Film Dubbing: a Flexible Integrated Skills Task

A context or topic that is relevant and interesting for the students is one of the main factors that helps to make language learning tasks successful and memorable. Flexibility is another ingredient: if tasks are flexible, the students will be able to work at their own performance level while working on the same goal. This is especially important in mixed-ability groups or teams within a group, but it also holds true for other more homogeneous settings where each student may need more work on different areas and skills at a given time. Finally, flexible tasks carried out in engaging contexts result in student ownership. When students manage to create something that is unique by making the necessary connections, linguistic and non-linguistic alike, learning naturally results.

There are probably many other elements that help to make tasks and lessons successful and meaningful, but over the years I’ve found these three elements to be decisive. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t expose our students to topics they are not interested in or less flexible tasks such as having them practise a particular structure; however, trying to twist the dullest of content or routine practice (see also: “coursebook”) to include at least some of these characteristics often pays off.

A flexible task that I like doing with my teenage students is film dubbing. At its very simplest, the students are shown a clip from a film again and again with no sound until they can write a script and read it as they synchronise with the actors in the scene. Clips from classical or popular films work best as the motivation to deconstruct the whole thing will be higher (I’ve used clips from “Casablanca”, “Gone with the Wind”, “The Goonies”, “Braveheart” or even “Rambo”!) and its YouTube channel has tons of clips to choose from. The students first identify the number of people participating in the dialogue and the length of each contribution, then they brainstorm ideas in their teams or in pairs, and finally write the script down. Apart from language accuracy, the students will be manipulating the language so that it fits each contribution, they will be making decisions regarding register, and they will be practising pronunciation skills such as intonation.

As the students make the scene their own, in a flexible setting and with a topic of their choice, the students analyse the language by comparing how they thought something should be said and how it is actually said, or simply by becoming aware of language gaps and making up for them. Again, this is a highly personal process but in this case within a context that is engaging enough for language needs to become personally salient and, therefore, more likely to be acquired. And once the clips are shared with the rest of the class, a good amount of language will come into play and a great opportunity to focus on specific language items through mini-lessons based on the students’ production.

I’ve always kept it low-tech, but this activity can get as simple or technologically complex as you want, and you may even want to consider recording the dialogues and adding them to each clip using software such as Movie Maker — even special effects! Would you give it a go? Have you tried anything similar?

Listening for detail: “Kilkelly, Ireland”

American songwriter Peter Jones discovered a collection of letters in his parents’ attic written by his great-great-great grandfather, Byran Hunt, to his son, John Hunt, who had emigrated from Kilkelly in Ireland to the United States in 1855. The Great Famine in Ireland had forced large numbers of people to emigrate in search of a better life. The five-stanza ballad he wrote based on these letters cover the time period from 1860 to 1892.

“Kilkelly, Ireland” is a breathtaking, thought-provoking song in which family news, including births and deaths, are shared for a period of thirty-two years. In the activity, the students listen for specific information by writing an explanation for each of the words, names or pictures in the timeline. Pat McNamara, for instance, is the teacher who writes the letters for John’s father. At the end of each letter, go over the answers and have the students read the lyrics if necessary before moving on to the next. If needed, you may want to pre-teach a few words such as “dampness”, “turf”, “pass on”, “bury” or “feisty”, although both the slow rhythm pattern of the song and the type of words used in the lyrics make it a challenging yet attainable listening task for students with a B1+ level and above.




The song could be an excellent starting point to get the students talking about why people migrate and cultivate empathy in the classroom. Alternatively, the students could write their own personal responses at the end of the song and focus on the universal theme of the sadness and longing by people who have been separated for a long time. In my experience, though, the song is so powerful that you can often tell what the students want to talk about after listening to it and thinking about it for a short while. Perhaps now it’s our turn to listen.


Critical thinking and language skills: “There Was Once”

In “There Was Once”, Margaret Atwood plays with Western culture stereotypes by questioning them to such extremes that the narrator is finally unable to tell her story. You may have worked with fractured tales before, but this ingenious exercise in deconstruction will get the students talking and analysing, revising — or perhaps confirming — their own viewpoints, and it will ultimately promote the development of critical thinking skills while working with the language.

