‘Reading’ Films as Text

Here are a few ways middle school teachers use films in English and social studies to help students learn to delve deeper into the texts they’re reading.

February 14, 2023
Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
A scene from ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

In our increasingly digital and visual world, I’ve found that students are often reluctant to engage with traditional texts, especially for extended periods of time. Sometimes, this phenomenon is more evident as students spend time with their eyes fixed on cell phone screens instead of a book’s pages. Whether the difference is attention, comprehension, fluency, or simply a matter of preference, meaning-making in our current age occurs across pages and screens of various kinds. While I work with my students to read widely and build stamina, I also recognize moments when a media text can be read closely. 

My history as a reader involves compliance with many school-based reading assignments, but more avid engagement with texts based on popular characters I loved, including those represented in film. Sometimes this reading took place with comics, and other times chapter books were my focus. 

I have different ideas for how teachers can use film to be an active, rather than passive, text in a literacy-centered classroom. These suggestions (some of which are from my colleagues) include both English and social studies classrooms, and lesson steps can be applied across a number of content areas. To be clear, my love for the written word continues, and I see film and other media as connected links to reading processes, and not as replacements.

Making the Most of Mise en Scène

As a literacy-focused teacher, I love the idea of digging into an author’s prose. Ideally, I like for my students to encounter authors from a range of lived experiences, including gender, race, and ethnicity. I want my students to see the work of role models and the stories of characters whose identities extend beyond my own and whose experiences can inspire all of my students.

While I love film as an art form and text, I don’t discard the printed page; rather, I make intentional use of moments where some bit of schema might be built through engagement with an image, sometimes reading a text and watching its adaptation in film. Other times, this close reading can mean examining a series of clips and noting literary developments or authorial choices from directors and actors.

When it was time to write my dissertation in 2018, I found teachers who made use of similar practices. Renee Hobbs has discussed the active use of film, not just as a reward but as a text that can be broken apart. So, when one of the middle school teachers I talked with used A Wrinkle in Time not simply as a viewing experience after reading the text but as a chunked text for intentional comparison of key scenes, I noted this.

This use of film pointed out to students the ways that characters were treated, including the staging of scenes and the use of particular parts of the setting. All of these decisions on the celluloid page were planned well beforehand. The use of the well-chosen scene was an exercise in empathy, adding to the printed page and expanding student engagement, compassion, and comprehension.

When another teacher made use of a scene in Cinderella Man to consider the details of Russell Crowe’s wordless performance, the bustle and activity of moments balanced against silence, and the historical fine-tuning of movie moments, I saw a similar appreciation for the ways that a key scene in a prose chapter comes together. This wordless scene, like a wordless graphic novel or picture book, was an opportunity for inferencing to occur. These skills could then be called back in a subsequent reading of a prose text.

Connecting with Humanity

Empathy, that word that has sprung up in national and international conscience so much more over the past few years, is often a result of close reading. This act of close reading need not only apply to paragraphs but also can be built and practiced with filmic texts. When a seventh-grade social studies teacher asked his students to take a look at Malala Yousafzai, he asked them to expand their understanding beyond reading a name on a page.

When viewing the documentary He Named Me Malala, Malala’s story and the accounts of the ways that education is not readily accessible to women in all parts of the world, this teacher gave students the opportunity to talk, move around the room, and share—he also invited them to interview family members about their knowledge of various cultures throughout the course of study. This assignment bridged viewing with exploring community knowledge about culture. Film viewing, again, was not a passive activity but an invitation to engage in dialogue within and outside of the classroom.

When a high school teacher showed the story of Bayard Rustin, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, he demonstrated to students that the life of Martin Luther King Jr. was one of complexity and depth, adding to the story found in social studies.

Use Film to Give a Sense of Mood, Pace, and Meaning

Film is one of the go-to spaces for further practice for the teachers I’ve mentioned, but it’s also a space of practice for me. When I’m struggling to teach the difference between mood and tone, I use movie trailers. When I am building a schema about Elie Wiesel’s Night, we get to meet the author and advocate through video clips and hear his voice lift his Nobel Prize acceptance speech from the page. Even when we read a poem by Jericho Brown or Robert Frost, I try to find video/audio recordings so that my students can hear the pauses and the intonation and discover the meaning behind not just the poem itself but the performance of the work from the original source.

When I have a moment in The Hobbit where there is a great deal of activity, a fantastical vision from Peter Jackson helps students to think about what they see in their minds. When we read the final scene between George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, I can discuss George’s feelings not only based on Steinbeck’s description, but based on the way actor Gary Sinise made use of these moments in his performance.

When we press pause, engage in intentional text pairings, pose questions, and set purpose, film can be so much more than a reward. It can be a site for active reading and literacy practice.

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Arts Integration
  • English Language Arts
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School

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