This was originally posted on June 29, 2011 at

I’m going to kick things off here on the blog by posting an article I wrote for New Routes about a year or so ago, on one of my favorite topics, using video in the classroom.

Most of it was based on Jeremy Harmer’s The Practice of English Language Teaching and personal experience, and though I plan on revisiting the topic soon (focusing on areas such as video for pronunciation, for cultural awareness and more), I still stand by the ideas I suggested in it. I hope you’ll like if you haven’t yet read it, and that you’ll like it even more now if you have. 

Using Video in the English Language Classroom

By Higor Cavalcante


It has always been a challenge for me, and in my experience as a teacher trainer for most – if not all – teachers, to add the elusive variety to my classes. Penny Ur says there’s a great difference between a teacher with twenty years’ experience and one with one year’s experience repeated twenty times (probably my favorite TESOL quote ever), and whereas she is talking about teachers, I have always thought of this maxim regarding students as well. How many of our students have been trying to study English with different ‘methods’, schools, teachers and the like for years on end, never quite reaching their ultimate goal of communicating effectively in the universal language? Well, many. And while there are several reasons why students drop out of their English programs time and again (financial, for instance), it seems to me that the boredom, repetitiveness and predictability of classes, which often set in after some time, are certainly motives to be factored in. After all, wouldn’t there also be a difference between a student with five years’ English-learning experience and one with a one year’s experience repeated five times?

Why use video in the language classroom

Using video in the classroom – along with a good needs analysis, music, out-of-the classroom lessons and others – is an effective way of adding variety to our classes and keeping students on their toes, and provided we choose the segment and the activities carefully, it is certainly bound to be a lot of fun. A couple of other reasons for using video in the classroom are:

Cross-cultural awareness: it would be ideal if we could hop on a plane with our students and take them to experience the language live in places like the United States, England, Australia, New Zealand etc. That not being possible, we can easily bring all those places to our classrooms via video. What the rules for social greetings in English-speaking countries are (Do we kiss? Do we shake hands? Nod? Bow? Dance?), what their eating habits are, what they wear, their different accents… can all easily be conveyed with a good choice of video.

Visibility of the speaker(s): quoting Penny Ur again, most real-life listening situations involve seeing the person/people we are listening to, something which is obviously lost with CD-based listening activities. When we can see the speaker(s), we can rely, as well as on language, on paralinguistic features – essential for communication – like facial expressions, gestures and body language in general, environmental clues (where the speakers are and what is happening around them) etc., making comprehension easier and the whole experience more realistic.

Types of video materials

We can divide all video materials available for classroom use into:

TESOL materialsvideo segments and corresponding activities which come with, or can be additionaly purchased for, most modern course books in the market. One of the obvious pros of such materials is that not only are all the segments graded for the level of the students, but also the activities are prepared and ready to use. One of the cons of these materials could be that, more often than not, the acting, the dialogues and the situations portrayed in them can be artificial and, therefore, uninteresting and demotivating.

Authentic materialsbasically, whatever has not been devised for students of English to learn from would fall under this category. Movies, news programs, TV commercials, series, sitcoms, talk shows, YouTube videos and so on. Since these do not come with activities and have not been graded, I shall focus on them from here on in when I address types of video activities.

Types of video activities

(The terminology below has been borrowed from the second edition of The Practice of English Language Teaching, by Jeremy Harmer.)

Video as part of a lesson: these are activities which can be used, for example, simply as a lead-in to the lesson, to practice an item of grammar, to liven up a class after a particularly harsh activity (a Mr. Bean snippet, for example) etc. In other words, these activities speak with the course book, and are used together with it. Examples:

  • Lead-in: Imagine you are going to start a unit from your course book whose topic is supernatural phenomena. You may choose to play the last scene of the movie Ghost (1990), in which Molly (Demi Moore) has a chance to see and talk to her deceased husband Sam (Patrick Swayze) one last time before he goes to heaven. Before you play this four-minute scene, you ask your students to simply think, while they watch, about whether they think this conversation would have been possible in real life. After watching the scene, students discuss the question in pairs and then report back to you, before you move on to doing the book activities.
  • Grammar practice/speaking: you have just taught the Present Continuous to your students and want to give them a chance to practice it. In front of the TV screen, make two lines of seats which will be back to back. One line will be facing the screen, whilst the other will be facing the wall opposite. As you play the scene (from any movie or TV series, preferably something with a lot of action) the students facing the screen have to tell the others what is happening in the movie. After a couple of minutes, students change positions so that those who had been listening will now be the ones narrating. Finally, play the whole scene for everyone to see and check whether they had understood what their peers had narrated.

Whole-lesson videothink of these as complete listening activities, with a beginning, a middle and an end, which may or may not be related to your course book topics and activities. Consider the following lesson plan for an Upper Intermediate class using the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008):

  • Pre-listening: have students discuss what would have been different in their holidays if they had won the lottery, spent Christmas in Paris, had to work on Christmas and/or New Year’s. Give students a model first (If I had spent Christmas in Paris, I would’ve frozen), and in the end have them report their ideas to the class. You can then pre-teach a few words you believe will pose problems for your students while carrying out the tasks.
  • While-listening: First time students watch the movie snippet (01h52m46s to 01h55m53s) they have to do a True or False activity, with sentences such as A woman in Paris was going shopping, but came back to her apartment because she heard the phone ringDaisy was run over by the taxi on her way out of the theater etc. The second time they watch it, they have to pay attention to the many coincidences which led to Daisy’s being run over, so that they can, after watching the passage again, write sentences with the third conditional about them.
  • Post-listening: Students are given a worksheet with situations which did not happen, and have to speculate on the consequences these would have had had they actually taken place. E.g. Brazil didn’t qualify for the 2010 World CupMichael Jackson didn’t die last year etc. After students have discussed the sentences, teacher has them report their ideas to the whole group and ties up loose ends.

As shown in the description above, this movie activity is a whole lesson, in this case aimed at practicing, or even presenting, the 3rdConditional. The framework is the same as that of a listening class (which is basically what a video activity is). We have a lead-in/pre-listening stage in which we contextualize what is to come and pre-teach relevant lexis, a while-listening stage where students work on their skimming and scanning abilities, and, finally, a post-listening stage where they can use the topic and/or target language (in this case, the 3rd Conditional) in a more productive and personalized fashion.

To finish, a quick FAQ about video in the classroom

1)      Should I leave the subtitles on or off when using video in the classroom?

It depends on your goal. For the Ghost activity described above, since it’s merely a lead-in, the subtitles could well be on. For an activity that focuses primarily on developing listening skills, however, I would suggest they be off.

2)      What about basic levels? Can I use authentic video materials with them?

You can and you should! It is not the level of the passage that matters, but that of the tasks you devise.

3)      The video activity book of the course book my school uses offers really boring and artificial video segments. What should I do?

Don’t use them! Substitute them for interesting, tailor-made, authentic video activities.

NB: This was my first article ever, published when I was 29 years old.

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