Some thoughts for ESL instructors

Before offering some general guidelines on how to maximize the educational value of these materials, I would suggest you read the Introduction for ESL Learners. There is no need to repeat everything said there, but I would like to restate that as an instructive unit, the synopses and movies would probably be too advanced for lower level ESL students. You should also be aware of the “indecency” issue before working with them. Although I am personally an avid believer in the imparting of real world language, I recognize that both teachers and students have their reasons for avoiding certain types of speech.

Before the movie is shown

Once you’ve decided that you have students for whom these guides and the corresponding films are appropriate learning tools, I would strongly encourage you to not let the movies stand on their own, but to embed them into an instructional unit. Obviously, the guides themselves can and should serve as a foundation for pre-film discussion, and there are, in fact, various ways that you can do this.

At a minimum, your students should study the relevant synopsis in the days before seeing the movie. You can then review them in class before the actual screening. One possibility is to engage in a general conversation concerning any of the themes that the film will be exploring. As you’ll notice, there is a list of possible subjects for background readings and class exploration that follows the discussion questions at the end of each guide. Thus, for example, you may want to pass out an article on the religious beliefs of the Amish, in the days before viewing Witness. Unlike discussion issues that would come after the film, the pre-screening topics should simply introduce the most general themes of that particular movie. This should be easy to do, even if there are no pretenses about the film exploring profound or troubling questions.

For example, My Cousin Vinny is a comedy that deals with the travails of two college students from New York who are wrongfully accused of murder while driving through Alabama. Before showing it, a general topic of conversation could be whether anyone in the class has been falsely accused of any crimes, or if they know such a person. Depending on how much interest that generates, you can discuss the criminal justice system in the United States as compared to that of your students’ own countries. Any topic can be useful, so long as it serves as a natural lead-in to the movie.

After an introductory discussion, you may want to quiz your students on the more important colloquialisms listed in the synopsis. Depending on how seriously they want to internalize new words and expressions, and depending on how much time you have, you could in fact use the entire glossary as a springboard for discussing whatever relevant vocabulary is triggered in your head.

For example, in the synopsis for Forrest Gump, the students learn that “I have to pee” is “to urinate,” which is certainly worth knowing. But you may want to add that “to take a leak” is the most common colloquial alternative to the above mentioned phrase (at least for American males!), and as long as you’re on a roll, you could move beyond bathroom terminology and throw in that “leaks” are both literally “drips,” and a colloquial term for the information often released to the press by an anonymous person in a government organization! I can’t cite studies which show the efficacy of this type of “stream-of-consciousness-word-spewing,” but my own experience is that those students with true motivation to improve their colloquial English will devour whatever you have to tell them.

After the movie is shown

After viewing the movie, it would probably be best to initially create a situation where students can express their personal reactions without feeling that “they have to say something intelligent.” In his book, Seeing With Feeling: Films in the Classroom, Richard Lacey suggests using “image-sound-skims” in which students initially are asked to mention visual or sound images that first come to mind. You might also suggest that students write down some immediate personal reactions after the movie ends, such as whether they were surprised, pleased, or upset. If nothing else, they could note whether or not they liked it, and for what reasons.

Another possibility would be to review some of the more difficult vocabulary that popped up in the movie, giving the students yet one more opportunity to internalize the synopses. This would also be a time in which you could review alternative ways of saying certain things. In other words, post-film discussion is an excellent opportunity to go over both the movie itself as well as the language that is used within it.

Finally, you can move on to more specific issues concerning the topic of the film. As you’ll notice, every synopsis has a list of suggested questions, some of which may be directed at measuring whether specific points in the movie were understood (you’ll also note that most of these lists have general questions that could serve as pre-film discussion topics).

Of course there are very generic questions that could probably be asked of just about any movie, including some of the following:

  1. Is ____ an admirable character? Why, or why not?
  2. What would you have done if you were in ____’s situation?
  3. What was ____ really thinking when he said _____?
  4. What would people in your country think of _____?
  5. What does this movie tell us about Americans?

Any motion picture, even just an “action thriller” like The Fugitive, can instigate stimulating conversations that focus on a variety of interesting topics. Although the synopses emphasize colloquial acquisition, the viewing experience in class would probably be a richer one if there were an attempt to put the movie into some kind of cultural context.

Language, film and the American experience

Depending on the film being discussed, you may wish to become more of a facilitator than an ESL instructor. If the movie deals with sensitive topics such as social issues like AIDS, as in Philadelphia, it’s probably best to adopt an attitude in which you are no longer the language expert, but just another person struggling with the issues presented. As always, an important goal should be to strike a balance between setting a specific agenda and allowing the conversation to become a free-for-all.

Beyond the structuring of any particular type of class conversation, many of these films may yield other types of projects that can be incorporated into the classroom setting. For example, journal writing allows students the time to reflect on what they’ve seen before actually having to express themselves. Particular essays can also be assigned, with selected passages reviewed for further class discussion.

Do not hesitate to give assignments that deal with relevant topics, as a way of exploring the issues raised from a variety of perspectives. For example, before the viewing of Lost in America, you may want to find an essay or two on yuppies and their angst. Be creative. Role-playing by volunteers could serve as a basis for further conversation, and even post-viewing field work in which students do outside research and interview relevant people could later serve as a basis for presentations on the major topics in question.

Ultimately, these synopses are designed to assist your students in improving their English skills. To that extent, they focus primarily on the difficult colloquial vocabulary within the accompanying films. If the students study them well, they should experience dramatic progress in overall comprehension. But as an ESL instructor and facilitator, you should strive to use the movies as more than just a tool through which to generate language acquisition. Indeed, it is my hope that because of their growing linguistic abilities, your students will converse with ever greater fluency on all aspects of the films they watch, and thus understand with ever greater insight the culture in which they’re produced.