How do we encourage our students to genuinely begin to explore the target language culture in class? How can we get them to place the language in context and to have the contact with more authentic language and native speakers?


These were two questions that kept cropping up in a partnership of state and independent schools that we at London Gifted and talented have run over the last few years. The resources that are contained in the DVD called Thinking Film Thinking MFL are the direct result of all of our efforts to answer these key issues.


This training module is simply a way of thinking about why film is such a powerful resource and how it can be most effectively used in classrooms. All of the materials have been extensively trialled across the country by many different types of schools, and Ofsted have observed them in action and rated the lessons outstanding.


So let’s start with a clear statement. Watching a film in the target language and then discussing it (if appropriate also in the target language) is a really powerful way of developing all of a student’s language skills. In classrooms it can play a really significant role in immersing students‘ into different cultures.


Why use Film?


Classroom learning is often at its best when engaging with challenging issues and contexts, which force learners to question, interrogate and extend their view of the world. Conflicts and dilemmas played out in many films provide the context for learners to immerse themselves in the issues.


If we consider examples of films appropriate to GCSE French that are on the DVD, the issues that our students will need to respond to are complex and genuinely interesting. For example, in Entre Les Murs they will see students engaging with their own cultural identity, intolerance and racism; Amelie offers seriously messed up parental relationships and the struggles of growing up; while Au Revoir les Enfants engages them with a world of privilege and pain, of boarding schools and anti-Semitism. We have found that this injection of realism into learning languages has encouraged our students to engage with the subject more seriously. It has also helped staying on rates into GCSE and A levels.


There is no doubt that film helps pupils to visualise and understand different cultural conventions directly and vividly. It provides a far more realistic backdrop than textbooks can and shows learners about contemporary events in the country of their target language, giving a great opportunity for personal engagement and discussion. It takes away some of the artificial boundaries of textbooks, as well as giving them access to language as it is actually spoken. Learners can get to hear authentic language rather than reading prescribed vocabulary lists.

We all know that the nature of the exam itself at GCSE can be tedious for more able linguists, who become demotivated all too quickly. Controlled assessment has become little more than ‘contrived assessment’, designed only to secure evidence of performance. A far cry from an experience which would give students the opportunity to show what they are capable of, at something like the limit of their ability, which would of course include a greater risk of getting things wrong.


It’s important to remember that almost any context is valid for developing language. Moving away from the textbook and the approaches that they routinely use – and looking instead at relevant and more interesting contexts that film offers is hugely liberating.


So summarising the why film question, how can able linguists engage with new language more effectively? Using film provides opportunities for all students to do this in a rich context. Visual and non-verbal cues provide the support for access to new language, encouraging students to grasp the gist of meaning, speculate over idiomatic language, explore cultural conventions and to compare these with their own experience and that of English language film. And film provides the opportunity for them to acquire this for themselves, to explore this new world with their teacher and to develop a passion and curiosity for the study of languages and culture. This cannot be taught; it has to be experienced. That is why these DVD’s have become powerful learning materials.

Which brings us onto the bigger question. HOW? (3 minutes)


When you are looking to utilise a film in MFL, what are the best approaches? In a few minutes an extract can establish genre and mood, introduce character and setting and establish plot and key themes. In our experience there are many entry points that have proved useful.


  • Identifying certain scenes/sequences within a film, and using these clips to get students to understand and predict what happens next and therefore to understand how narrative markers work
  • Using oral activities to form questions to discover what the scene is; students can describe the scene or contextualise it
  • Exploiting the tasks we have developed on the CD following a viewing to contribute to oral and written assessments
  • Using trailers to encourage students to discuss film content and to develop skills in summarising the narrative
  • Separating sound and image with students generating the dialogue or sub-titles
  • Using a sequence to consider character profiles, to express points of view, to narrate events and to produce descriptionsor other creative writing tasks that might arise
  • Watching a sequence without the sound, focusing on the visual (or vice versa) to concentrate students’ attention on a particular element within a scene
  • Exploring how the film clip directs the students to respond, either at a particular moment or throughout
  • Using an excerpt as a stimulus for descriptive writing, providing students with an audio-visual reference point for writing about characters, periods and places beyond their own experience
  • Developing précis skills using sequences from a film, whilst storyboarding in turn can provide an active approach to engage more reluctant writers
  • Re-sequencing a clip to offer the chance to manipulate the narrative and to begin to reach an understanding of how and why the director makes the choices they make

