6 Dazzling Movies for ESL Students with 12 Targeted Activities

Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic might traditionally go together.

And of course there’s that other great combo for the ESL classroommovies and books.

In native speaking classrooms, many teachers start with students reading a book and then let them watch the movie based on it as the reward for their accomplishment once the book is finished.

But movies themselves have so much more to offer.

You can use movies, too, to teach and encourage students to explore the English language.

Today, we’ll look at some popular movies based on books. We’ll explore fun ways you can use specific scenes from the movies for targeted language goals in your ESL classroom, whether or not you decide to include the books in your lessons.

This will give you multiple teaching options for each movie, and may inspire additional ideas or influence your overall approach to using movies in the classroom.

Let’s look at everything movies can do for your ESL students.

How to Hack 6 Popular Movies for Your ESL Students’ Benefit

1. “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is a thrilling tale of children with special abilities trying to protect themselves from both the outside world and the bad guys who are out to get them. The story follows Jake’s discovery of the peculiar children and his fight to keep them safe.

Why It Works for ESL Students

This movie is great for adult ESL students or teenagers learning to speak English. Characters speak with both an American and an English accent, which is nice exposure for your students.

And while the movie is typically creepy (Tim Burton was the director, after all), the plot is simple. The children are hiding from the bad guys, and the bad guys are coming to get them.

If your students choose to read the book, there are plenty of pictures throughout to help aid their comprehension, which makes it a nice choice for ESL students.

Pick-a-scene Activity: Special Abilities #1

Play for your students the scene at the beginning of the movie when Jake is remembering back to his younger years and the relationship he had with his grandfather. Have your students pay particular attention to when Jake’s grandfather is showing him the pictures and telling him about the kids at the home.

Look for some trick photos you can share with your students or use some of these. Then ask your students to share with a partner what special abilities the people in the trick photos have. If you like, have your students write a story including one or more of the characters they create.

Pick-a-scene Activity: Special Abilities #2

Play the scene where Emma takes Jake to her special place in the sunken ship and stop the movie when Emma tells Jake what his special gift is. Then tell your students that they should think about a peculiar gift they might like to have.

Have students write freely about the topic for a few minutes before talking over their thoughts with a partner. Then have each person take one to two minutes to explain their peculiar gift to the rest of the class. If you like, have students vote on which peculiarity they think would be most appealing to have for themselves (no voting for your own idea).

2. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” is based on the hugely popular book by J.K. Rowling. It tells the story of Harry, who has lived in the regular world all his life, and has just found out he and his deceased parents are famous wizards. “The Sorcerer’s Stone” is an introduction to the world of magic Harry has been missing his entire life.

Why It Works for ESL Students

The movie and book are very similar, which makes it a good choice for ESL students who aren’t yet experienced at reading in English. You can feel good about using the book and the movie with high beginning learners and up. Just keep in mind that the actors speak British English throughout the movie.

In fact, the strength of the “Harry Potter” series is not only that it’s available in multiple formats such as book, audiobook and movie, but also that it’s available in many languages worldwide.

As explained in this video, you can find “Harry Potter” in your students’ native language and use that to help them learn English. In fact, it’s very likely that your students already know the plot and might’ve even already read or watched “Harry Potter.” That makes comprehension easier, and your students will be able to focus on additional vocabulary and grammar activities.

Pick-a-scene Activity: Present Tense Mirror Description

For your beginning and low intermediate students, play the scene where Harry finds the Mirror of Erised and stop it after Dumbledore explains what the mirror does. This magical mirror shows the person looking in it what he or she wants most in life.

Have your students imagine they are standing before the mirror and ask them what they see. You can have them answer orally or in writing. But since they will be describing something in front of them, they can give their description using the present and present progressive tenses, which will keep things simple for beginning students.

Pick-a-scene Activity: Conditional Sorting Assignment

For high intermediate and advanced students, use the scene where the sorting hat assigns Harry to Gryffindor as the starting point for some conditional practice in English. Start the scene where Harry first arrives on the steps of the school and end it after he is sorted by the hat.

This magical hat assigns students into one of four school houses depending on their primary personality traits. Members of Gryffindor are brave and loyal. Ravenclaws are intelligent and clever. Hufflepuff members are loyal and hard workers. And Slytherin are cunning and ambitious.

