TESOL Connections

Free Chapter: "Embracing the Challenges of Movie and Television Listening"

by Christopher Stillwell

Download this free chapter on using television and movies for listening from Teaching Listening: Voices From the Field, a book in the TESOL Classroom Practice series. This volume shares successful practices employed by teachers at different levels of education around the world for teaching listening. 

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 www.copyright.com.

Lesson Plan: Speed Networking

by Sarah Sahr
So often, our beginner students just need enough language to get through day-to-day activities. This lesson allows for one-on-one conversations on day-to-day topics in a short amount of time. 

So often, our beginner students just need enough language to get through day-to-day activities. Several of their English exchanges are quick 5–8 sentence conversations that fluent speakers take for granted. This activity allows for several one-on-one conversations on several day-to-day topics in a short amount of time.
Materials: Timer with a loud bell, (if needed) envelope with topics cards 
Audience: Adult English language learners; beginner to low-intermediate  
Objectives: Students will be able to build on communication competence through several short role-play conversations. 

Let students know that you will be reviewing several short conversations that you have been practicing over the course of their program, i.e. introductions, ordering food, asking “how much?”, etc. Give students a moment to think of some other short conversations they might have in their day-to-day lives. If they are having trouble, give some examples:

  • Making phone calls
  • Visiting the doctor
  • Giving excuses for being late
  • Greetings
  • Describing your family
  • Telling personal information
  • Asking for directions
  • Hiring a taxi
  • Visiting the post office
  • The weather
  • Apologies
  • Helping a friend

Writing the topics on the board as they are mentioned might spur other conversation topics.

Once you get a good group of topics on the board, go through the ones you think might be challenging and ask for simple sentences or questions that might help the conversation move forward. For example, “giving excuses for being late”:

Questions: Why are you late? Where have you been? What happened?
Statements: I missed the bus. My watch stopped. The meeting ran long.

Students will be divided into two groups of equal number. If there isn’t an equal number, the instructor should participate. Move all the desks and chairs out of the way and create a big open space in the middle of your classroom. Let half the students create a circle facing outward. Have each student in the other half stand opposite a person in the circle. You now have an inner circle and an outer circle.

Let students know that you will be choosing a topic, at random, from the board to have pairs talk about. You will also have a timer. Depending on the topic, the conversation could last 60 seconds to 3 minutes. For example, if you choose “introductions” that might take about 60 seconds. However, if you choose “telling personal information” it would be nice to give the students more time to talk about themselves.

Now it’s time for…Speed Networking!
Let the role-play begin! Make sure you give detailed instructions on what students should talk about. If you are asking them to talk about “visiting the post office,” let them know which person is the customer and which is the clerk. Let them know that the customer is going to mail a package to his or her home country. Give students time to think before they start talking. The instruction might go something like this:

[in a booming voice] VISITING THE POST OFFICE!
You are at the post office. The person in the inner circle is trying to mail a package to his or her home country. The person in the outer circle is the clerk. If you are the clerk, think about what questions you will ask. If you are in the inner circle, you are the customer. Think about the statements you might say. [Wait 20 seconds.] Who will take the money? [Wait 20 seconds.]

People in the outer circle, what are you doing? [Wait for the answer.]

People in the inner circle, what are you doing? [Wait for the answer.]

Are you ready? Quickly decide who’s going to talk first.

You have 2 minutes. [Set the timer.] Ready…set…go!

When the timer goes off, congratulate students on a job well done, but try not to linger.  Once this conversation is over, have the outer circle move one person to the right, choose a new topic, and repeat!  The goal is to work on spontaneous speech…if you spend too much time thinking about what just happened, students might lose momentum for the next conversation.

Go through as many conversations as you can.  If you are participating, make sure to listen for mistakes or items you’d like to address at the end of class. If you are not participating, assist only if absolutely necessary.  Let the students do the work. 

Once you feel students have had their fill of conversations, reassemble the classroom and have students take their seats.  Hand out a quick conversation chart asking which conversations were easiest, and which were challenging, or discuss this aloud. Now you have a list of items your class should work on!