What would this look like when applied to specific clips? (6 minutes)

There is a fantastic sequence in the semi autobiographical film ‘Entre les Murs’ where the teacher François is explaining the imperfect subjunctive to a class of inner city kids. They heatedly debate the importance of learning something that only “snobs” use, and that knowing this tense would never apply to them in every day life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when they doubt anyone normal would use this tense (and he freely admits to using it the previous night with friends), they accuse him of being posh (and/or gay). He insists that there will be a longer-term advantage to their knowing about this kind of language, and they shouldn’t criticise until they have mastered it.


It’s a clip that can be exploited in so many ways. As a starter activity ask your students to describe what they see in the classroom. Is it different or similar to their own school? In what ways? Ask how they would you feel if they were in this class.


It also raises some fundamental questions about the nature of education that can be used as a fascinating springboard. What it school for, who it is geared towards, what kids are left behind and why?


It can also be used to explore the nature of the classroom itself. Is it important for teachers to be like their students, to come from similar cultures or to understand their life experiences. Is this teacher being patronising? Or is he offering his students a way out of their immediate circumstances? When he raises these issues in class the ‘discussion’ often gets out of hand. Is this because he isn’t very good at his job or is it because he cares enough about his students to raise the issue in all of its ‘heat’ and wants to hear their real feelings?  Get them to hot seat as different characters from the clip and to explain their feelings and reactions.


When this clip is used in conjunction with the extract from Les Choristes when the new teacher completely loses control of a class and yet defends the children when the psychotic Head enters the room, it throws up many other possibilities. Get your students to imagine they are Ofsted inspectors. Give them a blank observation notes sheet and put them in role. Ask them to discuss the nature of good teaching. What skills and personality traits must a good teacher posses? What are the ones that are completely wrong? Ask them to justify and support their answers from their own experiences.


Using a completely different type of film, La Haine, raises many social issues that can be explored. Show your students the opening scene of the film that shows a riot scene in Paris. Ask them to describe what is going on and what and why they think this is happening. Widen the approach to ask them how they think the media portrays these kinds of events? They can then explore whether they think the film is actual footage and if it shot on the side of the police or the protagonists? There have been many versions of this scene remastered on the internet, with different soundtracks, so for some students it may be appropriate for them to re edit the scene themselves, or to analyse what impact different music has on the experience of watching the clip.


As a final example the stunning opening sequence of Amelie, where her parents are introduced through their very odd likes and dislikes, with simple graphics as commentary and vignettes that illustrate their peculiarities, opens many other possibilities for the classroom. A simple starter would be for your students to find three unusual adjectives to describe both of Amelie’s parents and then to write this into a paragraph. They could speculate on Amelie’s relationship with her parents and how they think their characters might have influenced her. This would easily lead to their writing a diary entry as Amelie as a young girl.


Alternatively a more ambitious direction could have students beginning by drawing up a family tree for the Simpsons or another fictitious family from TV or film. They could explain the relationship between various family members. Depending on your relationship with them they could be asked to describe their own parents/carers likes and dislikes, or better still to film them (all shots are pretty simple straight to camera in the original).




The point of the DVD and the resources we have written for each sequence is that they are potential ways to explore the topics that are often taught at both KS3 and 4 in a more innovative way. They are also ways for us as teachers to develop new approaches and confidence in exploring film as an interesting way to look at culture.


Our experience across the partnerships is that the impact on pupils’ learning is impressive. It has improved motivation towards MFL as a subject as well as improving students attainment in listening, speaking, reading and writing. It has also developed both their interest in film as a cultural form and their own cultural knowledge in a fun way.


Our students wanted encouragement to go beyond the curriculum and to have other sources available for independent language work. They also needed activities that offered the chance to use authentic language in context. Film can and has offered all of these.