Volume III - 1995-1996

Reel Talk: Movies, Values, and Language Acquisition
by Kara Griffin

      Kara Griffin is an instructor at Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute in Spokane, Washington. She has presented at language conferences on such topics as teaching values through movies, the experiential learning debate, and using E-Mail to teach interactive process writing. Kara's interest lies in developing techniques based on the Natural Approach.

      Why do people go to the movies? A poll of my low-intermediate language students on the first day of our course on Themes in American Film and Literature always provides the answer: "To enjoy!" Well, then, is watching a movie in a foreign language enjoyable? The resounding response: "No!" Students arrive in my classroom overwhelmed at the thought of watching an entire movie in English. They express their frustration at not understanding the jokes, slang, colloquialisms, grammar, vocabulary, and rapid-fire speech. Imagine the anxiety that fills the classroom when I tell the students that they will be watching popular American movies, in their entirety, without pausing the films to explain the plot or language!

Reel Talk" is Real Talk

      For the most part, the language of movies reflects the language of real-life America. This is the language that students will hear on the streets, in the shops, in all facets of real life. As language learners, a great deal of ambiguity must be accepted outside of the classroom. In the classroom, therefore, it is useful to prepare students for this fact. As they cannot understand everything in the outside world, they cannot and will not understand everything in a movie, even if they are relatively fluent speakers. When given permission to relax and focus exclusively on key concepts, students let go of their inhibitions and begin to acquire language. We begin our focus on values with a simple reading that appears in our Institute's in-house publication American Studies Readings:

What Makes A Film Great?

      Movie critics believe that great films have a combination of good qualities, such as outstanding set design and costumes, superb acting, a well-written screenplay, and a setting that is either highly unusual or historically and culturally correct. If a movie has these qualities, critics often write, "This film is a must_see! Five stars! One of the greatest movies of our time!"

      I used to believe that if a critic thought a film was great, then I would surely like the film. However, I have discovered that I don't always agree with the critics. Furthermore, I don't always agree with my friends or my family about which movies are great and which are not.

      In your opinion, what makes a film great? Is it the set design, costumes, actors, direction, cinematography, screenplay, or setting? Is it a combination of those things? Or is it something more?

      Psychologists say that a film is great when it reflects a person's own values. Our emotions show what we value. Do you value life? Then you might cry if someone dies of a terrible illness in a movie. Do you value harmony? Then you might be very uncomfortable when people shout at each other angrily in a movie. Do you want to find a wonderful boyfriend? Then your heart might beat strongly when you watch two young people fall in love. Movies, like good books, can help us to make decisions about how we should or should not live our lives. Great films help us discover our personal values. The next time you have strong feelings while watching a movie, think about what personal value inside of you that movie is reflecting. Movies can teach you a lot about yourself.

      The point, of course, is that a film is great when it reflects one's personal values, which might be defined broadly as that which one considers of great worth and meaning. As Sinetar (1993) observes, "Films can be consciousness-raising tools; their stories are personal mentors that lessen fear or illuminate the love, virtue, and wholeness already present in our lives" (p. 25). In addition, learners who search for values in movies are also (often subconsciously!) acquiring the language used to express their own values. Although video is often quite successfully manipulated in the classroom to teach discrete language points and individual skills, films can, on a wider scale, serve to empower and motivate students to acquire language in a natural, learner-centered way.

      According to Tracy Terrell, "acquisition takes place under certain conditions. In a communication situation,

1. The focus of the interchange is on the message,
2. The acquirer must understand the message,
3. The acquirer must be in a low-anxiety situation" (Terrell, 1983, p. 272).

      Teaching values awareness through movies readily achieves these objectives. Quality--or as the reading says, great--movies always contain a value message or messages; these messages are often universal in nature or are understood through character development; and movie watching is a low-stress activity if students are provided basic language support prior to watching the movie. This includes vocabulary and structures necessary for understanding the gist of dialogue which is crucial to the storyline.

