Volume IV - 1997
Using TV Commercials to Teach Listening and Critical Thinking
by Alfred Smith and Lee Ann Rawley
Alfred Smith is professor of French, Linguistics and Foreign Language Education
at Utah State University where he teaches language and methods courses and
supervises student teachers. He is currently editor of PNCFL's (Pacific Northwest
Council on Foreign Languages) journal, Hands On Language.
Lee Ann Rawley is Assistant Director of the Intensive English Language Institute, Utah State University where she teaches ESL courses. Recipient of the TESOL/Newbury House Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1992, she is Past Chair of the TESOL Awards Committee and currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado in Denver.
The TV commercial is a powerful tool as any politician, industrialist, businessman or communications expert will attest. A well-crafted commercial is both visually and linguistically memorable, making use of clever slogans, catchy songs, and striking visual images to capture the attention of television viewers. The impact of an entertaining commercial is beyond the pedagogical powers and resources of teachers to create. However, that power can be harnessed in the English as a second language (ESL) classroom by using TV commercials to teach both listening and critical thinking skills.
Commercials are ideal for teaching listening for several reasons. First, commercial messages are short and catchy, with key words and phrases repeated. The redundancy and brevity of commercials help make the language used accessible to second language learners. Stempleski (1992) notes that video, especially authentic television intended for native speakers, is a very dense medium. The 15 to 45-second commercial message reduces the language load to a manageable size that students can process. The ease of the VCR technology and the short format of the commercial combine to make it possible to stop at critical places for discussion or explanation, rewind for a quick review, or fast forward for checking comprehension. The teacher can easily show the end of the commercial first, for example, and ask students to supply a beginning. The teacher can also stop the tape after the introductory segments of the commercial and ask students to tell what they think will follow and predict an ending.
Designed for an Impact
A second benefit of the commercial is that it is designed to have an impact. Viewers remember what they hear, sometimes even when they do not understand the message, because the visual and musical reinforcement is strong and lasting. We often hear a slogan or a tune rolling around in our heads hours after we have turned off the TV. Children rattle off commercial phrases with little or no grasp of meaning. It is not unusual to hear Americans using commercial slogans in their daily lives to size up a situation or evaluate a set of circumstances. Counselors advise students to "Be all that you can be!" (from a commercial made by the U.S. Army to recruit young soldiers). In response to such questions as "How's your old car?" people might reply, "It just keeps going and going..." (from a TV advertisement for Energizer batteries). When talking about solutions to problems, people often ask, "How do you spell relief?" ((from a commercial for the medicine Rolaids). Commercials are also surprisingly memorable: our students, after only several viewings of a commercial, often, walk into class chanting slogans. Sometimes, in the middle of class, they come up with a jingle that fits the context.
A Source of Authentic Spoken Language
The use of authentic video is more and more prevalent in both second and foreign language classrooms, because it offers students opportunities to hear language intended for native speakers. The commercial is especially replete with authentic and current spoken language (Lawrence, 1987; Stempleski, 1992; Liontas, 1991; Davis, 1994). Designing instruction around commercial spots can help students bridge the gap from the often controlled, even stilted, world of "classroom language" to the outside world of native speakers. The language of commercials is often in dialog form that exposes students to slang, different language registers, reduced speech ("wanna," "gonna," "gotta"), idiomatic expressions, and suprasegmental features of intonation and stress common in the speech of native speakers. In addition, students hear different native speaker voices, accents, and dialects.
Commercials are also a rich source of vocabulary presented in memorable contexts not always found in textbooks: for example, "hair conditioner," "aroma," "four-wheel drive," "grab on to," "wow!" A 1993 commercial for J. C. Penney's department store provided an interesting study of the word "line" by presenting a variety of idiomatic expressions in which "line" can be used: "think along these lines," "big lines," "small lines," " top of the line," "step over the line," "line up," and "the bottom line." Commercials can introduce students to abbreviations and acronyms used by native speakers: AT&T, MCI, FTD), "Let's have subs and suds."
