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Vol 34 No 1, January - March 1996 Page 20 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT

Films and EFL
What's Playing in the Language Classroom?
by Maria Palmira Massi and Adriana G. Merino

Nobody would deny that we are bombarded by the media and visual images. By the mere click of a finger, we can get access to remote lands and far-away people on our TV set or computer screen. Giving visual messages a place in the foreign language curriculum is an interesting and entertaining way to enhance the learner's command of the target language; and the messages available through film offer a refreshing change of routine in the classroom.

Until recently, the use of films in foreign language teaching has been down-played because teachers felt they were time-consuming and too difficult to tackle. Yet, with the spread of video equipment and audiovisual resources into educational institutions, the use of films is becoming more common. Good films can serve as a valuable pedagogical aid, both for classroom use and self-study. The ultimate goal is to arouse sensitivity in the learner and to provide a stimulus to stretch his/her imagination and creativity.

Why bring the cinema into the classroom?

The power of films as a medium is acknowledged by all. It can be exploited in a number of ways. One possible use of film in the language program is to promote new ideas and expand the learner's horizons. In a content-based syllabus, for instance, a particular film can be used to vividly illustrate situations which are unfamiliar or inaccessible and provide the learner with a stimulus which serves as a springboard for further discussion of an issue. Besides, film is an excellent medium for the explicit teaching of syntactic, morphological, semantic, and pragmatic aspects of the foreign language. This goes hand in hand with motivational purposes, since learning objectives are achieved through the performance of different tasks. Another advantage is that language structures and lexical items are used in communicative situations, and propositional messages are fleshed out with quasi-authentic realism. There is also a wealth of non-linguistic and cultural information that can be exploited and focused on with appropriate assignments. Some films can lead into a discussion of psychological and social questions.

There are such obvious advantages in using films that it is easy to forget some possible hindrances. It may be disheartening for the language learner not to understand every single word, but even native speakers may fail in this. The student should be encouraged to get the global idea in the first place, and only in some instances should he/she be asked to concentrate on single chunks of language. From the teacher's perspective, it may be argued that the planning stage is time-consuming and demanding since it requires previewing the film and designing adequate activities. But these pitfalls vanish when we think of the countless possibilities open to us when dealing with films: They allow for constant reinforcement in the acquisition of a foreign language; they provide a good medium for self-study; they offer the learners the possibility of thinking critically as well as using their imaginations. They contribute not only to the development of inferential skills but also to aesthetic appreciation of the storyline and technical aspects of the film such as photography, special effects, electronic tricks, music, direction, production, etc. Apart from being faced with language, the learner is confronted with the socio-cultural environment in which the film is set. In sum, it is obvious that the pendulum swings to the asset side, and the pros outnumber the cons. So, why not give it a try?

Where to start...? Selection

The selection of films is the most important step in the process and constitutes the biggest challenge. It can be based on thematic content to reinforce and consolidate topics treated within the language syllabus, such as discrimination, moral issues, mass media, ecology, education, and work, or to illustrate language functions and grammatical patterns in real use. Furthermore, associative networks can be exemplified and exploited, such as terminology related to filmmaking (in Attenborough's Chaplin ), banking and stockholding (in Stone's Wall Street ), legal terms (in Demme's Philadelphia), education (in Weir's Dead Poets Society ) etc.

Selection should be very careful especially with respect to accent since some problems may arise. Comprehension may be hindered by dialectal varieties of the language used by the characters. For instance, in Gilbert's Educating Rita, staring Michael Caine and Julie Walters, the professor's accent is, from the foreign language learner's standpoint, clear and understandable, but Rita's cockney may be difficult to understand. Yet, the film may be profitable for advanced groups to illustrate that particular speech community.

When choosing a film, decisions on subject matter should be based on well-thought-out criteria since it may go beyond the learner's linguistic and conceptual competence and may not be in keeping with his/her needs and interests. The students' age and psychological maturity must be taken into consideration when making a choice, and care should be taken so as not to offend the learner's sensitivity. If these factors are overlooked, we may run the risk of having the learner get only a superficial interpretation, missing the underlying message. For example, in the films Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Disclosure directed by Adrian Lyne, Paul Verhoeven and Barry Levinson respectively, sex is the trigger to unravel deep moral issues and psychological traits. These films seek to depict the deepest vices of human existence, such as unfaithfulness, thirst for power, competitiveness, etc. So the learner should be led to go beyond the sex sequences themselves and to probe into other dimensions. That is why these films are not recommended for immature learners.

