“Teaching” the words or “immersing” in the words

A teacher is deriding me for my views on the importance of extensive comprehensible input. He says, “I must have missed the lessons on modern language teaching trends, so I am asking some practical questions hoping to update my obsolete views on teaching. Please anyone help me start the new semester after the Chinese New Year holiday as a different teacher.”

This teacher is being sarcastic with us. I understand because I used to feel the same way. I know that the claim that extensive comprehensible input seems in some ways to contradict all of our long-held beliefs and assumptions about teaching. It didn’t make sense to me either when I heard about it. But on the other hand it we can intuitively know that it works because (1) children learn their L1 in the same manner and (2) even you and I add to our English vocabulary in this way. Our language development did not stop when we left school. Additionally, (3) our students and many others are adding to their language without being taught (for example: shit) and not learning what we do teach (for example: mom=she, dad=he). (Photo: My students hanging on every word of the film, “Bruce Almighty”, a Jim Carey comedy but with some intense parts. The film is shown in English with English subtitles only. There are a lot of words they don’t know. BUT, there are a lot of words they do know.)

Let’s take a look at the example that this teacher proposes for use with a mid-intermediate level student. Does it meet the three requirements for extensive comprehensible input?

1. Extensive? I don’t think a student would read very much of this sort of text for the reasons below.

2. Comprehensible? No, not at all.

3. Interesting? I doubt it for two reasons. It is talking about a specific industry problem and it is so incomprehensible that only advanced students would be able to make enough sense out of it to begin to understand it and possibly enjoy it.

This is NOT how to do extensive comprehensible input!

However how would those who really want to teach the vocabulary out of it handle this situation? Here Stefan’s sentence plus the whole paragraph. It is only one paragraph of a four-paragraph article which is dense with not frequently used vocabulary. I have capitalized the text that mid-level and many upper-level intermediate students may not know:

Tourism is now among the world’s most important industries, generating jobs and profits worth billions of pounds. At the same time, however, mass tourism can have dire effects on the people and places it embraces – both tourists and the societies and human environments they visit. We are increasingly familiar with some of the worst effects of unthinking, unmanaged, unsustainable tourism: previously undeveloped coastal villages that have become sprawling, charmless towns. their seas poisoned by sewage, denuded of wildlife, their beaches stained with litter and empty tubes of suncream. Historic towns, their streets now choked with traffic, their temples, churches and cathedrals seemingly reduced to a backdrop for holiday snaps that proclaim, ‘Been there, Done that’. Some of the world’s richest environments bruised by the tourist onslaught, their most distinctive wildlife driven to near-extinction, with wider environmental impacts caused by the fuel-hungry transport systems used to take holidaying travellers around the world and back again.

So would a vocabulary teacher then teach these words?

1. generating
2. profits
3. billions
4. mass
5. dire
6. embraces
7. societies
8. familiar
9. unsustainable
10. previously
11. undeveloped
12. coastal
13. sprawling
14. charmless
15. poisoned
16. sewage
17. denuded
18. wildlife
19. beaches
20. stained
21. litter
22. tubes
23. suncream
24. historic
25. choked
26. temples
27. cathedrals
28. distinctive
29. driven
30. near-extinction
31. impacts
32. fuel-hungry
33. transport

We have 33 words to learn there and that is only one paragraph. After we do the other four paragraphs we may have new 100 words to learn from only one article in one lesson.

How many words can an average student memorize in one day? How many will he forget? Anyone know?

This is exactly what extensive comprehensible input is NOT. But it is also my contention that even those who favor discrete vocabulary teaching will not be successful in helping students acquire this vocabulary. Yes, teachers can “teach” it. But the students are going to feel stupid when they forget it.

This text would be suitable for advanced learners who already know 95% of the vocabulary. For them this would be adequate for their extensive comprehensible input. They would be able to add to their advanced vocabulary but I almost never teach those kinds of students. By the time they reach that level they are learning on their own from any English materials they choose.


