10 Classic American Films for English Learners
So, you already know that movies are a great way to learn English.
And you also know that TV shows are a great way to expand your English vocabulary.
But there’s only one problem!
You’ve got nothing to watch.
You’ve seen every new movie or show.
Is it time to open your English textbook?
It’s time to join FluentU!
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Seriously, with FluentU you’ll never run out of things to watch, plus you’ll be learning English in a natural, immersive way! Give it a free try and see (or watch) for yourself.
But apart from FluentU, we’ve got more great news for you.
There are plenty more movies – the old American classics.
“But I don’t like old movies!” – This is what everyone says, but you’ll see that you can actually learn more from the classic movies. The accents tend to be clearer and the stories are more real. Forget that they are old – educate yourself by learning better English through some of the world’s most famous movies ever.
Once you start with the old classics, you’ll soon become addicted. And the good thing is, there’s plenty to choose from and here’s our top 10.
You can also check out our YouTube channel to see this post in video format!
10 Best Classic American Films for ESL Students and English Learners
1. The Graduate (1967)
Starring: Dustin Hoffman and Anne Brancroft.
When we watch The Graduate we’re taken back to the early 70’s with one of the greatest classics ever. Benjamin Braddock finally returns home to the rich suburbs of California after having successfully completed his college education. As expected, he receives a hero’s welcome from his parents who love him dearly. They make a big deal over him. They try to find him work, a girlfriend and so on. However, Benjamin is confused and his picture of his future isn’t clear. Like most young graduated college students, he has no idea what he wants to do in the future and is confused about life.
Enter Mrs. Robinson, his dad’s work partner’s wife. She’s glamorous and is the definition of class and beauty. She quickly gets the attention of the inexperienced Benjamin and they start a secret love affair. They meet often in hotel rooms across the state and other secret places. Mrs. Robinson is jealous of her pretty daughter Elaine. She warns Benjamin to stay far away from her daughter or he’ll suffer. However, Benjamin and Elaine fall in love but everything goes wrong when Elaine discovers the truth about his past relationship with her mom.
Why the graduate is a great classic to learn English: The Graduate has easy language and the speech is slower than the average movie – this makes it easy to follow. It also uses some great vocabulary related to relationships and college.
2. When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Starring: Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.
The year is 1977 and Harry Burns and Sally Albright have to share a very long car journey together from the University of Chicago to NYC. While driving they chat about whether it’s possible for a man and woman just to be friends without love and sex. When they arrive in NYC, they decide they can’t be friends anymore and say goodbye.
Later in 1982 Harry and Sally share the same flight. At this moment Sally is in a relationship with another guy, Joe. Harry is engaged and just about to get married to his fiancée, Helen. Harry repeats the same conversation that they had a few years ago in the car. He explains the reason why men and women can never be friends even when they’re in other relationships. They begin to argue and once the fight is over they say goodbye.
The movie then moves forward in time and it’s now 1987. Sally is with her girlfriends telling them how she has broken up with Joe. At the same time Harry is also telling his friend that his fiancée has left him. By accident Harry and Sally meet again. They decide to meet for dinner where they talk about their lives. It surprises Harry that he now has a female friend and they even end up having late night phone conversations when they chat about every topic. Sally meets somebody else. However, she doesn’t feel comfortable telling Harry that she’s now dating someone else. Harry wants to hear about it and encourages her to tell him and he also does the same about his dates. They try to set their friends Jesse and Marie up with each other. Jesse and Marie end up falling in love and having a relationship.
Sally gets really upset when she hears her ex is about to get married and she telephones Harry in the middle of the night. He visits her and tries to make her feel better but things go differently than planned.
Harry and Sally are confused and they decide to have some time apart. They end up having a huge fight and then make up…finally he confesses his true feelings after so many years.
Why When Harry Met Sally is a great classic to learn English: The same theme and conversation is repeated a few different times which allows you to hear the same things over and over again.
3. Dirty Dancing (1987)
Starring: Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey.
It’s 1963 and Frances Houseman known as “Baby” goes on a family vacation to a resort in a wealthy area of New York. Baby has grown up in a rich family and everyone is waiting for her to go to college. Her family expects a lot from her.
When on vacation she meets a dance instructor at the camp, Johnny Castle. He’s from a family completely different to hers. Baby lies to her family and gets money from her father to pay for an illegal abortion for Johnny’s dance partner. Johnny then asks her to be his new dance partner. While she is learning the dance routine they fall in love.
