One of the most common pieces of advice a teacher will give to a student wanting to improve their listening (and quite possibly their vocabulary) is to “watch films in English.” It seems like a sensible enough suggestion on the surface. After all, it couldn’t do any harm could it? But perhaps the question is: Does simply watching films in English translate into any real improvement in listening and vocabulary, or does it perhaps require a bit more effort than that?
My own experience of learning Spanish tells me that watching films or television is indeed extremely helpful, but I also remember that most of the time I spent in front of the TV in my first months in Spain was spent in the company of the family I lived with. I could easily ask them questions to check the meaning of words or concepts and instantly check their reactions to what was happening on the screen to see if I was following the thread. In short, I had something very similar to teachers on hand.
So, what tips can we give our students to get the most out of their viewing? How can they make time often spent alone in front of the TV less passive, and actively take control of their learning on their own? Here are a few tips:
1. Choose your content carefully
That latest Hollywood blockbuster action flick might seems like a good choice, but there are probably more special effects and car chases than actual dialogue. On the other hand, that academy award-winning drama might be too dense, with too much idiomatic language to take in and dialogue which is too fast-paced. Obviously much of this will depend on the level of the learner, but unless you are quite advanced you will need to be fairly choosy about what you watch.
First of all, why go straight for a movie? There are loads of other things to watch on TV. The news provides a familiar format with plenty of visual support for lower-level learners. And not only might they have already seen the same news in their own language, but the delivery of most news readers is carefully scripted which generally makes it easier to understand.
Sitcoms are another good option. When watching a popular sitcom with a group of teen students once, I immediately noticed how familiar the format it across cultures with plenty of pauses and canned laughter letting you know where the jokes are in case you missed them. The language is also fairly simple grammatically but also filled with many of the most common (and current) phrases out there, so students are generally getting pretty useful language as well.
But don’t stop there. Have your students surf the channels a bit and find what’s right for them, and their level. A lot of this will be based on their interest. How about a cooking show or reality TV? Or perhaps a nature or history documentary? One thing’s for sure, we’re pretty spoilt for choice nowadays.
2. Use all the tech tools at your disposal
Gone are the days when you needed to plan your time to watch your favorite show. Most students today have access to high-quality cable services which make it easy to search for their favorite content, record it, watch it repeatedly and even rewind and fast-forward. Turning subtitles on and off is also a possibility,(though make sure they’re not on all the time as this might detract from using other viewing skills like considering the context or looking for visual clues) as is watching it in English (if that is the original version) and their own language. This makes it far easier for them to control the delivery and get the most out of their viewing time.
3. Watch things you’ve seen before
If you’ve seen Star Wars 10 times or more in your own language you should know the story (and most of the dialogue) inside and out. So why not watch it in English now? The familiarity with the text will help you pick up language quickly and easily as you are already primed for it. And even if you’ve only seen the programme in question once or twice, knowing the story will give you more confidence as you deal with the language.
4. Watch things in little chunks
Short video is often better for learners as it holds their attention longer, so things like Youtube (there are even Youtubers who cater specifically for English language learners) and other videos you can access online are often preferable to things like feature length films. But if you are going to watch something quite lengthy, there is no reason why you can’t split it up into chunks and watch it, say, over the course of a few days.
5. Take notes
And if you’re watching a shorter video or a bit of a longer film it will be far easier for you to focus on specific language. When a new phrase, word or grammatical structure comes up make sure you take note. Go back and listen a few times. Put on the subtitles if you need to and jot the language down in your notebook. Do a little research on the new item. Can you use it in a sentence? Do you need to ask another student or a teacher about it? Sharing what you’ve learned with others might help you learn it more effectively.
So go ahead and turn on the telly, stick in a DVD or surf the net for videos, but don’t think that just being a couch potato and letting it wash over you will necessarily get you any closer to your goals of improving your English. In order for that to happen you’ll need to take a more active role as a listener and noticer of language. I hope some of these hints help you to do just that.