Teacher Sarah Bucknall writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 16, 2018
By Sarah Bucknall

Using movies in a classroom in China

Using movies in your ESL classroom in China is really worthwhile. But for me, it wasn’t as easy as just clicking on ‘play’.

It was 8:30am and I felt it was too early to be having a debate.

We had just had our lesson plans checked – a routine procedure in training schools in China. My academic coordinator wasn’t sold on my idea.

“You can’t play a movie in class,” she said. Had I of had my morning coffee I may have given a more valid argument than holding a defiant expression. “It’s too late to change my plan. Can we discuss it after class?”

Teaching English in a training center in China doesn’t offer as much flexibility as teaching in a school. That's not to say rules can’t be curved but you need more than an expression to achieve this.

Once my class had finished I entered the teachers’ office. I wasn’t only awake this time, I was ready to justify myself. I was full of motivation and beaming with pride in my students’ accomplishments today.


The Chinese teenage battle

Every Saturday and Sunday it’s me against a room of teenagers. Actually my favorite level to teach, it’s a game of ‘blood out of a stone’ at times.

Some days we’re on form and the environment is amazing. Getting to know Chinese culture through its youth is fascinating and extremely hilarious at times.

But when you’re asking Chinese teenagers to follow a curriculum that devotes a few weeks to discussing their opinions on a selection of movies they have never seen (in a second language!), the energy tends to lag.

Changing the game

In my time teaching English in China, I had heard someone say “to play movies in a classroom is a lazy teacher’s tactic.” I wholeheartedly disagree.

Not only are movies enjoyable, and so instantly motivational, they also provide authentic and varied language use. Not to mention giving a visual context which I think most would agree is more stimulating than a 2D page.

Don’t get me wrong. A person could decide to play an entire movie and sit back planning other lessons or spending time on their phone. I don’t deny the possibility but that individual would really be missing out.

Change the game for your teenage students and watch and analyze a movie in the classroom.

Playing movies in your ESL classroom in China is not a lazy tactic, according to teacher Sarah Bucknall.

Opening up a new world

Entering the classroom I did my usual routine: quick chat about everyone’s week followed by a homework check. The students all opened their books, expressionless.

We had been slowly working through vocabulary for genres of movies and films, followed by a conversation on which was their favorite. This is a 90 minute lesson! Third lesson in.

They had had enough and I was right behind them. The previous class I asked if anyone had seen any of the movies we were supposed to be reviewing today. “No,” they echoed.

For me teaching English as a second language is not something that can only be done from a textbook. Students need to have a real life setting or at the least something they can relate to.

I told them all to put their books away and motioned to turn out the lights. For one minute I played a previously selected snippet from a movie.

Life in a Chinese classroom

Life in a classroom in China is relatively predictable; Chinese teenagers are often shy and plain difficult when it comes to discussing opinions.

But what followed was the most authentic discussion I had heard with this class. 

“What type of movie is this? How do you know? What do you think happened before this scene?” There is an endless amount you can discuss when students are engaged.

Keeping momentum going we watched another minute of the movie. Pairs analyzed the relationships of the characters they had been exposed to. Performances of possible conversations followed.

This is less than 30 minutes in to a Saturday morning class with a room of Chinese teenagers. I at least was ecstatic by what we were achieving together. All four skills were being used!

Continuing to watch the film in intervals, another scene was played in silence with the subtitles turned off. Smalls groups had to discuss the scene and write the script for it.

How to use films effectively in China

With a little bit of time given to choosing the right movie and clipping interesting scenes, the output achieved is incredibly rewarding. Using movies in your ESL classroom in China isn’t so bad after all!

You can analyze the time period in which the film is set and lead on to discussions about history and how we’ve progressed between then and now or where we could go in the future.

There are diverse character relationships to analyze and discuss with varied accents and rates of speed in speech to test and develop listening skills.

There is visual context where you actually allow students to give an informed opinion of how they felt about the movie rather than a picture on a page and a grammar structure as a guide.

A student in China enjoying movies being played in the class.

A happy teenager in China.

The successful acquisition of a second language stems from the students’ motivation to be absorbed in that language. Teaching English is more than reciting from a textbook. We are the difference between providing an exciting classroom environment or a dull room with awkward moments of silence.

Making homework interesting

As the class was approaching the end spirits were high. I asked the students to write a movie they want to watch from start to finish on a piece of paper. Selecting one, the decision had been made.

The following class I had the movie in English with Chinese subtitles. Similar activities were completed at intervals with a comparison being drawn between this movie and the last.

This time there was homework. It was additional to the writing assignments they were used to. There was initial objection of course.

Having brought everyone a USB they had the whole movie to watch by the following weekend. A relieved and surprised expression covered the students’ faces. No objections followed.

This allowed us to go in depth on writing a movie review the following class, not to mention countless discussions and debates on opinions voiced.

Each class I would update their USB with other movies, songs, news reports, fashion shows – anything that was relevant to the topics coming up that I could provide visual stimulation to engage the students.


Review of the new class

The morning classrooms had changed entirely. At times there was disappointment if the lessons needed to focus more on the books. However, by rewarding the students with a promise of future films to come, motivation was reinstalled.

The amount of output that developed organically as a result of this new motivation was justification enough for me to allow movies in the classroom in China.

The students were helping each other to find the English they needed to express how they felt. This obviously increased the use of Mandarin but all as a means to find the English.

Getting teenage boys and girls to have a conversation in China, in English, is not the easiest of challenges at time. But give them a ‘movie date’ and everyone opens up!

Do you use movies in your classroom in China? Please share your experience below.

Commercial relationship disclosure: Hello Teacher! has commercial arrangements with organizations that may appear on this page, such as affiliate links. See our terms for more info.


Have your say