Lights Out! 6 Steps for Effective ESL Video Lessons in the Classroom

Have you had a hard time finding educational and useful video material for your ESL class?

Have you been told that video lessons aren’t an economical use of class time?

Have you thought that video is not active enough for ESL language learners?

Have you ever wanted to offer your students study-at-home tools for video study?

By choosing the right video material and offering well-planned video lessons to your students, you’ll be giving them an alternative (and often more entertaining) way to experience language outside of grammar explanations and textbook exercises.

You know your class time is precious and that you need to use it efficiently. Playing a movie, or filling the final fifteen minutes of class with a quick movie clip, just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Having a game plan helps you avoid falling into the passive activity that many teachers consider video to be.

Helping your students to maximize video use for study turns video into a powerful language study tool that involves your students actively.

To achieve this maximization, you’ll want to prepare warm-ups, language games, scripts and role-play activities, all related to any video you’re going to use in class.

Regularly scheduled video work will also show your students how that same work can be done at home. The “fun factor” of video means that by giving your students just a few simple instructions, they can turn any YouTube session into an active, at-home ESL practice.

Here are six simple steps you can use each and every time you set up a video activity for your ESL language class.

6 Steps to Transform ESL Video Lessons into Home Study Tools

1. Choosing the Right Video

Before you start, remember: this is a language class. Students come to you to learn, practice and improve their ESL skills. They aren’t sitting there to follow high-speed car chases, violent gun fights or incredible alien attacks. The video you choose must be focused on spoken language. Special effects don’t teach language!

Things to keep in mind, then, when choosing your video, include:

  • Length – Keep it short, from three to five minutes in length.
  • Style – You want dialogues between two or three people.
  • Unity – Make sure the scene is coherent and stays on subject.
  • Proficiency – Choose material that will challenge your students, but keep it within their level!
  • Appropriateness – Be careful to make the video choice appropriate to culture, age group and student expectations.

Following are three general types of videos that can be used effectively in ESL classes.

Educational videos

These will usually be short, language-focused videos targeting a particular linguistic theme. They include “how to introduce yourself to a stranger,” to “ordering in a restaurant” or “asking directions.” There are literally dozens of sites on the Internet that offer this type of material. Here are three of my favorites:

  • FluentU  This site!

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

    With features such as subtitles with interactive word definition, FluentU is a great starting place for finding material that meets your curriculum needs.
  •  At ESLvideo, you can find a large set of videos accompanied by short, listening-type quizzes. A fine feature on the site is being able to add your own videos and quizzes with their Quiz Builder. This feature makes your work available to you whenever you need it. That helps you keep and share your best video finds and the quizzes you’ve developed.
  • YouTube – YouTube has plenty of educational material you can use in your classes. For instance, you could teach your students English commands with this video from FluentU’s English YouTube channel:

Your pupils will love FluentU English and its videos because they’re mainly based on popular movies and series. These videos will help you teach them English in a fun and engaging way. Subscribe to the channel today and become their favorite teacher!

There are tons more of these types of sites on the web and, with a little searching around, you’ll find both a treasure trove of material and active teacher communities to participate in!

Advertising spots

Ads often tell us a story in just 30 seconds. They also contain clear objectives: who the target audience is, what is being sold and why the product should be purchased. Think of ads as “information capsules.” A lot of ads are pretty entertaining as well.

Old-time TV commercials have a few advantages over modern-day ads: there’s more dramatization, more dialogue and they’re much more direct in their messaging. They also contain manageable doses of English-language culture, which is useful for class discussion.

While YouTube has a number of channels with commercial videos, you might want to browse through the material found on Internet Archive.

Television drama

As is the case with commercials, drama from the early days of TV is often preferable over modern programs. Technical limitations, combined with the infancy of the medium, led to a more actor-centered presentation. The actors came from the stage, and the vocal training they received makes their language easily understood.

Script-writing in the ‘50s and ‘60s was usually focused on plot and character, rather than action and exteriors. Characters speak to one another in early TV, they tell stories and exchange dialogue, exactly what you need for ESL video lessons. To get started on your search for classic TV programs, try Internet Archive and Old TV Time.

2. Establishing Context Cues

Context is essential to understanding. Before you slap a DVD in the player and push “play,” you’ll need to set your students up for what they’re about to see and hear. The basic context cues that you’ll give them will be:

  • Who’s going to be speaking.
  • Where the conversation is taking place.
  • What they’re going to talk about.

