A good command over the English language is one of the most sought-after skills on a global level. Teaching and learning English have seen an unprecedented rise in demand in the past few decades. Students learning English belong to various age groups and efficient communicative and writing skills are considered a benchmark of quality in professional arenas and personality development.

Teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) includes lessons on grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

Though there are many teaching strategies, this article aims to emphasise the relevance of audiovisual aids in helping students learn better. And the most influential medium amongst audiovisual aids is undoubtedly movies!

10 Reasons to learn English with movies:

  1. Movies arrest the attention of the viewer remarkably well.
  2. There are so many different genres of movies like action, thriller, fantasy, comedy, romantic comedies, musicals/dance etc. to choose from and provide an outside-the-conventional-classroom experience.
  3. Movies showcase the culture of the places or countries the stories are based on and deal with contemporary issues or historical events, and hence they are easy to comprehend and relate to.
  4. The ESL instructor gets prompt feedbacks from the students.
  5. It saves a lot of time in conveying so many lessons through effective planning of the activities given at the end of movie clippings.
  6. Better teacher-student rapport can be established through interesting ways of using movies in ESL learning
  7. Students with learning disabilities (LD) find movies a very viable tool to grasp concepts.
  8. Active participation of students can be ensured while watching movies and doing activities related to the same at the end of the show. This provides a fresh approach from the usual passive sitting during lectures.
  9. Learning with movies opens the doors to visual, audio and kinaesthetic experiences, a combination of senses that helps the brain register concepts and ideas more productively.
  10. Finally and most importantly, movies provide the most fun way to teach and learn syntax, accent and dialect, which otherwise seem quite boring indeed!

How do you effectively teach ESL with movies?Show just a 10-minute or 15-minute clipping of a particular movie you prefer to show the class.

Group students into pairs or triads and ask for narratives: Pick a student belonging to a particular group to describe what he/she had seen on the screen. Let the other members of the team review the narration and add in the missing details. With this exercise, you encourage speaking and listening skills amongst the students. Not only does it assess one’s observant skills, but it also nurtures confidence in speaking and using apt words to describe the settings in the movie. The ESL instructor can also supervise if the vocabulary matches with the intended meaning and prompt students to suggest rectifications. This kind of peer-mediated tutoring develops inter-personal skills.

Act it out: Ask the students to play the characters they had seen on screen. This kind of role play is a fun activity that reflects what the viewers have seen, heard and felt to the core.

Ignite their curiosity through creative ideas and imagination: Ask them what they think would happen after the last scene of the movie clipping. Or you may even ask them to suggest an alternative ending.

Focus on both individual participation and group work, so that not a single student is left out.

Bring in different genres of movies like sci-fi, fiction, comedy, period drama etc.

Different Movie Genres

Make prior plans about the movie sequences you intend to show and the activities you engage them in.

Use different assignment methods – written, oral, projects etc. so as to engage as many ways of learning as possible.

Give practice sessions on synonyms, antonyms, vocabulary items and literary devices based on movie clippings

Customize movie-based activities according to the age group of the students in the class.

Try to keep activities simple and interesting to capture the attention of the students for a longer period of time.

Do not stress the students too much about mistakes that happen in the course of discussions. Let them freely express themselves! By and by, the instructor can inculcate the right kind of expressions and usages.

There are movies with social messages and tales of grit that the instructor can use to inspire students to learn, face life’s challenges and empathise with their differently abled classmates, if any, and with mankind, in general.It’s best to choose movies that are not too difficult to understand. Choose films that you’re sure most people would enjoy watching.

How do you exactly enhance language skills with movies:

Understanding the gist or crux of a particular situation seen in the film and describing about the same gives an assessment of the student’s language comprehension.

Grammar and sentence structure are discussed during narratives.

Practice vocabulary: appropriate words, clauses, phrases, idioms and the like can be brought into focus during movie discussions.

Accent and dialect can be learnt by listening and mimicking the characters on screen. The ESL instructor can throw light on the differences in American and British accents through examples. There are subtle differences in modes of speech during different time periods as well and the ESL instructor can highlight the same with a short description of the historical period the movie depicts (if it happens to be period drama)Communication skills are effectively improved when students step outside their comfort zone and express their perspectives on the movie sequences shown.

Non-language skills enhanced as part of learning English with movies:

Watching films and having discussions, debates and role plays bring forth a new wave of enthusiasm amongst students to convey their ideas and opinions in words, sentences and questionnaires. This leap of faith and confidence are of paramount importance when one is on the quest for fluency and perfection.

Improves attention span and interest in learning.

Connecting with the real world of diversity in cultures and historical incidents or events through cinema

Brainstorming sessions lead to generation of numerous ideas. There are never right or wrong answers when people voice their perspectives about movies with open endings.

Certain life skills like critical thinking, problem-solving and cooperative participation help students emulate values and ethics.

