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Activities for using films in English language teaching by Arizio Sweeting

In the autumn 2007 edition of the IH Journal, Mark Lowe published an article entitled ‘Films in English Language Teaching’, in which he discussed the various reasons why teachers should use films for English language teaching, how and what type of films to use in class. As a film enthusiast and a published author in the topic of film for English language teaching, I was thrilled to read an article from another ELT expert who shares very similar opinions about the potential of films for the English language classroom.  Like Mark, I also believe that films ‘help learners experience real language in context, serve as an optimum source for learners to acquire useful vocabulary, provide learners with an insight into new cultures, aid learners to understand and recognise different accents, help learners improve their own pronunciation, as well as other language areas via the regular exposure to the moving image’ (Lowe: 2007:16-17)

In this article, however, I would like to take a more practical approach to the topic by sharing with you a few classroom activities from Language Through Film, a teacher’s resource book I published in 2009 for using short scenes from  films such as American Beauty (1999), Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and Ed Wood (1994), to help learners, especially those immersed in English-speaking communities, to develop better pragmatic awareness so they more easily access and participate in the discourse of such communities.

Risqué topics

As Bardovi-Harlig et al. (1991: 4) observe:

 Language learners interacting with speakers of a target language must be exposed to language samples which observe social, cultural, and discourse conventions –or in other words, which are pragmatically appropriate. (My italics) 

Not surprisingly, English learners who lack the appropriate pragmatic awareness quite often find themselves in difficulty when interacting in English-speaking social contexts, as they are often unable to interpret the hidden meanings embedded in the language of their interlocutors. For example, it is not uncommon for learners, even advanced ones, to fail to understand when English speakers are being ironic or sarcastic towards them. Generally speaking, this is possibly due to the fact that a great deal of classroom activities in published materials is mainly designed to increase pragmatic awareness of topics which are safe and mainstream. Sarcasm is usually not one of them. However, you might agree with me, learners are quite often more interested in risqué topics.

Here is my suggestion for focussing learners on identifying sarcastic tones in conversations using a scene from Sam Mendes’ American drama film, American Beauty (1991). The scene begins with Carolyn Burnham, the character played by American actress, Annette Bening, waiting by her car for her husband and daughter, Lester and Jane Burnham, played by also American stars, Kevin Spacey and Thora Birch, respectively. This scene depicts the estranged relationship between these three characters and, thus, is laced with sarcasm.

To use this scene for helping learners recognise and use sarcasm, I would give learners a worksheet with lines from the film script (see examples below) and encourage them to study these lines to extract the meanings hidden in each. 



 © based on worksheet from Sweeting (2009) Language Through Film, Phoenix Education Pty.

After that, using example sentences, I would introduce the learners to the following phonological features: unusual stress, flat and exaggerated intonation patterns.

Finally, I would organise the learners into groups and ask them to study the script lines for pronunciation and then create and act out their own film scenes, containing examples of sarcasm.

Body language and facial expressions

Films are also a useful medium for raising learners’ awareness of the role of body language and facial expressions in communicating different attitudes and emotions. For instance, in the activity that follows, I suggest that teachers use a short extract from the motion picture Ed Wood (1994) to give learners practice of integrating non-verbal and verbal language. This is a film based on the life of the legendary Edward D. Wood, Jr., a film director from the 1950’s, who became known as ‘the worst film director of all times’ for his low-budget films and controversial plots,

First of all, I would start the activity by giving learners some background information about Ed. Wood, Jr. and David Selznick. To do this, I would prepare a couple of PowerPoint slides with short biographical information about Ed Wood, Jr. and David Selznick, and if you have Internet connection available, consider adding a hyperlink for the following trailers to your slides, respectively: Glen or Glenda (1953) and Gone with the Wind (1939). Both trailers will help you better prepare your learners with background information for the later stage of the activity. At this stage, it is also a good idea to deal with problematic vocabulary such as ‘tits’, ‘flick’, ‘crap’, by highlighting its meaning and appropriacy.

Secondly, I would give each learner a card containing an attitude or emotion. Learners are then given about one minute to think about how they would express the attitudes and emotions on their cards without using words. It is important to tell the learners not to show their cards to each other at this stage.  At this stage, I like to monitor and assist the learners with the meaning of the attitudes and emotions on the cards, especially as some learners tend to find this task a bit hard.

Next, I would get the learners to mill around the classroom and perform their attitudes and emotions to one another to see who can guess what attitudes and emotions are being displayed, like this:

For the learners:

L1 approaches L2 and mimes ‘feeling nervous’. L2’s task is to guess what attitude or emotion is being displayed based on the body language and facial expressions of L1. If L2 guesses the attitude or emotion correctly, he or she has a turn at miming their card for L1 guess.

The teacher:

If you notice that the learners have got stuck with the miming or are unable to make a correct guess, allow them to reveal the content of their cards to each other. At this stage, learners swap cards and find a different partner to work with. The activity then continues for as long as you judge necessary. 

I would then give each learner a worksheet which contains the script of a conversation between Ed Wood Jr. and Georgie, the head of Screen Classics, a small studio which specialises in soft-core ‘hush-hush’ films. In this scene, Ed tries to persuade Georgie to let him write and direct a sex-change film in which the main character is Bela Lagosi, a has-been film star. The learners’ task is to work together and predict the body language and emotions the characters might have used when they said the lines in the scene, as follows:

       Attitude/ Emotion                                                             Script Lines

        annoyed                     Georgie: So, what’s the big news you could not tell me over the phone                          …again?

     impassioned                  Ed: Mr. Weiss, I was thinking about what you said, about how all your                            movies have to make a profit. And I realised, what’s the one thing, that if you                     put in a movie, it’ll be successful

        sarcastic                    Georgie: Tits.