How context helps understanding

Not all conversation is literal and obvious. Imagine overhearing part of a conversation on your bus ride to work. You might understand the language being used by those two ladies in front of you, but you may not be able to make a connection unless you know who they are and what they’re talking about. You’re missing the context.

You might hear “tomatoes,” you might hear “25 a kilo,” you might even hear a surprised tone of voice from one of them. However, you won’t know if the tomatoes cost 25 a kilo or if they were so small that each kilo was made up of 25 tomatoes. You won’t know why the woman listening is surprised.

Your purpose in using video is not to surprise your students with language they don’t know or make the entire exercise a massive riddle. You do want to help them assimilate new language. In order to do this, you need to remove obstacles.

One of those obstacles will be ignorance interference. When you fill in the blanks of who’s speaking and what they’re speaking about, you help your students focus on the language being used and how it’s being used.

Identifying context cues

Context cues will be little visual cues and language hints that let us know what circumstances are surrounding the conversation we’re observing, not as participants, but as outsiders.

Some cues will be obvious, like recognizing a place or type of person at first glance. Others may be more subtle, like regional accents that would help a native speaker to geographically and culturally place the speaker.

Presenting context cues

Bluntly presenting the cues with, “John and Mary are at a restaurant. John, a very rich man, is going to ask Mary to marry him, but Mary is really in love with a poor man and is going to say no,” may be easy, but you should go out of your way to generate this information from your students and their observation of the cues.

Show your students stills from the video that give clues to the who/where/what questions and answers needed to form basic context. Ask your students leading questions and get them to identify those context clues that will help them understand the scene.

For example:

  • Where do you think this restaurant is? Europe? Asia? The USA? (screen shot of the entrance of the restaurant)
  • What kind of ring do you think this is? (the expensive ring in a box)
  • How is this woman reacting to the man’s question? Is she glad, angry, unhappy? (the look of dismay on Mary’s face)
  • What type of scene are we going to see? Comic? Dramatic?

These are the kinds of visual cues that make video so useful in class.

Once you’ve communicated the basic contextual foundation of the who, where and what of the scene, you’ll want to continue with some the basic language building blocks: vocabulary.

3. Playing with Vocabulary

Your scene will contain a nice specific package of vocabulary rising from the context you’ve already identified. If the scene is in that restaurant, we may hear words like “order” or “wine.” The restaurant context helps us not confuse those with “border” and “whine.”

Students may think that you expect them to watch the scene and understand the entire exchange. They may even expect this of themselves. However, unfamiliar vocabulary will set them up for comprehension frustration. To help them focus on that new vocabulary, it’s often best to get familiar vocabulary out of the way.

Playing “Ten”

1. Prepare a game sheet with several tables, each with ten numbered cells. This is pretty easy to do if you control a good word processing program. Print out the game sheets and give one to each of your students.

2. Have some type of reward marker available: poker chips, buttons, fake money.

3. Instruct your students that they’ll be watching the video in order to identify words and expressions. Each time they hear a word or expression they recognize, they need to note it in a cell of the first table. Remind them that they don’t need to listen while they’re writing!

4. The first student to fill in ten cells shouts, “ten!” and you stop the video immediately.

5. This student reads each of his words. You note them on the board. Ask if anyone else has the word on their list. If not, reward the first student with a marker.

6. Ask the rest of the class for unique words and reward any of those with markers. Reward markers are only earned when no one else has the word in question (and if it hasn’t already been noted on the board!)

7. Hit play again. Stop at the next call of “ten.” Rinse, repeat.

Play this game very quickly. The objective is not only to review vocabulary that the students have heard and understood, it’s to get them to watch the video in a selective manner, identifying only the words and expressions they understand, so that later they may concentrate on those other parts they will need to learn to understand.

Make sure you take a quick picture of your blackboard or collect the student’s game sheets, you’ll need that information to prepare the next activity.

Clozing with “Ten”

Playing “Ten” has given you a nice, long list of words and expressions that your students have recognized. You’ll also need a word document of the script of the video.

Go through that script and erase every word or expression your students have identified. A search and replace command in your word processing program, replacing the word with “……..” should be easy.