      At Mukogawa Fort Wright, we have used a number of popular films, including Batman, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Dead Poets Society, Miracle on 34th Street, Beauty and the Beast, Pretty Woman, The Long Walk Home, Mr. Baseball, and Mr. Mom. We chose these movies because they generally appeal to our students. In other words, a value or values held by one or more characters is congruous with the students' own value(s). In addition, these movies reflect either cultural, family, historical, or universal values which serve to educate and to increase intercultural understanding. Of course, preparing students to watch a movie holistically (without frequently stopping the film) requires thorough preparation on the part of the teacher.


      Students perform several pre-viewing activities that present key characters, vocabulary, concepts, and values. These activities include:

1. A schema-building reading with pre- and post activities

2. A teacher-led discussion that covers
-Definitions of value (verb and noun) and conflict of values
-Types of values (cultural, family, historical, universal, personal)
-Ways we can identify others' values
-Grammatical and syntactic constructs that express emotions and values

3. A values-identification practice session using a scene from a popular movie

4. A glossary of key vocabulary from the film and a vocabulary-learning game

5. A brief description of key characters

6. One or more activities designed to help students reflect upon the value or values they will observe in a particular movie. For example, before we show Dead Poets Society, students do a categorization exercise to help them express their own values about education. On a set of cards are a few dozen value statements about students, teachers, schools, and education. In groups, students discuss the statements and arrange them according to whether they strongly agree, somewhat agree, or disagree.

      Here are some of the value statements we use:

The purpose of education is
The purpose of education is
The purpose of education is
to think for yourself.
to learn tradition and discipline
to give students knowledge.
Lecturing and giving knowledge to students is the best way to teach.
Teachers should encourage students to think for themselves.
Teachers should make sure students learn even when the students aren't interested.
Students are responsible for their own learning. The teacher can't make them learn.


Students should choose their own classes.

Students should study what their parents think is best for them.
Students should voice their own opinions in class, even if others think that they are odd or unpopular.
Students should never question or disagree with what a teacher says.
Students must always be loyal to their school.

      After the students categorize the statements, they identify statements that complement or contradict each other. This provides them with a foundation for understanding the many education-related conflicts in the movie (between teacher and teacher, student and student, teacher and student, parent and student, and administrator and teacher).

Viewing the Film

      The teacher's mission should be to interfere as little as possible in the viewing process. Allow students to discover for themselves characters' personalities, values, conflicts, and choices. That said, it is often helpful for students (especially lower-level) to follow some kind of guided listening activity to aid in following the storyline. My colleagues, Brenda Balliet and Mary Lou Sproul, have developed a pen-and-paper activity in which the students, while they are watching the movie, glance at a chronological list of key dialogue from the film and write down which character is speaking and to whom he or she is speaking. The film should be stopped only when absolutely necessary, such as to introduce new characters.


      Post-viewing activities provide students with a means to do some of the following:

-Analyze characters' personalities, emotions, behavior, and values.
-Explain the main characters' basic conflicts, the causes of conflict (difference in values), and the effects of conflict (outcomes). -Compare characters' values with their own.
-Examine why the characters maintain these values. Are they a result of cultural or family background? Are they universal values? Are they contrary to the values of the society represented in the film?
-Discuss whether or not the film was great, according to student's personal reactions.
-Match characters' dialogue (language) with the value or belief underlying the language.

      This matching can easily be done by preparing two sets of cards. On one set, write sentences from the movie that show characters' feelings and/or indicate their values. On the other set, write value statements that correspond with those feelings. Have students work individually or in small groups to solve the "puzzle. " Here are a few examples from The Wizard of Oz:

"Now I know I've got a heart, because it's breaking." -Tin Man
Love hurts.
"The Wizard will fix everything! -Dorothy
Trust those in authority.
"You've always had the power to go back to Kansas" -Glinda
The power to change lies within ourselves.