The duration of the film is another aspect to be kept in mind. Long films such as Spielberg's Schindler's List or Kostner's Dances with Wolves can be used, but thorough planning is required to divide the film into several viewing sessions with pre-viewing and post viewing questions.

What's next? Exploitation

Micro-teaching activities should be organized according to thematic issues and linguistic and conceptual complexity in concert with the learner's level of proficiency. Some rules of thumb can be given. The whole film can be brought into discussion to check and promote global understanding of the story, with questions on setting, characters, and explicit and hidden messages. Apart from these traditional viewing activities, freeze-frame techniques can be implemented to highlight some important images. For example, at the onset of the film Chaplin we can see the protagonist portrayed as the mustachioed Little Tramp. This scene can be frozen to elicit answers from the learner as to the way he looks, his physical appearance, and so on. Alternatively, some of the outstanding sequences or key dialogs that constitute the crux of the story can be isolated so as to exploit significant topics. In Philadelphia, we can present some scenes (for example, the dialog between Andrew and the librarian or the exchange between the Counselor and his wife) to illustrate different aspects of discrimination against the leading character, his homosexuality, and his illness. We should foster evaluation of the complete film or parts of it as well as conduct debates on outstanding topics, such as the justice system in Sheridan's In the Name of the Father or technology and mass media in Disclosure.

Another possibility is to select two or three crucial lines from the script and ask the learner to analyze them in the light of the whole plot, For example, in Zemeckis's Forrest Gump we can consider and analyse Mrs. Gump's "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get" or Lieutenant Dan's "We all have a destiny".

All the above activities are focused on thematic issues, but films also give room for exploitation of grammatical and functional aspects of the language. To mention but one instance, Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral exemplifies a range of functions like expressing opinions, making a pass, expressing condolences, proposing, persuading, discussing, arguing, etc. Likewise, films are a rich source of idiomatic expressions, which, thanks to the context, are easy to grasp and internalize.

In exploiting a film in class, the difficulty does not lie in the film itself but in designing tasks from it. As stated above, the teacher should adapt the films to the learner's level of proficiency and conceptual competence.

And to follow...? Integrative activities

As in all aspects of learning, it is essential for the learner to integrate past knowledge with new information, extrapolating from what he has gained from viewing the film. The learner can be asked to write summaries to reconstruct the macro structure of the story and see it as a whole. Learners can also write movie reviews giving their opinions about the film. One interesting task is to rate several films using objective criteria identified by the students themselves.

Dramatization of a scene from a film can be quite motivating, especially for those learners with histrionic talents and an adventurous spirit. While doing research about the director or leading characters of a film (and writing a biography) can be implemented with low-level learners, research on big issues can be encouraged with more advanced groups. They can investigate matters such as ecology and the environment (Hitchcock's The Birds ) classical music (Foreman's Amadeus and Rose's Immortal Beloved ), mass media (Howard's The Paper and Redford's Quiz Show ), and the changing role of women in society (in Campion's The Piano , Scorsese's The Age of Innocence , and Scott's Thelma and Louise ).

For advanced levels, we suggest discussion of socio-cultural patterns depicted in a particular film to develop awareness of cultural differences such as in Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky and The Last Emperor , or differences between generations, as depicted in Stiller's Reality Bites , or Hallstrom's What's eating Gilbert Grape ? From our experience, the organization of round table discussions and debates on controversial issues has proved profitable. In our lessons the students have been eager to discuss issues such as euthanasia (in Badham's Whose life is it anyway? ), love versus money (in Lyne's Indecent Proposal ), marriage and divorce (De Vito's The War of the Roses ), or the role of TV in society (in Quiz Show ). Finally, the learner can be required to appraise the aesthetic value of masterpieces such as Hitchcock's suspense thrillers, Ivory's A Room with a View , and Scorsese's The Age of Innocence , and to analyse the film's technical aspects, such as photography, sound tracks, special effects, direction, and the like.