Movie dialog, subtitles, language complexity

I’d like to make a couple suggestions about using films from my ten years of experience (read: failures):


When I watch a Shakespeare movie, I have to use the subtitles. Although I am a native-English speaker, that English is flying by so fast and it is so rich with meaning that I can’t really get it very well. Subtitles help me appreciate it much more.

Advanced students and some upper-intermediate students, depending on the type of film, may be at a level where they can follow the dialog so well that it would be good practice for them to watch and listen to a film without subtitles.

However for our lower to some advanced-intermediate level students, if they don’t have subtitles they are going to miss too much dialog and have to rely more on the visual action of the film for meaning.

I suggest that we not try to use the showing of a film as a “reading” or as a “listening” exercise. Let’s just think of it as English input which is a mix of both. The listening is augmented by the reading and the reading is augmented by the listening.


Another thing about cartoons or movies that are made for children is that the dialog is almost always made at an adult level. You will notice this when you listen carefully word-by-word to what characters are saying.

Images for children, dialog for adults

We assume because someone like Disney made it that it is going to have a dialog geared for children and that this dialog will be simpler than that for an adult movie, not so. Below I have appended a sample of dialog from Disney’s new children’s movie, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2 (2011).

Why is this so? I suspect that movie producers realize that if the mother or father is not going to get some level of entertainment out of it, too, that they will stop taking their children to the movies as the experience would be too boring. But when they put some clever remarks, innuendos and such in the movie they can entertain the adults as well.

One teacher said she used a Charlie Brown film and it looks like she made a good choice. I have also appended a portion of “This Is America, Charlie Brown” (1988)[2] which looks like it might be quite accessible to intermediate-level students.

Notes and references:

[1] 30-second excerpt from Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2 (2011) starting at 00:30:00 –

Just follow your heart.

My heart is what keeps getting me in trouble.

What are we doing at the police station?

What’s so secret? Am I some sort of lookout?

No. No.

Do we need disguises?

Are we here to meet our contacts?



Maybe we should have code names.

Mine’s gonna be ”White Fox.” Yeah!

Intermediate-level students may not understand:

Follow your heart

Getting in trouble



Meet our contacts

Code names


[2] 30-second excerpt from “This Is America, Charlie Brown” (1988) starting at 00:15:00 –

I’m freezing.

I think we should collect some more.

On the other hand, maybe we do have enough.

I’m afraid of the wolf, sir.

Forget the wolves, Marcie.

I’m afraid of the Indians, sir.

Forget the Indians, Marcie.

Besides, we haven’t seen any since we landed in this harbor.

I’m afraid of the storms, sir.

Forget the storms, Marcie.

What makes you so brave, sir?

People with big noses are naturally brave.

Intermediate-level students may not understand:




All in all, it seems the Charlie Brown film may be more accessible to intermediate level students.

Engineering an Experience! – Think outside the book…way outside!

What are we going to do with our time if we don’t teach grammar? Blow our students’ minds!

Have you ever seen a three-way orgy in an Ikea store? I have. You can too! Ikea 3-way


Scene from "Ikea Heights"
This crazy filmmaker thought it would be great fun to secretly film a melodrama in an Ikea store. With price tags hanging in front of their faces and customers walking behind, they act out living and dying in a fictitious neighborhood called “Ikea Heights”. What an out-of-the-box crazy idea.


If I have a small group, maybe 6-7 students, I will always take them to Ikea at some point during our training.

For us “experience engineers”, perhaps you are one, part of “engineering the experience” is not just to engineer a lesson but to engineer the overall training experience. Some lessons are in the classroom. Some lessons are out…way out! We want to not only have interesting and exciting lessons but also surprising experiences. We want our students to associate English learning to something thoroughly enjoyable, stimulating, amazing — not boring.

To this end we often not only “think outside of the box” but we “teach outside of the classroom”. There’s many things we can do along this line.

