As language teachers, we are often faced with a dilemma: should we choose materials that are authentic but challenging for students, or graded materials that are unengaging? Chiara Bruzzano suggests that the answer may be an unorthodox one: doing away with words in the input by choosing silent videos. In this blog, she explains why and how.
I have apparently droned on about listening in enough places that I was recently asked to co-write the listening sections of a new textbook. As a result, I have started reading more about materials writing and particularly script writing, since I would be writing listening scripts.
In his book How to write audio and video scripts, teacher trainer and textbook author John Hughes reports some early examples of scripts in language learning materials. One of these, taken from a 1554 handbook for Spanish learners of English, is a dialogue that reads as follows:
“Hermes: John, I pray God send ye a good day.
John: And I, Hermes, wish unto you a prosperous day.
Hermes: How do you?
John: Ask you how I do? I fare well, thanks be to God, and will be glad to do you pleasure.”
Now, of course the English is a little on the old-fashioned side, but I agree with John Hughes: old language aside, doesn’t this feel like it could be the structure of a modern-day textbook dialogue about greetings?
An age-old dilemma: reducing linguistic complexity vs. creating authentic and engaging content
When it comes to materials for lower levels, there is often no way around it: something has to give. Of course, you want your students to be engaged and you want to use authentic materials as much as possible, but how will they cope with the linguistic complexity?
The result is often contrived, inauthentic materials that don’t do much for engagement. So, what to do about it?
One solution is to think about the reading texts and listening scripts themselves, and Mike Long has offered us a good framework to do this. In a previous article, I talked about how challenging genuine texts can be and how “psycholinguistically inadequate and artificial” simplified materials can be.
So, Long encourages us to think of two more options. The first is elaborated input, which includes devices typically employed in foreigner talk like redundancy, synonym, explanations and paraphrasing. The second, and according to Long, the best, is modified elaborated input, which solves the issue of elaborated input containing sentences that are too long by splitting them and adding linking words.
An alternative: doing away with words altogether with silent videos
If you are not in the mood for writing simplified, elaborated or modified elaborated texts or scripts (totally understandable, it’s almost Christmas after all!), an alternative to the dilemma of linguistic complexity in the input is silent videos.
It’s completely the opposite: you do away with the words in the input to make way for words in the output.
When you watch a silent video or a short silent movie, you realise words are not all there is to communication: a lot of communication is actually done with paralinguistic devices like facial expressions, body language and hand gestures.
And this is only one of the many advantages of using silent videos as a resource in the classroom. The obvious one is that when we have to decide between comprehensible but dull or engaging but difficult materials, silent videos provide a third way. Indeed, they can pack a lot of content without the corresponding linguistic complexity.
This also means that they can be used both with very low levels and higher levels: the complexity of the tasks you do with them can simply be graded. Take this short film. It is called “Five” and it depicts the lives of five children of five different religions. With A1-A2 levels, you could use it simply to ask them to name everything they recognise in the video or practise talking about everyday routines. With higher levels, you might want to practise comparing and contrasting using more complex vocabulary and with even higher levels, use it as the starting point for a broader discussion on customs and religions.
Silent films are good ways to use authentic materials, which tend to be less artificial and thus more relatable for students. They also help us avoid an issue I personally find cringing, which is the infantilisation that inevitably occurs when materials are graded for very low levels. This isn’t often met favourably by teenagers and, even worse, adult learners. However, they might appreciate engaging with more authentic and relatable content.
For more tips and a rationale for using silent videos, read “Silent Movies: A New Approach to Using Video at Low Levels”. In this article published for Modern English Teacher, Glenn Gainer foresaw the benefits of silent videos in the English language classroom almost twenty years ago!
Have you ever used silent videos in the classroom? What activities do you do with them? Let us know in the comments section!