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Off-road ESL Teaching: 4 Adventurous Video Lesson Plans for the 4 Major Language Skills

Language is the lifeblood of human communication.

It is vivid, exciting and alive—and that is how we want our students to feel when they encounter and use it!

This is why it is absolutely vital that, as teachers, we demonstrate the language where it actually lives and thrives: in the real world, spoken by real people, in real situations.

The staged audio recordings that accompany English textbooks only go so far.

With technology at our fingertips and access to thousands of video clips only a mouse-click away, today’s ESL teachers have the extraordinary advantage of being able to inject life into lesson plans through video.

By doing so, we can make students feel that they are already part of the language community they are working so hard to join.

Learn a foreign language with videos

How Can Video Liven Up Your Lesson Plans?

Here are just a few things videos can do.

1. Visually stimulate your students

Let’s be honest: As much as we need textbooks to help us teach language to our students, they can get seriously boring if relied on too heavily. Students can’t always find inspiration in the words on a page, and we can’t blame them!

Cue videos. Give your students something or someone to watch. Whether it is a romantic scene from a restaurant or a disastrous job interview, your students will be able to follow the storyline or situation through the visual aids provided, and get to grips with the target language as a result.

2. Expose them to authentic language

Videos—including clips from films, interviews, TV programs and even funny YouTube clips—can help students understand how the English language really operates in relevant everyday situations.

Although the audio recordings that accompany our textbooks can be very useful, you might have noticed that they are often staged conversations, with particularly clear and perfect speech. This does not accurately represent the fast-paced, colorful language that students will have to cope with in their English-speaking experiences. Nor does it adequately portray connected speech, colloquialisms, accents and cultural norms.

Our students need real people, real conversations and real language.

3. Give them access to comprehensible input

Linguist Stephen Krashen emphasizes that the best conditions for successful language learning are those in which students have access to input that they can understand but that they also find interesting.

Ask your students what interests them and let this information guide your choice of video. Are they interested in topical news stories? Brilliant! Use video to show them the difference between language in formal, scripted news reports compared with on-location, spur-of-the-moment ones. Follow this up by asking them to find their own news stories and even make their own videos reporting them!

Students do not need to understand every single word spoken in the videos you choose. As long as they understand the overall message being given, they will feel confident studying the material. It is this confidence that will allow them to then tackle the new vocabulary or grammar that you wish to teach them.

4. Develop their intercultural awareness

Intercultural awareness is a vital skill that must be taught during the learning of any language.

You can learn a language inside out from the comfort of your own home, but if you go to a country where it is spoken and do not know when it is appropriate to say certain things or use certain colloquialisms, you risk causing offense and getting yourself into some embarrassing or even potentially dangerous situations!

Use video to demonstrate the social norms expected in the cultures in which English is spoken. Your students’ understanding can be optimized by asking them first to make predictions about what they expect to see in a video clip based on the context given or the name of the video. After checking whether their expectations have been met, a class discussion could follow involving comparisons between cultures.

5. Engage them with interesting and topical subjects

Again, let your students guide your selection of video within the classroom. Ask them what their interests are or what area of English they would be interested in learning more about. Do you have a class of aspiring football players? A group of foreign exchange students new to the country? Use this to your advantage!

The most important thing to remember is that you are using video to teach the students something. Whether it be a grammar point, some new vocabulary or pronunciation, you must keep the language you wish to teach at the forefront of your lesson planning. Video is not an excuse for teachers to sit back while the students watch passively. The video should be an appropriate, engaging and relevant aid in conveying a new language concept to your students.

How to Go About Choosing Videos for Your ESL Classes

Here are answers to a few questions that might come to mind when choosing videos to use in your ESL classes.

Where can you find videos?

The Internet is the best place to find videos. Video sharing giant YouTube is packed with videos of all sorts. News websites often share news reports via video links. Engaging, educational video lectures can be found on websites such as TED.

You can also, of course, find a wide range of videos right here on FluentU! FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

Is the level right for your students?

The overall difficulty of the vocabulary used or the speed of the speech in the videos you choose is not necessarily that important. As long as you are able to use the video to set tasks for your students that correspond with their language level, this is what matters.

Is the content appropriate?

Make sure you consider the age, religion and cultural background of your students before using video in class. If the videos are potentially controversial or offensive to your students, it is perhaps best to reconsider your choice and find a more appropriate clip to use.

How can you empower your students to keep learning through video?

Firstly, demonstrate to your students that video provides them with access to language as it is used in real life, and you will help engage them much more strongly with English.

Secondly, make sure you give your students the opportunity to watch videos repeatedly where necessary and ask questions about their context, so that they become as comfortable as possible with using video as an educational tool.