Suggested Adaptations
If you would like to include reading and writing in the activity, have students write the speaking topics on small slips of paper and put them in an envelope. When students have a new partner, they pull a slip out of the envelope, read it, and role-play that topic. This could also save time at the end of class when students have to reflect of the conversations they just had… they could write “easy” or “challenging” on the slips of paper and put them back in the envelope for you to collect.

 Download this lesson plan here (PDF)


Sarah Sahr works at TESOL and has her Masters in ESL administration. She has managed a school in Vietnam, trained teachers in South Korea, implemented school reform in Qatar, run a circus train classroom for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and taught 8th grade writing in Maryland. Prior to all that, Sarah was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia. She is also a certified ashtanga yoga instructor and has managed an eco-lodge in Chugchilan, Ecuador.  

"Lesson Plan: Speed Networking" by Sarah Sahr for TESOL International Association is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.tesol.org/permissions


Self-Directed Learning Strategies For Adult ELLs

by Alexandra Dylan Lowe
Learn to implement this series of activities that encourages intermediate level students to design their own independent language-learning strategies. 

Despite our best efforts as teachers, there simply is not enough class time for working adults to learn English as a second language in the classroom at the speed that many of them need to meet their personal language learning goals. 

To accelerate and deepen the language-learning process, I recently created a series of activities that encouraged my intermediate level adult students to design their own independent language-learning strategies. These draw extensively on lessons learned from structured interviews I conducted with adult immigrants who have successfully taught themselves English. These activities are outlined below in the order in which we tackled them in class over a 3-month period:

Discussion: How Do You Practice English?
During our first night of class, I asked my Level 5 students to stand up and move around the classroom, interviewing their classmates to find out under what circumstances they used English outside of class. It quickly became apparent that most students were barely practicing their English outside of the classroom, apart from brief conversations with coworkers. While some occasionally watched TV and movies in English, very few routinely read books or newspapers in English or used English-language learning Websites. Almost none had library cards. Only one student was listening to audio books available for free at the local public library and not one student was familiar with the library system’s web-based English learning materials for immigrants. Few had American friends with whom they could practice their English.

Reflection: What Are My Interests?
As a follow-up activity, I encouraged my students to reflect on the kinds of books, magazine articles, and movies they enjoyed in their native language, and to think about what they liked to do in their limited time off from their jobs.  Most of my students worked as waitresses, home attendants, cashiers, and in other entry-level service industry positions.

Working alone and then sharing the results in groups, they completed a Getting Ahead in English questionnaire that provided a platform on which to build their independent learning strategies. The questionnaire helped them to delineate their goals for learning English, how they learned best, and how they might begin to increase their learning.

Download a copy of the questionnaire.

Lessons From Successful Independent ELLs
As a subsequent reading activity, I shared with my students two interviews that I had conducted with immigrants (Eugene and Marija) who were highly successful autonomous language learners. Both came to the United States as adults, knowing little more than the lyrics of Beatles songs.  Both took charge of their English language learning from the outset and charted their own paths to near-native fluency. My students found many aspects of those interviews inspiring. For example:

Eugene routinely spoke to himself in English when he had no one else to talk to, stating his own actions aloud: Now I am getting up from the chair. I am going to the door. I am opening the door.  I am going to the store. I am going to buy this or that. He obtained a copy of the video of Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” and “played it to death, over and over, picking up words here and there.” He wrote down idioms whenever he heard them and would try to use them right away in conversation.

Marija pushed herself to speak English as much as possible and asked everyone to correct her grammatical errors.  “I spoke with my hands and with my feet until someone would understand me.” She started by purchasing simple children’s books, and then progressed to reading Victoria’s Secret catalogs and using an English-only dictionary to expand her vocabulary to include synonyms and antonyms of words that interested her. She estimated that she spent 20–25 hours a week teaching herself English.

Download the complete interviews with Eugene and Marija.

The Getting Ahead in English Outside of Class Project
Inspired by these independent learners’ examples, my students then designed their own Getting Ahead in English Outside of Class plans. Although I strongly encouraged my students to read more on their own, I placed no limits on their choice of reading material, did not suggest books unless asked, and did not even require that they chose a reading activity. In my experience, students are more likely to follow through and complete independent activities that they themselves have chosen based on their own interests and passions, although beginning students may need more guidance than my intermediate level students did.

