Using cinema in the TEFL classroom

Using cinema in the TEFL classroom

You’ve been to school, you know the feeling. If you’re of a certain age, you might remember a TV and VCR being wheeled into a hushed, awed classroom. Or, if you’re of a newer vintage, perhaps, the lights go out, and on a digital whiteboard pops up a video. It’s either a moment of intense excitement - perhaps it’s an end-of-term showing of a film - or it’s a very dry 60s informational video on the extraction of oil. Both are possible.

Yes, using cinema in the classroom can seem like a “last day before holidays” exercise, but in language teaching, it can be extremely useful - a TEFL teacher’s best friend, even. Students can easily engage with an interesting film or clip; you might be showing them something they’ve already seen in another language, and have context for. This time, though, they’re watching it in English, and it’s a great way to learn patterns of speech, how grammar is used, syntax, even.

It’s also particularly useful for slang or dialects. Cultural knowledge can be explained, but it’s perhaps better gained through watching and listening. As our resident webinar superstar Carl Cameron-Day recently explained:

“Cultural knowledge is something I love bringing into the classroom. It’s something that students also like. Quite often in Japan, I got asked lots and lots of questions about UK culture… that’s the sort of thing that students like to find out about. Cinema is a big, massive part of that.”

So, how do you use cinema in the classroom? We’ll explain it all, with help from Mr Cameron-Day, whose webinar on Music and Cinema in the TEFL classroom is essential watching!

Using cinema in the classroom

So, what do you need to consider when you’re thinking about using cinema in the classroom? Ability level and age are vital. 

At any level, it’s best to start off basic. Using a film with quite basic dialogue won’t scare students too much. If you’re teaching children, a film like Finding Nemo or Toy Story will have an array of different accents and patterns of speech, but the language itself isn’t too complex. 

For more advanced TEFL learners, you can start to integrate more dialogue-heavy films; Oscar winners, critically-acclaimed films, and specific films where regional accents (rather than “received English”) come into play. 

Let’s break it down further and explain the kinds of activities you can do with students over film.

Children in a classroom


If you want to watch, say, an hour of a film, or a whole film, stop at regular intervals to explore the themes. Do the students understand what’s going on? Are the key conflicts and characters defined by the students, using language and context? Stopping between scenes, or even taking timed intervals where students discuss in simple terms what’s happening on-screen is a good idea.

Has any relevant grammar or syntax popped up? Take time to discuss it. As Carl Cameron-Day tells us: 

“Yes, you can use music and you can use cinema to learn vocabulary - it’s one of the best things to do. But there can sometimes be quite difficult language and idioms within a clip… that might be quite difficult to understand. It might not be something you’ve planned to have taught but it comes up anyway. Beware of that kind of thing that you might have to anticipate.”

Is a character speaking with slang or using idioms? Ask the class to explain what they mean, through context clues. For this, you might want to use films set where there are distinct accents and patterns of speech; films set in Scotland, New York, southern USA, Canada, England or Ireland, for example. Respective examples include (depending on the age of your audience!) ‘Brave’, ‘When Harry Met Sally’, ‘Forrest Gump’, ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’, ‘Billy Elliot’ and ‘Brooklyn’.

Prediction activities are always good fun. As Carl explains: 

“A classic TV watching activity is some sort of prediction activity. Sometimes you can put the poster up of a film, or thumbnail of a YouTube slide… you put that up on the screen, and you say “ok, what do you think this YouTube clip or film is going to be about?” Ask your partner. Or, what do you think is going to happen in the next five minutes, or in this scene?”

Acting out scenes

The next Cate Blanchett or Colin Farrell might well be in your TEFL class. How can you find out? It’s easy: try to find a film script - or at least quotes from the film - and get students to act out scenes. Additionally, Carl says “students could write or perform their own conversation between two characters, or write the next scene”, if you’ve got a particularly creative bunch of students. 

