Movies for ESL students
February 2, 2009 8:20 PM   Subscribe

Please recommend some movies that would be good to show a class of ESL students.

I teach English to refugees in the US, and sometimes in class we'll watch a movie in sections and discuss it. The problem I'm running into is that I'm having a hard time thinking of movies that would be good, so I'd like some suggestions!

Some details that might be useful:
- The students I teach are mid-level, so they can understand things sometimes, but definitely don't catch anything overly complicated
- I like to stick with movies that are at least somewhat based in reality because the more everyday something is, the easier it is to understand
- As dorky as this may sound, I do like for the movies to have a decent message or at least not be morally bankrupt action movies
- Past experience: E.T. and the Karate Kid movies went over pretty well. Jingle All The Way did not (despite the fact that it was the holiday season and refugees apparently seem to like Arnold quite a bit)

Any ideas are much appreciated!
posted by miraimatt to Education (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've taught Bend It Like Beckham to Chinese university level students to great success. While the thick British accents take some getting used to, the fact that it's about girls who want to play football makes it very accessible. It's also uplifting, and there's an Indian wedding to boot!
posted by so much modern time at 8:54 PM on February 2, 2009

pixar pixar pixar!

i don't teach esl but i live overseas, and can say from firsthand experience these films have a very universal appeal. also the english tends to be simple and straighforward without being particularly childish.
posted by messiahwannabe at 9:01 PM on February 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Spanglish (Spanish-speaking woman dealing with US language barrier)

Pursuit of Happyness (easy to understand the story)
posted by artdrectr at 12:42 AM on February 3, 2009

The Wizard of Oz - it is the single most quoted/referred to movie in US culture, and it's pretty obviously fantasy, saving you the trouble of explaining the hordes of little people.

After that, Casablanca, because everyone should see Casablanca. (OK, I'm biased.)

I would recommend anything that's very visual in its storytelling - talking heads are hard to follow when the movie isn't in your native language.
posted by medea42 at 12:48 AM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't show Team America: World Police. I did. Didn't go down well. I kind of misjudged the class.

I think maybe I'm just misjudged.
posted by mooreeasyvibe at 1:10 AM on February 3, 2009

Not to be too teachery, but is the goal to entertain or to get students talking? Both are fine, but I think there are pretty different strategies to harness depending on what you want to do. If the goal is language production, read on!

First off, I teach English abroad and have had great success at getting students to generate language using even short clips from YouTube, as well as this movie at Christmastime. I've found that you definitely don't always have to use a full-length Hollywood feature; indeed, if a film is too long (and I'd say that just ten minutes, untranslated in a single play, even at the highest levels, is pushing it!), you risk students becoming really lost among the details.

There's a lot you can get from even the shortest little films; I've used this three minute film (in fact, only the first two-thirds of it!) a couple times even for false-beginner 11-year-olds, with pausing, questions as it moved along, multiple plays, and a transcript for them to follow along. We were looking at the vocabulary of things in a house, and given the right tasks, they thought the video was fun and amusing, as well as easy enough to follow.

You may also want to play the film with English subtitles on while the film plays in English; this can clarify things that intermediate students might have problems with, like remembering have in a common construction like "I would have been... ". Subtitles are also good for understanding short, commonly-used phrases - when do you say the genuine "That's awesome!" instead of the sarcastic "Oh, great!" - and profanity.

The comment above about visual humor is important too. You'll be amazed at how much quickly-phrased humor goes over their heads; even pop-culture references that are instantly familiar to virtually all Americans who grew up here speaking English may be way too difficult to explain, to say nothing of something like musical choices; the folk-y/banjo-y music playing in the three-minute video above is part of a whole national musical iconography of that music being identified with country living and relaxation, all of which your students may completely miss, or only partially pick up on.

Of course, you need not dumb things down, or even explain them right away, but do be aware that your discussion questions after the film might be better begun between pairs of students who can chat without the whole class' eyes on them initially. They can also use this time to come up with their own discussion questions they can ask each other in small groups before presenting their answers. It also helps if the language students need to discuss whatever you're watching has been pre-taught or at least previewed, as a general knowledge of "what they know so far" may not be enough to talk about things like "the action" in the first "scene" "set in" the place where "the main character" "finds his true love."