The array of activities they designed for themselves was as diverse as the students:

Reading plans: Those who decided to read more chose books by authors ranging from Danielle Steele to George Orwell.  Their picks included The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Orwell’s Animal Farm, and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, as well as Christian inspirational literature (chosen by a student who taught Bible study classes in her free time). Several went to their local library for the first time and proudly displayed to their classmates the audio book CDs that they began listening to during their commutes to work, at home in the evening, and even during breaks at work.

Video plans: Several students chose to watch archived programs on PBS online that reflected their personal passions for cooking, history, or science, toggling back again and again to hear and repeat phrases that they heard on the videos and using the English closed-caption subtitles to expand their vocabularies. 

Internet plans: Others began to regularly take advantage of online pronunciation and grammar materials available through Voice of America, Rachel’s English, and USA Learns. It was especially gratifying to see students of different nationalities arrange to meet outside of class to read and discuss articles they had found on the Web, using English as their lingua franca.

Throughout the semester, students made presentations about their Getting Ahead in English Outside of Class projects. One student downloaded the lyrics in English to a song she was learning and led her classmates in a YouTube-fueled karaoke session. Others demonstrated to their classmates the web-based pronunciation websites they were using, or played a movie trailer for the books they were reading and explained what they enjoyed about their books. 

Building a Personal English Plan
On the last day of class, I invited my students to make a short, written promise to themselves, outlining two steps they planned to take to continue to improve their English independently after the end of the semester. If they wished, they could put the plan into a self-addressed envelope, which I mailed to them several weeks after the end of the semester as a reminder of their commitment. 

Here are some of the pledges my students made to themselves, in their own words:

  • I will speak to a friend who doesn’t speak Spanish and I will ask him to correct me in my English.
  • I will read and listen to 2 or 3 books for months [sic]. I’m going to spend 4 or 5 hours a week and find vocabulary and [write new words] down in my Word Hunted [notebook]. I will also speak new words with my boyfriend and friends.
  • I will watch TV in English.
  • Speak every day with American people.
  • I will be always available to listen [to] new words in every person who speak[s] with me or who I’m listening [to] in radio or TV.  I will pronounce my English in the mirror.  I will sing in the mirror.  I will be proud of my tough [sic].

I, too, am proud of my students’ “tough[ness]” —and the strategies they developed to get ahead in English on their own.


Alexandra Dylan Lowe is an adjunct instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College’s English Language Institute, where she currently teaches English as a Second Language and Business English for Internationals. In class, she draws extensively on her many years of professional experience in law, public administration, and adult workplace education. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard College, and earned a TESOL certificate at Westchester Community College.

Poetry for English Language Learners

by Carol I. Bearse
Get ready for the U.S. National Poetry Month in April: Writing poetry with ELLs develops confidence and vocabulary, and connects to the background knowledge of their native countries. 

Teachers often ask me, “How can ELs write poetry?  They don’t know English.  They aren’t writing yet.  It’s much too difficult.” Indeed, I have found that poetry is the perfect vehicle for teaching English!  Poems are short and concise and create pictures with words.  They don’t have to rhyme!  Moreover, poetry promotes academic English and vocabulary development as the poet needs to choose precise nouns and verbs to create a specific word picture (Bearse, 2005). What I have found is that writing poetry with EL students creates confidence and connects to the background knowledge of their native countries. When students can emotionally connect their families and special places, they will retain the vocabulary used in a more meaningful way (Sousa, 2011). Further, we retain knowledge to a greater degree if the knowledge makes personal connections and can transfer to real world situations (Medina, 2008). Poetry, too, is a nonthreatening way to learn about diverse cultures.  Countries as diverse as China, Iran, Mexico, and Senegal have rich traditions in poetry, both oral and written.

Hearing and reciting poetry also develops oral fluency and intonation at all grade levels. Jazz chants, which reinforce vocabulary and pronunciation through rhythm, rhyme, and repetition (Graham, 2000), are enjoyed at all levels. Reading aloud poems in two voices by Paul Fleischman is another way to incorporate choral reading in the classroom (1998, 1985).