Review the characteristics of each house, explaining vocabulary as necessary, and then ask students which house they think they would be sorted into if they were going to attend Hogwarts. Have them give reasons for their choice by using the conditional structure “I would be in…because I am…” Follow up the activity if you like by having students take the sorting quiz at Pottermore.com, though you will need to create an account on the site to access it.

3. “The Fault in Our Stars”

Have your tissues on hand when you view this film with your students. “The Fault in Our Stars” is a raw and honest look at life in the midst of tragedy. The story follows Hazel in her battle against terminal cancer and Gus as he lives life as a cancer survivor. It is an emotional movie that encourages viewers to live life to the fullest each and every day.

Why It Works for ESL Students

No matter what country a person calls home, we all live life feeling the same emotions—joy, sadness, despair, elation… Intense emotion is something that everyone, including each of your ESL students, can relate to. As your students watch this movie or read this book, the struggles that Hazel and Gus face will touch them in their deepest places and just might spur them on to make the most out of every day they have.

Pick-a-scene Activity: Emotion Sharing

Everyone, at some point in their life, has felt intense emotion, whether it was a positive or a negative one. Play for your students the scene where Hazel goes to Gus’s house after his friend Isaac is faced with his relationship breakup.

Then put your students in groups of three and ask each person to share about a time when they had an intense emotion. What was the context? What was the emotion? Remind students that since the discussion will be so personal and emotional, they should listen and ask clarifying questions to the people in their group but refrain from giving advice.

Pick-a-scene Activity: “Meet the Parent” Role Play

When Gus first meets Hazel’s father, there is tension between them. Meeting a girlfriend’s dad is stressful anyway, but this interaction is even more tense than most.

Hazel’s father wants to protect her, to shelter her from anything that might harm her. Gus wants Hazel to live her life to the fullest. He wants to push her out of her isolation so she can know what it really means to live. Play the scene and then put your students in pairs to do a role play, with one person as the protective parent and the other as the young person with a craving to live life to the fullest. See if each person can come to an understanding of their partner.

4. “Divergent”

“Divergent” is set in post-apocalyptic Chicago, its inhabitants divided into five factions depending on their dominant personality trait. Tris, the protagonist, leaves Abnegation, the faction of selflessness, to join Dauntless, the faction of bravery. The movie follows her journey to become a part of a new community and culture.

Why It Works for ESL Students

This movie is great for starting a conversation on culture since Tris is submerged in a culture completely different from the one she has known her entire life. If you are teaching ESL in an English-speaking country, many of your students will find themselves in similar positions. The members of your class will relate to Tris, on the screen as well as on the page, and her struggle to understand a new culture and find her place within it.

Pick-a-scene Activity: Culture Shock Discussion and Essay Writing

Start the movie where Tris is making the first jump into Dauntless after the choosing ceremony and stop after she first sees the ranking board for the new Dauntless initiates.

Ask your students for their reactions to this scene, where Tris is plunged into a new culture, and if they can relate at all. Encourage your students to share some of the feelings they had when they first traveled from home to start your ESL program with the rest of the class, for example.

Then ask your students to put themselves in Tris’s place and share how she might feel about various aspects of the Dauntless culture, including how they dress, how they act (boisterous, loud, brave) and how it must feel for Tris’s future to depend on her performance.

After the class discussion, ask your students to write an essay comparing and contrasting their experience traveling overseas with Tris’s experience joining Dauntless, if applicable. Students should devote one paragraph of their essay to each of the three topics mentioned above or choose their own topics to write about based on their own experiences.

Pick-a-scene Activity: Qualities Tattoo Design

Play the scene where Four shows Tris his tattoo. The symbols for all five factions are pictured on his back. Challenge your students to listen for the five qualities Four wants to embody in his life. You may want to play the clip for them three or four times since the adjectives are challenging to pick out of the conversation.

Once everyone has done their best and written their answers down, see how many of the five qualities (brave, intelligent, selfless, honest and kind) they were able to pick out.

Then challenge students to think about what qualities they want to exhibit in their lives. They might be these five or others not mentioned. If you like, have students put their artistic talents to the test and design a tattoo featuring the qualities they chose. Then have each person explain their design to a partner or to the rest of the class.

5. “The Maze Runner”

“The Maze Runner” is the story of Thomas, who finds himself without memories in a community of teenage boys, none of whom can remember where they came from nor why they are there. The boys live in The Glade, a section of land surrounded by the giant walls of a maze. He and the other boys must solve the maze in order to escape and get their lives back.

