Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 4: Reflecting on the Play

This article is another installment in our Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms.

 
By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

In this series of blog posts, we’ve discussed a variety of language-learning exercises and activities for introducing the play preparing for the play and digging into the play . In fact, some of the most satisfying moments come when the play has been finished. Completion of the play allows for a deeper, more reflective response on the part of students. While they have focused on comprehension and interpretation of individual scenes, students now have the opportunity to respond to the work as a whole, to make connections with their own experiences, and to think critically about their views.

Play Performance
Whether students see a stage or a movie performance, when the reading is done, they can step back to observe and react to the director’s choices. The teacher can give them a choice of what to focus on and then pose such questions as: How do the casting, costumes, setting(s), lighting and sound fit your imagined version? How does the audience react (in a live performance)? If the director omitted or changed any lines or scenes, why and to what effect?

In our experience, few students have analyzed film; fewer still have ever experienced a play in the legitimate theater. By empowering students to get into the director’s shoes, rather than elicit a simple reaction, teachers create an intriguing platform for students to think critically about the techniques, strategies, and expressive power of drama.

Integration of Grammar and Vocabulary
Throughout the unit of materials for a play, students learn new language and practice using it. By the end, it is appropriate to expect more nuanced, varied, and accurate utterances. To both elicit and model such language, teachers can create a structured conversation between two readers who have just viewed a performance. Such an exercise could either be a quiz or a final practice. In either case, it is also effective as a prelude to a discussion.

Two readers of “To Kill a Mockingbird” have just seen the Academy-award-winning film. Use modal perfects, adjective clauses, and past unreal conditions.

A: Wow! That was no run-of-the-mill film. Gregory Peck was amazing as Atticus. I read that Harper Lee, [1] ___________wrote the original novel, said the director [2] _____________[choose/not] a better actor.

B: Uh, huh. One big difference from the novel is the point of view. Jean Louise, [3] __________ is Scout as a grown woman, is only there in the beginning of the film. If she [3]_____________________[continue], it __________________[be]

Essay Writing
When students write an essay in response to a play, they practice their writing skills in an organic way: the motivation should be intrinsic and much of the language should be at their fingertips.  In a variety of unedited quotes from student essays in response to August: Osage County, we can see some of the depth and breadth of their engagement with the work.

I really like this story and movie even though this is totally a tragedy, but this story gives me a lot of thoughts and made me reflect on what the family is…This story tells us an important thing: we are all part of our family and that is why we can talk to each other by heart and criticize them without offense, because we love them so much.

***

Every family has inevitable contradictions; everyone in this world has their own miserable problems.

While these students focus on the family, the following student delves into the emotional relationships themselves.

It’s an indisputable fact that some of plot is “fiercely funny”, but when I think rationally, I tend to think it’s “bitingly sad.” The emotions and implications of August: Osage County are complex….

Other students comment directly on how the reading of a play holds possibilities for understanding culture in greater depth.

Language and culture are the important factors that make the film or play have different national characteristics.

***

This play quintessentially displays the real American family who lives in the countryside.

***

As an international student, if I hadn’t learned this play so deeply, I would have never known those complicated aspects of real American life.

While excerpts from individual writings only give a narrow sense of the writing itself, we can see students responding to the piece of literature and to the culture out of which it emerges. We can also appreciate their search for connections to their own experience as well as explanations for the similarities and differences across cultures.

Concluding Remarks
“People’s need for theatre is as powerful as their desire for food or drink,” says Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theatre in New York in his TED Talk “Why Theatre is Essential to Democracy”. In the dialog on stage, he explains, we hear the drama of conflicting points of view, and we “lean forward” in empathy; moreover, we do this together, as part of an audience.

In an in-depth study of an American play, English Language learners can partake of this powerful, ancient, collective experience – guided by teacher-made exercises and activities that move from comprehension to interpretation to reflection and coached by teachers who set the stage for students to explore new contexts, new relationships, and new ways of using language.

Here is a list of plays we have successfully introduced in the ESL classroom. This list is by no means exhaustive; we would welcome hearing recommendations for other plays, particularly those that are contemporary.

