When students ask what exercises they can do at home to improve their English, I tell them not to do exercises. I tell them to watch movies in English with subtitles in English or Spanish, depending on their level. It’s surprising how many people don’t follow this simple but powerful suggestion, so I watch a movie in English with my students once a month.
When my students watch a movie in class, I ask them to write down important information about the characters and the plot of the movie in very short, clear sentences. Afterwards, we read and discuss the notes and the movie in general. I believe this teaches students how to organize their thoughts.
A movie is so much more than just dialogue; however, ESL students tend to focus on the dialogue to the exclusion of many other factors which can help comprehension. A movie includes action, body language, gesture and tone of voice as well as dialogue. Although they unconsciously take these aspects into account when they watch a movie in their own language, students fail to do so when they are watching a movie in English. This is due to a misguided desire to understand EVERY WORD. Try to do it in your own language. If you focus on understanding every word, you won’t understand anything.
Giving the student an activity to concentrate on while watching forces him or her to use these “non-verbal” clues, as well as framing their thoughts in English so they can jot them down as the movie develops.
I usually coach my students before I begin watching movies with them. I teach them a little about character and conflict so they know how movies work, and how they can anticipate what will happen. I also have them watch a few clips without sound and encourage them to guess what’s going on just from the non verbal clues.
Read my book Guide to Watching Movies for the ESL Student and Teacher (available soon).