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March 2012
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Free Chapter: "Embracing the Challenges of Movie and Television Listening"
by Christopher Stillwell

This chapter is from Teaching Listening: Voices From the Field. © TESOL International Association.

Hoping to bring authentic listening material into the classroom and give students a bit of real-world experience, a teacher plays a video of a famous movie about a pair of adult brothers, one of whom happens to be an autistic savant, getting to know each other for the first time. The teacher was expecting a movie full of reasonably comprehensible discussions between the brothers, but instead finds that the opening scene is a complete mess, utterly impenetrable to native speakers, much less language learners. For the first 3 minutes, the viewer faces an aural assault as three characters sitting in a makeshift office inside a warehouse simultaneously engage in separate phone conversations. The other ends of the conversations are inaudible, so each of these discussions is incomplete. What’s more, one of the conversations is partly carried out in Italian! Such is the opening scene of Rain Man (M. Johnson & Levinson, 1988). Is it teachable?

A teacher in this situation may consider skipping the scene or seeking a more appropriate film altogether, but in so doing, major opportunities for students’ listening strategy development would be missed. Using the first scene from the movie Rain Man as a point of reference, this chapter explores techniques for addressing such difficult situations.

The approaches discussed in this chapter were inspired by and adapted to the needs of learners in a variety of contexts, beginning with adult English as a second language (ESL) learners at Cambridge Schools, an intensive English program in New York City, and further developed for workshops at Teachers College Columbia University, and numerous TESOL conferences to address the range of classroom situations of the novice and experienced teacher participants. Most recently, these principles were modified to train students of English as a foreign language at various ability levels to use video for self-directed learning at Kanda University of International Studies, in Chiba, Japan.

Curriculum, Tasks, Materials
Directors of movies and television programs often make careful use of camera angles to give the viewer different perspectives on a scene. Whereas a close-up shot can provide great detail at the micro level, a distant wide-angle shot can offer a sense of the big picture, showing how the action fits into its surrounding context. This chapter shows how use of movie and television material for listening instruction can effectively follow similar patterns, from both the bottom-up approach of decoding individual words and the top-down approach of using prior knowledge to aid comprehension.

Download the full PDF for free here


This chapter is from Teaching Listening: Voices From the Field. © TESOL International Association. For permission to use this article, please go to

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Table of Contents
TC Homepage
Lesson Plan: Speed Networking
Self-Directed Learning Strategies For Adult ELLs
Poetry for ELLs
Free Book Chapter: Listening
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