Everything goes wrong when Johnny’s friend who had the illegal abortion becomes seriously sick. Baby’s father discovers what his daughter has done and he tells her she can no longer see Johnny again. Baby goes behind her father’s back and escapes in the evening to see Johnny. Another person who sees Baby is jealous of her relationship and tells the management of the camp that Johnny had stolen from them.
Why Dirty Dancing is a great classic to learn English: Dirty Dancing has a simple storyline and it’s not difficult to follow. The dialogue remains mostly between two people throughout the movie making it easy to understand.
4. Grease (1978)
Starring: John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
During the year of 1958 in their summer vacation, high school heartthrob (a sexy guy) Danny and Sandy meet one day at the beach. At the beginning you can watch romantic scenes from their vacation. The summer vacation finally comes to an end and Danny and Sandy have to say goodbye to each other. Danny really likes Sandy but she has to return back to Australia. She is sad and thinks they will never see each other again. Danny tries to make her feel better and tells her “it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning.”
But Sandy’s family change their plans and instead of returning back home to Australia they stay in America. Danny has no idea about the change of plan. Sandy begins school at Rydell High School where Danny is also a student. Sandy makes friends with Frenchie, who is part of a girls’ group called the “Pink Ladies.”
Danny is the leader of a gang of boys called “The T-Birds.” Danny is seen telling his guy friends what he did over the summer. Sandy also tells the Pink Ladies about her summer romance. Still they don’t know that they are at the same school.
Sandy signs up and joins the school’s cheerleading team. The Pink Ladies plan to make Danny and Sandy meet again. Danny thinks he’s too cool and when he sees Sandy at school for the first time, he’s really rude.
Throughout the musical you can see Danny with his friends and Sandy with hers. Even though Danny was rude to Sandy, she’s still in love and sings “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”
Danny becomes sorry and tries to win Sandy’s attention again by joining in a number of different sports. His idea to be more athletic doesn’t work and he just gets angry. They end up having a relationship again, but it ends up quickly when Danny wants more from Sandy.
The story has a happy ending but not without the usual teenage drama in between.
Why watching Grease is a great Classic for learning English: Grease is an awesome movie to learn English because it has a number of songs. These songs get stuck in your head and the repetition and beat of the music will help you remember words and phrases.
5. The Breakfast Club (1985)
Starring: Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall.
The story follows a group of five students from Shermer High School. They all end up in detention (punishment at school) together on a Saturday morning. All the teenagers know each other but not well. There is John “the criminal”, Claire “the princess”, Brian “the brain”, Andy “the athlete” and Allison “the crazy girl.” As a punishment they have to write an essay on the topic “who you think you are.”
They spend their hours in a number of different ways. They dance; they laugh at each other; they tell each other stories; they fight; they talk about a number of different topics and they even smoke marijuana.
The group decides that Brian will write the essay. Instead of answering the essay topic they challenge their teacher and what his thoughts about them. After finishing the essay/letter he signs it from the “Breakfast Club.”
Why the Breakfast Club is a great classic to learn English: The teacher, Mr. Vernon speaks very slowly and clearly when he punishes the students and we can understand what is happening right from the very beginning. There are some funny scenes and the actions are exaggerated which makes the dialogue and story easy to understand.
6. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Alan Reed and Mickey Rooney.
Holly lives in the rich area of New York’s Upper East Side. She is a little crazy and lives in an apartment with a cat that has no name. She enjoys visiting the famous jewelry store Tiffany’s and she’s always losing her house key. Holly makes money in two ways – as an escort for gentlemen and visiting the local prison where she visits a mafia member Sally Tomato.
One day Paul, a young writer meets Holly. Paul meets a man called Doc, who is a kind Texan man that Holly married when she was only 15. But the marriage ended and Doc was heartbroken. Paul begins to fall in love with Holly and he asks her to marry him. But it’s very complicated and she wants someone else called Jose, a South American millionaire. But Jose ends up leaving her and she decides she wants to get out of the city and go to Brazil. But things change when Paul has a very honest talk with her…
Why Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a great classic to learn English: Audrey Hepburn, the main star, of this great classic has a clear accent and you’ll be able to understand the main idea. Her funny character and strange behavior will also entertain you too.