Why It Works for ESL Students

“The Maze Runner” is a good movie for ESL students because the plot is very simple. Thomas must discover a way out of The Glade. Much of the plot can be understood visually rather than depending heavily on dialogue, which makes it good for beginning and low intermediate ESL students. Following up with the book is a good choice because the writing is relatively simple but the story is still interesting and suspenseful.

Pick-a-scene Activity: Rules for Life

Play the opening scene of the movie in which Thomas arrives at The Glade via the box. He is disoriented and does not remember anything before waking up in the box. Alby, leader of the Glade inhabitants, greets him and gives him a short tour of the place.

During that tour, Alby tells Thomas three rules for living in The Glade:

  1. Do your part.
  2. Never harm another Glader.
  3. Don’t go into the maze.

These rules are written in the imperative form, and while your beginning to intermediate students may not be able to understand everything in the movie, they should be able to understand these rules.

Remind your students that rules or instructions are written in the imperative. Play the short clip again and ask students to tell you what rules they heard.

Follow with a short review of the imperative form. Then ask students to write their own set of rules for life.

Their rules should not center on living in a man-made maze with no memories of your life before. Their rules should be about how to be successful—either as a student, living in a foreign country, as a language learner or whatever is appropriate for your class.

Ask students to write ten rules for successful living using the imperative form. This is also a good time to discuss any classroom rules if you have them, or to work with your class to come up with a handful of rules for maintaining a happy classroom.

Pick-a-scene Activity: Modal Verbs Discussion

This same scene also introduces the viewer to the Maze but does not give many clues as to what it is. Stop the movie after this first scene and ask your students what they think is beyond the walls.

Since students will be talking about what might be, this is a good chance to practice using modal verbs. There might be monsters. There could be a dragon. There must be something dangerous.

Do a quick review of modal verbs with your students, and then put them in pairs to discuss what might, could or must be beyond the walls. Encourage students to use modal verbs as they discuss. Then ask students what Thomas should, ought to, could or might do now that he is starting a new life in The Glade.

6. “The Book Thief”

“The Book Thief” tells the story of Liesel, a young girl in war-torn Germany in the 1930s. At the start of the story, Liesel is illiterate, and it is her foster father Hans who teaches her to read and inspires in her a love of the written word. Be aware that throughout the movie the actors speak with a German accent. This is a challenge for ESL students who may only be accustomed to hearing a neutral accent in spoken English, but it is also a good one. It will challenge students’ listening skills, making them better overall speakers (and listeners) of English. But because of this, you may want to reserve this movie for your intermediate and advanced students.

Why It Works for ESL Students

The book takes a very personal look at historic events, events that affected people all over the world. Your students will probably have studied these events in their home countries and first languages, so they will have some knowledge of the context that the movie and book take place in. This will give them an advantage in comprehension and allow you to push them a little harder than you might with other material.

Pick-a-scene Activity: Wall Dictionary

Liesel struggles with some of the same challenges your ESL students do in learning new words. Play the short scene when Liesel finishes her first book, “The Gravedigger’s Handbook,” to where Hans shows her the dictionary he has created on the walls of their basement.

Like Liesel, your students are learning to read new words every day. You can create your own dictionary in the style of Liesel’s by posting large pieces of paper around your room, each labeled with a different letter of the alphabet. Encourage students to add words to each piece of paper as they encounter them in their reading of English.

By leaving the words posted, your students will increase their vocabulary, take ownership of their lexicons in a new way and encourage their classmates to always be learning new words in English.

Pick-a-scene Activity: Simile Weather Writing

At one point while Max is staying with the family, Rosa says he should be moved into their basement to keep him better hidden. Play the scene when Max asks Liesel where she gets new words for her dictionary and she confesses that she is reading books in secret. After her confession, Max asks Liesel to describe the weather outside, challenging her to use her own words and not those of others. In fact, Max wants Liesel to use figurative language. She says the sun looks like a silver oyster.

Review with your students the two most popular types of figurative language in English—the simile and the metaphor. Point out that a simile compares two different things by saying one is like the other. Give them Liesel’s example and a few others.

Then challenge your students to write their own similes about the weather where you are today. You might also ask them to write additional similes about people they have met, movies they have seen or food they have eaten. Then encourage students to use similes in their own speech and writing, giving them kudos or extra credit when they do.


Movies may be primarily made to entertain, but don’t let that stop you from using them as a learning tool.

Make the most of what Hollywood has to offer and create memorable English lessons in the process.

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