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Automatic English For The People

Monday, November 08, 2004

The Focal Skills Movie Technique

The Focal Skills Movie Technique
copyright by Ashley Hastings

The FOCAL SKILLS Movie Technique uses authentic movies to bring an immense variety of meaning into the classroom. By narrating and paraphrasing at the appropriate level of complexity, the teacher can create a rich stream of comprehensible input that is directly related to what the students are seeing and hearing. This input is supported and reinforced by the coherence of the plot, the appeal of the characters, and the affective impact of the scenes.

For example, a Listening Module teacher may use 2 or possibly even 3 feature-length movies each week. Most Listening teachers use movies for 2 hours every day, with other types of listening activities filling the third and fourth hour. However, I have sometimes used this movie technique for 3 hours straight. The average movie takes 5 or 6 hours of class time to finish, so it is normal to start a new movie every 2 or 3 days.This entails the following steps.

First, prospective movies must be previewed.Usable movies must be selected, taking the personality of the teacher, the make-up of the class, and perhaps local cultural constraints into account.Each movie that has been chosen must be viewed carefully, until the teacher knows the movie well enough to recall the names of the characters, anticipate what is coming from scene to scene, and explain the plot, the motives of the characters, and other vital elements in clear, simple language.

The illustrative potential of scenes must be evaluated, and plans made for the use of freeze-frame, rewind and review, slow motion, silent replay, and similar techniques that might be used to accompany narration, paraphrases, and simple questions.

First, the teacher narrates the scenes in deliberate, clear, simple English, describing and commenting on the objects, characters, places, and actions that are on the screen at that very moment. This enables the students to associate what they hear with what they see, making the spoken input more comprehensible than it would be without the images. Narration makes it possible for students to apperceive (5) and comprehend language that they have not yet acquired, thus setting the mechanism of acquisition into motion.

Second, the teacher paraphrases some of the dialogue, especially when it is of particular interest or importance in following the story. These paraphrases make the input more comprehensible than the original sound track by replacing less common words with more common ones, by simplifying structures, and by furnishing deliberate, clear pronunciation. Since there is often little in the way of visible referents to assist students in understanding such paraphrases, the goal is to use language that poses as few new challenges as possible.

Use of the movie in class requires energetic delivery, smooth transitions, attention to detail, awareness of student response, and the ability to improvise on one's feet.


Example of the Focal Skills Movie Technique
copyright by Ashley Hastings

Here's how I would do the first minute or so of Princess Bride, using the Focal Skills Movie Technique. All of this is done with an air of rapt attention and enjoyment. Its important to be visibly having fun when using this technique.

First, I play the scene without pause or comment from the title until Grandfather hands the boy his present.

Then I REWIND (or backscan, if DVD) to the title, PLAY a few seconds (dark screen, sound of coughing), PAUSE, SAY "What do you hear? Someone is coughing." I demonstrate coughing.

PLAY a few seconds, PAUSE, SAY "This is a computer game. It's baseball."

PLAY until the boy is visible, PAUSE, SAY "This boy is playing a computer game. He's sitting in bed" (POINT TO BED) "He's a cute little boy. How old do you think he is? Maybe about 10? How does he look? I think he doesn't feel well. He looks a little sick. Do you remember the coughing? Maybe he has a cold."

PLAY a few seconds until the door opens and his mother comes in. PAUSE, SAY "The door opens and a woman comes in. Who do you think she is? She must be his mother."

PLAY a few seconds. Mother kisses the boy on the forehead. PAUSE, SAY "She kisses her son on his forehead." (PANTOMIME KISSING, POINT TO FOREHEAD)

PLAY a few seconds. Mother feels his forehead with her hand and asks if he feels better. He says he feels a little better. PAUSE, SAY "She's touching his forehead. (PANTOMINE TOUCHING FOREHEAD) Why? Maybe she wants to find out if he's too hot. When we are sick, we get hot. She asks him, 'Do you feel better?' He answers, 'A little better.'"

PLAY a few seconds. When mother opens curtains, PAUSE, SAY "The boy's mother says 'Your grandfather's here.' Who is a grandfather? Maybe it's the mother's father, or maybe it's the boy's father's father. What do you think? ...... She opens the curtains." (PANTOMIME OPENING CURTAINS)

PLAY until mother says "Maybe he won't." PAUSE, SAY "The boy says 'Tell him I'm sick.' Maybe he doesn't want to see his grandfather. Mother says 'He knows you're sick. That's why he's here.' The boy says 'He'll pinch my cheek.'" DEMONSTRATE PINCHING YOUR OWN CHEEK. "Mother says, 'Maybe he won't.'"

PLAY until grandfather pinches cheek and boy rolls eyes toward mother, PAUSE, SAY Grandfather comes in and pinches the boys cheek. The boy looks at his mother. Does he like having his cheek pinched? No, he doesn't like it.
PLAY until grandfather hands the present to the boy. PAUSE, SAY Mother is leaving the room. Grandfather is giving the boy a present. What do you think it is? Let's find out.

And so on. It probably takes about 3 minutes of clock time to do this one minute of movie time. In this way, the average feature film gives you 5 or 6 hours of class time. But the point is not really to stretch out the material. I found that this technique provides the pacing, repetition, and focus that students at the level you have really need in order to get clear comprehensible input. Their attention is directed toward only one input at a time, rather than trying to listen to the teacher and take in new movie scenes simultaneously.

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