Getting Started: Writing With the Five Senses
I have found that using the five senses in poetry writing is a good way to begin. Using pictures from calendars, travel brochures, family photos, or postcards, students are asked to imagine being in the pictures and then write what they imagine seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting in the scene in front of them. I model several examples and then students can write using this possible template: 

I see
I hear
I touch
I taste
I smell

As students progress in their English, three lines can be added to each stanza creating a fifteen line poem. The first step is talking about the images in very concrete terms, using nouns and verbs that create a picture of someone or some place we remember. We can add similes later in the process. A Word Wall or Word bank can also be used to facilitate choices of vocabulary. The same thing can be done using sentence strips for each line with each strip containing a sentence starter, such as I see.

Special People
Following these poems using the senses, students are asked to think about a person that they remember vividly. I talk about how the smell of mint always evokes the memory of my grandmother, because she carried a piece of mint in all her pockets, but especially in her old gray sweater. I then show the beginning of a poem that I wrote about my grandmother that uses the five senses:

When I remember my grandmother,
I see her silver hair tied in braids on the top of her head.
I see her smile that always greeted me with love.
I see her black garden shoes that she wore when she dug in
     the roses.
I hear her voice calling me “Sugar.” 
I hear her warning , “Prosexi kala” which means “Be careful” in Greek. 
I hear her stories about Greece.
I smell Easter bread baking, chicken soup with lemon…

When we remember things vividly, they come back to us with our strongest senses. I point out the words I have chosen and what they mean to me. I encourage students to use words in their own language so they can draw upon their rich cultural heritage. The following are excerpts from an EL eighth grade student poem about her mom (second year EL student):

When I think of my mom, I see the lovely smile on her face
     each morning
I see her brown eyes looking at me when she is talking to me
When I think of my mom, I hear her soft voice when she calls me
to do her a favor
When I think of my mom, I smell her flowery perfume
I smell the garlic she puts on the Brazilian rice and beans she makes.

I have found that students enjoy writing these poems and reading them to their friends. They then publish their poems on the classroom walls or in small accordion books.

Special Places
It is an easy step from writing about special people to writing about special places using the same format of incorporating the five senses. We read model poems from Nikki Giovanni, Francis Alarcon, and Lori Carlson that speak about special places. Using the five sense imagery making, we remember some of our favorite places from our previous or present homes. I tell students that they need to bring me on a trip to these places with their words. A partial example from another second year EL eighth grader follows:

Come with me to my Puerto Rico where you can find some
     of the most beautiful beaches in the world, like Luquillo beach
Where you can see people having fun while they are swimming
     in the blue clear water
Where you can feel the soft white sand in your feet while you
     are walking on the sand
Where you can feel the heat of the sun in your skin
Where you can hear coconuts falling in the ground
Where you can hear the wind whispering in your ear.

I encourage students to extend their lines by adding prepositional phrases, always asking for more specifics. In working with students I focus on the content and the beauty of the language first, then move on to correcting grammar and usage errors as part of the editing process. Finally, reading and seeing class poems is a huge confidence booster.

So, take a risk, and write a poem this school year!

Poetry Bibliography

Alarcon, F.X. (1996). Laughing tomatoes and other spring poems. San Francisco: CA: Children’s Book Press.

Carlson, L. (1994). Cool salsa: Bilingual poems on growing up Latino in the United States. New York: Ballentine Books.

Giovanni, N. (1985). Spin a soft black song. New York: Hill & Wang.

Bearse, C.I. (2005). The sky in my hands: Accelerating academic English through process writing. Cambridge, MA: Language Teaching Innovations, Inc.

Fleischman, P. (1998). Joyful noise: poems in two voices. New York: Harper & Row.

Fleischman, P. (1985). I am phoenix: poems in two voices. New York: Harper & Row.

Graham, C. (2000). Jazz chants old and new: Student book. New York: Oxford University Press.

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Sousa, D. ( 2011). How the ELL brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


Carol I. Bearse is an associate professor of educational leadership and literacy at Touro College in Manhattan. In this capacity, she has taught courses in both literacy and English language acquisition. With more than 25 years of experience in the public schools, including urban areas, Carol brings to her research the seasoned leadership of a teacher practitioner in the areas of literacy and ELs. She has designed the curriculum for OELA funded Language in the Context of the Disciplines program, working intensively with New York City high school teachers in the content areas.