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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Eight Ways to Use Video With English-Language Learners

Larry Ferlazzo

I teach English & Social Studies at inner-city high school in Sacramento,CA

This blog was co-authored by Katie Hull Sypnieski. This post is excerpted from their new book, The ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Tools, and Activities for Teaching English Language Learners of All Levels.


"I like the way you use videos with us -- you get us moving, talking, writing and speaking. The problem is you make us think too much."
-- "John," one of our English-Language Learner students

We can think of far worse things a student might say to us, and John's comment demonstrates our perspective on using video with English-Language Learners (and, for that matter, with all students) -- research and our experience show that it can be a very effective learning tool, but it has to be used as an active one. The word "active" comes from the Latin "actus," which means "a doing, a driving." Here are some strategies for using video with ELLs that reflect those words and avoid the danger of just sitting back and watching the screen. The activities we present connect to multiple Common Core Standards including the following "Anchor Standards" for ELA Grades 6-12:

  • Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

1. Critical Pedagogy

"Critical Pedagogy" is the term often used to describe a teaching approach whose most well-known practitioner was Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Freire was critical of the "banking" approach towards education, where the teacher "deposits" information into his/her students. Instead, he wanted to help students learn through questioning and looking at real-world problems that they, their families, and their communities faced. Through this kind of "dialogue," he felt that both students and the teacher could learn together.

The class could start off by watching this New York Times video about a father grieving his son's death from gang violence:

Then, the teacher could lead students through a process of thinking, sharing in small groups and with the class, and writing and drawing using this questioning sequence:

  1. Describe what you see: Who is doing what? What do they look like? What objects do you see in the video? Summarize what they are saying.
  2. What is the problem in the video?
  3. Have you, your family, or friends ever experienced the problem? Describe what happened.
  4. What do you think might be the causes of the problem?
  5. What solutions could a person do on their own? What solutions could people do together? Would one be better than the other? Why or why not?

Students could create simple posters and make presentations (including role-plays) illustrating the problem, sharing their personal connection to it, listing potential solutions, and choosing which one they think is best and why. As students became more advanced, they could even develop this outline into a Problem/Solution essay using the same outline.

There are literally thousands of videos available online which depict problems and are accessible to English-Language Learners.

2. Back to the Screen

Back to the Screen is adapted from Zero Prep: Ready-to-Go Activities for the Language Classroom by Laurel Pollard, Natalie Hess, and Jan Herron. The teacher picks a short engaging clip from a movie and then divides the class into pairs, with one group facing the TV and the other with their back to it. Then, after turning off the sound, the teacher begins playing the movie. The person who can see the screen tells the other person what is happening. Then, after a minute or a few minutes (depending upon the length of the video), the students switch places. Afterward, the pairs write a chronological sequence of what happened, which is shared with another group and discussed as a class. Finally, everyone watches the clip, with sound, together.

There are many suitable video clips online for this kind of activity.

3. Language Experience Approach

The Language Experience Approach describes the process of the entire class doing an activity, which could very well be watching a short video, and then discussing and writing about it.

Immediately following the activity, students are given a short time to write down notes about what they did (very early beginners can draw). Then, the teacher calls on students to share what the class did -- usually, though not always -- in chronological order. The teacher then writes down what is said on a document camera, overhead projector, or easel paper. It's sometimes debated if the teacher should write down exactly what a student says if there are grammar or word errors, or if the teacher should say it back to the student and write it correctly -- without saying the student was wrong. We use the second strategy and feel that as long as students are not being corrected explicitly ("That's not the correct way to say it, Eva, this is"), it's better to model accurate grammar and word usage. Students can then copy down the class-developed description. Since the text comes out of their own experience, it is much more accessible because they already know its meaning.

The text can subsequently be used for different follow-up activities, including as a cloze (removing certain words and leaving a blank which students have to complete); a sentence scramble (taking individual sentences and mixing-up the words for learners to sequence correctly); or mixing-up all the sentences in the text and having students put them back in order.

Here is a list of video clips that would work well in the Language Experience Approach.

4. Dubbing

Showing videos without the sound and having students develop an imagined dialogue can be a great language lesson, and a lot of fun. You can even have students act out the scenes, too. In fact, you can use this idea even with videos that don't include humans! Have students imagine what dogs are thinking in this video about acting dogs.

5. Novelty

Our brains are wired to respond to something new -- a survival legacy of our ancestors who had to be acutely aware of any change in their environment. You are more likely to grab students' attention by introducing information, a topic, or a lesson in a different way, and a video clip can "fit the bill." For example, we began a unit on Natural Disasters by showing a portion of this first report on the Japan earthquake and tsunami.

6. Video Clips and Questions

Another way to use video to generate student thinking involves students watching a short video clip and then writing questions about the clip. Students divide into pairs, exchange their papers, and answer their partner's questions. Students then exchange papers again and ''grade'' their partner's answers. The fact that students are writing questions for a real audience (a classmate) tends to lead to better questions. Students may also take more time answering the questions because they know a classmate will be ''grading'' them.

This activity can be used when teaching students about different levels of thinking such as the difference between literal and interpretive questions. We have used this worksheet to facilitate this activity with our students.

For example, students could use the worksheet and generate some interesting predictions and questions about an undefeated professional mixed martial arts fighter who is also an amputee in the video titled "My Little Arm."

7. Video and Reading Strategies

We focus a lot on helping our students develop and use various reading strategies such as predicting, summarizing, visualizing, questioning, connecting, evaluating, etc. Teachers can use video to give students further opportunities to practice these strategies in an engaging way. For example, students could practice predicting what will happen next and then summarize what actually happened in the video "Bike Thief."

8. Inductive Learning

Inductive learning is a powerful way for students to build higher-order thinking skills. Using the inductive process builds on the brain's natural desire to make connections and to seek patterns. Text data sets are a key strategy where students employ this thinking to seek patterns and use them to identify their broader meanings and significance. Text Data Sets can be composed of short examples of text, which can be organized into categories. Each example may be a sentence or a paragraph in length, and the level of text can be adjusted depending upon the proficiency level of the students. Students use their reading strategies to decode and comprehend the text first and then employ a higher level of thinking to recognize patterns in the text. They organize the examples into categories either given to them by the teacher or generated by the students themselves.

For example, this data set on earthquakes might include the following categories: earthquake damage, causes of earthquakes, and famous earthquakes in history. Students can then add to each category using information found in further reading and in videos. For example, students could add to their earthquake categories by viewing this video on the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and this one on an earthquake in Chile.

What are ways you use videos to drive learning in your class?

Engaging English Language Learners with Photos and Video

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