List of movies that help in ESL teaching for young kids:

The following are my favourite picks when it comes to learning English with movies. Of course, the list goes on and anyone can have their choices of those films that inspired them to think, grow and learn this beautiful language. Here we go:

Home Alone (1990): This will always be the closest to my heart as it takes me to nostalgic memories of childhood! And the unforgettable Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McCallister. In the first film of the franchise, Kevin and his big family plan to spend their Christmas holidays in Paris. Once they reach Paris, they realize they have left Kevin behind and prepare to head back home. Meanwhile, Kevin takes charge of the big mansion, but realize that a couple of thieves are planning to break in. The rest of the plot revolves around ways Kevin tries to outsmart the thieves and protect his home.

The Lion King (1994): A Disney classic that rotates around young lion Simba, this movie touches the right chord of emotions and life lessons. Simba has to take over the throne following the death of his father, Mufasa. It should be easy for him if it weren’t for his cruel uncle who makes the going tough.

Toy Story (1995): In this fantastic Disney tale, we meet Andy and his toys that spring to life whenever Andy leaves the room. Woody is his right-hand-man, but then Buzz Lightyear comes in and threatens to steal the spotlight.

The Sound of Music (1965): This Oscar-winning musical narrates the tale of a young governess, Maria, perfectly enacted by Julie Andrews and how she sings her way into the hearts of the von Trapp family. The songs “So Long, Farewell” and “Do-Re-Mi’ continue to enchant music lovers. Maria takes care of the seven motherless von Trapp children and falls in love with their father as well. They get married, but soon they have to leave their homeland for fear of the Nazis.

The Jungle Book (1967 and recently in 2016): This brilliant story by Rudyard Kipling shows how a young orphan, Mowgli, ends up in the jungle and is raised by a wolf family. The tiger, Shere Khan, is on the lookout to kill him, but the black panther, Bagheera, and the Himalayan brown bear, Baloo protect the boy and help him seek his true identity amongst humans.

Shrek (franchise): The first film released in 2001, Shrek 2 in 2004, Shrek the Third in 2007 and Shrek forever after in 2010. The series primarily focuses on Shrek, an ogre, who sets off to rescue a princess and in the process enjoys an adventurous journey and makes new friends.

Harry Potter (film series from 2001 – 2011): The famous book series by J. K. Rowling was brought to cinematic reality and continue to enthrall young audiences. Harry Potter is an orphaned muggle who learns to become a wizard in the Hogwarts School and tries to overcome his nemesis, Voldemort. His friends Ron Weasly and Hermione Granger and many other memorable characters in the Harry Potter movies truly have relevance of their own and the plotlines are very engaging and full of surprises.

Jumanji (franchise): The first Jumanji movie released in 1995 is my all-time favourite in the franchise. A brother-sister duo goes to explore their new home and finds an interesting game in the attic. But this game is most extraordinary! It sucks the children into a crazy adventure wherein they have to escape from a wild hunter.

Night at the museum: This is a trilogy of fantasy, the first film having been released in 2006. The main character Larry is a night security guard at the Museum of Natural History. One night, there’s a robbery attempt at the museum which Larry tries to foil. Strange enough, the exhibits come to life and help him in the task.

Inside Out (2015): This is arguably one of Pixar’s most creative storylines. The main characters are actually the feelings of a little girl – Disgust, Joy and Sadness, to name a few. Extremely funny and thought-provoking, the animation is simply astounding and is a whole family entertainer.

Finding Nemo (2003): When the colourful little fish, Nemo, goes missing in the deep blue sea, it is up to his elder brother Marlin to find and bring him back. The plot revolves around the journey and Nemo’s experiences that give us a lesson or two about life!

How to Train your Dragon (2010): This story is all about Vikings and dragons. Hiccup is not like the rest of the Viking clan. Although he aspires to be like his dragon-hunting father, he is not very brave and confident. Things change when he makes friends with the Night Fury Dragon. And the two of them set out on a quest to address an issue that threatens both Vikings and dragons alike.

List of movies that help in ESL teaching for older kids and adults:

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): This is loosely adapted from the novel “Q & A” by Vikas Swarup. Directed by Danny Boyle, it won many Oscar awards and as far as India is concerned, it catapulted our music maestro A. R. Rahman into international acclaim and was a proud moment for Resul Pookkutty too for sound mixing. It tells the story of a teenager from the slums of Mumbai who goes on to hit the jackpot at the “Kaun Banega Crorepati” show.

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006): This is an inspiring movie that mentions the hardships Chris Gardner, played by Will Smith, goes through to support himself and his son as his wife leaves him when he goes broke. Chris Gardner struggles to make ends meet but finally he’s rewarded for his patience and perseverance. Will Smith deserves credit for his brilliant acting in this movie!

