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October 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Student Perceptions on the Use of Short Films in the ESL Classroom


The acquisition of a second or foreign language and the deeper understanding of its culture is a difficult challenge. Films for some time, have been recognized as a powerful and dynamic tool in language learning instruction, as they provide authentic opportunities for language that includes different native speaking voices, slang, stress and accents as well as cultural experiences. (Stoller, 1998) As research has shown, using film in the classroom benefits the language skills of second language learners in listening, speaking and writing.  (Martin & Jaen, 2009) Assuming this significant role films can play in language learning, scholars have recently begun to recognize the shorter form of movies.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences defines a short film as “an original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less.” (Rule Nineteen Special Rules, 2013, para 1) Film scholars have used this denotation of length as the benchmark for a description of short films, and they have also celebrated the short films other conventions that includes their artistic innovations and storytelling. (Sunquist, 2010) The rise of the internet and especially sites such as You Tube have provided the opportunity for short films to be much more accessible. This accessibility, short running time and cinematic dynamism has made this form perfect for use in the L2 classrooms, as it allows teachers to watch the film during a one class lesson, often also incorporating meaningful activities.

 There has been substantial research of the impact of films on the development of second language learner’s language and awareness of cultural context. These film studies have predominately found measurable advantages for the learners in listening and cultural understanding.  As Katchen (2003) notes, because film scripts use dialogue based on everyday language from the target language, they can be used in the classroom for their use of authentic dialogue. Martin and Jaen’s (2009) study found film conversations compared favorably with authentic conversations between people. They are not compromised by the artificial recordings of dialogue made solely for teaching purposes in the language learning classroom. Leonardo (2016) discusses the ability of films to develop students’ listening skills. They expose students to the various stress, accents, dialects as well as slang and the different types of native speaker voices.  A study by Kabooha (2016) of female university students in a Saudi Arabian university corroborates the merits of films increasing student’s exposure to these pragmatic uses. As does an investigation of trainee English teachers by Seferoglu, (2008).

The belief that cultural understanding comes naturally once the language is learned has been debunked. It is now clear that both language and culture teaching go hand in hand. Kramsch (1993) is adamant that culture should be at the very basis of language teaching and that both are indistinguishable from each other in the classroom. Brooks anchored this perception when he divided culture into two components, big C - the formal aspects of culture, and little c – the everyday behavioral patterns of people, which allowed for more of a focus on the sociological aspects of culture. (Brooks, 1960 as cited in Istanto, 2009) There have been numerous studies undertaken that corroborate the successful use of films for use in the understanding of culture.  A study from Zhang (2011) outlined the success of teaching cultural perspectives of Chinese culture through film as students were able to gain deeper insights across a variety of cultural perspectives including values and attitudes, that was based on the authenticity of the spoken discourse, and the social reality that was presented in the films watched. A study by Kahn (2015) pointed out that films showed the target culture more successfully, and Tognozzi (2010) noted an increase of cultural awareness as a result of watching short clips from films. The beneficial role of films and its importance for learning the more pragmatic knowledge of a culture is also becoming increasingly recognized. Keene (2006) mentions the non-verbal communication cues of a culture could be communicated successfully through film. These visual cues are difficult to learn, but can be observed through watching films and then discussed in class.

With the move away from language labs and the advent and spread of the internet, there is a provision for the use of films to assist language learning and deepen cultural understanding. The practice of using film to teach language and culture in the second language classroom has become common enough. However, there has been a limited amount of research undertaken on the impact of short films in the L2 classroom. In response to this situation, the aim of this research is to explore the language learner’s views on the use of short films in a university level language learning class as a means to develop cultural understanding and vocabulary knowledge.



Participants and context

The study took place in a private university in New Zealand. The participants in the study consisted of 27 students (12 females and 15 males) with an average age of 19, from Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam. The students were enrolled in an academic writing course that had a total of 5 hours per week in-class lessons over a semester of 15 weeks. All participants were freshman and identified as international students learning academic English skills with an intermediate language level looking to transition into the institute’s full degree program. The short film component of the course ran for three weeks.  

