How to Do a MovieTalk with Full-Length Movies

In my first few years of teaching ESL, I always thought that movies and videos in English would be great resources to use in class. But whenever I tried to use them, it never worked well. The students could barely understand anything, and the whole experience just ended up being frustrating for both my students and me.

Then I found out about MovieTalk, and it totally changed my approach to using movies and videos. It helped me find a way to make those videos comprehensible to my students, so they could both enjoy the videos as well as receive a lot of oral input in English while watching.

The technique of MovieTalk was developed by Dr. Ashley Hastings, who taught at an Intensive English Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He found that his students’ listening skills improved a lot from doing MovieTalks in class. In a MovieTalk, the teacher plays a movie for the students. While watching, the teacher pauses the video frequently to narrate what is happening on the screen. Dr. Hastings says to focus on narrating the action—the things we can see happening on the screen and can point to—rather than the dialogue between characters.

For example, if a teacher is using the movie Home Alone, they might pause the movie at this moment:

home alone

The teacher might say to the class: “Kevin is screaming. He is screaming because he is alone in his house. His family left. His family all went on vacation, and they forgot Kevin.”

In his article in the January 2014 issue of IJFLT, Dr. Hastings wrote this description of MovieTalk:

“Every language teacher knows how useful pictures can be in illustrating the meanings of new words. A movie contains thousands of pictures (frames) that illustrate many nouns, verbs, and adjectives. When we narrate a movie scene in clear, simple language, while pointing to various parts of the picture, we are providing vocabulary that corresponds to what the students are seeing. We are also modeling the common grammatical structures that occur naturally in our narration. All this adds up to high-quality comprehensible input embedded within the flow of a coherent, interesting story—which, in terms of Krashen’s Input and Affective Filter hypotheses (Krashen, 1982), should be ideal for language acquisition.”

Over the last several years, MovieTalks have become popular with TPRS teachers, though most of them use short, wordless videos (see Martina Bex’s explanation here). That was how I first got introduced to the idea of MovieTalk, but in the last couple of years, I’ve started occasionally using full-length movies in class.

In this post, I’ll explain how I use MovieTalk with full-length movies since there are a few ways in which I do it differently from Dr. Hastings.

Dr. Hastings used MovieTalk with beginning-level students, but I prefer using it with students at least at the low-intermediate level. Movies are created for fluent speakers of the language, which means that, for low-level language learners, there is A LOT of unfamiliar language for them. When I used a full-length movie with high-beginning-level students, several of my students seemed overwhelmed and frustrated. Even though I explained to them that they didn’t need to worry about understanding the language in the movie and only needed to understand what I was saying, it still led to some frustration. Also, I think it is probably not the most efficient use of class time with low-level learners since a significant amount of class time is spent having students listen to incomprehensible language. I would rather spend that time in class exposing students to language they can understand.

Another difference between how I do MovieTalk and how Dr. Hastings did it is the use of subtitles. Dr. Hastings didn’t display subtitles on the movies when he showed them in class. From what I’ve read, I think he chose not to use subtitles for two reasons: 1) He wanted the focus of the activity to be on receiving oral input, not written; 2) He wanted to emphasize to students that the language of the movie was not what they should focus on but only the language of the teacher’s narration. However, I’ve chosen to use subtitles because it usually helps students to understand a lot more of the language in the movie than they would otherwise. Also, it can help build students’ literacy skills, as they are seeing how words are written while hearing them spoken.


How to Select a Movie for MovieTalk

It’s important to select movies carefully because not all movies are appropriate for MovieTalk. Dr. Hastings advises teachers to find movies that have a lot of physical action that can be seen on screen and that do not rely too heavily on dialogue. The movies I’ve used for my ESL students so far are: Jingle All the Way, Matilda, Richie Rich, and Finding Nemo.

It’s also important to consider your students’ interests and genre preferences. You might consider giving them a choice between two or three movies and having them vote on which one they want to watch. I probably would not have chosen Finding Nemo for my students (with adults, I tend to avoid using cartoons), but several of my students requested it. You might also want to consider using a movie that could teach students about the culture of the language you teach. For example, I chose Jingle All the Way partially because I thought it would be a good way for my ESL students to learn more about American Christmas traditions.


