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March 1998 - Issue No. #29 (p.7 - 9)

Teaching Global Issues through English Movies

by Yasuyo Fukunaga

Ferris University, Yokohama, Japan

Film as a Window to the World

When I was a child, I went to the movies for entertainment like millions of other kids. One day, I saw Stanley Kubrick's anti-war film Dr. Strangelove (1963) and, though I'd often been told about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this made me really start thinking seriously about the madness of nuclear destruction. Stanley Kramer's film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) about mixed-race romance later taught me about racism for the first time in my life. Thus, from an early age, film has helped to promote my awareness of the world and of the social and global issues it faces.

The Hollywood director D. W. Griffith once said, "The task I am trying to achieve is, above all, to make people see." Films show us what it's like to be human. They help us view the world and identify with places and issues we might otherwise be unaware of.

Global Issues through Movies

Serious world problems of war, human rights, tropical rainforests and so on can be hard for language learners to connect with. Approaching global issues through movies is, therefore, a useful strategy, especially when the issues seem too difficult, too time-consuming or too remote from students' lives. The visual aspect of movies can help students understand both the language used and the issues portrayed. Further, movies speak to students' emotions as well as to their intellect, and allow them to enter an unknown world and experience its conflicts. Movies are authentic materials that bring real life into the classroom and provide a context in which language is effectively learned.

A Global Issues Through Movies Course

For the past four years, I've taught a college EFL course called 'English through Global Issue Movies'. The goal of my course is to help students improve their English language abilities, promote independent research skills, sharpen critical thinking skills, develop discussion and presentation skills, and foster intercultural understanding, The course runs for one-year and features five classes each on key global issues such as war and peace, human rights, minorities, the Holocaust and women's issues. My teaching procedure is roughly as follows:

  1. I start by giving students a preliminary task to help them focus on the topic. For an issue like AIDS, this can involve guessing (e.g. what a red ribbon means; why Magic Johnson is famous), brainstorming, a cross-word puzzle, key word matching, a questionnaire or even a song (for AIDS, I use Bruce Springsteen's Streets of Philadelphia).

  2. I next show the class a 10 to 15 minute scene from the movie which clearly presents the key issues. After viewing, I ask students yes-no questions to check their basic understanding of vocabulary, the social background and the context of the story.

  3. I then give students a fill-in-the-blank movie dictation to complete in groups while watching an edited film clip I prepare before class. For this,I show them the same scene 5 times in succession. Since some students are good at listening and others at grammar, they learn to cooperate through sharing and discussing their ideas in a small group.

  4. I next have students do small group role plays based on the dictated script. This can be replaced by an information gap, interview game or by shadowing in the language lab.

  5. To deepen understanding of the context and the issue, I have each group write at least one question about the scene they saw on TV. The questions are written on the board and answered by other groups. The teacher can prepare these questions if students have difficulty due to low language skills. I give a review and comments after each question.

  6. At the end of the semester, I assign students a short speech based on an English essay which they are required to write on an issue and film of their choice. The final class activity for the course can be a debate, a presentation or a student research report.

Choosing Global Issue Movies

Two criteria should be used to choose movies for global issues language teaching: whether the movie has appropriate content for the issue to be studied and whether it is suitable for language learning. The process of choosing a good film can take more time and effort than imagined, often involving viewing dozens of films, sometimes several times each. Big box-office success movies aren't always good for teaching; sometimes B-grade movies are better. Good movies for college students aren't necessarily good for junior high school and vice versa.

Video Scripts and Closed Captions

Students don't learn much when teachers simply show a feature-length English movie straight through in class. Rather, you should try and select a number of short, teachable scenes from the movie and design language activities around these. Careful selection and editing are important when adapting authentic materials for classroom use.

Obtaining copies of movie scripts can be a great help in preparing teaching materials. Some movie screenplays are available at bookstores and on the Internet, though not many are for global issue films. You can also use closed captioned videos (marked with a CC or a TV logo) which show the dialog being spoken as subtitles at the bottom of the screen. Closed captions have been provided for American video movies since 1990 thanks to the 'Americans with Disabilities Act'. To make the English subtitles appear on your TV, you need a closed caption decoder connected to your VCR.

Captions can be down-loaded into your computer and used to create teaching materials. You can make fill-in-the-blank worksheets, for example, without having to type in every word, and you can even search movie dialog for a particular grammar item. This allows you to teach grammar in a more natural, "real life" context than with a more prosaic grammar book. To teach the subjunctive using the AIDS film Philadelphia, for example, just type in "if" and click on the search button. You'll find 18 sentences in the subjunctive mood, one example being:

     00:43:36    If you ever need a lawyer, give me a call.