Commercials Introduce Cultural Values
There are other ways that commercials benefit the development of listening. One is the introduction of elements of visual literacy, i.e. signs, symbols, gestures, and other non-verbal features of a message. A related benefit is the introduction of cultural values and attitudes. Television commercials provide students with a picture of the sociocultural context of the language they are studying. The products advertised on television provide clues to what is important to a society. U.S. commercials present a portrait of a society that requires headache and stomachache relief; automobiles; and products that work fast, preserve a youthful appearance, make life more convenient, and enable users to be more competitive. For example, a 1994 commercial for a telephone company shows a harried American pulling up to a drive-in bank window to request a few extra hours in his day. A 1992 commercial for Cascade dishwasher detergent opens the door to a discussion of US values related to family and children. The commercial shows a self-satisfied mother who announces that her sons help out on "dish night" by taking their turn in the kitchen. "I think children should help out round the house, don't you?" the mother asked.
Commercials and Critical Thinking
For students coming to study in US colleges and universities from countries where the ideal student is the one who can faithfully memorize the words of the professor and reproduce them verbatim on an exam, the new classroom can be a baffling place. The American focus on synthesizing ideas, organizing concepts, and applying principles to new situations can seem unimportant and alien. As Althen (1988) asserts, international students accustomed to memorization often have academic difficulty in the US until they learn the intellectual expectations and analytical skills common in classrooms here. Introducing international students to critical thinking skills in the ESL class can ease their adjustment to the American educational system.
Cohen (1971) suggests that there are at least four different complex thinking processes: problem solving, decision making, critical thinking, and creative thinking. The definition of critical thinking we use in this paper is a composite of the thinking skills that Cohen includes in his four categories. We define critical thinking as using the basic thinking processes to (1) analyze arguments and generate insight into particular meanings and interpretations; (2) develop cohesive reasoning patterns and understand assumptions and bias underlying particular claims; (3) compare advantages and disadvantages of alternative approaches; (4) determine what additional information is required; (5) judge the most effective response and be able to justify it.
Presseisen (1985) asserts that a useful taxonomy must also account for metacognitive aspects of thinking skills. Metacognition is associated with a person's awareness of his or her own thinking processes. When incorporating critical thinking skills into the ESL listening course, we talk to students about the thinking skills required to complete a particular task. We want them to become aware of their thinking processes, and to know what thinking skills American professors are likely to expect of them. We agree with Presseisen (1985) that thinkers become more autonomous as they develop and refine their metacognitive abilities.
TV commercials provide an ideal medium for teaching ESL students critical thinking skills in the listening class. Because commercials are short and propagandistic, they are suited to task-oriented viewing requiring students to use higher-order thinking processes. Advertisers depend on steering the thinking of consumers in directions advantageous to them. For example, they encourage us to make certain associations when we see well known persons such as Michael Jordan telling us how to quench our thirst, Merlin Olsen pushing flowers, and Candice Bergen suggesting a long distance telephone company. Teachers, in turn, can use commercials in the classroom to teach students to be critical consumers who can make thoughtful judgments about the products and services they see advertised. At the same time, teachers can also take advantage of the TV commercial format to introduce critical thinking skills that can enhance the academic work of ESL students. Because commercials are short, to the point, and tell complete "stories," they are good vehicles for the introduction and practice of such critical thinking skills as sequencing, predicting, making associations, and seeing cause and effect.
Selecting Commercials for Class Use
When selecting commercials for class use, it is important to view them with an eye toward several major concerns, which include the elements of language that the teacher wishes to focus on, the interests of the students, and the critical thinking skills that fit the commercial. Commercials that tell stories work well for teaching how to organize information, predict, and identify sequence. Commercials that pose a problem, offer choices, or compare two products are best suited for lessons on making associations, comparing and contrasting, drawing conclusions, evaluating, and making judgments. Commercials can be recorded off air from regular television broadcasts, but teachers need to be aware of the copyright guidelines governing their use. Non-profit educational institutions can videotape off-air, but must use the tapes within 10 school days and erase them after 45 calendar days (Stempleski, 1992; also see Richardson and Scinicariello, 1989 for a thorough discussion of the U. S. "fair use" guidelines for off-air taping).