You know the boring lesson in English coursebooks where they read some dialog to order the food? Teachers who are “experience engineers” will do crazy things like having lunch together with their students at a buffet restaurant…with a twist. Instead of every student going to get their own food from the buffet counter, the teacher, or even one or two students, will act as “waiters” and take orders from the other students who act as “customers”. The “customers” sit at their tables while the “waiters” take the orders and serve the food. Students take turns waitering so everyone gets a chance. Perhaps the teacher or a student will visit the buffet the day before to make a “menu” that the others will use to order from but this is not necessary. (BTW, if asked, the manager will probably offer a discount for the group.) Wow, a lesson you can eat!

My student, a manager in an American company, trying out the Ikea experience

Ikea is a unique kind of store. They are “experience engineers”, too. They create these realistic rooms or even tiny apartments so you can feel the life of living in an Ikea home. Show your students the “Ikea Heights” film before you go. (Write me if you would like subtitles.) At the store you can act out your own mini-scenarios or role plays. (Orgy scene NOT recommended.)

There are a lot of interesting business strategies employed at Ikea. My English students who are managers love it when I point these things out. Ikea herds customers through a path like a rat maze. They station a cafeteria exactly halfway through the store so that customers will have no excuse to leave before they finish their shopping. They have a very cheap hot dog and ice cream available at the end of the shopping experience to provide a favorable “peak/end” experience.[1] There are lots of business concepts to unravel there.

There is a wealth of business talk to engage your students in discussing marketing, sales, promotion, staffing (few staff), ideas from things like Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy?” and Joseph Pine’s “Experience Economy” and business questions like “This frying pan costs only $1. Now why would a big store like Ikea sell a frying pan below cost?”

That’s not to mention all the discussion of preferences and even games: “What do you like more? This sofa or that sofa? Why?” “Now John, choose a chair you like but don’t tell us. Jane, guess what chair John prefers and tell us why.”

How about simulations? “Jane, you go ahead to the bed department. You are going to be a salesperson. Think of what advantages different beds have and when we come you should try to interest us in buying one of those beds. Give us a good sales pitch!”

Let’s quit complaining about the dull English coursebooks. They’re hopeless. Let’s go outside and turn the world into our coursebook. Let’s quit apologizing to the students for the boring books and take the responsibility and the challenge of being like other teachers who are “experience engineers”, creating lessons that you can see, feel, hear and even taste, lessons that are interesting, engaging and even surprising! Can’t we make experiences so mind-blowing that our students will want to grab their phones and text their buddies about the crazy English lesson they are having, that they will have to tell their parents or spouse about the crazy things they did today?

Don’t you think we can do better? I think we can.

(You “experience engineers” out there, share with us your lessons and ideas!)

Notes and references:

[1] Nobel winner Kahneman’s Peak End Rule not only applies to some of the things Ikea does but to what our lessons should be like:



Teaching with movie subtitles


There is only one reason I use subtitles, to make the movie more accessible for my students. Even upper-intermediate level students will have problems following a movie. Subtitles help increase comprehension tremendously. Perhaps advanced students would do better without them. But even I have to use subtitles when I watch certain movies like those of a Shakespearean story with dense rich beautiful language or a movie like “Wall Street” rich in financial terms.


They are very easy to find. Do an Internet search, for example, on the terms:

“Wall Street” subtitles

Replace “Wall Street” with the name of the movie you are searching for. Aside from the teacher developing materials for students in this way, I suggest the teacher demonstrate to the students how to find these subtitles on their own. I suggest the teacher even give the students an assignment to find the subtitles to their favorite English language movie, be it “Harry Potter” or “Titanic”, whatever, and to copy these subtitles into their smart phone, MP4 or even to reformat the text and print them out on paper. In this way the student will have a copy of the words to their favorite movie. This will mean the student can study the English that is highly interesting to him. I have an American friend who learned Chinese by watching one Chinese movie that he liked over and over and over again.

By the way, you can also find subtitles in almost every other major language in the same way.


