‘Joey doesn’t share food!’ aka you know more grammar than you think

A blog post on using films to teach grammar by Magda Smith

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We tend to throw at our students many fancy terms like total immersion/submersion, accent reduction, PPP, TTT, task-based learning and many more. We tell them to pretty much live and breathe English, but very rarely do we explain how to actually do it successfully. Why? Well, what works for me might not necessarily work for someone else. We want our students to know grammar, but we don’t really want to bore them with tons of exercises. Is it possible to do it differently? Can we tell them to simply watch films and learn grammar from them? Why not, just … how? The problem is that when we watch films and series and even cartoons, we don’t really consider the language in the stories but the stories the language tells. As you’ll read in a second, I used my students and myself as  guinea pigs for this experiment and…. Well… SPOILER ALERT!!! See for yourself!

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always hated learning grammar. Regardless of the language (and yes, there were a few of those and most likely there are more to come) grammar seemed like the most boring thing to study. Why am I telling you this? It’s simple. I LOVE teaching it! 

‘It’s been 84 years…’ 

In all my years of work, although relatively less than 84, I have always tried finding new experimental ways of teaching. Some were a success, the others a great and total failure. I learnt a lot from them all. 

‘Courage is found in unlikely places’

The most difficult thing was leaving my comfort zone, my grammar books, activities, and worksheets and trying to be modern, unpredictable, and fun. What I want to tell you about happened by accident while I was learning Bulgarian. One of my favourite films is ‘The Lion King’. I love it so much that I can safely say that I know it by heart. I decided I wanted to see if I could get by in Bulgaria using pretty much only the language from the film. If you’re wondering – no, that did not work, but I did learn something.

‘Are you not entertained? 

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One. My pronunciation was much better than expected and at times, when I used the correct expressions, I did sound a bit like a native. It was encouraging and it forced me to try harder. Two. It was a lot of fun to see that I can actually use cartoon language in real life, and it got me thinking. Can I use it in my teaching?

‘Do or do not. There is no try’

I tried small. I chose a few phrases and expressions from sitcoms and movies that I knew my students were familiar with. I also tested it on teenagers because I figured they would be more likely to catch on. They did… kinda. The most difficult thing was having them use the quotes, while recognizing them wasn’t that hard. So, I had to improvise, yet again. I gave them points, took away homework, let them choose the games just to get them into this experiment. My goal was for them to use their favourite quotes and expressions correctly during the lesson – to say hello, goodbye, to ask questions, to comment on stuff, pretty much anytime they wanted – as long as it made sense. To encourage them, I did it myself. It was a long and painful road.

‘May the force be with you’

And then it happened! One of my students, having a better than normal day, decided to bid me farewell using those exact words. I was beyond ecstatic! So, I encouraged them and took notes of the expressions they used and started making a list which I divided into grammar, vocabulary, and useful expressions. 

‘I’ve got a jar of dirt’

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As per the quote – that’s what most of it was. Stuff I couldn’t use not only in real life but even during a lesson (‘I solemnly swear I am up to no good’ sounded more like a hidden threat rather than a phrase to practice during a lesson about the place of adverbs in a sentence). But some of them turned out to be pretty good and useful. We did the first conditional (‘I’ll be there for you when the rain starts to pour’), the present simple (‘I don’t like bullies’, ‘I don’t have friends. I have family’) and many more.  

‘Your mission, should you choose to accept it…’ 

… is to be prepared for a lot of movie watching. Sounds cool? Sure… not when you watch films and series and documentaries and analyse the grammar and vocabulary and the general usefulness of the language. It gets tiring but trust me the students will bring the endless supply of stuff to use in your lessons. Just give them a chance! 

‘This is either madness… or brilliance’ 

In my opinion? A bit of both. Will it work with every group? No. Is it really that useful? Sometimes. It all depends on the attitude of your students and how much actual time you want to dedicate to research. The work involving grammar is good as it gives the learners a real-life use of it and the reason why we teach it to them in the first place. Teaching expressions works better as it is ready to use language that they can experiment with. All it comes down to is ‘trial and error’ – let them know that errors are a part of learning. 

‘That’s all, folks! 

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I hope I didn’t bore you, at least not completely. If you find all this test-worthy – give it a shot. What is the worst thing that can happen? Your students will bring you googled quotes from movies they have never seen. But… they did research them. And as a challenge to you, how good are you with your movie lingo? Can you identify all the quotes I used?

To sum up. If you’re a movie geek like me, you must have loved this article. If not, you’re cursing me to the deepest and darkest deity for wasting your time on reading it. My advice or the takeaway of sort is simply starting easy and assuming it may not work at all (it’s the best way to avoid tears of disappointment after spending hours on research). Have a movie lesson with your group (sort of a ‘conversation movie club’) and together choose a film or better yet – an episode of a TV series to watch as homework (I find sitcoms best as they are short and you can choose lots of useful and cheeky phrases – REMEMBER! humour is your safe zone!). Ask your group to choose 3 to 5 expressions they liked to present in class. Probably not everyone will do it (maybe even no one), but they might surprise you. Note down what they say, add your own and then – improvise! It’s the first time for you and probably for them, so just assume that it’s a valuable experience for all and then next time you’ll do it better. In my experience you gotta fail at least once to get it done right in the end!

You can contact Magda Smith to ask any questions or share any amazing experiences using film to teach grammar at magdalenka.smith@gmail.com

Also feel free to comment below.

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