1. In groups, students read the words in the box taken from the story they are about to read and make predictions by filling out a possible story map using those words. Groups share their story maps with the rest of the class. Discuss similarities and differences.captura-de-pantalla-2017-02-09-a-las-20-39-37


2. Although the text is a dialogue, it also works very well if either the teacher or one student reads one role and the rest of the students take turns reading the rest of the lines, resulting in a much more interactive reading experience. There are 24 lines for the second speaker in the text; assign each line to different students and allow them to practise reading their lines aloud for a few minutes. Read the dialogue as a whole class.

3. The students write down their personal reaction to the story independently for a few minutes. Their reactions should be just a few sentences long: “What do you think of the story?”, “How do you feel?”, “Do you like it?”, “Why?/Why not?” All the students in the class stand up and are asked to share their reactions randomly; if someone else has something similar, the student can sit down.

4. Once everyone is sitting down, the students discuss all the main ideas that have been shared as a whole group. Students often enjoy this clip from Monty Python on a rather different version of “Little Red Riding Hood”, which should help with the debate.

5. Refer students back to the story map they worked on at the beginning of the lesson and tell them that they will be writing a five-paragraph story using the same words in the box. In groups of four, students are numbered out for collaborative writing purposes:
– Students start writing their first paragraph introducing the setting and the characters. When the time is up, students hand out their papers to the person with the following number: number 1s to number 2s, 2s to 3s, 3s to 4s, and number 4s to number 1s.
– Students read the introduction and write a second paragraph with the first event in the story. Rotate papers again.
– Third paragraph: second event in the story. Rotate papers.
– Fourth paragraph: third event and rotate.
– The student that started writing the narrative reads the story and writes an ending.

Each of these stages should be timed, although the amount of time needed will depend on the level of the students and the type of support they need. This is also a great opportunity to have students proofread each other’s writings, have them edit their stories and hand in a final version to be shared with the rest of the class. How do their stories differ from the story maps at the beginning of the lesson?

Little Red Riding Hood illustration from by H is for Home, on Flickr

Little Red Riding Hood illustration from” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by H is for Home

Talking about the environment: “Big Yellow Taxi”

“I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.”

Joni Mitchell. Los Angeles Times, 1996

Next week I’m using this activity as an introduction to a unit on environmental issues. The task is based on a song by Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970), and it asks the students to find two words in each sentence which should change places with each other in order to make sense. The students then explain their answers and listen to the song to check if they are right.

I’m including two versions for different levels here, from easier to more difficult:



ANSWERS: parking – paradise, and – hotel, know – go, parking – paradise, put – took, half – dollar, that – put, birds – spots, last – late, old – yellow



ANSWERS: put up – paved, hotel – boutique, till – that, put – took, half – dollar, now – away, birds – apples, slam – door, old – yellow

(Extra support can be provided if needed by having the students circle a few of the target words at the beginning.)

Apart from Joni Mitchell’s original song, there are several cover versions out there with different styles, so I’m also including a few I like to choose from based on what I know about a particular group of students.  Notice, however, that the Counting Crows’ cover version changes “slam” for “sway” and “man” for “girl” at the end, and that in Amy Grant’s version the people are charged “twenty-five bucks” instead of “a dollar and a half! Just another great opportunity to provide an extra purpose for listening!

I’m planning to have the students write a one-sentence personal response to the song and the topic in general, read a few and discuss them, and then use them again at the end of the unit in a plenary discussion. The students will be asked to make any changes they want and to write a few more lines with the new information and personal thoughts which will hopefully demonstrate their critical thinking skills and help them to take a stance on the issue.

We need this more than ever, don’t we?

Description, down to a fine art

Improving the students’ organisational skills and getting them ready to write a well-rounded description of a painting are the main goals of this activity which was originally part of a longer unit around the topics of reading and literature. I first chose six classical paintings in which someone is reading a book.

The paintings are hidden behind black squares (see PowerPoint file below) and are progressively displayed square by square to draw the students’ attention to each part of the painting. The idea here is to encourage active conversations in which the students make predictions about the books, the people and the places, and the relationship between the main elements in each painting, as they are gradually revealed. Descriptive vocabulary such as “at the top” or “in the bottom left-hand corner” can also be introduced or revised at this point.


