By Lewis Lansford

07 December 2016 - 10:29

'Janet Echelman describes her artwork as ‘permanent, billowing, voluptuous forms, the scale of hard-edged buildings’.' Image (c) John Lord, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Without the images, the audio [is] far less comprehensible.' Image ©

John Lord, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

How can teachers use video content that isn't designed especially for language learners? English language teaching materials writer and developer Lewis Lansford explains.

These days, learners have easy access to English language input, that is, authentic language in use, such as online videos, social media, and podcasts. Most teachers appreciate that using authentic materials – anything produced for a purpose other than teaching English – can capture and hold learners' attention, and motivate them to improve. But they also know that unfiltered, ungraded content can be hard to understand. Speakers often speak quickly, and use grammar and vocabulary that learners haven’t yet mastered.

With a few tips and tricks, these challenges can be overcome, and the classroom can be brought to life. Here are five things to try.

1. Make use of all audio – not just spoken words

When we say 'listening', we often assume that we’re talking about listening to people speak. But audio material that doesn’t include speech can also be a useful resource for teachers. Bobby McFerrin’s talk Watch me play the audience on has very little speaking in it, and yet it is full of language. In a beginner-level classroom, you could play the soundtrack of the video only as Bobby ‘plays’ the audience, and ask learners what they hear: music, singing, voices, laughing. The class could discuss what it could be: Maybe it’s a music lesson. Maybe it’s a concert. Or, if you’re working on modals of conjecture, It could be… . This sort of exercise is especially useful at lower levels, because the listening itself isn’t just easy, it’s actually fun.

2. Use the task, not the audio, to control the level

We might consider a newscast, a Shakespeare play or a football match too complicated, idiomatic or high-level to use in the classroom, especially below level B1 (intermediate). But remember: the audio itself doesn’t set the level, the task does. The teacher’s job is to set a task that is challenging enough to provide a learning opportunity, but not so difficult that learners fail at it.

Rather than have learners try to comprehend individual words or sentences from the three audio texts mentioned above, you could play a short excerpt from each, and ask students to say which is the play, which is the newscast and which is the football match. Then you could encourage them to describe the three different texts, the sounds of the speakers’ voices, and so on. This gives learners the satisfaction of dealing with authentic materials, while also successfully taking part in the lesson.

3. Focus on the images by muting the audio

The real strength of video in the classroom is that the images often carry a lot of language, even if you watch it with the sound turned off. Mark Bezos’s TED Talk A life lesson from a volunteer firefighter is a great example. Play the first minute or so with the sound off and simply ask learners what they can see, perhaps in a lesson about jobs or personal attributes. He’s clearly a firefighter, but what about his personality? Confident? Shy? Funny? Serious? Watching the video first, without the sound, can get students thinking about what they’re going to hear and make their work easier when it comes to listening.

4. Choose videos where the pictures match the words

Some videos are more accessible to language learners than others. In her TED Talk Taking imagination seriously, at about 00:25, Janet Echelman describes her artwork as ‘permanent, billowing, voluptuous forms, the scale of hard-edged buildings’. This is fairly tough language for learners, but as she describes her work, the video shows a picture of it. This doesn’t precisely explain what the words mean, but it does allow learners to see what she’s describing and thereby get the general meaning of her words. Without the images, the audio would be far less comprehensible. Throughout the talk, pictures illustrate her story, and that makes the overall message of what she's saying far easier for learners to follow.

5. Use humour and unexpected sounds and visuals

One of the strengths of online video is that people watch it as a form of entertainment. Pressing entertaining material into the service of language learning is a win-win: learners develop their skills, and everyone has fun.

Hetain Patel and Yuyu Rau’s TED Talk Who am I? Think again is a treasure trove of surprising twists and turns, many of them visual. Seeing and hearing something unexpected makes learners want to know what’s going on and will keep them focused on the talk’s message. And even lower-level learners, who haven’t understood everything, will be able to visually absorb some of the content, thereby giving them something to talk about.

Using authentic video as listening material in the classroom is a very effective way to engage learners and develop their skills – if you choose the right video to work with. I hope the above five tips provide some inspiration for using this powerful resource for language learning.

Teachers, sign up for Lewis's free webinar on authentic listening on Monday 12 December 2016 at 13.30 UK time.

'A life lesson from a volunteer firefighter', 'Taking imagination seriously', and 'Who am I? Think again' appear in National Geographic Learning’s Keynote series, co-authored by Lewis with Paul Dummett and Helen Stephenson, which won a British Council ELTons award for Excellence in Course Innovation.

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