Finally, provide videos that increase the comprehensible input they have access to, and your students will feel that the language has truly come alive!

4 Original Video Lesson Plans to Inject Vitality into Your ESL Classroom

Here are a few ideas for video lesson plans to get you started using video in the classroom. Each one of these plans is built around one of the 4 major language skills, so you can choose one depending on what area of English you would like to highlight.

1. Comic timing: Teaching agreeing and disagreeing

So let’s say you want to teach the language with a focus on speaking skills. Whether you want to focus on pronunciation, intonation, formal vs. informal speech, colloquialisms or connected speech, you can bet that there are a whole range of videos out there that demonstrate usage within a realistic and comprehensible context.

Imagine you want to teach students how to use English for agreeing and disagreeing. It is incredibly easy to find videos that demonstrate this language in use, as the punchline of many sitcom episodes is often based around a disagreement!

Set the context, perhaps by showing an image or a title and asking students to discuss what they think the characters are disagreeing about. (Notice how you are already prompting the students to agree/disagree with one another, giving you an idea of the language they are already familiar with in this area.)

Watch the clip once and ask the students to decide who was closest in their guess. Ask them to work in pairs and tell each other what the argument was about, and who they think won.

After this, it is a good idea to ask the students to examine the language actually used in the video so that they can use it confidently in their own speech. You could do this using a (pre-prepared) gap-fill exercise, for example, to focus on the actual expressions used in disagreements.

Fluency is greatly developed by teaching chunks of language, rather than just single words. Therefore, you could have short phrases missing from the video transcript such as “I completely disagree” or “I know what you mean.”

Ask students to listen for the expressions used in order to fill the gaps, and then practice using them in an extended activity, like a class debate.

For lower levels, you could even provide the phrases and simply ask students to put them in the correct places in the transcript and/or simply indicate whether they indicate agreement or disagreement.

Alternatively (or additionally), you could prepare an intonation illustration exercise for these expressions. In this type of exercise, students listen for the rise and fall of the voice and illustrate it using a curved line or by drawing different-sized spots above the words in the written expression.

For example, during your video clip, someone might ask “Are you serious?” The tone of the speaker’s voice might rise on the word “serious,” expressing polite surprise or disbelief at the other person’s opinion.

However, you can ask students to experiment with this. If they try saying the expression with the tone of voice falling on the word “serious,” the expression seems more impolite and more strongly indicates that the speaker disagrees with the other person’s opinion. As the teacher, you should monitor the exercise and give explanations before the students practice using this intonation in their own speech.

After language analysis, the possibilities for extended speaking activities are endless! You can ask the students to do a role-play exercise where they extend the scene or set up a debate about an issue surrounding the disagreement.

If you’re feeling really adventurous, remove the audio from the video and ask the students to record their own version of the original argument, using the expressions and the intonation they have been examining.

2. Running for office: Teaching formal vs. informal speech

Language students generally hate listening exercises. As far as I can tell, this seems to be an almost universal truth. With the help of video, however, students can use visual aids such as body language, facial expression and lip-reading to help them to pick up what we as native speakers hear so easily.

Imagine you want to highlight some differences between formal and informal speech to improve your students’ fluency. Take colloquial expressions like “wanna” instead of “want to,” “gotta” instead of “got to” and “gonna” instead of “going to.”

A good place to find these would be in a speech (political or otherwise) where speakers tend to use these expressions to emphasise their intentions. Let’s assume in this case you choose footage of a presidential candidate.

You could set the context by asking your students what they know about this candidate and their plans for the country.

Then, ask them to watch the video to see if the speaker mentions the same things as they did. Have them report to each other in pairs a list of what the candidate says they intend to do. Again, ensure you monitor the conversations.

Then, hand out a (pre-prepared) transcript of part of the speech, ensuring that you have used the standard English versions (“got to,” etc.) of the language rather than the informal ones, and written them in bold.

Ask the students to listen and to look at the phrases in bold. Ask them if this is what the candidate actually said. Then, letting them work in pairs if need be, play this part of the video again as many times as is needed and ask the students to discuss what the speaker actually said.

After analyzing this language as a class and practicing the pronunciation, students can listen for other examples of this type of language in the speech, if there are any. They could also use YouTube to find more examples and prepare a similar activity for their classmates. They could even stage a mock presidential election themselves, using the target language.

3. Reading real reviews: Teaching vocabulary

Wait…you can teach reading skills through video, too? Yes, you can. Or at least you can motivate your students to read and bring their reading to life.

Imagine you would like to expand your students’ vocabulary in a certain area, taking technology as an example. YouTube is positively overflowing with channels devoted to reviewing products such as video games, computers and phones.