The Minimovie

      A fun post-viewing activity is the minimovie. The teacher prepares a set of cards containing value statements. Each minimovie group of 4-6 students chooses a card. Groups prepare and present a five-minute scene reflecting the value statement they have chosen (e.g., "Love is blind," "People who are different are not accepted"). The minimovie may be either student-scripted or an adaptation of a movie scene. In their minimovie, the characters are not allowed to verbalize their value statement, but they must show the value through the storyline, emotional statements, and presentation. The audience watches the scene and guesses the group's value statement.


      Often a student undergoes a dramatic change of opinion during the class:

Day 2: "My first impression is that films will not be amusements in this class....I was very confused because I have never heard of "value" of films....I was frustrated....This topic was very vague, so it is hard to understand....Do we actually need to study it?"

Day 8: (Same student)--"Through this class, I'm gradually getting to be interested in the movies. By thinking of the value which the movie has, I can understand its conflict more. Anyway, I'm glad. Seeing [American] movie became one of my hobbies. I want to see more than 5 movies by leaving here.... "


      If you are interested in developing a values-based movies curriculum, you may want to consider the following:

1. Choose a movie that will appeal to the interests of your students. Have students define their most important values. Find a movie that reflects those values. To help you assess your class' interests, you might want to play a values game (such as the board game Life Stories, published in 1991 by FNDI Limited Partnership), or practice identifying movie or literature characters' values by watching a film clip or reading a short story and discussing the students' reactions to the characters' values and choices.

2. Develop schema prior to showing the movie. Briefly review the setting and major characters; give a general overview of historical and cultural concepts that are essential to understanding the plot.

3. Prepare a glossary of key words from the movie, and have students get a feel for the words by playing a vocabulary-learning game such as Pictionary (Copyright 1993 by Pictionary, Inc., published by Western Publishing Co.) To play our version of the game, provide the students with a glossary of key vocabulary from the movie you are about to show. Have students, in small groups, choose words at random from the list and, on a piece of paper, illustrate their chosen word for other students in the group. The illustrator may not speak or use gestures. Other students in the group must guess which word is represented in the drawing. This game works for all kinds of words, and it can be delightful with idiomatic phrases!

4. Provide a guided listening exercise for students to follow throughout the movie. Include dialogue that expresses central characters' emotions and values as well as dialogue that helps students to follow the plot. You may add any dialogue that you wish the learners to become familiar with (colloquialisms, common expressions, etc.). However, keep in mind that students don't need to understand all of the language to understand the important concepts! Attempt to make the experience as holistic as possible.

5. Only stop the film when absolutely necessary. If you show a feature film over the course of several days, provide a brief review at the beginning of class before continuing the film.

6. Remind students that they don't need to understand everything--just the emotions, values, and conflict between key characters.

7. Allow adequate follow-up time. Most of all, students appreciate discussing their personal reactions to value-packed (or value-deficient) scenes in the film.

Diane Larsen-Freeman remarked in a 1994 conference plenary, "A teacher who is a manager of learning creates learning opportunities which focus student attention on the likely challenge." Focusing attention on values helps students embrace the challenge of watching movies outside of class, as a real-world leisure activity, with a sense of control and empowerment.


Griffin, Kara. (1993)."What Makes a Film Great?" American Studies Readings, Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute.

Larsen-Freeman, Diane. ( November, 1994). "Teachers as Managers of Learning." Plenary speech presented at the annual meeting of the Washington Association for the Education of Speakers of Other Languages, Seattle, WA.

Sinetar, Marsha. (1993). Reel Power: Spiritual Growth Through Film. Liguori, MO: Triumph Books.

Terrell, Tracy D. (1983). "The Natural Approach to Language Teaching: An Update." In John W.Oller, Jr. and Patricia A. Richard-Amato, eds. Methods That Work: A Smorgasbord of Ideas for Language Teachers. (pp. 267-283). New York: Newbury House.

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