Stephen Louw

Movies in the classroom

Showing movie clips to students can be a fantastic teaching tool

With every innovation comes a flurry of calls for caution. 

In 1765, for example, came the cautionary complaint that having a ‘table of contents’ is lazy. In 1981 came a call for teachers to stand up against the growing invasion of computers which was likely to lead to the failure of literacy ‘in 10 years’.  

Then there was the terrible threat of ‘dancing eyes’ from the menace posed by the “movies” (double quotes in the original) in 1913? One study in 1933 linked movies to juvenile delinquency

We now know that a table of contents is pretty useful, computers haven’t caused the demise of literacy, and movies don’t lead to dancing eye syndrome. In fact, it seems that we can all agree that movies have turned out to be pretty cool things – many of us seem to enjoy a night at the movies from time to time. Even kids love movies! 

According to one report (sponsored by Viacom and therefore completely unbiased) youth are passionate fans of movies!

Passionate movie fans

Given youths’ passion for movies, there is good reason for using movies in our classrooms. 

I remember back in the last century when I was a kid, the opportunity to watch a movie during class, any movie, was greeted with absolute glee. It meant we could goof off, there would be no homework, teachers were out of sight. 

This glee works the other way around too. In Bad Teacher, Cameron Diaz’s portrayal of a quintessentially bad teacher has her students watching movies during class while she tends to various pressing adult issues.

If you watched that clip, you’ll have seen that Cameron’s use of movies in her classroom is met with disapproval. But what’s the problem with showing movies in class? 

Proponents of classroom-movie-watching argue that students enjoy movies and learn things from watching them, there is plenty of language input (which Stephen Krashen and his input hypothesis says is good for language learning), and it obviates the need for classroom management or for differentiation. Every child is happy – it’s perfect.

Opponents say that movies are entertainment, not education. Students can watch them at home, and certainly don’t need the help of expensive, experienced, qualified teachers to press play. 

Even hardcore Krashen-ites will argue that input needs to be carefully graded, with careful repetition and recycling of vocabulary, features not common in most movies. Teachers like Cameron Diaz’s character are taking the lazy option, encouraging lazy students, and wasting valuable classroom time. 

Movies turn a class from curious and active into quiet and passive. In schools taking this stance, movies are the enemy.

A blanket sanction on using movies in class is unfair, though. Movies can be abused by unscrupulous Cameron Diaz types, but the truth is there are plenty of benefits for students: fantastic glimpses into culture, examples of authentic (or at least near-authentic) language use, different accents, visual support for new vocabulary, and so forth. Possibly the most powerful benefit movies have is on integrative motivation – inspiring engagement in English through the ‘English community’ that movies represent.

Getting a clip

The trick to using movies is to capitalize on these wonderful benefits without the bad teacher abuse. That means avoiding using the lion’s share of a lesson to show a movie. So instead of showing the whole movie, we can focus on a clip from the movie – for the purposes of the classroom, you can get a lot of mileage from just a few minutes lifted from a movie.

The reason why one clip is enough is because you need to prepare students for it, and you need to have something to follow from it. This way, the language in the movie doesn’t overwhelm the students, it can be exploited, and the stays on language production rather than entertainment.

Let’s use The Simpsons as an example. The Simpsons seems like an ideal classroom movie – fun, witty, colorful, relevant. Cartoon or not, though, the Simpsons do not make for an ‘easy’ watch. The episodes are full of slang, the dialogue dense and quick, the humor is very, um, American, and the themes are often quite heavy. 

To demonstrate how a clip is quite enough for a classroom without overwhelming students, how about ‘Lisa the Vegetarian’ (season 7)? This is a nice meaty topic for discussions and debates for a class with strong language skills. Watch in the first 4 minutes and then stop:

In those first 4 minutes there is a lot going on. Some low-level cursing, onomatopoeia (‘aw’ for seeing a cute lamb vs ‘aw’ for disappointment and anger), American culture (the Flanders family’s do-si-do barbecue), slang (“I’m a Viking”) the difference between ‘lamb’ and ‘a lamb’, and ‘cow’ and ‘beef’ (with visuals to match), phrasal verbs (‘broken into’) and sarcasm (‘a haven of enlightenment’).

Planning your viewing

The students are going to need help. This is where a teacher needs to plan carefully how the clip can be used. We need to decide on a focus from all the possible options available. We can expect that the students will need multiple exposures and therefore multiple tasks. We are going to need some task sheets. Lots to do. One way to handle this is to structure the lesson following the old but useful PWP (pre-, while-, post-) format.

In the ‘pre-viewing’ stage, we run some preparatory activities to get students ready for the clip: introduce or elicit some useful language, preview elements of the topic, maybe get the students to predict what they are going to watch based on some clues.

In the ‘while-viewing’ stage we give them tasks to do while they are watching. These are often questions to check comprehension but the goal of these tasks is to focus their attention on specific language. Many teachers find that students need to view the clip more than once.

Once those task sheets are done, there are a few ‘post-viewing’ activities in which students can discuss their views on the topic, talk about their own experience, or even do a short dramatization of the clip in groups. With just this 4-minute video clip, there is a wealth of language learning opportunities.

The movie world is your oyster

You can find sample lesson material for this Simpson’s clip in John Rucynski Jr.’s excellent paper on the Simpsons in the EFL classroom, and a transcript of Simpsons episodes like this one here.

Now with YouTube, clips are pre-prepared for us and ready to go! It’s wonderful. Try some of these for movie-clip-fun in your classroom: 

‘daily routines’ with Mr. Bean 

‘suicide’ with Groundhog Day (okay, that’s a little dark, but hey!), 

‘can for ability’ with The Incredibles

‘body parts’ with Monsters Inc 

‘imperatives’ with Harry Potter

It never ends! 

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


For M4-M6 students for a semester I used the movie "Clockwise", John Cleese as a headmaster/principal of a UK secondary school. A comedy with lots of "fun visual action". Showed it over 3 classes and after each one had question and answer sessions. Students enjoyed very much .

By mark, bangkok (27th June 2019)

Well, I suppose a more positive approach towards playing movies for the students is acceptable when thats what the Thai staff does with them. (At some schools)

Dont rub them the wrong way and pop in a video as well ay? But promote doing it too. Good humor..yet constructive.

By Spade Na Kap, Pattaya (21st June 2019)

There some marvellous humor in the article, so pay attention!

By Mark Newman, Land of love... (7th June 2019)

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