The possibilities for using film in the foreign language class are endless. Films present slices of life, and as such, provide a realistic, authentic and entertaining way of improving the learner's command of the language. They add fun and involvement to the language classroom. But don't take our word for it. Try it and see for yourself!

Maria Palmira Massi is an Adjunct lecturer at the Teacher Training College, Escuela Superior de Idiomas, Universidad Nacional del Comahue, General Roca, Rio Negro, Argentina.
Adriana G. Merino is an Associate Lecturer of EFL at the Escuela Superior de Idiomas, Universidad Nacional del Comahue. She is in charge of ESP courses for Communication Studies students.



  • Allan, M. 1985. Teaching English with video. New York: Longman
  • Corner, J. and J. Hawthorn, 1988. Communication studies: An introductory reader. Arnold.
  • Lonergan, J. 1985. Video in language teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Schrank, J. 1986. Understanding mass media. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company.


After watching the film, answer the following questions.

About Forrest

1. If you were asked to describe Forrest, which of the following features would you choose as the most important in understanding him. Why? (You can add some others)

  • stupid boy
  • healthy boy/man
  • good lover
  • intelligent man
  • good father
  • disrespectful person
  • successful person
  • efficient soldier
  • agile sportsman
  • materialist
  • credulous man
  • sympathetic person
  • faithful friend
  • sweet son

2. Forrest met very important people. Would you have reacted in the same way as Forrest did if you had the chance of meeting John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, etc. What's the significance of the inclusion of these famous personalities in the film?

About Jenny

  1. Jenny was Forrest's first friend. Why did he trust her so deeply? Why did he never forget her in spite of her unexpected departures?
  2. On many occasions, Forrest told Jenny that he loved her, in one of them, Jenny said, "You don't know what love is " Do you think she was right? Why? Why not?

About Bubba

  1. Compare Forrest to Bubba. Were they both simple-minded men?
  2. Evaluate their friendship. Did Forrest keep his promise to Bubba.

About Lieutenant Dan

  1. Explain the lieutenant's role in the development of the film.
  2. Evaluate Forrest's friendship with him.

About YOU

  1. Do you identify with any of the characters of the film? If so, with whom?
  2. If you were in a battle, would you come back to rescue other soldiers, risking your life as Forrest did?

About the film as a whole

Consider the questions below and debate them in groups. Providea written report.

  1. Forrest was a different boy, who was expected to have a lot of difficulties in "normal" society. However, he managed to succeed and achieve more than many other human beings. Discuss how he survived and triumphed. What is the implication of his success.
  2. Certain aspects of the film seem to be unreal and exaggerated, such as the fact that Forrest ran for three years. Do you think that they are pointless or are they symbolizing something essential in life? Justify your answer.
  3. "In our society, difference is discriminated against." This seems to be one of the big issues illustrated in the film. Is it true? How do we act towards those who are different from us (less intelligent, handicapped, sick, racially different skin colour, believers of a different religion, members of a different political party, etc. ? Do we respect them? Do we ignore them? Do we make fun of them? Do we reject them?
  4. This film reflects part of the history of the USA during the past thirty years. Can the film only be understood by Americans or does it have universal values? Is it a film that makes you think because it hides a simple but important message? All in all, is it worth seeing?
  5. Summarize the essence at the film in just one sentence.


Choose and develop one of the following tasks.

  1. You are one of Forrest's classmates. Write a short paragraph (10-15 lines) describing your feelings about sharing the same class with a person like him. Do you feel uncomfortable? Do you feel pity for him? Do you feel proud of his achievements? Would you be his friend?
  2. Write a review of the film. Include the following: title, director, setting, characters, events, evaluation.

Note: The authors want to acknowledge and give special thanks to second year students from Escuela Superior de Idiomas (Translatorship and Teacher Training Courses), and to Mass Media students at Universidad Nacional del Comahue, who provided the fertile environment for the development of learning activities, some of which are in the Appendix.

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Vol 34 No 1, January - March 1996 Page 20 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT
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