The Internet TESL Journal

Practical Aspects of Using Video in the Foreign Language Classroom

Christine Canning-Wilson
christine.canning [at]
The Center of Excellence for Research and Training, Higher Colleges of Technology (Abu Dhabi)

Current Theory on the Use of Video as an Educational Medium of Instruction

Video is at best defined as the selection and sequence of messages in an audio-visual context. Considerable confidence is placed in the value of audio-visual aids to enhance the learning of foreign languages, yet there is little empirical data and research to support the proposition that video facilitates in the learning of foreign languages. However, with the amount of time devoted to using video in the Foreign or Second Language (F/SL) classroom, research is warranted to show how audio-visual aids enhance the language learning process. Currently, research over the past two decades, shows that there are several limitations to be recognized when examining results. First, many studies have been done with visual aids and not with actual foreign and second language videos. Secondly, many video studies use intact groups instead of random groups who were studying only one foreign language. Thus, studies using different groups and languages may yield different results than those found in the literature. As Omaggio (1979) points out, to find varied results, researchers would need to ask whether or not the same findings would hold true in different languages.

Another limitation on video studies deals with the long-term effects of using video in the classroom. It can be argued that video instruction should be discouraged because there is scant empirical proof to verify comprehension. For example, how can long-run effects of video be measured and how much exposure to video would make a significant difference in the language learning process? In addition to these queries, researchers would need to ask if the visual significantly affects listening comprehension (Mueller, 1980). Research would also need to address how video manifests itself differently than prolonged exposure to a visual aid that does not have an audio component? With such unanswered questions yet to be proven with quantitative measures practitioners must ask themselves if there is sufficient evidence to support continued use of audio-visual aids in the learning of foreign languages to justify the allocation of resources for them in the foreign or second language classroom.

However, in recent years, some of these questions have begun to be addressed, but in limited contexts. For example, Balatova (1994) suggests that unlike a student, who listened in sound only conditions, the use of video and sound conditions were more consistent in their perception of the story, in the sense that difficult and easy passages formed a pattern. The study notes that scenes where utterances were backed up by an action and/or body language and that were relatively shorter, were considered easier to understand by students. Less lively scenes, which involved relatively long stretches of conversation, were labeled as more difficult. These comments illustrate that visual cues are important, since they either facilitated or distracted from understanding. In addition, her research also notes that "It is also interesting to point out that students in the sound-only conditions in the two experiments were less successful in maintaining the interest and concentration in listening".

Research by Herron, Hanley and Cole (1995) indicates that the visual support in the form of descriptive pictures significantly improved comprehension scores with language videos for English speaking students learning French. The results of the study indicate that extensive listening is facilitated by the richness of the context that visual organizers, such as educational videos, provide. Heron (1994) finds that advanced organizers based on videos helped learners improve comprehension and aid in the retention of information.

A recent large-scale survey by Canning-Wilson (2000) suggests that the students like learning language through the use of videos. One of the results of her survey shows that learners prefer action/entertainment films to language films or documentaries in the classroom. She states although these films may seem to hold student interest, she believes that it could be inferred that student comprehension of the video may be due to the visual clues instead of the auditory components.

Heron, Hanley and Cole also hypothesize that the more meaningful an advanced organizer is the more impact it can have on comprehension and retention. Their results of using twelve different videos with foreign language learners indicates that scores improved when advanced organizers, such as a pictures and/or visual stimuli, are used with the video. Perhaps the findings from these studies can be attributed to the fact that video offers contextual support and/or helps learners to visualize words as well as meanings.

Individuals process information in different ways. The strategies used by one learner are likely to differ from those used by a different learner. It has been proven that what benefits one group of learners may actually hinder the performance of a different group of learners (Bovy, 1981). Issues of the value of video as a teaching tool are often questioned. Omaggio (1979) suggests that "the profession has virtually no empirical basis for promoting the use of visuals as aids to comprehension in the second language; we know practically nothing about how students benefit from visuals" (1979, p.107). Recently, in a lecture on the use of visuals in research, Canning-Wilson (2000) claims that the use of illustrations, visuals, pictures, perceptions, mental images, figures, impressions, likenesses, cartoons, charts, graphs, colors, replicas, reproductions, or anything else used to help one see an immediate meaning in the language may benefit the learner by helping to clarify the message, provided the visual works in a positive way to enhance or supplement the language point. She reports that images contextualized in video or on its own can help to reinforce the language, provided the learner can see immediate meaning in terms of vocabulary recognition in the first language. Furthermore, her research suggests that visuals can be used to help enhance the meaning of the message trying to be conveyed by the speakers through the use of paralinguistic cues.

Additional factors must be considered when looking at video as an instructional medium to teach a foreign or second language. In 1999, Coombe and Kinney stated that "Learners learn primarily because of what they bring to their classroom experience in terms of their perceived needs, motivations, past experiences, background knowledge, interests and creative skills" (1999,p.21). Furthermore, experts suggest that instructional design and cognitive processing considerations are more salient than media used to deliver the instruction (Clark, 1983). Hannafin (1986) suggests that the incorporation of criterion-based questions in video instruction is likely to improve intended learning, but scant empirical data has unequivocally proven this hypothesis. It is important to note that in the late 1980s, Hannafin admitted, "there was no research to support one side over the other, so we are left with logic and common sense to form an initial hypothesis" (Hannafin 1986). In 1994, Balatova¼s studies indicated that visual cues found invideos were informative and enhanced comprehension in general, but did not necessarily stimulate the understanding of a text. It was also found that teaching with video had some affective advantages. If the results of their findings are true and the same results can be replicated, perhaps practitioners will no longer have to rely solely on anecdotal evidence.

