Movies and Listening Comprehension
in FOCAL SKILLS Programs

Ashley J. Hastings
Shenandoah University
January 1997
Copyright 1997 by Ashley Hastings. You may freely download, print, copy, and distribute this material, but do not alter, add, or remove any content, including this copyright notice.

Clinging to the face of a cliff, Indiana Jones watches as crocodiles devour his enemies in the river far below. Westley kisses Buttercup after rescuing her from the evil Prince Humperdinck. Kevin whoops in glee as the Wet Bandits are hauled off to jail. And a dozen or so ESL students gasp, sigh, laugh, and acquire English.

Teachers in IEPs using the FOCAL SKILLS approach have developed a specialized movie technique for accelerating the growth of students' listening comprehension. This technique is a major element of FOCAL SKILLS pedagogy and appears to be a key factor in the success of programs using this approach.

FOCAL SKILLS is built around the concept of "functional skill integration," (Hastings 1995), which means simply that students' stronger language skills are used as tools for building their weaker skills. We regard listening comprehension as the most essential tool, since all classroom discussions are in English. For this reason, high-intermediate listening comprehension is a prerequisite for most of our instructional modules. Students whose listening comprehension is below this level are placed in the "Listening Module," which is devoted entirely to improving their listening comprehension.

The Listening Module meets for three hours daily, with a fourth hour normally reserved for elective classes. Students remain in Listening until they have satisfied the prerequisite. Listening comprehension is reassessed every few weeks, and students are moved on to other modules (for example, Reading or Writing) as soon as they are ready.

In designing the instruction for the Listening Module, we are faced with several challenges. First, we must focus intensively on listening comprehension, because students are placed in Listening for the sole purpose of bringing this skill up to criterion as rapidly as possible. Second, we must find materials and methods that will be appropriate to the range of abilities (from beginners to intermediates) that may be found in the same classroom. Third, we must somehow keep the students attentive and motivated for three hours every day.

Movies help us meet all three of these challenges. We use ordinary feature films--whatever is available and acceptable to teachers and students. We cover the entire movie, relying on the story and characters to maintain our students' interest and enthusiasm. The movie is shown in short segments. Each segment is played, then repeated with frequent pauses (perhaps with the sound turned down). During the repetition, the teacher narrates the action in slow, clear, simple English, often pointing to relevant features on the screen. In this way, the students receive large amounts of comprehensible input (Krashen 1985). Those with low ability can listen for words corresponding to salient elements of the picture; those with somewhat better comprehension skills may be able to understand most of the teacher's narration; and those who are nearly ready to leave the Listening Module can probably understand quite a bit of the sound track.

Frequent oral comprehension checks, in the form of questions requiring very brief answers (e.g., yes or no), accompany the narration. This helps the teacher monitor

the students' understanding of the story. If some important plot element has not been grasped, the teacher can then present any necessary explanations or elaborations before continuing. This practice improves the students' chances of understanding subsequent episodes, since the plot provides a cognitive framework for the integration of new information. Comprehension checks also serve to keep the members of the class alert and focused.

Dozens of movies have been used successfully in this way. We have had good experiences with almost every genre: drama, mystery, western, science-fiction, comedy, romance, animated fantasy, and so on. The best choices contain a great deal of visible material to talk about: vivid actions, colorful settings, and striking personalities. On the other hand, long, complicated conversations dealing with remote, off-screen matters are difficult to deal with, because most of the students are unable to understand such dialogue and there is little that the teacher can point to or narrate. One good way to evaluate a movie for possible use is to watch it with the sound off. If you can maintain a fairly constant flow of pertinent commentary, the movie should be suitable.

In order to employ this technique effectively, teachers must possess detailed knowledge of the movies they use. The students' attentiveness and comprehension depend at least in part on the accuracy, appropriateness, clarity, confidence, continuity, and timing of the teacher's narration. The teacher must always know what is taking place, anticipate what is coming next, and understand how it all bears on the story. This requires a thorough grasp of the plot, a clear sense of the dominant themes, and a close familiarity with the characters and their motives. Hours of preview and thought are essential before a teacher is ready to use a movie for the first time.

Most Listening teachers use movies for two hours every day, with other types of listening activities filling the third hour. However, I have sometimes used this movie technique for three hours straight. The average movie takes five or six hours of class time to finish, so it is normal to start a new movie every two or three days. This is fairly exhausting work, and it requires a great deal of preparation; but it can also be exhilarating and satisfying.

We have obtained excellent results using this technique. My research (Hastings 1995) indicates that students in FOCAL SKILLS Listening Modules improve their listening comprehension several times faster than students in standard IEPs. This is probably not surprising, in view of the extraordinary amounts of time and energy devoted to this skill.

More surprising are the gains in the other major English language skills: reading, writing, and speaking. It turns out that Listening Module students improve in these skills at about the same rate as students in other programs, even though they do little if any work focused on these skills. Apparently, the language proficiency acquired through listening transfers to other skills as well--demonstrating once again the power of comprehensible input.

Hastings, Ashley J. 1995. The FOCAL SKILLS approach: an assessment. In F. R. Eckman, D. Highland, P. W. Lee, J. Mileham, & R. R. Weber (eds.) Second Language Acquisition: Theory and Pedagogy, 29-44. Malwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Krashen, Stephen D. 1985. The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. New York: Longman.