Give this cloze exercise to your students and have them try to fill in the blanks without the video. Then play the video a couple of times, allowing them to continue filling in the blanks. Afterward, let them work in pairs to try to fill in the blanks.

The objective here is to place familiar language while trying to both figure out and understand, from context, the unfamiliar language that surrounds the spaces they’re filling in. Keep the dictionary out of reach, this is a context exercise!

4. Play, Pause, Ask and Answer

Your video of three to five minutes needs to be broken down into much smaller sound bites.

Using the pause button

Before you use the video in class, watch it a couple of dozen times. Notice where actors pause. Notice when they ask a question. Notice when they have a reaction or when the conversation seems to shift. Try to feel the beats of the scene.

The director of the scene has broken the script into beats and has created a dramatic rhythm with them. If you can identify these beats, you can find the best, least intrusive places to pause your video for question/answer activities.

Formulating questions

The best types of questions to use during the pause and play activity are basic yes/no questions. As it may be difficult for your students to formulate cold answers to more complex questions, asking why/how questions may distract totally from the exercise. Limit yourself to asking students things like:

  • Does John look serious?
  • Is Mary comfortable with the proposal?
  • Has the waiter been rude?

Other types of useful questions might be single-word adjective-response questions:

  • How does Mary feel about the ring? (shocked, surprised, embarrassed)
  • What is the waiter like? (rude, kind, helpful)
  • What is the atmosphere of the scene? (relaxed, tense, uncomfortable)

Taking student questions

Student questions should not take place during the actual video viewing. After a couple of viewings with teacher-produced yes/no questions, you can let your students watch the video all the way through with the purpose of formulating one information question with why or how to be asked after the video to their fellow students.

For example:

  • How did Mary react to John’s proposal?
  • Why does John really want to marry Mary?
  • Why should Mary say yes / no to John?

5. Act Out

Preparing the script

This is one of the best ways for you as a teacher to become totally familiar with the language used in the video you’ve chosen. While many educational videos may offer scripts as part of the production, if you choose your own material, you’ll have to sit down and transcribe the script yourself. The YouTube subtitle engine is sometimes helpful in this task.

This task will be the base for much of the work you do with the video, including the cloze exercise mentioned above. This same cloze worksheet can later become their individual actors’ scripts.

Rehearsing the video

This is just like rehearsing a play. You’ll want to help students with tricky pronunciation and intonation that occurs in the scene. Mix and match students to different roles. Finally, you’ll want your students to work on their own, in pairs or trios (depending on how many characters speak), giving you time to walk about and give individual attention to issues that will arise.

Recording the soundtrack

Your students have seen the video several times now. You can put the video on mute and have them read their lines while trying to keep in sync with the actors on the screen. It’s not all that important that they be exact (think of dubbed foreign films!).

Once they’ve had a couple of tries at doing the scene, you can then record them, using a recording program such as Audacity. Play this recording while watching the muted video. Students get a chance to hear themselves use the language, speaking for the actors on screen. This will give them an important perspective towards how they’re doing with English.

6. Bring It Home

This entire process, which you can use with any video activity in your ESL class, should end with a set of instructions for your students to follow whenever they want to use video on their own. Though this list is long, let your students know that following many of the points actively will help them apply what they’ve learned in class to their home study.

  • Choose a scene that’ll become the study segment.
  • If available, watch the scene dubbed into the student’s native language.
  • Watch the scene three times in English, listing familiar vocabulary and expressions.
  • Watch the scene with English subtitles if available.
  • Watch the scene in English without subtitles.
  • Pause and repeat small sections, using familiar vocabulary and contextual cues to try to understand the unfamiliar material.
  • Note words that seem important in the context of the scene.
  • Change videos regularly, but always study each video with this plan in mind.


Educators have been placing more and more attention on the use of video in class. Internet online learning has literally brought a revolution in how students receive information.

While in the “olden days” the kid from the audio-visual department rolled in the projector and students sat in the dark watching a language film, nowadays we have highly interactive and well-prepared material at our fingertips that can connect with the modern, technological standards our students expect in the 21st century.

Use video in your ESL class as an integral part of the curriculum. When it’s a regular, thought-out and planned activity, it’ll excite and animate your students, leading to the motivation for doing work on their own, outside of class.

Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into Teacher Training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.

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