A Three-Stage Lesson Plan
The classroom activities presented below were designed for ESL students in an advanced-intermediate listening class in a university-level intensive English program. They are intended to demonstrate the types of activities that a teacher can create for using commercials to teach both listening and critical thinking skills. The TV commercials and activities described are used in the context of a thematic unit on advertising. While these activities are linked to a specific commercial, they should be viewed as a model, or frame, that can be adapted to other suitable commercials. The general format follows a three-stage plan of previewing, viewing, and postviewing activities. When actually presenting a lesson, all three stages are followed for each commercial. However, a different commercial is presented for each stage here in order to highlight a greater number of critical thinking skills.
Previewing Previewing activities are intended to prepare students for understanding the commercial. They are designed to activate students' schema, or background knowledge, and create interest in the viewing and postviewing activities that follow. The example presented here is based on a 1991 commercial for Dimmetapp medicine which tells a story. The commercial shows a young boy sick in bed with a cold. Family members (mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, and younger brother) gather in the doorway to his bedroom, and the worried expressions on their faces convey their concern. Some of the family members offer their advice to the boy's mother. With each piece of advice, the sick boy pulls the covers farther and farther over his head. After listening to all the advice, the boy's mother goes to the medicine chest to get the Dimmetapp medicine. In the final scene, the boy is out of bed and happily bouncing a basketball in his room.
Critical thinking skills suited to this commercial in the previewing stage include the following:
o Determining sequence
o Making associations
o Seeing cause and effect relationships
o Drawing conclusions
o Hypothesizing and verifying
1. To start, show the commercial without sound. Tell students to use the visual aspects of the commercial to gain as much information about the product as possible.
2. Put the following questions on a handout or an overhead transparency. In small groups or as a class, have students answer the questions orally. The critical thinking skill associated with each question/activity is noted in brackets.
A) What kind of product is this? Do you know the name of the product?
(B) Who are the people you see? What are their relationships? [making associations]
(C) How do these people feel? [making associations_facial expressions and feelings]
(D) Retell the story. What happened? [sequencing].
(E) How does the boy get well? [seeing cause and effect; drawing conclusions: He takes the medicine and gets well.]
(F) The boy's grandmother, father, and little brother give his mother advice. How does the boy react to the advice? What advice do you think the grandmother gives? The father? The little brother? [predicting; hypothesizing]
3. Now show the commercial again, this time with sound. Tell students to take notes to help them verify or disprove their predictions. [verifying a hypothesis]
Stage 2: Viewing
The viewing phase is intended to focus students' attention on some aspect of the commercial relevant to the lesson being conducted: the content, the vocabulary, or a cultural theme, for example. The activities for the viewing stage require students to watch the commercial with a purpose and a task. As with the previewing stage, the particular activities will vary with the commercial being used. The following example is based on a 1992 commercial for M&Ms (candy) . In the previewing stage for this commercial, students imagine that they have been hired to advertise the product. Working in groups, they sample the product and then create descriptions of the images they want to portray and their target audience. Each group then writes a script for a commercial and videotapes one another's groups performing their commercial.
Critical thinking skills suited to this commercial in the viewing stage:
o Making inferences
o Generalizing and making associations
o Seeing cause and effect
o Comparing and contrasting
o Selecting relevant information and ignoring irrelevant information
In the viewing stage, students first watch the commercials they create and write down what they think the intended images and target audiences are. Next, they watch the professional commercial several times, each time with a different task to perform. First they watch in order to answer the following questions. Again, the critical thinking skills required are in brackets.