Grammar can also be practiced in a communicative way through video. In the movie Philadelphia, for example, lawyer Denzel Washington talks with his wife about meeting AIDS patient Tom Hanks:

     00:35:14  I got a question. Would you accept a client if you were
                   constantly thinking "I don't want this person to touch me. 
                   I don't want him to even breathe on me"? 

Here, students can practice the conditional by discussing: "If I were Denzel Washington, I would..." all in the context of language teaching to promote AIDS education.

Teaching Critical Film Awareness

Teachers doing "English through global issue films" can also teach students strategies to understand the medium of film itself. Students should learn to appreciate films, yet at the same time they should gain a critical awareness of how commercial movies are made and of how film can influence us.

The film Mississippi Burning (1988), for example, is a powerful movie based on actual events which can help students learn about racism, violence and the 1960s civil rights movement in the American South. When compared to an ABC documentary, however, it quickly becomes clear that Hollywood took liberties with the facts, distorting the role of the FBI and inventing a romance in order to make the story more melodramatic to ensure a box office success.

A number of Hollywood films can help students to understand social issues in Asia. The Year of Living Dangerously (1983), for example, features Mel Gibson as an Australian reporter who confronts the political upheavals in 1960s Indonesia while The Killing Fields (1984) shows the horrors of the 1970s Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia. While these films offer great scope for getting language learners to think about human rights in Asia, both are shown through the eyes of Westerners rather than through the eyes of Asians themselves.

While commercial films can provide a good point of entry into global issues, it's our responsibility as teachers to help our students develop a critical eye so they can differentiate between fact and fiction, and be aware of point of view. In the final analysis, effective English teaching through global issue movies depends on how teachers design the language learning and global education experiences that movies provide.


CD-ROM Movie Directory

An excellent computer resource is Microsoft's CD-ROM Cinemania: The Interactive Guide to Movies and Moviemakers. This is revised annually and has all the latest information on current movies. It has a search function for finding a particular film or topic from the 25,000 cross-referenced movies listed. If you type in the word "AIDS", for example, a list of 100 AIDS-related movies, reviews, people and articles appears on the computer screen.

Race / Ethnicity

If you're interested in teaching about race and ethnicity, don't miss the Movies, Race, & Ethnicity homepage at This lists directories of movies about groups such as Asians, Chicanos, Jews, African Americans, Native Americans plus movie listings by title and director, and by topics such as war movies and propaganda.

Film Scripts:

A good Internet site for film scripts is Screenplay 451. This has scripts for 141 films from Elephant Man to Titanic.


Film Directories
  1. Picture This!: A Guide to Over 300 Environmentally, Socially, and Politically Relevant Films and Videos by Sky Hiatt (1991; The Noble Press, Chicago).

  2. Movie & Video Guide by Leonard Maltin (Dutton Signet / Penguin Books)

  3. The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz (HarperCollins)

  4. 5001 Nights at the Movies by Pauline Kael (Henry Holt)

  5. DVD & Video Soft Perfect Catalog (Kadokawa) lists Japanese titles for films.

Books for Teaching Film

  1. 102 Very Teachable Films by E.A. Mejia et. al. (1994; Prentice Hall Regents)

  2. American Picture Show: A Cultural Reader by E.A. Mejia et. al. (1992; Prentice Hall Regents)

  3. Crossing Cultures Through Film by E. Summerfield (1993; Intercultural Press)

  4. Film Is Content: A Study Guide for the Advanced ESL Classroom by J. Williamson (1996; U. of Michigan Press)

Movie Screenplays

The Screenplay series consists of 83 books, each of which features the script of an English movie with parallel Japanese translation and vocabulary notes

The Association for Teaching English through Movies (ATEM)
The best way to start with global issue movies is to link up with language teachers using video who can let you know about good global issue films and how best to teach them. JALT [Link no longer active], TESOL and IATEFL [Now the Literature, Media and Cultural Studies Special Interest Group] all have Video Special Interest Groups. In Japan, several Japanese colleagues and I got together in 1995 to establish the Association for Teaching English through Movies (ATEM). This has 500 members nation-wide and organizes an annual conference, holds regular workshops and issues a Japanese-language journal, all for the purpose of promoting better English education through the effective use of film. Their address is:

Association for Teaching English through Movies (ATEM)
1-704 Kami Yashiro, Meito-ku, Nagoya 465-0025, JAPAN
Tel: 052-779-1158 Fax: 052-779-1161
Homepage:     E-mail:


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