Using TV and Movies to Improve ESL Listening


As I ride the subway in the morning, I look around and notice that just about everyone around me is plugged in. Earbuds on, they’re all watching something on an iPad, a phone, or even a laptop. When I arrive at school to teach my English classes, I notice that a large majority of my students have ear buds hanging around their necks with cords connected to the phones in their pockets. To be honest, I used to lament the iron grip that the audiovisual sources like Youtube and Netflix seems to have over us these days. Now, however, I use it to my advantage.

Listening is one of the most difficult skills for students to acquire in English-especially if they are in an area with non-standard pronunciation or one in which they must listen to a multitude of accents. Audiovisual sources can help students get extra practice outside the classroom in interesting and relevant ways. However, simply going to Youtube and watching clips in English is not enough. To be effective, ESL students should choose audiovisual sources mindfully and have a strategy. Below are the top ten pieces of advice for learning while watching TV.

1. Opt for a series over a movie. TV or streaming series have a number of advantages over a movie. The most obvious one is that a series offers material in smaller chunks. As opposed to two hours or longer, English learners can consume the media in shorter segments. Series also offer more material over a longer period of time, so ESL students can become involved and interested in a long running plot. They also have more time to become familiar with the characters and settings.

2. Choose a drama over a comedy show. Comedies are perhaps the most difficult genre to start with when it comes to learning another language. These shows often have subtle humor and sarcasm, both of which can be difficult for non-native English speakers to understand. Dramas, on the other hand, provide more straightforward dialogue and situations. If a student insists on watching something humorous, suggest a show with more visual/slapstick type humor.

3. Pick a familiar or more generalized context. One of the most challenging things about some of the more popular dramas like NCIS, Criminal Minds, and ER is that they are full of jargon specific to the medical or legal fields. If your ESL students watched similar dramas in their countries or worked in these fields, the vocabulary won’t necessarily be a big challenge. However, if your students are completely unfamiliar with these contexts, then choose dramas with more generalized situations such as soap operas.

4. Listen without any subtitles first. One mistake that people make when using audiovisual materials to learn English is to watch the show or clip in English with subtitles in another language. In this case, ESL students tend to be reading subtitles and not focusing on trying to understand what is being said. Have English learners watch the clip without any subtitles first. Have them write down a short summary of what they think happened and note any places where they didn’t understand. Then, have the students re-watch with subtitles to clarify their understanding.

5. Use predictive strategies. Have EFL/ESL students use the title or what happened in previous episodes to determine what’s going to happen in the next show. Have them make a list of possible English words they might need for the episode, and have them look them up. Have them use the episode to confirm their predictions.

6. Don’t try to understand every word. One of the main things that stops students from comprehending an English listening exercise is a desire to understand every single word. Especially if an ESL student is struggling, have him or her focus the gist of the episodes instead of specific words or phrases.

7. Help students progress in their English listening skills. As I mentioned above, if all ESL students ever do is watch episodes with subtitles in their language, their listening will not improve. Listening skills will also plateau if students don't try to push themselves by listening to longer clips or by removing subtitles altogether. The idea is to progress from short clips to longer segments to eventually watching the entire show. Students should also move from subtitles in their language to subtitles in English to no subtitles at all. The ultimate goal for all ESL students should be to understand after watching an episode once without subtitles. Below is sample progression schedule for English learners. a) Have students watch the show in short clips—10 minutes at a time —without subtitles. Have them write down what they think happened. Then, have them watch the same clip again with subtitles in their native language to check themselves. b) Have students watch the show in longer segments—15 to 20 minutes at a time—without subtitles. Have your ESL students write a summary in English and then watch the same clip again with subtitles in their language to check themselves. c) Have students watch the show in short, ten-minute clips without subtitles and as usual have them write short summary of events. This time, have students watch the same clip with subtitles in English and check themselves. d) Have students watch the show in longer segments without subtitles and write a summary. Then, have them watch the same clip with subtitles in English and check themselves. e) As before, have student watch the show in short clips without subtitles and summarize events. This time, have them watch the clip again without any subtitles at all to check themselves.

8. Vary your tasks during the episodes. Always doing the same thing can be boring for students. Provide different tasks for ESL/EFL students in order to give them some variety. Some examples of these tasks could be: a) Have students pick their favorite character and focus on any dialogue that he/she says. Have them summarize what he or she says and determine the character’s overall mood during the episode. As an extension activity, your students could write an imaginary dialogue between the character and themselves. b) Have ESL students write down as many new words as they can throughout the episode as well as their guesses for the meanings of the words without a dictionary. (They might need to pause the episode to do this task.) Then, have them watch the episode a second time and to check their guesses. If there are any words that the students are still unsure about, they can check a dictionary or online. c) Pick a specific scene that has cultural significance. Have students examine the scene and summarize the dialogue. How would that scene have played out differently in their country?

9. Pick something that you actually enjoy watching. Listening can be a particularly difficult and laborious task—especially if students have to listen to something incredibly boring. Have English learners pick something that they like to watch. If the show sparks their interest, they will be much more likely to continue watching it.

10. Have students keep a journal. One of the best ways for ESL students to practice their writing as well as listening is to have students keep a journal of all of their summaries and thoughts while watching a series. The journal can help them remember what happened in a previous episode and new vocabulary words that they have heard. You could also have students respond to specific questions about the episodes they have watched.

How do you use audiovisual components like TV series and movies as part of your ESL or EFL classroom? We'd love to hear! You can comment below.

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