Selected American Plays for English Language Learners

Advanced: CEFR B2 – C1
All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, An Enemy of the People – Arthur Miller
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams
August: Osage County – Tracy Letts
Inherit the Wind – Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee
A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry
Six Degrees of Separation – John Guare
To Kill a Mockingbird  – Christopher Sergel/Harper Lee
Twelve Angry Men – Reginald Rose

Intermediate: CEFR B1
Lost in Yonkers, The Prisoner of Second Avenue – Neil Simon
Children of a Lesser God – Mark Medoff
Crossing Delancey – Susan Sandler
The Miracle Worker – William Gibson
Our Town – Thornton Wilder


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.

Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 3: Digging into the Play

This article is another installment in our Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms.

By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

In our last post, we described and illustrated –with examples based on the play version of To Kill a Mockingbird – four activities that work to introduce a play: purpose of studying a play, connection to themes, how to read a play, and Socio-Historical Context. One of the most important moments in teaching a play is the beginning. First, it is important to get “buy in” from the students. It is also imperative for students to have an understanding of the characters, contexts, and events they will encounter.

In this month’s post, we describe and illustrate an additional technique to introduce a play –in this case, a contemporary play: Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. We go on to describe the types of exercises and activities that guide students in comprehension, interpretation, and expressive speaking.

Introducing the Play 

August: Osage County tells the story of a family that comes together around the death of the father figure in rural Oklahoma one hot summer. This family has secrets, resentments, and lingering feuds; over the course of a few days, all of these themes converge into conflict, confrontation, and, in the end, mutual understanding.

In 2013, the play was made into a film that is very similar in content and dialogue to the original text. As the play is challenging, both linguistically and thematically, it is recommended for mature students at level CEFR B2 and above. In our experience, working with difficult themes, including drug addiction, painful family secrets, and the use of taboo language, presents worthwhile challenges to students and teachers alike. Ultimately, students tend to recognize the common humanity expressed in this story and make unexpectedly moving connections with the challenges facing families in their own societies.

To introduce August: Osage County, one effective way is to show the first few minutes of the film. The opening scenes introduce the primary characters, the dry and dusty landscape of rural Oklahoma, along with the decaying old home where the play takes place. These images provide context for the text, particularly for students who may come from far different environments, cultures, and societies. Not every student will obtain the full emotional impact of the story from the text, but seeing a film adaptation can support their imaginations and make the text more accessible.

Digging into the Play

Once they have entered the imaginative world of the play, students can be guided to explore the content and language through a variety of exercises and activities. As you write these materials, consider collaborating with colleagues and remember that, over time, the materials can be refined and reused. At our program, we have some units that began over 30 years ago!

Comprehension of Content and Language

The focus of this set of exercises is to clarify and review the main ideas and details of the story, as well as notice and practice new language. We suggest providing plentiful exercises, using the playwright’s divisions into acts and scenes whenever practical. As a practical matter, the reading comprehension and vocabulary exercises can often be completed as homework, while inference and grammar exercises tend to require interaction.

For reading comprehension, write items that help the students follow the narrative by finding answers literally stated in the text. For inference, in contrast, write items that require higher-order thinking, such as inferring motivation of characters, and inferring opinion or stance of characters or the playwright. For vocabulary, select a range of items: multiword units—lexical phrases, idioms, phrasal verbs, collocations—that are common in spoken English, as well as some academic words. For grammar for speaking/writing, create exercises based on the plot and characters that review and deepen understanding of the play. Plays offer an authentic context to practice, for example, description (adjective clauses), speculation (unreal conditions in past and present), past possibility/regret (modal perfects), as well as all major verb forms.

Integration of Content and Language

The focus of these activities is to go beyond comprehension and move toward interpretation and creation with new language. While we generally avoid asking students to do any acting per se, we do ask them to take imaginative leaps into the shoes of the characters. Certain activity designs fit the play genre particularly well.

For example, we’ve had lively classes with character description, an activity in which students (1) work in groups to describe a character, express opinions about the character, and explain the character’s relationships, and (2) present to the whole group.

In one class, a student, who unbeknownst to the others suffered from chronic arthritis pain, was able to explain the feelings and moods of a character in August, Osage County, who suffered from an addiction to prescription drugs, with uncommon compassion. By making an unexpectedly moving connection, the student transformed her own and her classmates’ understanding of and appreciation for the central character of August: Osage County.