They are a text file and you can open them and edit them in any text program. Some subtitles have the extension .txt but some are .srt. In any case, you can examine them with any program for text like Word, Notepad, etc. If it does have an .srt extension then I suggest you change this extension to .txt. The file will still work if you want to use it in a movie but it will be easier for your students to simply click on it and open it with their text programs .

When you open these subtitle files they do look rather messy. There are the words but there are also a lot of numbers. These numbers are time codes or frame codes to help the subtitles appear at the moment they are needed. I suggest that you teach students to ignore them. Or if they are time codes, students can use them as a reference to find the specific subtitle for a specific place in the movie. These codes can be removed by making a macro in Word but it is not a real simple solution.


There are a million things you can do.

My general approach to teaching is to avoid pre-teaching if possible. I believe the dynamics work better if the students’ interest is first piqued, if they are highly curious about something, if something fascinating is happening and now they really want to understand it. So I would try to show a portion of the movie, something really intriguing making your students fascinated and desperate to understand, with or without subtitles, and then “help” satisfy their curiosity by going over the subtitles more slowly and carefully. First we make the students thirsty. Then we satisfy their thirst.

Pre-teaching might be necessary if there is some word that is very central to the meaning of what is going on and if the students would be really clueless without understanding that word. However, if there is a lot of vocabulary your students don’t understand then there are too many uncommon words for the students and it is likely, even if you “teach” it to them, they will not retain them.

Another thing you can do is to have students prepare to act out one scene of a movie. This would involve some memorization. Alternatively, you could have the students develop a script to say the same thing in the movie only in different words and then act this out. You could ask the students to attribute a different character trait to one of the people in the story. “In this scene the villain is very cruel. But what would he say if he was a very nice guy and very polite.” You could show the movie until it builds up to an exciting moment and then let the students write and perform a script or even just ad lib a role play for what happens next.

With the words to the movie available to them, you can have students watch a scene and then write a “letter to the editor” about some issue (“something must be done to improve the education of our children”), write a police report (“this morning at 9:35 AM, I saw a man dressed in a Spider costume help…”, or if your students’ level is low they could write a simple postcard to a friend beginning with, “Dear Mom and Dad, You won’t believe what I saw today!…”

Have fun with movie subtitles and tell us how you use them! I’m sure you have lots of ideas!

>Thinking outside the book

>One thing that students and teachers really struggle with is boredom. Maybe I’m just easily bored but I have yet to find a book or teacher that really keeps the student’s interest from cover to cover, it doesn’t matter how good they are.

Sometimes I think that the way English teaching works is that we often trap ourselves into thinking “inside the book”. Publishers have little interest in helping teachers think otherwise and because we often lean on manufactured materials we always wind up with a book.

We are basically teaching the same way Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught thousands of years ago except for the addition of the printed book invented by Gutenberg.

Of course, there are guys who have rebelled against the book. You can find a bunch of them at Dogme. They have a Yahoo group and their leader has published in The Guardian newspaper ELT pages.

But to me, they seem more readily identified for what they are against than what they are for. And from my experience, it really helps to have a course or plan for students as otherwise the training can seem a bit aimless to the students.

So how can we escape the book but still have a plan?

First, let’s brainstorm a list of all the new tools and technologies and other things that are available to us since the days of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Gutenberg. Without much order, here is my list:

Phone messages
Chat rooms
Email spam
Voice spam
Shopping malls

Perhaps your list is longer. Now, just as a thought exercise to stretch us “outside the book”, what if you assigned yourself the task of using each of these to provide some part of a training course.

There was once a game called Majestic by Electronic Arts. They described it as “The suspense thriller that infiltrates your life through the Internet, telephone and fax, then leaves you guessing where the game ends and reality begins.” To play this game you had to check websites and periodically you’d receive frantic phone calls with clues or cryptic faxes.

I think something so pervasive would be an exciting way to teach and learn. What would a “Majestic” English course be like? The student would be receiving training from so many directions at so many times. Of course, not all of this is possible with every teacher and every student, but employing some of these technologies could really get us “out of the book”. Consider the possibilities that a ficticious Chinese student named Jerry Liang would experience:

– Jerry gets a daily Email that has a short lesson, story or MP3. This Email is pumped out to Jerry and all the other students by a program similar to those used by spammers.