1. Who do they want to sell this candy to? [making inferences: students infer the intended audience from the different types of people they see in the commercial: children, teenagers, adults, older people]
2. What is the image they have created? [generalizing, making associations, recognizing cause and effect: students see people dancing, smiling, and having a good time. From this they can associate and generalize that the intended image of the commercial is light-hearted and fun. They also see the cause and effect relationship between eating M & Ms and being happy_even in the rain.]
3. What images are different from the ones the class created? [students compare and contrast the ideas generated by the class in their own commercials with those in the professional commercial.]
The second task students perform with the M&Ms commercial is watching and filling in the blanks in a close passage, a script of the song accompanying the commercial. This task focuses them on the vocabulary used in the commercial. In order to be successful, they have to select relevant information and ignore that which is irrelevant.
As they work through exercises in the viewing stage, students always have many questions about what they hear, and what they think they hear. Their questions lead to class discussions providing more listening practice and opportunities to discuss the strategies they find most helpful when listening to authentic language. They are allowed to see the commercial over and over_as many times as they request to complete the task they are working on.
Postviewing The postviewing stage is intended to engage students in using information from the commercials to evaluate what they have seen, check their comprehension, integrate information, and make judgments as critical consumers. By this point in the lesson, students have seen and heard the commercial many times. They have had opportunities to ask questions regarding vocabulary, pronunciation, structures, and cultural themes.
This last example is based on a 1992 commercial for a Mexican restaurant named "Garcia's." The commercial shows a man and a woman who appear to have come to the restaurant from work. Initially they are stiff and proper, but as they enjoy the food and drinks they become progressively more relaxed. The man removes his tie, the woman's hair becomes disheveled; by the time the check comes, they are laughing and carrying on with abandon. To the accompaniment of lively Mexican music, the narrator says, "Garcia's. A great place to unwind and have a good time. And best of all ... (the waiter places the check on the table) ... this won't spoil your fun".
Critical thinking skills suited to this commercial in the postviewing stage:
o Checking comprehension
o Making judgments
o Relating information to personal values
o Making comparisons
Students answer the following questions in writing, or orally in either a class discussion or in small groups. Critical thinking skills associated with answering are underlined.
1. What is the advantage of going to this restaurant?
Answering this question is a way of checking comprehension of the commercial in general. It also requires students to integrate the information they have picked up and generalize from it. For example, they have to understand that "And best of all ... your check, sir ... This won't spoil the fun" adds up to Garcia's being an inexpensive restaurant.
2. Do you think this is an effective commercial? Explain your answer. What about the commercial attracts you?
What about the commercial offends you? These questions require students to make judgments, evaluate, and interate information. To answer, students must decide what commercials are intended to do, and whether liking a commercial is the same as its being effective. Students have to discuss these issues together before deciding how they want to answer. Going through this process helps them see that there is never just one answer to questions of this nature.
3. Would this commercial be effective in your country? Explain your answer.
This question requires students to relate information to their own lives and values and make comparisons to the commercials in their countries. To do this, students have to think carefully about the advertising norms and values in their own countries and determine whether and how they differ from those in advertising in the USA. In the past, this comparison has led to students bringing videos of commercials from their countries to class to demonstrate the differences.
The television commercial has much to offer ESL teachers and students. It's brevity, language redundancies, visual impact, interesting vocabulary, and cultural components combine to provide ESL students opportunities to improve their listening skills. However, for students who must leave their ESL courses and enter the American university classroom, learning to listen and comprehend is not enough. ESL teachers in higher education must help their students learn to listen with discrimination; in addition to understanding a message, students must learn to evaluate what they hear. Television commercials are also an excellent medium for introducing ESL students to the higher-order, critical thinking skills that can increase their chances for academic success in the American educational system. The sample exercises presented here can serve as a frame for designing tasks for the use of other commercials to teach both listening and critical thinking skills in the ESL classroom.
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