In panel of characters, 6-7 students prepare monologues from the point of view of a character (“I”), making a special effort to use new vocabulary and grammar to summarize information about their personal history, personality, and behavior. The others prepare “provocative questions” aimed at particular characters. In class, panel members (1) present their monologues and then (2) respond to questions which require them to make on-the-spot connections and inferences. If the playwright appears on the panel, students can ask about inspiration, writer’s choices, and message of the work.

Expressive Speaking

If you want to focus on crucial but tricky-to-teach speaking skills—expressive intonation and thought groups—a play script is just the thing. How do you express emotion in English? Focusing on a manageable number of lines, students become aware of their voice as an instrument, an actor’s skill. This gives them both a new perspective on speaking and an incentive to experiment with the vocal range of English.

We recommend beginning with dramatic reading. In small groups, students practice reading 2-3 pages of lines aloud, with coaching on pronunciation, intonation, and thought groups from the teacher. Then, they meet together and read their lines to the class, with periodic pauses to identify the emotions emerging from the text.

Once aware of the tools of expressive speaking in English, students can choose a character and set of lines to practice. When ready, they can record a monolog on their smartphones, along with an explanation of its meaning and significance, and send it to the instructor for feedback. Stepping into an intensely emotional scene and speaking the lines as if you were the character can be a transformative experience. Some learners literally find their voice in English for the very first time. And it is a truly memorable moment.

In the next and final blog post in this series on American Plays, we will discuss activities for reflecting on the play and present some reactions from students and instructors in our American Language Program at Columbia University. We will also offer a list of recommended American plays for advanced and high-intermediate English Language students.


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.

Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 2: Preparing the Play

This article is another installment in our Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms.


By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

Preparing the Play
To instructors, the amount of time it takes to develop materials for a play may seem daunting. Yet, there is much to be learned in the process, and good materials written for timeless plays may be refined and re-used for years. At Columbia’s American Language Program, we have built on original sets of exercises and activities begun decades ago for a number of enduring favorites, including Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

How to select a play? 

  • Look for a film adaptation and/or an upcoming stage performance: To give students a whole theatrical experience, you’ll want to complete the reading of the script with a showing of a film or stage version of the play. On the one hand, the similarities enrich comprehension. On the other, the differences create rich critical-thinking opportunities to predict, compare, and critique the director’s choices.
  • Consider reading level: In our experience, intermediate (CEFR B1) students are fully able to engage with the authentic, informal, and idiomatic dialogue in such plays as “Children of a Lesser God,” “Lost in Yonkers,” “The Miracle Worker,” and “Our Town.” The choices for more advanced (B1 – C1) students broadens considerably, including several by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, as well as “Inherit the Wind,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” among others.
  • Consider the topic: Family dysfunction, self-delusion, criminal trials, coping with illness and disability, gender, racism – this is the stuff of high drama in the American canon. Working with quality materials, an interested and engaged instructor can highlight aspects of setting, conflict, and language that appeal to a wide range of students. It is often true, too, that students pick up much more than we teach explicitly.

What about research on the play?
Understanding the context the play was written in, the world of the playwright, and the cultural and critical response to the play can help the teacher develop an overall understanding of the text to be adapted. Plays are reviewed as books, as stage productions, and as film adaptions; these reviews can offer cultural context and information which may inform the materials. Who was the playwright? What is their background and how does it inform the play? Learning the answers to these questions provide the building blocks for understanding the play itself.

What activities work to introduce a play?
 We find it worthwhile to begin with three short activities, plus a research/report assignment. 

Purpose of Studying a Play: Draft a list of the potential benefits that you see for your students. Here is a short survey task to complete with students at the start of working with a play:

 Discuss the benefits of reading a play and seeing a film or stage performance of it. Check off your top three choices. Explain them to a partner. Agree on one to explain to the class.

___ Become familiar with US culture and history through a story set in a specific time and place
___ Interpret behavior, motivation, and relationships of Americans
___ Understand complex family situations, perhaps identify with an American family
___ Discuss serious themes in an American context
___ Learn lots of vocabulary, including expressions used in speaking
___ Think critically about American culture
___ Use advanced grammar to infer, hypothesize, consider alternatives
___ Practice using my voice expressively in English
___ Read a whole work of literature
___ Imagine a performance of the play
___ Compare the written play to a film or stage performance
___ Analyze elements of film/drama, such as setting, casting, lighting, sound
___ Learn about an American playwright
___ [Your own ideas]

Connection to Themes: Craft a few questions that get students to connect their personal experience to key themes in the play. Here are sample questions from the materials for the play version of “To Kill a Mockingbird”:

Discuss with a small group. Reflect on a possible personal connection to the themes of the play version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” [Harper Lee’s novel, dramatized by Christopher Sergel.]

