erinAlthough they must pass an exam to show they know English at an upper intermediate level, attendance on my 50 hour language courses for  these Italian university students is not compulsory.

In practice, this means that for the first few lessons around 70 come to the classes but then the numbers tend to dwindle. I count myself fortunate if, by the end of the course, the class size is still in double figures.

When I started out, some ten years ago, I took this drop out rate to be a sad reflection of my limited teaching ability. Now, I realise that even if I did a song and dance act every lesson,  the decline has to be accepted as inevitable. Students have heavy programs to follow and, rightly or wrongly (I would argue the latter), English is generally regarded as a luxury rather than as an essential subject.


This student reaction (from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) is what I wanted to avoid.

In consequence. those that remain tend to be those whose linguistic knowledge is weak and are desperate for any tips on how to pass the exam,  or else they are among the select few who are already at a decent level and want to learn more.

The mid-way point of any course is potentially the  dead zone. It raises the dispiriting prospect of grinding on with grammar drills or ‘realistic’ listening comprehensions that hardly anyone understands.

This year I decided to take the bull by the horns and try something different. The primary motive for this was to preserve my own sanity and I also hoped that the knock on effect might be to generate a modicum of interest among my loyal students.

I pitched the idea that each of the remaining lessons should be built around movie clips and this met with a positive response. I have, of course, used such material in the past but I have never previously undertaken to select a different title for consecutive classes. In this instance, it means I will have to choose a dozen different films. (Was I making a rod for my own back, I wondered!).

My first selection was Erin Brockovich because I figured that while it had a recognisable actress (Julia Roberts) in the lead role, unlike Pretty Woman, this was not likely to be a movie most students had seen. I also wanted to start with a reasonably serious film because there still had to be a didactic purpose at the heart of the material – avoiding Mr Bean or a Disney classic seemed the best way to go. I applaud the broad principle that learning should be fun but that doesn’t mean dumbing down the content.

The Queen’s English is often overrated.

Erin Brockovich offers a number of worthy themes to grapple with; these include:corporate greed, environmental damage, preparing a legal case, the individual vs the system, gender in the workplace, the plight of single motherhood etc.

Of course, I didn’t imagine that I was going to generate an animated debate in faltering English on any of these pressing issues but it felt right to set the bar reasonably high from the outset.

Preparing the three-hour lesson proved quite labour intensive because, after selecting four scenes, I wanted to find, and verify the accuracy of,  the script. After that,  I wrote my own before and after watching activities for each scene. It took a while but I consoled myself with the thought that this was all material I could recycle for other courses if it proved successful.

The proof of any pudding is in the eating and I was reasonably satisfied with the outcome. My captive learners  seemed engaged and a little more responsive than usual. Getting them to talk is still a seemingly insurmountable challenge but I will settle for holding their interest for 180 minutes.

This is what I learned from the class:

  • choose a movie with English subtitles.
  • select a scene with a rich range of familiar + colloquial language.
  • begin the lesson with a plot synopsis – this could double as a reading or listening comprehension.
  • keep movie clips reasonably short – no more than ten minutes.
  • anticipate difficult language and explain this before watching.
  • make sure there’s an intelligent follow-up task to check understanding.
  • play each clip at least two times.
  • use the content to introduce wider themes/topics

Unlike the contrived dialogues in text books, watching scenes from movies offers ‘realistic’ language in a context where entertainment is the primary motive. For instance, it allowed me the novelty of teaching useful phrases like “What the fuck!” and “lame-ass offer”!

Most important of all , my sanity is intact  I am even looking forward to the next lessons. Mission accomplished.