What to Do Before the MovieTalk

You don’t necessarily need to do anything in class before starting a MovieTalk. However, if you want, you can introduce some of the main characters ahead of time and tell your students a little about the basic plot. I sometimes make a short PowerPoint presentation with pictures of the main characters and their names. I also think about which words are important for understanding the movie that might be new for my students, and I sometimes introduce a few of these words to my students ahead of time. You can even take a few screenshots from the movie and put them in a PowerPoint to help you introduce some of the vocabulary, characters, or major plot points. Of course, all of these things are totally optional—you could just wait until you watch the movie and then pause to explain words when needed.

Before class, watch the movie scenes that you’re going to show in class so you can plan where you will pause. I spent a lot of time preparing and practicing for MovieTalks when I first started doing them because I was nervous, but now that I’ve gotten more comfortable with it, it doesn’t take much preparation work for me. I just watch the movie before class and think about where I want to pause and what I might say to my students. Don’t worry about trying to memorize exactly what you’re going to say.


 During the MovieTalk

When it’s time for the MovieTalk, simply play the video. When you come to a part that you think is important for your students to understand, pause the video and explain what’s happening. You can point to the characters or other things on the screen to give visual support. If you want, you can also ask students questions as a way to do a quick comprehension check or just to give them a chance to express their reactions and opinions. For example, you could ask, “How do you think [character name] feels?” or “Do you think [character name] made a good decision?” or “What do you think will happen next?”

It’s up to you to decide how frequently you want to pause the movie to narrate. Personally, I think that deciding how often to pause is probably the hardest part of a MovieTalk. If you pause too frequently and try to explain every detail of the movie, it can get annoying for the students and it breaks up the flow of the story. On the other hand, if you don’t pause often enough, your students won’t understand what they are listening to and will lose interest. I just try my best to find the right balance, depending on my students’ level and preferences. Sometimes I adapt a little bit as I go—if I get the sense that students are getting annoyed with all the pausing, I pause less; if I get the sense that students are having trouble comprehending, I pause more.

Unless you have super long class periods, you probably won’t finish a movie within one class period (especially since it takes much longer than watching a movie normally because of all the pausing and narrating). I usually spread out a movie over one or two weeks of class.


What to Do After the MovieTalk

You don’t need to do anything after a MovieTalk! The MovieTalk itself should be the focus of the lesson. It’s the MovieTalk that gives students the input they need to acquire language. There were a few days when I did a MovieTalk in class and had planned to stop watching the movie about 5-10 minutes before the end of class so that students could re-tell what happened to a partner. But the students seemed to be enjoying the movie so much (and I was, too) that I just couldn’t bear to stop it any earlier than we needed to! And since we know how important it is for students to receive oral input in order to acquire language, why stop the input if the students are engaged?

That being said, I know that some teachers like to have follow-up activities, either at the end of a movie or at various points while watching. I usually do a quick review activity at the beginning of a class period before we start watching a new segment of the movie. This reminds students of where we left off previously so they can easily jump back into the story again. It’s also helpful for students who were absent from class the day before. To review, I usually just ask the class, “What happened in the part of the movie that we watched yesterday?” Students tell me what happened, and I write it on the board in the form of a short paragraph. (This is basically a Write and Discuss activity, similar to Language Experience Approach.)

Of course, there are numerous other activities you can do to review the movie. You can use pretty much any activity that you would use with any other type of story or text. Here are just a few other ideas:

  • Type up a reading for students that is a summary of what they just watched in the movie (or a preview of what they are going to watch—just don’t give away any big spoilers!)
  • Partner Re-tells—Have students talk with a partner and explain what they just watched in the movie
  • Cloze Summaries—Type up a summary with some words missing and have students fill in the blanks
  • Discourse Scramble—Type up several sentences from the movie and cut them apart into individual strips. Students need to arrange the sentences in the correct order.
  • Display screenshots from the movie—Have students write 1-2 sentences describing each screenshot

So far, my students have really enjoyed all the MovieTalks we’ve done. I don’t use MovieTalks all the time (like Dr. Hastings did in his class), but I do think they are fun to use every once in a while.

UPDATE: I now have a video of me using a MovieTalk with my students!!


Comment below if you have questions about doing a MovieTalk or have other MovieTalk-related ideas to share!

4 thoughts on “How to Do a MovieTalk with Full-Length Movies

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