable for younger learners.

Animated movies are generally safe, especially the most well-known ones, because:

  • They can be appreciated by any age group, but are especially likely to appeal to kids.
  • They often contain a lot of interesting cultural material that is relevant specifically to language learning (e.g., idioms) without being offensive.
  • The spoken language in the movies themselves is clearer and easier to understand as the actors tend to speak more carefully to suit the animated character.

Some good examples of this (but not the only ones) are:

  • “Finding Nemo”
  • “Shrek” (series)
  • “Ice Age” (series)
  • “Toy Story” (series)

Where can you find scripts for these movies?

There are many places to find movie scripts. (Never present students with the whole script! Find a favorite short section and print it out for them.)

A good place to look is the Internet Movie Script Database. (Just be careful to make sure that you know what you are downloading. Avoid the big “Start Download” button, and look for the small “Read ___ script.”)

Daily Script is for educational purposes only and may be worth a look.

Awesome Film is another database. Many of these can be downloaded as a PDF document.

And because short, high-quality clips and texts are ideal, don’t forget to make use of all the great videos you can find on FluentU along with downloadable transcripts.

Using FluentU, students will be more engaged and learn better. Not only does FluentU offer video, but it offers scaffolding that isn’t available anywhere else; students will find authentic content approachable and within reach.

So it’s OK to use a script?

Of course! Students will expect to be using a script rather than relying on their memories or producing impromptu speech.

The only problem is that when students (or anyone, really) reads from a script (especially when it is not in their first language), they generally use their reading voice and intonation rather than a proper speaking intonation.

When they read something out loud, not only do they tend to use flat, dull intonation, but they are also using a slightly different brain process, and so their language speaking skills are not getting the boost they should.

A better way for students to read a script

Here’s a good general direction to have your students follow in script reading as well as any speaking lessons that involve reading something out loud.

Tell the students that they must look at the person they are speaking to when they speak.

This means:

  1. Look at their script and read it to themselves, trying to take in as much as they can remember in one go. They might even want to sub-vocalize (whisper) it to themselves, or just mouth the words at this stage.
  1. Look up at their dialogue partner and say the words.
  1. If they have not finished saying their part of the script, read the next part to themselves and then look up again to say it.
  1. Their partner then looks at their script, reads to themselves and looks up to say it.

This may seem a little painful and slow at first, but it greatly improves students’ learning because they have to hold those words in their heads and then say them. Encourage them to work with longer and longer sections, and to use whole phrases or clauses rather than breaking up sentences unnaturally.

Getting Students Ready for Recording and Performing

Students learn mostly receptive skills (looking, reading and listening) while watching movies.

Taking the step to productive skills (speaking or writing) takes a little more effort.

This is because:

  • It’s normal for students to go through a “silent period” in the process of learning a language.
  • Other students are lazy or unmotivated, and would rather you did all the work!

All of these are good reasons to get your students taking an active role in their learning, but it’s also okay to take things slowly.

Speaking into a microphone

It can be quite a shock for students to jump straight into having their speech recorded. One reason is that many students—both children and adults—have never clearly listened to the sound of their own voice.

We mostly hear our own voices through the thickness of bone and muscle between the voice-box and ears, which gives a muffled sound at best. Add to that the presence of fluids or any kind of congestion, and what we hear is just not the same as what others hear when we speak.

There are some ways we can help our students to hear themselves clearly and speak more confidently in any language:

  1. Get ahold of a microphone and small amplifier—or take your class to a media room, hall or sound-equipped venue.
  1. Initially, especially if students are shy, simply ask each student to introduce themselves, or say their own name into the microphone.
  1. Ask students to introduce each other.
  1. Let them try saying anything they are reasonably confident about—remember, we are just getting them used to hearing their own voice in a possibly unfamiliar context.

Note: A common reaction students have to hearing themselves for the first time is to laugh. Warn them about this so that they don’t feel silly. Everyone can enjoy being amused together.

What about those really painfully shy students who can’t or won’t speak into the microphone?