– Jerry also receives a daily SMS phone messages that reminds him to study an assignment, do homework or join some activities that the teacher has organized.

– Every week, Jerry is directed to watch a certain TV program or movie which all the other students and teacher will be watching. Jerry doesn’t have to participate if he is busy that night but he does need to participate in at least two per week. Jerry tunes in the program and starts the chat program on his computer. While he is watching the program on his home TV, other students and the teacher are watching it and chatting with him about it, about the story, actors, what they like or don’t like, etc. (“Don’t go in that dark room!…don’t do it!…Ugh! I knew it!!!”)

– Jerry posts assignments on the blog.

– Jerry gets SMS phone messages with new vocabulary on set days. After first contact with the new vocabulary in a lesson he receives the vocabulary in a message on day 2, 5, 12, 19, 33, 63. He has a look at the words and reviews them.

– He has some specially recorded lessons made by his teacher or other teachers in MP3 format in his MP3/MP4 player or PDA which he listens to throughout the day.

– When Jerry visits the popular local mall he takes a walking tour via MP3. The teacher has made a short recording and guides the him through the mall, describing interesting things about the mall and shops and introducing more new vocabulary. (“Starbucks took its name from a coffee-loving character in the famous American novel called ‘Moby Dick’, a story about a man hunting a whale. Starbuck’s strategy is to become people’s ‘third place’, the main place people go outside of home and work.”)

– Sometimes Jerry receives a phone call from the teacher to practice his speaking, but more often than not, the teacher (randomly?) assigns Jerry and the other students speaking buddies, other students, who he calls to practice a particular speaking activity. Every week Jerry recieves an Email with a speaking lesson to practice and his speaking buddy’s phone number. Sometimes the buddy is in his class but most of the time the buddy is a student in one of the teacher’s other classes, perhaps a manager in a company. It’s interesting to have this way to talk to various professionals that he wouldn’t normally meet (and Jerry thinks it’s always interesting to talk to girls).

– Twice a month, Jerry is given a phone number to a company in an English speaking country that provides information about their services along with one or more questions that he needs to ask about. For example, he once had to call Trump International Hotel in New York to find out if they allow dogs in the room. (They do if the dog is under 10 pounds but the guest must pay a non-refundable $200.) This provides a real English challenge and practice for Jerry.

– Etc, etc, etc.

All of this is possible with current technology but will never be offered by a book publisher. It just remains for the teacher to sort out his content and figure out the different ways to deliver it.

A student, going through a course like that, would have an experience they’ve never had before. But as I said, maybe I dream up this stuff because I’m the kind of person who is easily bored.

>How can we encourage autonomous television watching?

>Some teachers speak of autonomous learning. Some teachers feel their students are too lazy. Some teachers feel students need to always be pushed to learn.

Why is it difficult to get students to study English but it is not difficult to get students to watch television?

Is it because watching television is, to put it simply, brainless? Do people have an inherent need for brainless entertainment?

Are all television programs brainless? Do viewers never learn anything useful from the tube? Is there no useful educational content in television?

Or is it that the makers of television programming have learned to be “student-centric”? Do they work under the pressure that viewers can switch to another channel with one click? Does this propel them to captivating content?

If our students could get up and leave our classrooms at anytime with no negative repercussions would it change the way we teach?

Are there any teachers out there that could compete with television? Are television programs always more engaging than English lessons?

Is there anything we can learn from television?

I am not recommending television watching or movies here, although I think those are great tools. My point is that we can learn a lot from these people, like television producers, who must, every night, attract the attention of what is a fickle public.

Rather than take the approach of making a boring processes more palatable to students, what if we really challenge ourselves to present materials as interesting as TV to make our training thoroughly engaging to the students?

I think that would motivate students to be truly autonomous.