© based on worksheet from Sweeting (2009) Language Through Film, Phoenix Education Pty.

With the sound off, I would then play the scene for the learners to study the characters’ body language. At this stage, I would also focus students on pronunciation e.g. stress and connected speech. Finally, I would round off the activity by getting learners to watch the scene again, this time with the sound on, pausing the recording after each character line to drill the learners for accuracy and then get the learners to practise the conversation together, trying to apply as many gestures and facial expressions as possible.


Language work and skills development

Another merit of the use of films as medium for English language teaching is that films are a valuable tool for language work and skills development. Therefore, I hope to demonstrate in my third and last activity in this article how we as teachers can exploit short scenes to give learners practice of vocabulary and functional language.

However, before I embark on the description of the activity, let me first share with you my own personal view about the use of gap-fill exercises in film-based lessons.

Personally, I believe  that it is the norm for many English language practitioners around the world to overuse gap-fill exercises when using films in the classroom, generating what I call the ‘Gap-fill Syndrome’ (Sweeting: 2010: 51) i.e. a rather mechanical approach which conditions learners’ viewing and listening to the film text in order to fill out gap-filled sentences. However, let me also emphasise at this stage that I am by no means trying to devalue the usefulness of gap-fill tasks here, but to say that perhaps it is time for a change of approach. Why not use gap-fills in film-based activities less often for recognition purposes and more often for going beyond the level of sound and image? What I mean is, why not use films to ‘help students to think along various dimensions, and thus gain control over media texts instead of simply accepting them superficially’ (Eken: 2003: 58)?

Let me now offer you one alternative way of using gap-fills for going deeper into language analysis and skills practice, using scenes from the Australian film, Muriel’s Wedding (1994).

For this activity I would use a couple of scenes from the film. One of them shows Muriel and her family at a Chinese restaurant, the Rickshaw Room, and the other one, a scene of Muriel, Tania and her group of friends at a bar, the Breakers. In both scenes, the language which prevails is the functional language of put-downs and compliments, but the text is also full of figurative vocabulary.

I would start by involving the learners in listening and viewing tasks for gist and specific information to familiarise the class with the content of the scene. After that, I would give the learners a copy of a listening worksheet, containing lines from the scenes with some of the key vocabulary in bold (see below).  The learners’ task is to brainstorm as many synonyms for this vocabulary as possible. 


                           Script Lines                                                                                    Synonyms

                  You are a great man.                                           wonderful, marvellous, fantastic etc.

               It’s not your clothes.                                            outfit, dress, what you are wearing etc.

© based on worksheet from Sweeting (2009) Language Through Film, Phoenix Education Pty.

Having done that, learners would then watch the scenes and check their answers. Next, I would refocus the learners on the language on the worksheet and ask them discuss if the language describes a put-down or a compliment. Once again, the learners watch the scenes to check their answers. After that, I would give the learners a couple of scenarios based on the scenes for them to role-play conversations containing put-downs and compliments. After performing their roleplays in pairs, I would invite learners from the class to act out their dialogues.

One of the advantages of this activity is that it allows the students a chance to analyse the language of the film scenes for vocabulary and function before the learners are exposed to it, which seems to me a much more cognitive approach to understanding the language from the scenes than a typical listen-and-complete exercise.

In conclusion, it goes without saying that the ideas presented in this article by no means exhaust the various possibilities of using films in the English language classroom. Films can be an excellent framework for language work and skills practice. They also provide both learners and teachers with real-life texts which can be used to scaffold pragmatic awareness, especially as films do not discriminate against language, making the text of film ideal for awareness-raising activities on appropriacy and less conventional language models. As a film buff myself, it would come as no surprise to you then that I would be a strong advocate of the use of films in English language teaching—one of the reasons why I dedicated three years of my life working on the project of a book on the topic – Language Through Film.


Bardovi-Harlig, K., B. A. S Hartford, R. Mahan-Taylor, M. J. Morgan and D. W. Reynolds (1991) ‘Developing pragmatic awareness: closing the conversation‘. ELT Journal 45(1), 4-15.

Eken, A. N. (2003) ‘You’ve got mail: a film workshop’. ELT Journal 57(1), 1-59.

Lowe, M. (2007) ‘Films in English Language Teaching’. IH Journal Issue 23 Autumn 2007, 16-19.

Sweeting, A. (2010) Film-based activities to overcome the ‘Gap-fill Syndrome’.  EA Journal 25(2) 51-57.

Sweeting, A. (2009) Language Through Film Sydney: Phoenix Education Pty.

Author’s Bio:
Arizio works as a language teacher and teacher trainer at the Institute of Continuing & TESOL Education at the University of Queensland, Australia. He has nearly 20 years of experience in TESOL, having taught and been involved in teacher development in Brazil, New Zealand and now Australia. He holds a DELTA from IH London and an MA in Applied Linguistics TESOL from Macquarie University, Sydney. He is a regular conference presenter and the author of Language Through Film by Phoenix Education Pty, a teacher’s resource book for using feature films with higher-level learners and teacher trainer and assessor for the Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA).

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