It might seem silly, and of course, you’ll need to use your judgement on what’s appropriate, but you can ask students to use accents from the film, or patterns of speech - for example, the confident communication of Buzz Lightyear from ‘Toy Story’, or, conversely, a character that speaks far slower, like the eponymous ‘Forrest Gump’. Have fun with it!

Obviously, these scenes need to be age-appropriate! So, no Pulp Fiction, we’re afraid; unless you’ve got a class of adult learners who have a good sense of humour!

Explain to students what’s happening in the scene, and go over words/phrases that might be unfamiliar. Then, get your students to sound out these words and phrases. There’s no substitute for speaking out phrases in order to commit them to memory. Attaching difficult bits of language to a clip can improve word association.

Body language and tone

Fine, this might sound counter-intuitive; after all, aren’t we learning from cinema in order to improve vocabulary, sharpen up grammar and use punctuation effectively? First, that means ruling out a lot of Christopher Walken’s work, but it’s not just about what’s being said, it’s about how it’s being said.

Expression plays a major part in language, and a lot of that comes from the body. Discuss facial expressions with students, and how it applies to the language. For example, stoic rhetoric: Clint Eastwood in ‘Dirty Harry’. Or, you can refer to our old pal Mr Shakespeare; any decent film version of ‘Hamlet’ features dramatic irony, earnest soliloquies and more techniques that need effective acting both physically and verbally. Of course, straying from cinema and on to TV, there are fantastic examples of sarcasm; George or Elaine from ‘Seinfeld’, Chandler from ‘Friends’, and so on.

Gestures are important. If you want to learn a language fluently, your body and your face have to express something as much as words do. Otherwise, you’ll have students that maybe pass the IELTS exam but speak robotically. We recommend not showing ‘Robocop’ or ‘The Terminator’ to students for precisely this reason.

Adult learners smiling in a classroom

Why is cinema so useful?

With all that said, let’s sum up: why is a film so useful in the classroom?

Textbooks can only go so far. To truly learn a language, you need to see and hear it being used, in a range of different contexts. Learning English phrases, and indeed, how people actually talk in English, is so much easier when you’ve got authentic use of the language being played out right in front of you.

Again, the importance of tone needs to be communicated in the classroom. You want students who can hold a conversation, and maybe even tell a joke? Show your students how it’s done, and what kind of vocal and physical expression is used in day-to-day English. 

Idioms, phraseology, accents and slang are also much easier to communicate through film. No offence, and we’re sure you’re talented, but it’s unlikely you can nail every single accent, know how English is spoken in every single community, and know all of the world’s English-language slang.

Film can also be a teacher’s friend in a more practical way. As Carl explains: “Why I like to do it is to change the pace of the lesson, to sort of quiet things down. Changing pace, where you have some quicker activities and some slower activities, tends to work pretty well in helping to keep the motivation of the students.”

Useful resources

This is all fine and well, we hear you say, but where should I - the talented TEFL teacher reading this - find the right resources to effectively plan a lesson around film?

Firstly, yes you are very talented, and secondly, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. Firstly, we’re signposting FILTA, the Film in Teaching Language Association . Through their English teaching section , you can find guides to teaching about specific films that have real teaching value. Resources are also available in other languages if you’d like to do some learning yourself.

Viral ELT is a great resource for shorter clips, and as the name suggests, it uses videos and memes from the internet to give teaching lessons. Let’s face it; a lot of your learners want to know what people are saying on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, they might not necessarily be interested in watching ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ right off the bat. 

Learn English with a TV Series does exactly what it says it does. This YouTube channel uses clips from the most popular series on television, and constructs lessons. If you’re wondering how to do this kind of lesson, or you want to use these videos in the classroom, you’re covered either way.
Finally, good old IMDb is an excellent way of gathering quotes and trivia about the films you’re going to show. If students are reacting particularly well to one of your lessons, you can find films or TV series from the same writers, actors and directors. Also, a good lesson might be to take a synopsis from IMDb, and take out certain words or sentences, and the students have to guess what the film’s all about.

Check out our range of TEFL resource packs , which are packed full of lesson plans and games to use in the TEFL classroom!

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