The book the film the hour;Literacy

25th June 1999 at 01:00
Julie Roberts on how to use cinema in the classroom

Roald Dahl knew that the best way to raise levels of literacy was by giving children a gripping story to read. Through his books, children have found the same sanctuary Matilda found through her own reading. In the same way, films are texts in which one can be immersed.

Using film in the classroom can help with the national literacy strategy. Research by David Parker for the British Film Institute and King's College London's School of Education has found that children who are taught the written text in tandem with the moving image performed at one and a half National Curriculum levels higher than those motivated by the written text and teacher input alone.

In primary schools, there is a heavy emphasis on the written word as the prime signifier of literacy. But this limits us as teachers and it puts a constraint on a child's own learning strategies. Some children learn to read through visual stimuli, whereas others learn phonetically. Neither way is right or wrong - it is the teacher's job to equip children with as many learning strategies as possible. It is also important that children develop a depth of understanding of what they are reading. Studying the film of the text in class can help to give children the tools they need to analyse a text on more than onelevel. The book and the film can be used side by side to create a richer, deeper understanding of the text.

The literacy hour is often seen as being so prescriptive that it has become difficult for classes to share a common text. There is not enough time to sit as a class and read The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith (Puffin, pound;4.99) or The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Puffin, pound;2.99). Watching a film adaptation of a key text gives pupils the chance to experience the text as a whole before the book is read.

For children with special needs, watching the film version of a chosen text makes it more penetrable. This gives them the rare feeling of being equal to the other pupils. Watching a film of a book makes the textual experience more vivid, making complex inter-relations and subplots easier for the children to remember. It is important, however, to make sure that the children are fully aware that the film is not the book but a version of it. This can give rise to some interesting debate. By comparing the book and the film, the children will be able to see what changes the film-maker made. This not only reinforces the structure of the original, but also provokes thought on why it was changed for the film.

You can put this into context by getting the children to storyboard a paragraph from the book - perhaps a passage that is particularly long-winded. This forces children to think about meaning in the text and how it is conveyed in the different media.

Changing words into pictures is no easy feat - especially when they are moving pictures. Some argue that teaching literacy is about developing an internalised visual landscape and that showing the film of the text hinders this development. In my own experience, however, creative writing lessons have improved after the children have watched a film. The visual stimulus seems to give children the impetus they need to work their own imaginations. Watching films and analysing them helps children to think - and so to write - visually.


Film can be used in the literacy hour through each of its three strands: word, sentence and text level. What follows is a brief idea of how clips from films can be used within the hour. Here is a basic structure:

* 15 minutes (whole class): shared text work related to a film clip. Show the clip, then read the text together. The teacher could use an enlarged text extract from the script or original novel.

* 15 minutes (whole class): focused word or sentence work. Focus on specific sounds in words, or new vocabulary. Examine the grammar in terms of sequence into shot.

* 20 minutes (group work): independent writing and reading relating to work covered. Teacher to work with a different ability group of children each day.

* 10 minutes (whole class): show the clip again and discuss and review what the different groups have been doing.

Word LEVEL WORK for Year 1 * Watch the opening sequence of Babe. How many times do the following words come up: 'I', 'go', 'come' and 'went'? Tally up the score and compare to Dick King-Smith's The Sheep-Pig. (These words are taken from 'List 1' on page 60 of the national literacy strategy teaching framework and can be changed according to the year group.) * Focus on the initial consonant and short vowel sounds of the words mentioned above. Talk about words that rhyme with them.

* The teacher's work with the guided group could centre around reading a section of the script, giving each child a part to read. Children could then write about their characters and label them, describing what they would wear.

* Independent writers could write the script in a text form, go through the text underlining a certain word or sound, answer comprehension questions, make notes on the text, look up the unfamiliar words in the dictionary, practise their handwriting using the words or sounds already practised, search the text for a particular grammatical point already discussed, act the scene out and show it at the end.

* Re-emphasise points discussed, allow guided and independent workers to share what they have been working on. Let the drama group show their mini-play.

Sentence level work for Years 2 and 3 * Watch a two-minute clip of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (Mammoth, pound;4.99) where two people are talking to each other (if you don't want to introduce speech marks yet, you could use a film which has a narrator, like Babe). Watch the clip two or three times, then ask the children to help you to write down one of the spoken sentences. The teacher could write the sentence down and the class could read it together.

* Home in on the grammatical construction of the sentence. The teacher can encourage discussion on grammatical concepts from capital letters to the active and passive voice.

* The guided group could work on developing the sentence into a paragraph, or into a plan for a short story. Or they could read the script of the film together and discuss how it differs from the text of a novel. Independent workers could be reading the script together, or completing exercises in the grammatical concepts developed earlier.

* The class and teacher should take this opportunity to revise and practise the skills developed earlier.

Text level work for Years 5 and 6

* Once James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl (Puffin, pound;4.99) or "The Little Mermaid" from Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales (translated by Naomi Lewis, Puffin, pound;3.99) has been read as a class, the teacher could draw the children's attention to a particular passage or character description in the book that is different or similar to the film (the description of Aunt Sponge, or the ending of "The Little Mermaid"). The class could watch the relevant section and discuss the differences.

* The teacher can then lead a more in-depth discussion on the similarities and differences. The children could outline in a list, noted down by the teacher, the main differences between book form and film form. They could discuss the term "narrator" and whether there is one present in the film version.

* The guided group could read another section of text by the same author - perhaps The Twits by Dahl (Puffin, pound;4.99) or Andersen's The Ugly Duckling (Puffin pound;2.99) - and adapt it for the screen. Independent workers could also do this or they could write the piece of text that they started off with in the voice of one of the main characters instead of, say, the narrator. They could produce a modern version of the text, or write the story with two different narrators.

* In the plenary session, groups discuss and listen to what each has done.

Julie Roberts is primary education adviser with Film Education. Two packs which outline how film can be used in the literacy hour can be bought from Film Education for pound;16.50 each. Both come with a compilation video, featuring relevant clips. Call 017 1 976 2291

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