By Melissa Thomson

08 April 2019 - 13:00

Person using a laptop in a cafe
'My learners were motivated and interested in the material because they chose it collectively.' Photo ©

Brooke Cagle used under licence and adapted from the original.

How can teachers of English create learning material with streaming services? Melissa Thomson, a British Council teacher and trainer based in Bilbao, describes her top six approaches.

Last year I asked my teenage learners to list the five places they were most likely to encounter English online, and the top answer was Netflix.

Over 37 per cent of the world's internet users subscribe to Netflix, a streaming service for movies and television series.

Almost everyone I know is a user of media-streaming services. That includes friends, family, colleagues and my learners.

I asked my learners what they watched

I also asked them how much they watched, and how they watched it (such as with subtitles or dubbed). From this, I made a list of series and films that most of the class had seen. I used these for lesson material.

I involved my learners in the planning process by asking them what language skills they wanted to improve.

They often told me that they didn’t have time for homework, but also said that they spent between a few hours each weekend to a few hours every day watching television online. So, I suggested setting homework tasks based on series and films.

Learners have varying tastes in series and films

From my experience, this doesn't matter. My learners were motivated and interested in the material because they chose it collectively.

I was surprised to discover that most learners watched their favourite series in its original version without dubbing. Many, however, grew up watching dubbed series and films.

Learners with a lower level of English chose to use subtitles. 

If you plan on using streaming services with your learners, please do so legally, following copyright and viewing laws for the country where you are based.

Activity 1: Take a film still

Level: beginner to advanced

Ask your learners to watch a television episode or film of their choosing at home, and to bring a drawing or other image of their favourite scene to the next class. Ask learners to discuss their images using conversation starters:

  • In this scene there is...
  • We can see...
  • The main character / (name of character) is +ing
  • He/she is about to....
  • Before, he/she was +ing

You can adapt this activity for all levels, and it can last anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes.

You could ask a beginner to describe what they can see. You could ask an intermediate learner to say why the scene is important, or what came before and after the scene.

Advanced learners could ask questions to do with production and direction:

  • What camera angle would you have chosen for this scene?

Advanced learners could also describe the film still to their partner without showing it to them. This will take away the temptation for learners to provide basic descriptions, while adding the fun of imaginative thinking.

For more practice on recalling the events in the image, ask learners to have their conversation in groups rather than pairs.

Activity 2: Language detectives

Level: elementary to advanced

Tell your learners that they will watch their next English show as a language detective. Throughout the episode, they have to observe and note down examples of the language you've been studying in class.

Learners can show their observations on posters in the classroom, which could include the usage of certain tenses or phrases. It's a great activity for raising grammar awareness and improving noticing skills. It also shows learners how the lessons in their textbook are used in real-life situations.

Activity 3: Thought bubbles

Level: beginner to advanced

Ask your learners to choose one episode of a television series that they will all watch during the week.

Next, have them develop a phrase or series of phrases to insert into the episode at crucial moments, like:

  • I can't believe he/she just did that!
  • This is boring.

While each learner watches the series at home, they must choose where they think the thought bubble fits best, and note the timing in the episode.

When they return to class, place learners in small groups to explain their decision. Monitor, and choose the best example to show to everyone.

Depending on their level, the learners can discuss their choices in their first language or in English. Teachers could assist learners with a lower level of English by providing scaffolding sentences:

  • I think X’s idea is best, because...

I recommend setting a three-minute time limit for this step. The time limit often gives learners an incentive to reach a decision.

The task gives learners a reason to listen and concentrate on reading between the lines, thus developing information literacy and critical thinking skills. 

Activity 4: Thought bubbles, part two

Level: intermediate and up

Re-use the episode from the previous activity. Instead of inserting their thoughts into the scene, learners will dub over the dialogue using their own script.

For the best outcome, I recommend choosing a funny or dramatic scene with only two or three characters and some movement.

Re-play the scene to your class and ask them if they can remember the exact dialogue. They might remember the gist but not the actual words.

This is ideal because the activity requires learners to dub the scene by writing the script or improvising, depending on the skill you want them to practice.

Learners can either stay true to the story, or stretch themselves by doing a parody version. They can then perform their scene in front of the class.

Activity 5: Three, two, one 

Level: upper intermediate and up

As in the previous two activities, the whole class will need to decide on one episode to watch. Instruct your learners to watch it in the original language with English subtitles, and to take notes of the following items:

  • three words or phrases they learnt from the episode (this works best if learners have a dictionary nearby while watching)
  • two of the best lines of dialogue
  • one best scene.

In class, you can give feedback by dividing your board into three corresponding sections. Ask learners to fill in their observations. Work with them to:

  • create sentences with the words/phrases they've chosen
  • form corresponding dialogue with the best lines
  • discuss why they liked their chosen scenes.

You could also ask your learners to make posters to display on the walls.

Activity 6: Documentaries as research

Level: upper intermediate and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) classes

This activity works well if your class prefers documentaries to fictional series, or if you are a CLIL teacher (a subject teacher teaching in English).

There are many biopics and documentaries online that learners could use to research a famous person, location, animal or concept of interest.

Ask learners to watch a documentary at home and take notes on six-to-eight important events or ideas. In class, your learners can turn their notes into a piece of writing or a presentation.

If you are a science, history or geography teacher, you could set up a poster project in which learners use a documentary film as their research.

With this 'listening into writing' activity, learners will practice valuable note-taking skills. Graphically representing a process or explaining a concept in a poster uses creative and evaluation skills, which can make it a motivating activity.

This is how my learners responded 

I found it interesting to see how my learners' interests outside of the classroom influenced their classroom material, and vice versa.

My learners became more interested in the series they liked, because the class activities allowed them to better understand the dialogue and scenes. A few of them even caught the bug for a new series that a classmate had recommended.

My class was motivated to talk about their homework in class and just wouldn't stop watching episodes, films and documentaries in English outside the class.

What more could a teacher of teenagers ask for?

Teachers, visit our TeachingEnglish website for more lesson plans and activities, and find out how you can become a TeachingEnglish blogger.

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