If you can get them to do it, the boost to their confidence is well worth the struggle!

So:

  • Try bribery—find what makes them tick (candy, a book, points, a certificate) and use it.
  • Let them have a private performance first. Let them try using the microphone with only you and maybe a friend present, and then later do it in front of other students.
  • Let them manage the equipment to get them comfortable with it.
  • Encourage them to practice at home by singing and talking in enclosed spaces—the bathroom, for example—to get used to the sound of their own voice.

Note: I have been through this experience many times with young students, and the ones who actually cried—before I then cajoled them into doing it anyway—would ask, “Can I do it again?” Seriously, it is worth it for shy students.

The Recording Phase: Making Film Stars of Your Students

When they are speaking into the microphone, in all the excitement surrounding the activity, your students may not get a chance to really notice the accuracy of their speech. So now that their initial nervousness is overcome, we can record them and then let them watch and observe.

What equipment can/should you use?

Maybe you’re not working in a school that has lots of expensive recording equipment. No worries!

Most people nowadays have one or more of these:

  • Mobile phone with a built-in camera
  • Digital camera
  • Laptop with webcam
  • Video camera

Between you and your students, you’re likely to have access to lots of suitable equipment and be well familiar with how to use it.

What can/should you record?

Remember, what we are trying to do is simply to take the output (speaking) part of language learning to the next level. You are getting your students to commit to speaking confidently.

We’ve already talked about how you can find and use scripts to create movies, but you can also bring the fun of making movies into your regular class time by recording anything that is part of your language lessons. The possibilities of this speaking exercise are endless!

Here are some simple ideas for spoken material you can record anytime:

  • Short conversations
  • Role-plays
  • Telling the news or reading the news
  • Students introducing themselves or each other
  • Telling a joke, or talking about a (funny) experience
  • Telling a story
  • Singing a song
  • Imitating a short scene from a movie—including body language and intonation if possible
  • Students’ own version of a movie with their own ending

But what about those shy students?

Here are some ways you can make it easier for everyone, especially those who are genuinely shy or just a little lacking in confidence:

  1. Work in pairs first. If you have enough devices—and likely you will—get students to work in pairs or threes. They can take turns recording and speaking. Or the third member could record a conversation between the other two.
  1. Get your quieter students involved. Let the really shy kids start off handling equipment.
  1. Let them use a puppet. (It could be a stick puppet, hand puppet, finger puppet…anything will do.) Let shy students try holding a puppet while they speak. The focus is on the puppet rather than them and there is less stress—and it can be a lot of fun!
  1. Mix and match. You can even have one student handling two puppets and doing (fun!) voices while their partner records.

What can you do with the students’ recordings?

Just the act of making a recording is a very valuable learning experience, and you could just leave things there after you’ve shown the recording to the students who made it.

Clearly there are many ways you can use and share your recordings to help your students evaluate their own learning, encourage each other and have some fun. You could view the recordings on the devices (phones, etc.) and also upload them to a computer to look at together on a bigger screen.

Here are some ideas:

  • Let students view their own recording and evaluate themselves.
  • Let students view their group recording and congratulate each other.
  • Let students view their recordings and discuss them.
  • Let groups show their recordings to other groups.
  • Upload your recordings to a class wiki, Facebook page or website.
  • Share your recordings with another class.

WARNING: Always be very careful!

The intention is NEVER to embarrass, but rather to increase students’ confidence.

So:

  • Keep control of all recordings and do not allow them to “go viral.”
  • For nervous students, give them a simple part (a single word, perhaps) to start with.
  • Make sure you have permission from all participants (and their parents) before you do anything outside of your classroom with any recording.

If recordings are used wrongly, all your hard work, practice and encouragement will be wasted. Always exercise caution to ensure that the experience stays positive for everyone!

Not only will your students love seeing themselves as the stars of a movie—their speaking skills will grow by leaps and bounds.

Your shy students, especially, will be greatly encouraged even if (this time) they only had a very small part.

They’ll look forward to their next class, and be eagerly asking you how soon they can “do it again.”

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