  1. In the play, a father intentionally teaches his children crucial ethical values.Think about your parents. What ethical values did they try to teach you: integrity, compassion, courage, respect for nature?  How did they teach you these values?Did your mother and father participate equally in these “lessons”? Tell your story.
  1. In the play, a group of people is segregated and discriminated against in every aspect of public life: housing, employment, religious worship, the legal system, and so on. Has this ever occurred in your country or in your experience? Tell your story.

How to Read a Play: Select a short section of Act I to read aloud in class (in roles). Write a few questions that ask about: comprehension, prediction, and the reader’s role. Help students see themselves as a director: they need to imaginatively construct the story out of dialog and stage directions.

 Socio-Historical Context:  Identify 6-7 key words that students can research on the Internet and then apply to the play. In other words, they try to answer these questions: “What?” (What does the key word refer to?) and “So what?” (Why is this important in the play?) Such knowledge should enhance their understanding and deepen their enjoyment. Three-minute reports by pairs of students can be distributed over several classes. Here’s a list of key socio-historical references for “To Kill a Mockingbird”:

Jim Crow laws; segregation
The Great Depression; WPA
The jury system
Lynching; National Memorial for Peace & Justice (Montgomery, AL)
The black church: A.M.E. Churches
The Southern belle; social expectations of Southern women
Racial stereotypes in the l930s: how blacks viewed whites; how whites viewed blacks

To begin drafting materials, you’ll first want to be fully conversant with the play and the movie yourself. From this point, you will be able to identify the most salient themes for your students – for Connection to Themes questions– and the most salient aspects of the larger setting – for key words for Socio-Historical Context reports.

In the next post, “Part 3: Digging into the Play,” we will describe and illustrate the process of drafting exercises and activities for the heart of the play: Comprehension of Content and Language, Integration of Content and Language, and Expressive Speaking.


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.

Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 1: Introduction

This article is another installment in our new Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this new series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms. It is also Part 1 of a series on using plays in the classroom.

   
By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

Plays are a rich language-learning resource, yet they are underutilized in curricula for English language learning. In this series of blog posts, we will investigate what plays are, why they are beneficial for language learning, and how they might be used to practice the four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking), practice grammar and vocabulary in context, develop cultural knowledge, and practice critical thinking. We will also discuss how both teachers and students respond to using plays in the classroom, and how to choose plays for language-learning purposes.

We are lecturers in the American Language Program (ALP), Columbia University’s ESL program at the School of Professional Studies; neither of us has a background in theater, but over the years, both of us have come to see the many benefits of using this genre in the classroom.

What is a play?

A dramatic work for the stage: A play is a story told through dialogue, interaction, and movement that needs to be completed by a performance, for example, Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff (1986 film; 2018 Broadway revival). However, this performance need not be on the stage; a film adaptation, such as Tracy Letts’s August: Osage, County (2013 film), John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (1993 film), Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1987 film), or William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker (1962 film) can be equally if not more rewarding than a work adapted for the stage.

A crucible of culture: The playwright’s skill is to distill language and experience of a specific time and place, focusing on the family, for example. In the plot, character, and setting we find cultural values that can be extrapolated and highlighted to deepen student understanding.

What is an American play?

A play written by an American, set in the United States, and engaged with themes crucial to understanding the U.S.: Because we teach in the U.S., our students want to learn about the culture they are studying in. Each work provides a snapshot of a time and place, with characters acting within a particular socio-historical context. Such rich, evocative settings can provide an important area of research for students, allowing them to develop their understanding of the culture and history that shapes individuals in the U.S. The works often engage with complex and weighty themes: race, class, gender, disability. While these themes may be universal, the way that they are part of the U.S. and its culture are particular and distinct.

What themes do American plays deal with?

Conflicts within families, between individuals, within individuals: These are intensely personal stories unfolding with dramatic emotion before our very eyes. The great American playwright Arthur Miller observed* that the best playwrights have something in common: “They are all burning with some anger with the way the world is … Between the lines it’s exploding.”