During the period of the study, the students watched a total of six New Zealand made short films. Sundquist (2010) suggests when choosing the films to be aware of the learning level of the students and also the understandability of the films.  The short films viewed in class were chosen based on the following points:

  • Appropriate to the level of the students
  • Cross-cultural aspects
  • Paralinguistic aspects
  • Length of dialogs
  • Suitable for both genders
  • Suitable for age group
  • Thought provoking themes

The length of viewing time for the six films was 3 minutes for the shortest, to 19 minutes for the longest. They could all be watched online and also streamed to the class. All the short films watched were New Zealand made. Various sections of the films were replayed according to activities undertaken in class.

The viewing of each of the films was divided into three stages. These were pre-viewing, while- viewing and post-viewing stages. At the previewing stage the students took part in activities that would look to activate knowledge on the content and vocabulary as well as facilitate comprehension. As an example, screen shots of an important cultural visual image from the film and a discussion based around it. While-viewing activities had them watching the film and filling in multiple- choice and short answer questions, as well as close listening activities based on specific excerpts from the film. The close listening activities consisted of a gap-fill with students having to listen carefully and fill in an underlined space of words that were either culturally significant, slang or an unfamiliar dialect. Post-viewing had the students complete a variety of activities relatable to the film under study. This included summary writing, roleplaying and presentation of themes from the film to the other class members. As an instructional example, when summarizing what they had watched, the students wrote a double entry viewing log which was discussed. These activities allowed them to contextualize the cultural aspects and become more aware of them. According to Stoller’s (1998) criteria based on empirical research, these stages would better prepare and assist the students navigate the film’s language features and cultural nuances while also providing the teacher with a set of guidelines that align with curriculum pedagogy.


Data collection

The data for the study were collected using a questionnaire. Ethics approval was sought and given for the research and questionnaire to be undertaken. Before commencing data collection, the learners were informed about the study and all students voluntarily signed a consent form assuring confidentiality. The questionnaire was administrated in class, at the conclusion of the short film study. It was designed in the form of a 5 point Likert scale ranging from “to a great extent” to “not at all.” There were also a couple of open ended questions at the end of each section.

In addition to background questions, the first section of the questionnaire asked for their responses to the language used in the short films watched. The questions focused on the extent of language they thought was real-life conversation and how it may have increased their knowledge of English. The second section sought to identify specific aspects of the targeted culture and how the films may have deepened the learners understanding of it. Only selected results of the questionnaire are presented in the next session.


Results and discussion

Employing a descriptive statistical analysis of the findings revealed the students found short films to be productive for learning the target language and culture. The data indicated that all respondents felt the short films had enough examples of language in real-life conversations. Responses also revealed that the majority (90 percent) of respondents believed that their knowledge of the language had improved from watching the short films. They listed a variety of ways this had taken place. The participants strongly agreed they had the opportunity to learn new vocabulary and understand slang. This included language such as ‘sweet as,’ and ‘what’s your handle?’ that were unique to the targeted language. They also emphasized the scope to learn unfamiliar dialects and accents. To a lesser extent, they indicated they could develop knowledge on the use of idioms and correct pronunciation.

The questionnaire also explored the respondent’s extent their cultural knowledge had increased. Over 84 percent of the participants agreed their cultural understanding of the target culture had significantly deepened from watching the short films. The students all had an appreciation of Big C culture, as they were living and learning within the target culture, but within the short films, they were appreciating the little c, intangible aspects of the culture. They noted a greater understanding of daily life and its social realities with its complexities within the target culture, as well as a deeper knowledge of non-verbal communication. This included the paralinguistic communication strategy of greeting through the raising of eyebrows that is often used informally within the target culture. Additionally, formal aspects of the target culture could also be better engaged with. 

Open-ended answers indicated the extent the short films could be used as a tool to activate understanding on a reality of social issues that had been shaped by cultural perspectives and social norms depicted in the short films watched. Over half the respondents found it advantageous to encounter cultural norms of the indigenous Maori culture in New Zealand. A respondent elaborated:

In Maori culture, when the raven appears, meant bad luck is coming. (Tama Tu)

Larger social issues were also commented upon by a few of the respondents:

How gang members can isolate themselves in society. The gang member looked so sad when he came back to the gang house after having a normal day. (The Day Out)

Parents going to the pub at night and leaving their kids in the car. Even though it is in the country side, it is dangerous because could see not nice people.   (Two cars, One Night)

A respondent reflected upon a theme from the short film from the visual context.

