Ways to use video in your ESL class

Have you ever wondered how to use video in your ESL classes, without just sitting your students down in front of the screen and hitting 'Play'?

Let’s face it, they could do this at home!

Here are a few ideas to get you started, using very short video extracts to present and practise new language and develop communicative skills…

1. Video with no picture

Choose a short video extract (2 or 3 minutes) with a lot of sound effects. Play it with the screen turned away from the students, or cover the screen. If two of the sound effects are birds singing and a baby crying, your linguistic focus (either as presentation or practice) could be:

– Present continuous: Some birds are singing / A baby is crying
– Past simple: Some birds sang / A baby cried
– Past continuous: Some birds were singing / A baby was crying
– Making deductions: It must / might / can’t be birds singing or It must / might / can’t have been birds singing

After playing, elicit the language from your students, then show them the extract with the picture and sound.

2. Video with no sound

Show a short extract (again, 2 or 3 minutes is enough) with a lot going on, or where characters convey a lot of emotion in their expressions, without sound. Students can then do many things without having to worry about understanding dialogue.

They can describe what happened using narrative tenses; describe the scene; anticipate dialogue or reactions; arrange the cut-up dialogue which you have given them.

Finally, play the extract again with sound, and your students will be able to fit what they hear into a context much more effectively than viewing the extract cold.

3. Jigsaw viewing

You may have done jigsaw reading activities in your class, where students have half the information and have to share what they have read to recreate the whole story. You can also do this with short video sequences:

1. Half the class watches with no picture, then the other half with no sound (you’ll have to take half the students out of the class in each case). In pairs they question each other to recreate the scene.

2. Half the class have picture and sound, the other half just sound. You can do this by sitting students in two rows, back to back, so that only one row can see the screen. The half who only had sound question the other half.

3. One student listens with headphones, the others view without sound. The student with headphones questions the others.

4. Backwards viewing

Choose a short sequence with a lot of action. For example, a woman enters an apartment, picks up the telephone, speaks, looks terrified, runs out of her apartment and down the stairs, and runs off down the street. Movies are a good source for this sort of material. Play the sequence backwards to the students, then have the students reconstruct the story in chronological order, using narrative tenses, or future tenses, or whatever you want the linguistic focus to be. Play the sequence normally so students can compare it with their version.

5. Freeze frame

Do you use pictures in your classroom for introducing new vocabulary, describing people and scenes? You can add a new dimension to this by just hitting pause on a video. Hit pause when a character has an interesting expression on his/her face, is about to react to something or answer a question, or when there is a lot of colourful new vocabulary on the screen. Have students describe the character/scene, or anticipate what the character will say or do next. Release pause to compare with what actually happens.

Check out our interactive video series with fully prepared teacher packs and resources:

6. Vocabulary in context

Choose an extract of about two or thee minutes which is rich in vocabulary (drama and documentary films work well for this). Make a sheet with ten to twenty words that are used in the extract. Give one sheet to each pair of students and go through it discussing meanings and possible contexts. (Giving them the context of the movie/documentary as a whole can make it easier to guess possible contexts of individual words within this.) Play the extract through once, asking students to listen for the contexts in which the words are used. Students can then pool their information and produce a list of contextualised vocabulary on the board.

7. Subtitles

A good exercise for building confidence is to play an extract with subtitles in the students’ own language. Play it first with the sound down and let them read the titles, then with the sound up, again reading the titles, and finally, with the sound up and the titles covered.

As reading practice for higher level students, use an extract with subtitles in English.

8. The news

Choose a news item with a lot of visual footage. Make a list of vocabulary essential to the understanding of the item. Play the item with the sound down and have your students discuss in groups what they think the item was about. Next, hand out the vocabulary list and have the groups use it to reconstruct the story. Finally, play the item with the sound up for students to compare their version with the original.

9. Cultural differences

Here’s an activity to fit in with a topic on cultures. Find a short extract which shows a typical aspect of British or American culture. In groups, have students discuss the differences between what they saw and their own culture. Students do not necessarily need to understand the dialogue for this – the visual aspect of the cultural scene is usually enough.

10. Voices in my head

Choose a short extract with some interesting and expressive dialogue between two or more characters. Show the scene and check students’ comprehension. Put your students into groups, one group for each character – if there are 4 characters in the scene, you will need four groups. It is the groups’ task to imagine what is going on in the head of their assigned character. Play the scene again several times if necessary for students to familiarise themselves with the character, and allow them to work together to imagine the character’s thoughts. Finally, play the scene again, pausing after each character has spoken, at which point the groups add what they think he/she is thinking.

11. Use ESL-specific interactive videos

Videos made specifically for ESL students often come with worksheets and lesson plans, making your lesson planning a whole lot easier. We have three video series, and you can use the first episode of each of them, together with the worksheets and teacher notes, for absolutely free here. The series use fun, real-life contexts, are motivating and learner-friendly, and have hours of teaching material and carefully graded language throughout. Check out the first episode of each series here.

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  1. I finally found someone who thinks that movies are a great source for students. I used movies a lot, but my colleagues, even the directors, criticized me for it. I brought them this article. Thank you.

  2. It’s a good idea, thanks for sharing. What I have done is to choose a suitable movie (DVD) which is relevant to the topic we are discussing… students watch the movie, and after I give them a lot of questions dealing with the characters seen in the movie which can be for oral, writing, expression purposes…

  3. Great ideas. My classroom has a lot of technology and I’m always looking for ways to utilize it better. Thanks!

  4. Thanks! Love these ideas!


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