Improving English Language Skills by Watching Movies in the ESL Class

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Lights, Camera, Action!

One of the best ways for improving listening skills for English language learners is through the movies. Movies allow students to hear various dialects, accents, and tones of speech. Active listening enhances understanding of vocabulary as well as various aspects of literacy.

Movies make language come alive. Students who enjoy listening to their movie idols will enjoy the challenge of imitating their idols speech. Imitation is the highest form of flattery; it is also a great way to learn - think “modeling.”

What’s Showing?

Many movies are appropriate for all age groups and English literacy levels. For instance, National Geographic movies are usually appropriate for all school age students as well as adults. Disney films are another example, fun to watch and easy to understand. Discovery or History Channel Films, and BBC classics are others that may be considered.

Introducing the movies into the class can be done thematically. Themes are helpful in developing vocabulary, writing skills, and as ways to improve listening skills. For example, if the class were working on a unit on women in history, a movie about the life of Helen Keller would be very appropriate.

Examples of some favorite movies of English Language Learners are:

  • Apollo 13
  • To Kill a Mocking Bird
  • Whale Rider
  • The Red Balloon
  • October Sky
  • Pay It Forward
  • Who Killed the Electric Car

Remember, the key objectives to incorporating movies into the ESL curriculum are to develop strong listening skills, to be able to comprehend what is heard and to reiterate what was seen and heard in a coherent manner.

Pre-viewing and Critique

Before showing a film, it is best that the educator familiarize him/herself with the film. The teacher should make a list of words, phrases that students might have difficulty with or that might need explanation. Creating a vocabulary handout prior to viewing the movie familiarizes the students with words and phrases so that they do not need to struggle to deconstruct the dialogue. After all, enjoying the movie is essential to developing strong listening skills.

It is also helpful to give the students some background on the movie. The teacher can discuss things like the period around which the movie was made, why the director decided to use a particular location, who the actors are and why they made the movie. With DVD’s, there are often “Special Features” that give bits of trivia that the teacher can share with the class.

During the viewing, ask the students to watch for themes within the movie. (They may take notes to help them remember.) Allow them to watch the movie completely through without interruption. Once the movie is over, allow students to sit for a few minutes, silently processing what they have seen and heard. Have them write down any questions they may have.

Begin the movie debriefing by going over questions and vocabulary that were problematic. Then ask students to call out the themes they found within the movie. Note: There are always several themes within a movie. For instance: To Kill a Mocking Bird touches on the themes of racism, family relationships, childhood, friendship, trust, compassion, and the Great Depression, to name a few.

Finally, students may be asked to analyze the movie. All ESL students can participate in this activity; younger students can draw pictures of their favorite scene and label things in English, older students may be asked to write a short critique of a character or scene.


Assessing ESL lessons incorporating movies may be done informally by asking questions about the film. Who were the main characters? What did they do? What was the climax of the movie? Who said…?

It has been found that thorough preparation before the movie assists students in being better listeners. If students are able to answer questions about what they have just seen and heard, they understood the movie, which means their listening skills are developing.

Another tip for classroom teachers is to Google the movie title along with the words, “Study Guide.” Many movies have been used by other educators who have shared their study guides online. Things like word lists or character descriptions can be accessed easily and do not have to be recreated by the classroom teacher.

Add English-speaking movies to your ESL curriculum as a tool for improving listening skills for English language learners.