7. Schindler’s List (1993)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Caroline Goodall and Ralph Fiennes.
This great movie classic was directed by the famous director, Steven Spielberg. It’s set during the Holocaust and shows the scary times of World War II when Krakow, Poland is occupied by the Nazis. All the Jews lose their homes and are sent to concentration or working camps. Oskar Schindler is a German businessman and a member of the Nazi party. He manages to get a factory that he plans to use to produce cooking tools.
Oskar doesn’t really know how to run such a factory and he hires Itzhak Stern. Mr. Stern is connected to the underground secret Jewish business community. The Jews loan Oskar money for the factory. During his time he sees all the horrible things that happen to the Jewish community. He has a change of heart and is no longer motivated by money. Instead he wants to help save the Jewish people. He makes a secret deal with an officer to free 1,100 Jews for money.
Why this is a great classic for learning English: The heartbreaking pictures will help you understand this movie. A lot of the characters are foreign so when they speak English it is much slower.
8. Gone With the Wind (1939)
Starring: Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable.
This movie begins in the Old South at the beginning of the Civil War. Its main character is Scarlett O’Hara, a beautiful Southern girl. She comes from a rich family who owned a plantation (a farm).
Scarlett is excited about going to a barbeque at the Wilkes’ Plantation. There she will have the opportunity to see the man she loves again, Ashley Wilkes. However, things change and she becomes heartbroken when she learns of the news that he plans to marry his cousin.
War is declared and all the brave men march off to war. Scarlett now lives in Atlanta. She becomes friends again with Rhett Butler who she had previously met at the Wilkes’ barbeque. She still loves Ashley and wants him even though he’s married.
The war is lost and she has to return to her home which has been destroyed. She becomes mean and hard and will do absolutely anything to never be poor again. She is so mean she even marries her sister’s boyfriend. After a couple of twists and turns and being widowed twice, Scarlett eventually marries Rhett. However, there relationship was never going to succeed…
Why Gone With the Wind is a great classic to learn English from: Firstly, this is based on a book and watching the movie will help you understand the famous novel even more. The simple acting without any sound and special effects make this movie easy to follow. All the actors speak very clearly and you’ll be able to understand almost everything.
9. E.T (1982)
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Henry Thomas and Dee Wallace.
ET stands for extra-terrestrial, which is the scientific name for an alien. This science fiction family drama is about one little alien that has been left alone on earth and is lost. At first ET is sad and scared but luckily he soon meets a human friend. ET meets 10-year old Elliot who found him while the small alien was hunting for food in the family shed behind the house. ET soon becomes friends with Elliot and his brother and sister. ET spends his time trying to get used to life on Earth. The children keep ET a secret from their mom and they all become great friends.
However, the young alien becomes homesick (missing home) and his one wish is to return to space and be reunited (meet again) with his family. ET begins to build a machine so he can communicate with his family back in space. He wants to tell them to come and collect him from Earth. But the plans don’t go to plan when ET gets very sick…
Why ET is a great classic to learn English: ET is a fantastic movie to learn English. It’s aimed at kids and the language is simple and easy to understand. English is not ET’s first language so everyone needs to speak slowly.
10. Rocky (1976)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone
Rocky Balboa the star of this hit movie is a small-time boxer. He lives in an apartment in the center of Philadelphia. He dreams of becoming a famous boxer, but hasn’t had a chance at becoming famous. Because he has little money he works by collecting debts (money owed) for a man called Gazzo. Sometimes his job requires violence but Gazzo doesn’t believe that Rocky is able to do it.
Rocky still boxes from time to time so he doesn’t lose his talent.
Rocky visits a pet store and this is where he meets a shy and beautiful woman called Adrian. She’s so shy she’s unable to communicate with men properly. Rocky makes friends with her anyway. After a while, Adrian gives a small dog to Rocky as a surprise. Adrian is inexperienced and hasn’t even visited a man’s apartment before. Rocky comforts Adrian and makes her feel better with kind words. They end up having a romantic relationship together.
World heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed has an idea. He wants to give a person who is not famous in the boxing world an opportunity to win the boxing title and he chooses Rocky to compete against him. Rocky starts training hard again and he’s determined to show everyone he can do it.
Why this classic is great for learning English: This movie is full of action, drama and love. It has a storyline which will keep you interested trying to follow everything so you don’t miss a thing!
Get out the popcorn and nachos and begin your movie marathon with all the old time classics now!