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Using Video: Theory

Using Video: Theory

By Sebastian Taylor

The first of two articles on the role of video material in second language acquisition, and its practical use in the classroom.

Following on from Mark Lowe’s recent article in issue 23 of the IH Journal, I thought it might be interesting to consider some of the theory behind, research into and implementation of video material in the classroom. As Mark Lowe’s article demonstrated, the choice of material is, of course, crucial. Not only should consideration be given to the variety of English language students are exposed to, but also to the wide range of genres of filmed material commercially and readily available. Mark reflected upon the process of setting up a film club for the British Council and shared his thoughts and experiences with us all. With this article I’d like to take a different approach to the applications of filmed material in the classroom.

The main focus of this article will not be to suggest useful resources or to examine the merits of specific material (although some practical suggestions and tips will be included): those choices will be left to the individual teacher’s discretion (see Mark’s previous article for some guaranteed winners!). Instead, what I’ll attempt to examine here are possible justifications for the use of video material in the classroom, the role of video material as an aid to language acquisition and a brief examination of the unique features and benefits video brings with it to the communicative classroom. A second article will consider some of the factors to bear in mind when using a piece of video material in the classroom, a selection of possible activities and tasks which could be carried out in a classroom environment and how a lesson using video material at its core could look.

This article will take a fairly wide view in terms of classifying filmed or video material. Video material shall simply be defined as moving images possibly accompanied by sound. This may be in the form of animation or live action, staged and scripted or improvised and spontaneous, factual or fictional, professional or amateur. The material may be delivered in the classroom on VHS cassettes, DVD or CD-ROMs, online streaming sites such as Youtube or Google video, played on a TV screen, computer or laptop or projected via an LCD projector – whatever means are available to the teacher within the classroom.

Qualities of video

As an alternative source of input to traditional written or audio texts, video has a number of points in its favour:

  • It is plentiful and readily available (video tapes, DVDs, streaming web sites, vlogs (video blogs), cinema, TV, etc.) as authentic material not designed specifically for use in an EFL/ESL environment.
  • It is also becoming more and more available in the form of video clips on CD-ROMs included with the newest generation of course books. Here it is graded to the appropriate level and designed specifically to accompany the units and activities in the student’s book.
  • Most students have a pre-existing relationship to film material.
  • It provides a context for learners through the visual information which accompanies the audio.
  • It allows teachers to be creative in the way they employ this material as there are many different options available for its use.

Let’s take a closer look at why a few of these points are of particular interest in relation to second language acquisition research and theories. It may seem like a long time ago to many of us, but it was only in 1982 that Stephen Krashen put forward the Input Hypothesis in which he identified a crucial function of language acquisition: comprehensible input. Krashen’s theories might not be as widely accepted now as they once were, but the idea of comprehensible input has left its mark on our field. We may rightly challenge the notion that comprehensible input is the only way in which a second language is acquired, but few among us would argue that it plays no role.

Language input presented in the form of video extracts has an advantage over the same input presented purely through audio material – the images accompanying the audio provide a ‘scaffolding’ or support for the learners, increasing the comprehensibility of the language input through contextual information, visual clues, interaction features, and so on. For visual learners, the benefits are obvious: visual clues, images and subtitles can all be used to boost intake and acquisition of target language.

Furthermore, it can be said that in addition to enhancing input, video can also be incorporated into lessons to increase the likelihood of students’ ‘noticing the gap’ between their language output and that of the target language used by the interlocutors in the extract. This can be supported by input enhancers including the use of captioned text/subtitles, nonverbal cues and repetitions of the video input. It allows students to explore paralinguistic features employed by other speakers, i.e. facial expressions and body language or gestures; information they simply do not get through the written or spoken word.