While humor may be present, plays more often deal with psychologically fraught, uncomfortable subjects. The family is usually at the core of a play, so we find themes such as the impact of history on families and individuals, parents’ disappointment with adult children, what children owe their parents, and what parents owe their children.

Other themes in the American canon include addiction, betrayal, dishonesty, downward mobility, gender identity, greed, jealousy, mental illness, and religious identity. Given the mature nature of these themes, most plays suit young adult and adult students.

The layers of complexity in a play often touch on themes that can be deeply and sometimes surprisingly meaningful to learners. Still, these themes are difficult to deal with directly in a classroom setting. However, in a play, students can recognize, feel, and identify with the dramatic, emotional struggle of members of a family. Such an experience brings them closer to the target culture.

Why are plays underutilized in language-learning curricula?

 Unfamiliar, incomplete, unsupported with materials: Teachers may be unfamiliar with accessible plays in the American canon or may feel pedagogically underprepared for working with them. Or teachers may feel they are being called upon to teach literature. In this series of blog posts, we will demonstrate a language-centered approach to plays that builds on the same skills teachers apply to many kinds of content. At the same time, instructors can see exploring a new resource as an opportunity for professional development, an opportunity to be a “fellow traveler” with students on the path to learning.

Plays are “incomplete” in the sense that a film or stage performance is essential to the experience. Yet the leap “from page to stage” offers a special opportunity for student engagement, collaboration, and critical thinking. In outsourcing the act of completion, the playwright invites the reader/viewer to step into the shoes of a film or stage director and consider a number of questions: What choices would you make in staging this work? What choices has the director made? Why? How does the stagecraft—lighting, sound, costuming, setting, and so on—enhance or detract from the viewer’s experience? How does casting match or conflict with your own imagined version?

As most plays are unsupported with materials, they may require more work up front to adapt for language learning. Yet you and your colleagues can start small. One play per semester is what we recommend, for high-intermediate (CEFR B1–B2) and advanced (CEFR B2–C2) learners. Over time, you can develop an in-house repertoire of works at different levels by a variety of playwrights. In our experience, our response and our materials may evolve, but quality plays themselves don’t go out of date.

In the American Language Program, we have been collaborating on materials production for many years. We have developed our language-centered approach through the experience of teaching and learning, and we continue to hone the design of our activities, to introduce plays to new teachers, and to come back to teach some of the same plays over and over with new insights and ideas.

*Charlie Rose (Television show). (1992, July 3). Arthur Miller [Video file]. Retrieved from https://charlierose.com/videos/14696

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our series: Preparing the Play


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.

Using Movies in the ESL Classroom

 Joe McVeigh

With Academy Award season upon us, ESL teachers may wish to think about how they can use movies in the classroom. Movies provide a wonderful source of language input for students. They can provide valuable exposure to language and also to culture, as well as being an excellent source of new vocabulary along with slang and idioms. They can be used to help students work on many language skills including listening, reading, speaking, and pronunciation.

Film selection criteria

Some teachers choose to use short excerpts from movies. If you have a class in which you meet with students for several hours a week, you may be able to use entire films with them. There are several criteria to consider when selecting films for use with students. First off, consider the level of interest and relevance for your students. A group of 18-year-old students in an intensive English program may have different interests in movie than a group of fifth graders or a class of adult immigrants and refugees. Be sure that the actors in the film speak relatively clearly, and that the storyline is not too difficult to follow. Analyze the language to ensure that it isn’t too difficult. Consider the content of the film to make sure that it’s appropriate for your students in terms of the language and themes involved. If you wish to use an entire film, check on the availability of a written script, which can be extremely helpful.

Practical considerations

Carefully preview the film in advance, so that you are aware of potentially difficult language or challenging themes for your students. Also check your equipment to make sure that everyone in the room can see the screen clearly and that the sound quality is adequate. If you want to find a particular section in the film, note the time on a counter so that you can access the right spot easily.

Classroom activities

Most films these days are available with closed captions that you can turn on or off. You can choose whether or not to turn on the captions. After viewing the film or an excerpt from the film, you can select comprehension questions or discussion questions to use with your students. You may also wish to pull out various bits of vocabulary, slang, idioms, or new expressions.

