English - Active not passive

17th August 2012 at 01:00
Films are not a lazy option - they add context to lessons

I teach 22 English lessons a week. Half begin with a pupil asking, "Are we watching a film?" Often, I say brightly, "Of course! Why not? Let us jettison vital writing skills and watch Shrek 2 instead. How lucky that I brought popcorn."

When I write, "To be able to paragraph effectively" on the board, the protests begin. "Miss, you said we were watching Shrek."

"I was joking. Next lesson we'll study how to detect sarcasm."

Watching the film of the book is now accepted as a way to supplement textual study. But it can be a passive activity (a clue as to why pupils want to do it). So I've been experimenting.

When my Year 9s studied The Tempest recently, we watched sections of the film starring Helen Mirren as Prospera (pictured below), leading to spirited debate about whether a female Prospero was credible. I played several scenes, particularly those depicting strong emotions, such as the relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda, Prospera's plotting or Caliban's unhappiness. I paused the DVD at key moments and pupils sketched the shot or made notes on what they could see, including ideas about how directorial choices emphasised emotion.

Another option is to track a character's emotions on a graph: plotting Caliban's journey from despair to (false) hope back to despair. Different groups can be given particular characters: Prospero's journey from revenge to forgiveness, for example, or Miranda's from naivety to experience.

While studying Of Mice and Men for GCSE, read the chapter in which Lennie visits Crooks' room. Watch the corresponding film scene without the sound. Pause the film at important points and ask the pupils to select from the text which line they think the character is saying and why. You can also explore the soundtrack by playing the sound without the picture, asking pupils to guess which scene it accompanies.

It's useful to compare the six sections that John Steinbeck chose for the book with the film's scene-by-scene structure, evaluating why some scenes were added, omitted or altered.

Directors economise on a book's dialogue and, while studying To Kill a Mockingbird, pupils can highlight the dialogue they predict will be used in the film, then watch to see how accurate their predictions were. This works well in the court scenes and could be just as helpful when studying The Crucible.

I'm coming round to the idea of film-watching lessons. After all, I'm not averse to a bit of popcorn myself.

Fran Hill teaches English in a Warwickshire secondary school and is a freelance writer and performer.


Help pupils to understand the music of film with Graham Hickey's thorough introduction.

Or for a basic introduction to cinematography, try TESEnglish's PowerPoint on camera shots.


Teachers are naming their literary heroes in the TES Resources English forum. William Shakespeare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde are on the list already. Who would you add?

Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.ukresources048.

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