Familiarity with the medium also has an important role to play, particularly in determining how learners interact with a text. They are used to relaxing by watching TV shows and films, whereas reactions to a lengthy written text may be quite different! Listening to audio material as a group in a classroom is probably a rather unfamiliar activity to students who are more used to hearing music or advertising on the radio at home or in the car, but not so used to concentrating on a staged or semi-authentic dialogue. This familiarity with the consumption of video material may contribute to a positive minimisation of affective filters, lowering learners’ anxiety levels through utilisation of the familiarity of interaction with video material.

Research has found, for example, that video is able to support the processing of linguistic information and facilitate language comprehension (Neuman & Koskinen, 1992; Sharp, Bransford, Goldman & Risko, 1995) as well as vocabulary acquisition (Duquette & Painchaud, 1996). The key word here is support. Video alone can never be enough. Just as no self-respecting teacher would simply play a CD to their class and expect to notice a positive learning effect, so video material needs to be used in such a way as to maximise its unique qualities and make the most of the contribution it can make to a successful language acquisition process.


As with any material used in the classroom, there are a number of factors beyond the level of the language contained in the extract to consider when assessing the usefulness of video material. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Length of the video extract
  • Quality of sound and picture
  • Language density
  • Appropriacy
  • Relevance

Most of these are also things a teacher would consider before using audio or written material. Is it too long? Will the interest of my learners wane? Will my group think they’ve spent too much of the lesson on this? Will they be able to see and hear it easily in the classroom? Does the quality interfere with or distract from the content? Is there anything in the extract which may cause offence or upset and distress the students? How does this fit in with our overall timetable, syllabus and plan? Quality of sound and picture are important on a number of levels, and not just in relation to whether quality helps or hinders student engagement with the video. It is also a question of professionalism of presentation. We take care with the quality of written material we distribute to our learners (photocopies, course books and promotional material are all judged to strict quality standards) and the same should apply to audio and video material.

Despite the many surface similarities between video material and other text types, I would say that a teacher’s yardstick for making some of these judgements may well be different in relation to film. I do believe that learners will engage with, and maintain their interest in, video extracts of greater length than they would do with audio material. This doesn’t mean that learners should be expected to spend a 90 minute class watching a 90 minute feature film, but it does provide some leeway for more extended viewings of film material.

Whether a film or TV extract is appropriate for classroom use will depend largely on the context within which it is to be presented. An awareness of cultural sensitivities is important, but so is an understanding of the dynamics within a specific group of learners. It should be remembered that video, by its very nature, creates an immediacy and impact beyond that of written or spoken text. Teachers need to respect local sensibilities and be thoughtful in their selections of video extracts. Consider all aspects of the images and situations portrayed in the extracts you employ and try to anticipate your learners’ possible reactions, just as you would with other text types.

Using video

As with other text types it is for the teacher to decide upon the best use of the film extracts. The points made earlier regarding video and film as valuable sources of authentic, contextualised language input are not the only points to be made in favour of the moving (and speaking) image. Video material can be used at various lesson stages and for a number of purposes beyond input, including:

  • to activate schemata
  • to stimulate interest in a topic, theme or area of language
  • to elicit language and ideas
  • to introduce or model new language and pronunciation
  • to reinforce previously learnt language
  • to provide necessary information to aid learner understanding
  • to compare actual information with a learner’s predictions

Video material can be employed to stimulate students, engage them with a topic or theme, and encourage students to use their existing knowledge to help them process a text. Information is conveyed much more accessibly through visuals than through audio or written text alone. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a short video clip worth?

The second of this pair of articles will look more closely at these points and deal more with the practical applications of video material in the classroom, suggest a few ideas for making the most of this resource and put forward a framework for a communicative lesson featuring authentic video material as a language input source.

Author’s Bio:
Sebastian Taylor is Director of Studies for English at IH Berlin PROLOG. He started as a freelance teacher in Berlin at the beginning of 2002, following an enjoyable period teaching ESL and working in adult education in the UK. Having been fortunate to find a home at PROLOG, he enjoys his role as DoS, developing himself further professionally, working together with a great team of teachers and making the most of life in such a wonderful city. He is neither a technophile nor a technophobe, but does have a soft spot for the school’s interactive whiteboards.

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