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Using Music & Films to Teach ESL Students

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

As English as a second language (ESL) students progress, it can be helpful to incorporate some non-traditional content as part of the learning process. This lesson provides teachers with advice and guidelines regarding the use of music and films as teaching aids in ESL classrooms.

Finding a Place for Music & Films

Teaching a classroom of English as a second language (ESL) students involves a variety of challenges. One of the greatest challenges is holding the interest of the students while teaching a language that is unfamiliar at best and downright confusing at worst. Music and films, when used appropriately, can mitigate some of these challenges by providing learners with both visual and auditory reinforcement of a variety of English language elements, including grammar, pronunciation, phrasing, and diction.

Here's a few things to keep in mind when using music and films in an ESL learning environment:

  • Choose appropriate content
  • Make the time count
  • Avoid common pitfalls

Choose Appropriate Content

Deciding what music and film content to use in an ESL class can be challenging enough, so don't try to please every learner. Students will have different tastes in music and film, so try to focus on content that is not only generally appealing, but also engaging and informative.

Relevance to Age & Culture

The types of music and films you use will also depend on the age and maturity level of the class. Be sure that the subject matter is appropriate and that any cultural significance is explained. For instance, if the majority of your ESL learners are Chinese, they're unlikely to have a cultural or historical understanding of the legacy of slavery in the U.S.

In addition to being age specific and culturally appropriate, ensure that content relates specifically to the English language concepts you're teaching. For example, song lyrics can be analyzed as part of a grammar unit, while a film in which characters have different accents can be used to highlight elements of pronunciation.

At some point, it can be beneficial to allow students to share their favorite music and films in the form of written or oral presentations. For example, you can require them to use English to explain why they like or dislike certain musical styles, artists, or films.

Make the Time Count

Don't overuse music and movies in the classroom. It's essential that students view the music or films being used as adding to their knowledge of the English language and not simply as a way of filling time. Some students use listening or watching time to zone out or focus on other tasks. This can be particularly true for ESL learners.

If the vocabulary of a film is too advanced, students will quickly lose interest. A simple way to avoid this is to provide very specific and structured guidance.

Worksheets & Quizzes

When you do use music or films, require students to create content either during or after viewing or hearing the material. One way to accomplish this is by creating film worksheets that students must fill out as they watch. Worksheets that require students to record character names, key events, and personal reactions, among other items, can help to keep them on task. These worksheets could include questions such as:

  • Who are the main characters?
  • Where is the story taking place?
  • What are the main events?
  • What are two things you liked and didn't like about the film?

You could also give students review quizzes or assign reports, just as you would at the end of a class reading assignment. Another option is to have students listen to or view materials outside of class and then create oral or written summaries to share with classmates.

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