Enhancing video lessons with 21st century skills

This piece was written in cooperation with ‘What If Spirit’ and is published simultaneously on their blog.

What does the introduction of digital technologies into classrooms mean for curricula? Will it require a complete overhaul of current educational approaches? What can we do to meet the needs of the new generation of “digital natives”?

We are witnessing a global trend in teaching English as a second language (ESL) – the move beyond just “language” in the language classroom.

Influential frameworks backed by industry leaders, such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, are calling out for more diverse instruction. They want to see learners develop academic competencies and practise professional language functions.

For example, students need support to elaborate ideas and build on those of others. They need to be able to synthesise the main points of a discussion, think critically, and communicate effectively.

So, how can you add a layer of 21st century skills to your lesson plans? In this post, we’ll show you how to do just that, without making fundamental changes to your curriculum.


Understanding 21st century skills

One of the goals of language learning is for individuals to communicate their ideas to others. To achieve this goal, learners must develop a certain degree of flexibility, dealing with uncertainty and adapting to change, as they uncover new and contradictory ideas.

Besides interacting effectively, students must learn to work independently from the teacher. This is sometimes referred to as self-directed learning. There should be a dual focus: to build critical thinking skills and acquire the language needed to engage in critical conversations. These capabilities, along with higher levels of independent decision making and analysis, are the tools for success in today’s world.


Working with short films

Short films are an excellent resource for language teachers. This authentic material can take on a range of forms, from fiction and animation, to documentaries and experimental pieces.

Whatever the genre, students can examine short videos from many perspectives. One of these perspectives is storytelling.

Storytelling is the ability to perceive and describe events and their surroundings. This is an essential skill, not only in their own language, but also in a foreign language such as English.

In particular, narrative films use language to establish mood, define characters and advance the plot. Language plays a crucial role in connecting the various forms of visual and sound information that make up experience of film. That said, silent films can also used in the classroom. With the absence of dialogue, your students can become the narrators and describe what they’re watching.

One of film’s many objectives is to recreate reality. Therefore the language used in film is a close approximation to the language we use in real life. For example we watch characters go shopping, attend school and carry out activities at work, thereby demonstrating practical application.

Here’s an example of a video-based lesson for a short film called SIGNS:

Set the scene

“SIGNS is a short film about a young office worker who is new to a big city. Jason’s routine is the same everyday, work is boring and his loneliness is heartbreaking. His family has big expectations and they want to see him succeed. Just when it seems like he is going to quit his job, something special happens – he meets a girl!”

  • Ask students if they work 9am – 5pm or have a flexible timetable. Students discuss which scenario they prefer in pairs.
  • Tell them they will watch Jason working at his first job. Ask them to watch the first couple of minutes and guess what his job is, and explain why?


Watch the film in stages

  • Ask students to make a list of all the things Jason does during the day. Encourage the students to write down the verbs (e.g. wake up, get dressed) and play the first couple of minutes again.
  • Have the students compare with a partner or use dictionaries if required.
  • Next, in open class, elicit and board the vocabulary in a random order. Ensure the meaning of each phrase is understood by demonstrating the action, going back to the film, or asking another student to give a quick translation.
  • Next, ask students to categorise the words/phrases on the board by which ones they do… in the morning / at work or school / when they get home. Finally, you could watch the first part of the film again and ask students to put the activities in order as they occur.


Predict and discuss

  • Ask students to think of 5 ways their daily routine is different from Jason’s. In pairs, students share how their daily routine is different to Jason’s and discuss how they would change their routines if they could. Move to groups and repeat.
  • Tell the students that Jason’s luck is going to change and his work life is going to become a lot more enjoyable. Ask them, in groups, to predict what the change will be.
  • Play the remainder of the film for them to check their predictions. (He meets a girl at the office and falls in love.)


This cycle is common in the ELT classroom for selecting new language and grammatical forms for the students to attend to and learn.

But films can do more than this. When selected and presented properly, films can do what is perhaps most difficult in high school and university language teaching: move students to speak, converse and debate. This is especially important when learners have a low level of English.

This reveals an additional advantage of teaching English through film. It can significantly increase the intellectual content of a class and move beyond teaching “language” in the language classroom. Films are ideas. And the films best suited to teaching language are those that challenge students to examine all aspects of their personal, social, and cultural lives.

Now, let’s take the same lesson, but with additional stages that incorporate 21st century skills.


Analyse and interpret

Extension Activity 1 (Teenagers):

  • Ask students if they noticed any products or brands in the film. Allow them to watch the film again quickly and check. (The 12-minute short film is in fact an extended advertising commercial for Schweppes.)
  • Students compare and describe what they found with a partner, taking note of the time and scene in which the product placement occurs. Students search for other clues that could help us determine that it is an advertisement (e.g. credits at the end of the film, identifying that the creators are a digital media agency). Have students present their findings to another group.
  • Students try to find another example of product placement in a youtube video to present to the rest of the class.
  • Have a roundtable discussion and encourage students to think of other places you might find these types of advertising commercials online. Ask follow up questions such as: How do you know they are commercials? – or – What makes you think it’s a commercial?


Extension Activity 2 (Adults):

  • Ask students to discuss which country they think Jason is working in? (Australia)
  • Discuss the type of working conditions and work culture they saw in the film.
  • Get students to create a survey consisting of quantitative and qualitative questions about work culture and conditions. Then, have students interview their classmates who come from different countries around the world.
  • Use a digital survey platform, such as google forms, for each student to collect their data quickly, interpret the results and then present their findings. Students could try to draw basic correlations between countries with similar work cultures.


Additional educational value

It is during this final stage of the lesson that asking the right questions can lead learners to deeper thinking and analysis, as well as a better understanding of how to find evidence in a film or text.

Extension ActivityFocus21st Century Skills Added
1 (Teenagers)Analysis of media and digital texts- Develop media literacy
- Learn to think critically
- Understand the author's/creator’s intention
- Use academic register with sentence frames
2 (Adults)Small group analysis and discussion on working conditions- Collaborate with others
- Collect, organise, analyse, and interpret data
- Summarise and synthesise information
- Use academic register with sentence frames

Betsy Parrish states in her Case for Increased Rigor in Adult English Language Instruction that effective questions help students collect the evidence they need to support their claims and make conclusions about what they are watching, listening to or reading.

As a teacher, you should construct questions that depend on information that can be found in the film. To promote critical thinking in any lesson, avoid display questions with only one right answer or that can be answered with a simple Yes or No. Instead, ask How do you know…, What tells you…, Why…? These questions allow students to demonstrate their understanding, rather than simply supply a one-word answer that can be found in a dialogue or text. Asking such questions can promote higher order thinking skills of analysis and interpretation as opposed to simple recall and reporting.


For more lesson ideas using short films see: Film English created by Kieran Donaghy, a University Teacher at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. The website is a collection of lesson ideas inspired by short films that can be used in the classroom.

More specifically, he looks at how we can use film to promote creativity, and both oral and written communication through activities based around a variety of short films. Each of these lesson ideas provide ample opportunities for the teacher to add their own layer of 21st century skills to the lesson.


Featured image: Photo by Roxana Crusemire on Unsplash 

Roxana Crusemire


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