Titanic (1997): This epic movie went on to break all known box office records at the time and still continues to move audiences worldwide. Set in the year 1912 and based on the real Titanic ship that sank in the Atlantic after just four days of its debut voyage, the love story between Jack, an artist, and Rose, an aristocratic lady, breaks our hearts. As Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks, people scramble for life, but only a few survive. Though Rose manages to get into a lifeboat with Jack, by the time the survivors are rescued into another ship, Rose shockingly realizes that Jack has frozen to death.

Forrest Gump (1994): Marvellously played by Tom Hanks that fetched him the Best Actor Academy Award, Forrest Gump is a man with low IQ, who happens to itness key historical events in his lifetime. And at the end of it all, he hopes to be reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Jenny.

Star Wars: This film franchise can be enjoyed by the old and young alike, especially if you are a sci-fi fan. The 1977 movie directed by George Lucas was one of its kind, giving an outer-space adventure experience, and nostalgic memories for people in the past generation too!

The Lord of the Rings trilogy: The first of the series came out in 2001. All the movies in this trilogy are adapted from the fantasy novel that goes by the same name and written by J. R. R. Tolkien. A young hobbit named Frodo has to fulfil the hard task of destroying the powerful One Ring that is sought by the evil Dark Lord Sauron . He heads to Mount Doom, the only place where it can be destroyed with a group of eight companions. The three movies in the trilogy describe difficulties, betrayals and heartbreaks on the way and the big question remains whether Frodo himself would live up to the challenge, after all.

Baby’s Day Out (1990): Just thinking about this movie brings laughter on my face! The son of a millionaire, the baby is kidnapped by three idiotic crooks who pose as photographers. But the baby smartly makes his way out of their control. The chaos that the crooks end up in will leave you in splits!

The Social Network (2010): This is the real-life story of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg who creates the world-famous social networking website with his friend Eduardo Saverin. Things go bitter between the friends even as their company grows exponentially.

12 Years a Slave (2013): A biographical-period drama set in 1853, this movie tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American, who realizes too late that he has been sold into slavery.

Jurassic Park (1993): This science fiction movie by Steven Spielberg takes you on a rollercoaster ride of adventure and unpredictability. Security breach in a national park full of cloned dinosaurs causes the creatures to escape and result in total mayhem.

Life of Pi (2012): Based on Yann Martel’s novel of the same name, this is an adventure movie directed by Ang Lee. The camaraderie between Pi Patel and a Bengal tiger that Pi calls by the name Richard Parker, is a treat to watch. There are many deep meanings and messages to be understood from the nature of the characters, the settings and the dialogues in the movie. Things aren’t exactly as they are told or maybe they are, and it is left to the audience to believe whatever seems logical to them.

A Beautiful Mind (2001): This is a biographical film based on the life of John Nash, an American mathematician. Russel Crowe’s depiction of the struggles with schizophrenia that Nash suffered from is truly heart-wrenching.

Summing up:

It’s worth a try to teach ESL using movies as it engages multi-sensory experiences that will definitely leave an indelible mark in the minds of the students. There are countless films to choose from and there is never dearth of material when we try to learn English with movies! Of course, the list that I have put up misses mentioning so many interesting movies like Madagascar, Kung-fu Panda, Frozen, Ice Age, Avengers, Pirates of the Caribbean, action movies like Mission Impossible, Top Gun and many many more, but surely we can’t keep discussing on and on about movies, can we? Though it’s a very alluring proposition indeed….

Frequently asked questions:

? What are the equipments needed to teach ESL through movies?

A computer or laptop

Movie projector


? How do I become an ESL instructor?

Earn a graduate degree. Obtain ESL training from certification courses like TESOL, TEFL. Seek licence to teach, if any, in the country you wish to work. Computer literacy and Masters’ degree are added assets.

? Should subtitles be shown when the movie is being played onscreen?

There are different opinions by experts regarding the use of subtitles. Some recommend using subtitles, some suggest avoiding them because then the focus would shift to reading those subtitles rather than listening to the dialogues. Sometimes, subtitles are not accurate either. If necessary, the transcript could be downloaded for the exact understanding.

? What genres of movies could be preferably shown in the class?

All genres could be experimented with – drama, fiction, comedy, tragedy, adventure, animation, romance, suspense thriller – anything! What we need to watch out for is NOT to choose a complicated movie that is difficult to understand. If the learners can connect the content of the English movies to the subject areas taught in the classroom, then that would certainly be an added benefit.

? Should the ESL instructor have a discussion on the movie before or after showing the clipping?

The ESL instructor can choose to gives clues and cues or the background of the story before showing the movie clipping, especially considering the fact that just a 10-minute or 15-minute sequence would be shown, and not the entire movie. After watching the film, the instructor can give the learners a ‘fill in the blank’ activity with vocabulary words linked to the plot in the movie, for the lower level learners. For the higher level learners, discussion groups and narratives are more endearing.

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Literature buff, Homoeopathic consultant & Forever on the quest of self-discovery and universal truths!