Using Video in the F/SL Classroom

What are the practical implications of using video in the classroom? At the most basic level of instruction, video is a form of communication and it can be achieved without the help of language, since we often interact by gesture, eye contact and facial expression to convey a message. Video provides visual stimuli such as the environment and this can lead to and generate prediction, speculation and a chance to activate background schemata when viewing a visual scene reenacted. It can be argued that language found in videos could help nonnative speakers understand stress patterns. Videos allow the learner to see body rhythm and speech rhythm in second language discourse through the use of authentic language and speed of speech in various situations. Videos allow contextual clues to be offered. In addition, video can stimulate and motivate student interest. The use of visuals overall can help learners to predict information, infer ideas and analyze the world that is brought into the classroom via the use of video instruction. In a teaching or testing situation video can help enhance clarity and give meaning to an auditory text; it can create a solid link between the materials being learned and the practical application of it in a testing situation; the video can act as a stimulus or catalyst to help integrate materials or aspects of the language; videos can help manipulate language and at the same time be open to a variety of interpretations.

Arthur (1999) claims that:

"Video can give students realistic models to imitate for role-play; can increase awareness of other cultures by teaching appropriateness and suitability; can strengthen audio/visual linguistic perceptions simultaneously; can widen the classroom repertoire and range of activities; can help utilize the latest technology to facilitate language learning; can teach direct observation of the paralinguistic features found in association with the target language; can be used to help when training students in ESP related scenarios and language; can offer a visual reinforcement of the target language and can lower anxiety when practicing the skill of listening."
Video used in a classroom should be interpretive and to the point. The visual should show reasonable judgement and enhance comprehension, heighten sensory acuteness, and illustrate the target language being used. Practitioners should avoid the use of distracters, over-crowded or violent stimuli. Visuals are ineffective in the learning process when the visual is too small; when the visual or video uses stereotypes; when the visual or video is a poor reproduction; when the picture is to far away from the text illustration; when the video has irrelevant captioning; when the video or visual offers to much information related or unrelated to the picture; when the video or visual is poorly scaled; and when the picture is not esthetically meaningful. A visual cue may be accompanied by a written cue to focus on a lexical item being furnished. Videos can make the task, situation or language more authentic. More importantly, video can be used to help distinguish items on a listening comprehension test, aid in the role of recall, help to sequence events, as well as be adapted, edited or changed in order to meet the needs of the language learner (Canning, 1998).

Suggestions to the Classroom Practitioner

If video is to be used in the classroom to improve listening comprehension, it should be shown in segments and not as a whole. These segments should be broken down to exploit the macro-listening skills and the micro-listening skills from the audio-component of the video. There is scant, if any, empirical evidence to indicate that videos shown in their entirety improve listening comprehension scores of nonnative speakers of English. For as much as the visual may aid in understanding the scenario or general gist of the film¼s plot, it may detract from the individual messages produced by the speakers. In fact the constant visual stimuli may detract from the auditory component. Empirical evidence has shown that attention spans are lowered when watching videos used to teach foreign languages (Balatova, 1994). As Balatova (1994) states: "The first signs of distraction in those groups appeared after the first minute, and by the end of four minutes, distraction spread all over the groups, while in the video conditions several more students became distracted after six minutes, more students lost concentration after ten minutes and around one third of them kept watching until the end."

Key Considerations for Using Video in the Classroom with Nonnative Speakers

Although video may be a popular tool to use with students, as F/SL educators we must not loose sight of the educational purpose it has in the language classroom. It is suggested that language teachers should ask themselves the following questions before implementing a video lesson with F/SL learners:


Because academic listening tasks are often tested rather than taught, video offers foreign and second language learners a chance to improve their ability to understand comprehensible input. Videos allow teachers to ask both display and referential questions. Video tasks used in the F/SL classroom, can include but are not limited to creating advanced organizers, other visual representations and descriptors.

Video tasks should be multi-layered in order to exploit all information and elements contained in the aural and visual texts. Additionally, it is essential that video tasks and lessons be perceived by the language leaner as a challenging and requiring effort. Be sure that students are able to answer questions based solely upon what they see instead of what they hear. Otherwise it is possible to imply that practitioners are measuring their visual literacy and not their ability to comprehend aural input.

With the increase in educational technology, video is no longer imprisoned in the traditional classroom; it can easily be expanded into the computer aided learning lab (Canning 1998). Interactive language learning using video, CD ROM, and computers allow learners the ability to view and actively participate in lessons at their desired pace. It is recommended that institutions and practitioners encourage the use of instructional video in the F.SOL classroom as it enables them to monitor and alternate instruction by fostering greater mental effort for active learning instead of passive retrieval of visual and auditory information.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 11, November 2000