Difficulty some people have in adapting to a new culture. When the Korean woman’s husband will not eat the sausage even though she had cut it into smaller parts like food in his own culture. He was against New Zealand culture. (Eating Sausage)

These findings suggest a burgeoning awareness of the more intangible elements of culture that are not always implicit. It seems that these short films can depict a strong socio-cultural identity of the place under study within their aural reality and also at the same time expose students linguistically to authentic everyday language. 

 Based on the findings reported above, the students perceived short films as productive in raising awareness in learning the target language and culture. The majority of the respondents (84 percent) thought they had improved their knowledge of the target language and culture. At a broad level, this corroborates with studies using feature length films from Seferoglu, (2008) and Kabooha, (2016). At a more specific level, the current study is unique in its adoption of using short films as a means of raising both language and cultural awareness. From past studies, it is understood that students find films in class effective for language learning as the visual schema can be both motivating and the dialogue authentic. The current study confirms the value of using films for English learning, and further enhances the consideration of the shorter form as it reinforces the idea that this type of particular medium is effective in not only promoting language and culture, but also supports the idea that the short film can do all of this within a shortened time, while losing none of the context. It is thus hoped that more teachers will become proponents of short film in their classrooms.

The perceptions of the students in this study offer several benefits for language learning. Comments by the respondents in the questionnaire noted they welcomed the exposure to the authentic dialogue and accents from the short films which aligns with King’s (2002) assertions.  Also, the learners in the short film study expressed the benefits of being exposed to new vocabulary, idioms and slang which supports Keene’s (2006) observations of improving the learning experience through comprehension of new language by contextualizing it appropriately. However, it is worth pointing out that in comments from students, it was identified that when acquiring new vocabulary, worksheets were provided that incorporated word meaning exercises and guided questions. They perceived this as necessary for acquiring any new vocabulary. The students seemed to enjoy learning the new slang and listening to the different dialects as these phrases are often not in textbooks.  In light of these positive outcomes, encouraging the use of short films in the language learning classroom appears to be a valuable pedagogical means to raise language awareness. For the study undertaken it is important to note that the students were at a sufficient English level to not have to rely on subtitles for comprehension. When deciding on which short films to use for the class, it would be prudent for educators to be aware of the level of their students and choose films that are appropriate, or have subtitles.

All of the participants reported gains in their cultural knowledge. Drawing on Brooks (1960) definition of Big C and small c culture, the study showed that there were more gains with the little c incorporating daily life and realities of life within the sociological components of a culture’s norms, values, beliefs and symbols. Formal aspects or Big C which includes a culture’s standards of behavior featured less in the results.  These may not have featured in the short films watched because of economy of narration and time. It is also worth pointing out that comments from the students in the study mentioned the growing awareness of different values and beliefs of the target culture that supports Zang’s (2011) findings. Of particular significance is that students appeared to find the short films content motivating, i.e., the short film, The Six Dollar Fifty Man used in class, delivers an inspiring message about overcoming obstacles, as it tells the story of an 8- year old boy dealing with playground bullies. Students in their comments found the story uplifting and they tended to be more attentive and engaged in post discussions during the class, comparing and contrasting these social realities to their own cultures. It would seem these short films are capable of helping students develop a cultural perspective of the targeted cultural groups. What is also important is that through watching and discussing the short films, the learners can become more aware of the difference between themselves and others.



While this study involved a small sample of students, it allows researchers to understand the potential for short films to be incorporated into the language learning curriculum. In a typical language learning classroom there are often time constraints and showing a full feature film can often put pressure on curriculum outcomes. However, the shortened form can alleviate this by allowing students to work immediately with the content and language, not having to separate the viewing over a number of sessions, while still providing an authentic context. There were enough



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  • Student Perceptions on the Use of Short Films in the ESL Classroom
    Stephen O'Connor, New Zealand