>The problem with movies in the classroom

>Although I love movies I seldom use them in the classroom. The biggest problems are that the language is normal or even above normal (flavored with special accents that I have seldom come in contact with in my 20+ years around the world, or peppered with the vocabulary of special interest groups of people like maybe hip-hop). I have few real advanced students who could understand 80-90% of this, most of mine are upper or lower-intermediates.

I buy into Krashen’s input hypothesis which holds that the learner improves and progresses along the ‘natural order’ when he/she receives second language ‘input’ that is one step beyond his/her current stage of linguistic competence. For example, if a learner is at a stage ‘i’, then acquisition takes place when he/she is exposed to ‘Comprehensible Input’ that belongs to level ‘i + 1’.

The second problem is time. Movies run to 90-120 minutes. If pauses are added that brings it to 120-150 minutes which in my situation is too long.

When I do show a movie I will preview the movie 2-3 times jotting down an outline of the movie, transcribing a few bits and also selecting certain sections to skip to cut the movie shorter. Of course, I also try to find the script on the Internet but seldom have success for the movies I have shown. But I do try to create some sort of hand out for the students to emphasize points I want to teach.

The bottom line has been that that they can take enormous amounts of time trying to prepare, show and teach from a movie.

Later I will discuss some great ways you can use movies.

>Cranking up your class with the power of TV commercials

>A teacher is looking for some ideas to make his classes more lively. Here are some suggestions on how to power-up his classes and get his students excited about learning English.

You said you were playing videos in English with Chinese subtitles. As I said, movies are a little bulky to use easily in English training. But the good news is that most of the time when the students say “We want movies,” they really mean they want some variety. They are getting bored with the book and the routine.

I’ve found that commercials, especially to promote speaking, are just fantastic. Try it in your class. Download this video: FISHING

1. In your classroom divide your students into pairs and then divide the pairs into partners “A” & “B”.

2. Tell “A” to watch the screen and “B” to turn around. With the sound off, show the first 31 seconds of the commercial to your “A” students.

3. Now “B” students face the screen and “A” students look away. Show the rest of the video to the “B” students.

4. Now “A” and “B” students talk to each other and try to figure out the story of the commercial. Remind them to speak to each other in English. Walk throughout the classroom checking on them and helping them. You will soon have an animated classroom full of excited students.

After they’ve had enough time to discuss it ask a few students to explain what their partner told them. Don’t ask what they saw. Ask what their partner told them. This extends the speaking exercise as they have to orally report what they heard. Afterwards show the video again to the whole class with the sound on.

The commercial is made by McDonald’s. A woman drops off her husband so he can go fishing on a wooden dock. It’s clear that she doesn’t approve of him fishing or perhaps doesn’t approve of him in general. He gets his equipment ready and sits down to begin. He pulls out a lunch, a take-out bag from McDonald’s and sets it next to him. Suddenly something huge comes out of the sea. We don’t see what it but it must be a Great White Shark or similar monster. The man is terrified. Next we see the man is safe but a large section of the wooden dock, right where the McDonald’s lunch was, is bitten off. That’s the end of the first part, the part Student A would see. Student A doesn’t know what happens next.

Now the plot twist.

Student B watches. It appears that the man has convinced his wife to go fishing with him. He helps her get set up on the dock next to him. Then he pulls out a McDonald’s lunch and sets it in front of his wife and smiles. Student B doesn’t understand the significance of what he has seen.

The students love this sort of thing. They are mystified. They are curious. They are eager to figure out what is happening. And they have to do it in English. It is a super fast way to get students talking and talking and talking and in English.

>The disease is fatal. It’s called "boredom"!

>Troubleshooting a teacher’s problem.

A teacher is having some problems with his classes. Despite his efforts he said his classes were too boring. Here is what he said he was doing to get his students interested in English:

1. Play English Videos with Chinese subtitles
2. Role -play
3. Use scores to stress them
4. Ask the students to recite passages
5. Organize some English contests such as speech contest, etc.