Technology-wise, if you have access to an LCD projector that can display things on a screen, you're in business, because you can get pretty much anything off the Internet and play it for your class without the hassle of DVD rentals or something like that. Barring this, there is a way to connect a computer to a TV screen, but as I don't have to do this I can't tell you the details.

Film is a great tool to use with English-language students, but I've found it can flop, badly, if teachers don't plan a wide variety of tasks to ensure that everyone in class is on the same page. Different tasks with the same film or part of film leads to greater comprehension and understanding over multiple plays, which leads to a richer discussion later.

Good luck!
posted by mdonley at 1:46 AM on February 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

erin brockovich? documentaries (i'm thinking of a bunch of pbs frontline type stuff)?
posted by rmd1023 at 3:50 AM on February 3, 2009

Not a movie, but I have had excellent results with "The Office":
  • very mundane, everyday kind of stuff going on
  • good for prediction - stopping every few minutes before the manager makes his terrible decisions, asking Ss to predict what they expect should happen, what would you do in this situation, etc.
  • the appropriacy / inappropriacy of what people do can lead to cultural education - how things are supposed to be in work environments in the US (or UK)
  • They don't need to catch every little joke or reference, but the main plot arc of each episode is usually comprehensible with the proper set up by you
  • useful vocabulary for the students - different jobs/positions in an office environment, character adjectives, desribing personalities, etc.

posted by Meatbomb at 4:58 AM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Gods Must Be Crazy is an oldie but a goodie for this application...
posted by fairmettle at 5:01 AM on February 3, 2009

Stripes, if only for the hilarious ESL scene.
Even before I finished reading the post I was thinking Karate Kid.
The Goonies
posted by Gungho at 10:13 AM on February 3, 2009

Green Card
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:30 AM on February 3, 2009

Wall-E would be an interesting choice because it doesn't have much dialogue at all, but the story could be understood by anyone. You could use it as a jumping off point for them to use English in describing the action or emotions on the screen.
posted by lottie at 2:37 PM on February 3, 2009

When I taught English in Korea, I used Rudy and Remember the Titans. They both went over well. I also played them with Closed Captions on, and many students seemed better able to follow the movie when they could read and hear the dialogue.
posted by cheeken at 5:34 PM on February 3, 2009

Part of me hates to recommend this, but when I was teaching in Japan around '98, students almost clamored for Titanic. We'd watch short clips and then discuss.

The storyline isn't particularly complex, nor is the language, and the gist of it is pretty easy to get. You can even have brief discussions about class and gender issues. The movie really had a global run for a while, so it was something that most students had seen in the theater subtitled. I had them watch small clips without subtitling.

Although now that I think of it, this was when Leonardo DiCaprio was such a huge star in Japan, appealing to both male and female teenagers, so it might be that Titanic just worked really well in that context.
posted by lillygog at 7:37 AM on February 4, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for your suggestions everyone!

Some comments/clarifications:
- We have no budget. We have three TVs, one DVD player, and three VCRs. Only one TV and one VCR were functioning before I got everything else working. There are no projectors and no computers that can be hooked up to TVs; I have a MacBook but I'm not crazy about the idea of bringing it in.

- lillygog, interesting suggestion! One of the other teachers showed the students Titanic already and they seemed to love it, so it does seem to go over pretty well regardless of context.
- cheeken, there's a VHS of Rudy lying around at my school. I've never seen it, but if it went over well for you, maybe I'll give it a shot.
- lottie, Wall-E is a great idea, thanks!
- everyone else, thank you for all your suggestions! (or anti-suggestions in the case of team america, hahaha)
posted by miraimatt at 6:49 PM on February 4, 2009

- Mr. Hollander's Opus
- Chariots of Fire
- Be Kind, Rewind
- Spirited Away
- Cool Running
- Monster House
- Big Fish

I know my movie suggestions seem somewhat random, but those movies are light-hearted and always cheer me up when I need some sort of inspiration without too much gooeiness.

Good luck! =)
posted by pixxie at 10:45 PM on February 12, 2009

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