If you obtain a complete script of the movie for your students, you can assign them to read it either for homework or in class. You can ask them to act out scenes from the movie, or give them writing assignments based on the film.

For speaking practice, choose a scene from the film that contains a lot of activity. Put students in pairs with one facing the screen and the other with their back to the screen. Turn down the sound, then play the excerpt. Ask the student facing the screen to describe what’s happening to the student who can’t see. Then have the two partners change positions.

To really give your students a reading workout. Choose a film in a language other than English that has English subtitles!

General Discussion Questions about Movies

Here are some questions you can use with your students for a general discussion about movies.

  1. Generally speaking, what kind of films do you like? Comedy? Drama? Romance? Other?
  2. Often, at the end of the year, American film critics like to put together a “top ten list” of the ten best films of the year. If you were going to put together a top ten list for yourself, what movies would be on that list? Give reasons for your selections.
  3. Who is your favorite actor? Why do you like him or her?
  4. What qualities should a good actor have?
  5. Many people believe that the American (Hollywood) film industry has too much influence on the way that people think about the United States, about men and women, and about fantasy and reality. Do you feel that Hollywood has a distorted image of the U.S.?
  6. Some people think that studying film is not very helpful for learning English, it is only entertainment. What is your opinion? Has studying film been helpful for your English ability?  How could it be more helpful?

Sample Post-Viewing Discussion Questions for a Movie

  1. What is the meaning of the title of the film?
  2. How would you describe the mood, feeling, and story of this film to someone who was not familiar with it and who had never seen it before?
  3. What was your favorite moment in the film?
  4. What was your least favorite moment in the film?
  5. Who is your favorite character in the film?
  6. What part did you think was the funniest?
  7. What part did you think was the most special for you?
  8. List three new vocabulary words or expressions that you learned from this movie.

Instructions for Students to Practice Acting out a Scene from a Movie

  • With 1-3 other students, choose a scene from one of the films that we have watched to act out in front of the class.
  • The scene that you select should be an important one in the movie (not something trivial).
  • The scene, when enacted, should last about two minutes (or less), so choose your scene carefully.
  • It is not necessary to memorize your lines or to bring or use props or costumes, though you may do this if you wish.
  • Do not improvise new dialog for the scene. Use only the written dialog from the film.
  • When acting out the scene, use the same actions as the characters in the movies. Do not read directly from the script.  Remember, you are supposed to be speaking, not reading.
  • Try to use the correct pronunciation. Be as fluent and as accurate as you can.
  • Speak loudly and clearly so as to be heard by everyone.

Movie Vocabulary Homework Assignment

  1. For the next class meeting make a list of vocabulary words which are new to you from our film script. Your assignment is to find words and expressions from p. ______ to p. ________Your list should include at least ___________ words and expressions.
  2. Using a dictionary and consulting others, find an accurate definition or meaning of the word or expression.
  3. On your list include:
  • the page number in the script where it is found
  • the word or expression
  • whether the word or expression is commonly used or not
  • whether the word or expression is polite to use or not
  • the meaning

Example:

Page Expression Common? Polite? Meaning
17 Put his foot in his mouth somewhat OK Say something embarrassing or foolish
  1. You may work together with others who are working on the same pages.
  2. Make enough copies of your worksheet to class for everyone in the class. 

Sample Vocabulary from the film When Harry Met Sally

Here are some vocabulary terms and expressions from When Harry Met Sally that you could assign students to learn:

time to kill; to fix someone up with someone; there is no point (in doing something); to come down with something ; affront; to hit it off with someone; to bump into someone; I couldn’t agree more

Successful Films

A couple of films that I have used successfully in the classroom with students in an intensive English program include The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. What are some films that you have used successfully in the classroom? What activities did you use with them?


Joe McVeigh is a teacher, teacher trainer, and independent educational consultant based in Middlebury, Vermont. He has worked in a variety of countries and has taught at Cal State LA, Caltech, USC, Middlebury College, the Bread Loaf School of English, and Saint Michael’s College. He is an active member of the TESOL International Association and has worked as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State. He is co-author of Tips for Teaching Culture from Pearson along with other books for students of English. In addition to talks and workshops at professional conferences, Joe contributes to the field through his website, which contains videos, resources, and presentation slides and handouts at www.joemcveigh.org.