1) Beginners and lower intermediate students will always focus on the L1 subtitles. Sometimes they are unable to watch the action as they have to watch the subtitles so closely. They are long and take up a whole class or more. Watching them is a passive event. The students sit and receive information but don’t have to interact with it. Finally, watching a movie is something they commonly do outside of class.

For beginners and intermediates, movies are not an easy language learning tool except for listening (and reading). There are a few simple movies that you can watch with your intermediate students in English with English subtitles that they will follow the language enough to laugh when something clever is said and shed a tear or two at the end. Try “Big” with Tom Hanks, “Trading Places” with Eddie Murphy, “Don Juan Demarco” with Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando.

But even with these, they are passive events which only challenge the students’ listening and reading ability. They are not as good as something that makes the students interact with the language.

2) Role plays are good if they are interesting for the students. Students seem to especially love anything with negotiation in them. Negotiation is like a game for them.

3) Scores (like death and taxes) always seem to be with us. But (like death and taxes) they should be a motivator of last resort.

4) Reciting passages is an effort of rote memory. It also doesn’t require interaction between the student and the language unless the student is studying drama.

5) Speech contests are rote memory efforts with a bit of drama and a score coming up at the end. Debates would be better. Debates are a verbal game or challenge requiring student interaction with the language. For beginners and intermediates it may be best to keep the debates on fun or light-hearted topics to avoid focus on win-lose issues. For example, what is better: KFC or McDonald’s? Pizza or ice cream? One million dollars or one million flowers?

>Movies in the classroom

>“I made love to over 1000 women. Last Tuesday I turned 21.”

That’s an interesting statement. I’ll explain who said it and why later. There is tremendous interest in using movies to teach English these days.

I’ve found that it is often so enjoyable to learn with films that the students don’t even realize that they are learning. When these students are asked what they did in your class they will simply reply, “Oh, we watched a movie.” So at the end of the each lesson it is good to review with the students everything they have just learned.

It’s sort of like that old adage (adapted), tell’m what you’re going to teach them, teach them, tell’m what you taught them.

It has got to grab you

The movie should be very interesting, gripping, exciting! The movie should pull them into the story so much they forget they’re in a classroom. They become so interested in the story that they are desperate to know what happens next…and the only way they can do so is through English.

You have read until this point, right here, wondering about the young man who has made love to over 1000 women before he turned 21. Your curiosity is aroused. You really want to know and you’re wondering when I’m going to finally tell you. This is the kind of interest we need to create in our students.

These are opening lines from the movie “Don Juan DeMarco” starring Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando. It is a wonderful tale of romance and how living a little fiction can bring out the truth in us. I love using this film for two reasons. It is totally engaging and the vocabulary is accessible.

Language must be accessible

I make a special effort to select a film with language that is accessible, just a bit above their current level (Krashen’s i+1). I try to avoid pre-teaching as much as possible as it’s boring and ineffective.

One teacher has recommended the film “Wall Street”. It is a business movie and full of business language. It may be good for very advanced students but has way too much vocabulary for intermediate students to try to learn and recall.

Not only vocabulary can be challenging but also idioms. I haven’t used “The Insider” with my students for this reason. Here are some examples. I just grabbed these very quickly out of the movie without trying to find something difficult.

Typical dialog in The Insider contains expressions like: “contractual obligations undertaken by you not to disclose any information”, “you manipulated me into this”, “you greased the rails”, “will he go on camera?”, “faced with a multi-billion dollar lawsuit”.

From “Erin Brokovich”: “This is the only thing you’ve got?”, “that place is a pigsty”, “this is a whole different ball game”, “you think if you got no uterus and no breasts you’re still technically a woman?”, “devote my entire reign as Miss Wichita”.

Of course, these terms can be teaching points. A lot depends on how and much how fast. Some films seem full of idioms and technical jargon and some films seem to use a rather simple English. To give you an idea of typical dialogs in these films I have take a one-minute sample from four movies. I randomly chose 30 minutes as a starting point and took one-minute of dialog from there.