The students use the oral discussion and their own ideas and personal impressions to complete a graphic organiser for each painting, first writing down a few words that describe the book, the person or people reading and the place, and then thinking of how each of these are related.


This is a fairly flexible task which allows the students to use their own vocabulary based on their proficiency level, but it’s also a good time to introduce new words that the students may need that should not be missed. In addition, by having them make connections (book-person, person-place, place-book) and write down their ideas in the circles, the students are encouraged to think beyond the painting and use these critical thinking skills to enrich their descriptions:
– What type of book do you think it is?
– Are they reading for pleasure? To find information?
– Are they enjoying it? Why do you think so?
– Are they in a public or a private room? Do they look comfortable? What can the place tell us about the person?

Depending on the level of the students, you may need to model or go over the elements that make a descriptive text both coherent and cohesive, and which will help them to express all the ideas gathered to the best of their ability. The students can then be asked to write the description of the painting they like most or simply assign one to each student, and later hold an art exhibition in class where the students are given the opportunity to share and compare their own writings. Can the students now use these observational, organisational and critical thinking skills to choose a painting or photograph of their choice that can be added to the art exhibition and write a well-rounded description independently?

All images are Public Domain

Pathways to Accuracy: “Somewhere Only We Know”

At the beginning of “Somewhere Only We Know” (Keane, 2004), the singer walks “across an empty land” and knows “the pathway like the back of my hand.” In this activity, the students find their way through the maze to read and understand the lyrics of the song while facing a series of challenges related to grammar and sentence structure along the way. The use of articles and possessive adjectives, or differences such as “been”/”gone” or “say”/”tell”, are some of the questions that the students will need to solve as they connect the words with a pencil or a highlighter. The students are also asked to fill in the circles with a suitable preposition. Depending on the level of the students, the prepositions that they are allowed to use can be provided beforehand (although here I’d have them think of an answer first or leave it blank if they don’t know it, check it later when they listen to the song, and then discuss any other possibilities.)


Somewhere Only We Know.pdf


There are plenty of opportunities for language analysis and further practice after the students have listened to the song and checked their answers, but you may also want to work on comprehension and discuss what the song means to each student, get them to share their ideas, and finally compare them with these words by the band’s drummer:

We’ve been asked whether “Somewhere Only We Know” is about a specific place, and Tim has been saying that, for him, or us as individuals, it might be about a geographical space, or a feeling; it can mean something individual to each person, and they can interpret it to a memory of theirs… It’s perhaps more of a theme rather than a specific message… Feelings that may be universal, without necessarily being totally specific to us, or a place, or a time…

Richard Hughes

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Working On Connected Speech: The Fresh Prince

The theme song from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” is used here to help the students recognise and practise the various features of connected speech which make the stress pattern and rhythm of English so distinctive. Making the students aware of these differences and providing opportunities to work on them allows them to improve their listening and speaking skills and hopefully contribute to make their pronunciation even more intelligible to both native and non-native speakers.

In this activity, the students first watch the show’s introduction with no sound and take turns telling what they think the first-person story is about based on the images. Then they compare their predictions with the actual story once the lyrics are handed out. This is also a good time to play the video with sound once again and introduce new vocabulary.


Focus on sentence stress, read the first few lines and model the differences in prominence between stressed and unstressed syllables.


The students practise the lines chorally and slowly at first, tapping the beat of the song as they sing and gradually reading and singing it faster and faster. As new lines are added to the choral reading/singing, introduce new features of connected speech as needed: elision (losing sounds), linking (adding or joining sounds between words) or assimilation (changing sounds). For instance, most students will struggle with the line “I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air” unless they have worked on linking and elision first.

The group follows the same procedure with the rest of the song, playing it every now and then while checking their progress and areas that may need improving. The following audio file belongs to one of those progress checks in the middle of the lesson:

At the end, the students may be asked to think of possible implications this activity might have on everyday speech, how it could help them improve their speaking and listening skills, and share their ideas with the rest of the class. And now that they are familiar with the lyrics, you can’t miss this video in which “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” is run through Google Translate 64 times with the inevitable hilarious consequences (and a couple of subliminal lessons that any language teacher will relish!)

Fresh Prince by Rebirth Cycle, on Flickr

Fresh Prince” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Rebirth Cycle