Silent Movies

Tonight one of the films hotly-tipped to scoop an Oscar or two is The Artist, a film which is almost completely silent (there´s only a little dialogue which is spoken in the closing minutes of the film). I went to see the film a couple of weeks ago and loved it–it had the magic of those Hollywood classics from the twenties, thirties and forties that I used to watch on Saturday afternoons with my grandma.

The film and its story are so powerful and so easy to understand despite the fact that (virtually) no spoken language is used and this got me thinking about how I could also use “silent movies” in a lesson I was planning about electromagnets for a group of technicians who work in a sensor manufacturing plant. I realised that although video images can be very effective, the words spoken over them or within them can often cause learners (especially those who are B1 level and lower) to panic and suffer a bit of a mental block. I remember having the same experience myself years ago while learning French. Our class watched a video about unemployment in Belgium (not the most exciting subject anyway, perhaps) and the spoken French was too fast for me to properly understand and I also wasn´t familiar with the Belgian French accent. The only thing this listening comprehension exercise left me with was a sense that I would never master the French language–not exactly motivating stuff!

I found an interesting video about electromagents on HowStuffWorks. After a preparatory vocabulary matching exercise based on a text describing the process of making  an electromagnet, we…

1. Watched this 3 minute long video on how to make electromagnets without any sound and I asked them as a group to say what they could see, just to shout it out. Initially they found watching a video without sound a little usual, as this isn´t usually what we do with videos! However, this way of doing it highlighted the English that they did know, rather than the English that they didn´t know, and gave them a sense of being in control of the situation. If one participant didn´t know the word for something they saw on the video, they didn´t have to say anything , their neighbour perhaps knew the word though and could then say it aloud for the benefit of those who didn´t know it.

2. Now we had the important vocabulary in place. I then gave them this worksheet where the transcript of the video was divided into four sections and the participants´task was to put them into the correct order.

3. I then asked the participants to choose one of the four paragraphs with a partner (luckily eight of them were in class onthe day we did this, although participants could also do the activity on their own, if you have less participants) and get ready to narrate their section of the video when I re-played it without sound again. I told them not to read the text aloud, but instead to re-tell the story in their own words and say what they could see, using the transcript as a basis for finding the key vocabulary and to give some structure to what they want to say.

4. They completed this activity very successfully and I then gave them the link for the video for them to watch it with sound as a little homework.

The outcomes were that:

– The participants became more familiar with the vocabulary you need for talking about electromagnets.

– The participants were producing the language you need to explain how to make an electromagnet and how they work themselves.

– The participants were relaxed throughout the whole activity and were being more active than passive in their interaction with the video.


Filed under From the training room

5 responses to “Silent Movies

  1. Pingback: Silent Movies | TeachingEnglish |

  2. Hi Claire,

    Thanks for the great post and your outline of what must have been a very motivating lesson! I completely agree with you about ‘feeling overwhelmed’ if going straight into a listening task and many of my students call it ‘the black moment’: not an especially low affective filter’ frame of mind to be in! I also plan a similar set up and adapt it slightly by giving the learners (B1 engineers) the headline/ title and a brief summary before watching. Then they brainstorm what they think they might see / what it might say. The language and ideas they generate then go up on the board and after they’ve listened to it the first time, we then compare ‘was there anything exactly the same, close, meant the same but used different words etc. This is a great start for them – especially when they see how much was similar and they feel encouraged, motivated and have a real sense of achievement. In my context SS’s are used to being tested and I remind them that this is for development – not something they are used to but very soon you see the anxiety levels drop and they can’t wait for the following stages in the cycle. Thanks again and looking forward to the next post! BTW: saw your presentation in Ulm last year and I really enjoyed it – thank you!

    • Hi Marise,

      I really appreciate your thoughtful comments on my post and I completely agree with you! Quite a lot of the time teaching engineers at around B1 level feels like an exercise in anxiety control and presenting language to the learners in digestable chunks so they avoid that “black moment” and stay with it until the learning really starts happening.

      I like your idea of brainstorming language on the topic of a video before watching–I´ve tried this a couple of times, but you´ve reminded me that I should do it again some time soon. Often a lot of the most interesting English comes out at this stage, rather than later on after they´ve watched the video.

      Glad you enjoyed my workshop in Ulm. Hope to see you at the BESIG conference this year.


  3. Thank you very much, Claire, this gave me some great ideas!

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