I have put into CAPS the language that I think my upper-intermediate students may not understand. I would suggest that for these students that I am speaking of two of the movies below would be i+1 and two are i+2 or 3.

Think of one of your classes as you read the dialogs and ask yourself if your students would understand it. From this you would base your judgment on how much pre-teaching you would need to do or, if you are like me, if the film is accessible and i+1. (Of course, if the film is tremendously interesting the students will make a greater effort to grasp it and something like i+2 might be possible.)


00:30:00 – 00:31:00, Starring Starring Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer

A: (Talking about golf) And he gets out there and HE HAS FIVE STROKES ON US. He has more CONCENTRATION than anybody I’ve ever met. It’s SPOOKY HOW HE CAN CONCENTRATE.
B (Jeffrey): I’d rather play than talk about it. What did you want to see me about? I don’t like being back here.
A: (To a 3rd man) Jeffrey SAYS EXACTLY WHAT’S ON HIS MIND. Most people CONSIDER what they are saying – SOCIAL SKILLS. Jeffrey just CHARGES RIGHT AHEAD. (To Jeffrey) Now I know you understand the NATURE of the CONFIDENTIALITY PORTION of your SEVERANCE AGREEMENT with Brown & Williamson.
A: Yeah, I know you do. You know, I CAME UP THROUGH sales. One of the reasons I was a great salesman was I never made a promise I couldn’t keep. I knew that if I ever broke my promise, I’d SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES.
B: Is that a THREAT?


00:30:00 – 00:31:00, Starring Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia

A (Talking to himself while doing something on the computer): The Dinky Link…Seven…Jimmy’s Toy Box!
B: Psst! Hey! Psst! I’m Scott Brennen.
A: Uh, I’m Josh Baskin.
B: Listen, are you trying to get us all fired?
A: Huh?
B: Slow down. PACE YOURSELF. Slow. Slowly. Slow.
A: Sorry.
B: Today’s my first day.
A: I know.
B: How long have you worked here?
A: Five years.
B: The WORK STINKS but the FRINGE BENEFITS are great.
A: See that girl over there in the red?


00:30:00 – 00:31:00, Trading places starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Akroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Ameche

A: (In the Jacuzzi) Hey, BUBBLES, man! When I was growing up, we wanted a JACUZZI…we had to FART in the TUB. This is BAD!
B: (In the living room) What’s he doing in there?
C: He’s singing, sir.
D: They’re very musical people, aren’t they?
C: What shall I do with his clothes, sir?
B: Send them to the laundry. He’ll need something to wear back to the GHETTO after I’ve won our bet.
D: (Everybody in the living room) Well, William, what do you think?
A: I like it, Randy. It’s very nice. I like the way you got the mirrors HOOKED UP. It’s very pretty.
B: I don’t think he understands, Randolph .
A: Mortie, I do understand.
D: William, this is your home.
A: Uh-huh, right.
D: It belongs to you.
A: All this is mine. I like my home. Very nice TASTE in houses.
D: Everything you see in this room is yours.
A: This is my stuff.
D: Your own personal PROPERTY.


00:30:00 – 00:31:00, starring Julia Roberts and Albert Finney

A: The only thing that CONFUSED me is, NOT that your MEDICAL problems areN’T important, but how come the files on that are in with all the REAL ESTATE stuff?
B: Well, there’s just so much CORRESPONDENCE. I just keep it all in one place.
A: Right. Right. Um, I’m sorry, I just don’t see why you’re CORRESPONDING with PG&E about your MEDICAL problems in the FIRST PLACE.
B: Well, they paid for the doctor’s visit.
A: They did?
B: YOU BET. Paid for a CHECKUP for the whole family. NOT LIKE WITH insurance where you pay and a YEAR GOES BY and maybe you SEE SOME money. They just took care of it JUST LIKE THAT. [snaps fingers] We never even SAW A BILL.
A: Wow. Why’d they do that?
B: Because of the CHROMIUM.
A: The what?

Whatever film you use, try to make sure it is grippingly interesting and the language is accessible.