Take a recently released high profile product such as a new smartphone. In this situation, it would be great to divide the students into two groups and provide each group with a different video review of the same product: one negative and one positive.

Before watching, you could ask students to make a list of the expected praise and criticism of the product, to give you an idea of the vocabulary they are already familiar with.

Ask the students to watch the videos and discuss whether the reviews were what they had expected. Hand out transcripts of the reviews and ask students to identify the new features the phone has, as well as any words they do not understand.

Ask the students to watch the videos again and try to decipher the meanings of the words (you might expect words such as “megapixel,” “application,” “SD card”) from the visual aids in the video. Monitor and help where needed.

Then, you could ask students to speak to a member of the other group, to see if the two reviewers had the same opinions about the product.

An extended reading activity could involve directing students to a smartphone forum dedicated to reviewing this product, to check which video review is most agreed with by others.

The beauty of this type of lesson is that it generates interest in other videos, making the students more likely to actively seek out videos in their own time. It’s a win-win!

4. Subtitles with substance: Teaching the imperative through storytelling and class collaboration

Think about the reasons your students will need to write in English: job applications, letters of complaint, emails, text messages, university reports—the list goes on. Students are far more motivated to write when they are doing so in order to communicate with a real person or for a genuine purpose. The good news is that you can provide them with this purpose using video!

Let’s say you have been using video for a while in your classroom and now you are ready to try something more adventurous. How about asking your students to edit the videos themselves?

You can download videos to your own computer and, using an application such as MovieMaker, ask your students to add subtitles to them! (Don’t know how to do that? Guess what? There are plenty of step-by-step videos to help you along.)

Imagine you have been teaching your students how to form the imperative in English. They have done this a lot through speaking, but you find that they struggle with the writing side of things.

First of all, why not ask them to watch a step-by-step guide about how to add subtitles to a video, and write instructions for a classmate (in the imperative, of course) about how to do it?

For lower levels, you could provide the steps in a jumbled order, for students to arrange correctly, or even provide the written steps as a gap-fill exercise where students add the required verb.

For example:

1. _____ the MovieMaker application. (Open)

2. _____ the “Add Videos and Photos” button. (Click)

You can check these and perhaps display the best one for the whole class to follow in the next activity.

Then, I would recommend using a video with no dialogue, and asking your students to add their own speech to the storyline using subtitles.

Often, when students are asked to write, they are nervous about creating their own content and this can negatively affect the writing they produce, or even prevent them from beginning the task.

The advantage of using video in this situation is that the students are given a simple and obvious context. They are invited to add and improve on a story already created by someone else, meaning that all the focus is on the important part: the language.

Pixar Shorts are excellent for this. They are short animated films (usually around 5 minutes long) containing no dialogue but easily comprehensible and hilarious storylines. The characters are expressive but do not actually speak, and are therefore just waiting for students to give them a voice through subtitles! (Check out my favorite: “For the Birds.”)

To make this activity more challenging and the students more motivated, you could give small groups of students the task of adding subtitles to different sections of the video (one group the beginning, another the middle and the third group the end, for example).

Again, for lower levels, you can provide sentences or gap-fill sentences for the students to add as subtitles where they see fit in the storyline. (In “For the Birds,” these could include phrases such as “Move over,” “Get lost,” “Sit somewhere else,” “Let me sit here” and so on.) Making this a collaborative exercise can help motivate your students to complete the task to a high standard.

Alternatively, for higher levels where the students are able to create their own phrases, the students could then check the other groups’ work for correct spelling, grammar and, of course, correct formation of the imperative, and give each other feedback.

Then each group can play their edited video sections one by one, resulting in an unpredictable storyline, which you can use as a platform to give feedback, perhaps making any corrections on a large screen in front of the class.

The great thing about this activity is that the students feel that they have created the finished product and are generally more keen to make the language as accurate and meaningful as possible.

You could even upload the video to YouTube, heightening the sense of accomplishment and, of course, creating the possibility of another writing lesson based on comments under the YouTube video!

In my experience, students love this kind of interaction with video and, once they have acquired the necessary creative skills, are keen to use them again and again.

Bringing video into your classroom and teaching your students to interact with it and each other is one of the greatest things you can do as an ESL teacher.

Video gives students context and visual aids, and collaboration increases motivation tenfold!

And One More Thing…

Searching for fun, authentic videos to show your ESL students? Check out FluentU!

FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.

It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities. You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.

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On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.

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For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:

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Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”

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It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!

The full FluentU video library is available on any computer or tablet, and users can even download the app at the iTunes and Google Play store.


Jenn Linning is a postgraduate student at Manchester Metropolitan University, where she studies TEFL. She has experience teaching EFL in Thailand and the UK. Check out her blog TeflTekkers, where she explores issues surrounding technology in teaching.

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