The Internet TESL Journal

What Do EFL Students See in Introductory Sequences of Movies

Gordon Liversidge
gordon [at]


The beginning of any movie is the most difficult for learners. Class time is precious and it is very difficult to justify the use of it to watch a whole movie. However, time invested in helping students understand the background vocabulary means that they can continue to watch the remainder by themselves. It is important for teachers to try and identify what learners actually perceive at the beginning of any movie. In order to find a method to do this I undertook a study on the effect of closed-captioning upon language learning. Within that study, I tried to establish what learners perceived as being important and why as well as if their perception patterns were different across film genres.


One half-year class that I teach is an introduction to Western film. With 120 students, half of whom are not English majors, it is difficult to maintain a balance between what parts of the lecture, materials, and hands on activities are in English, what are in Japanese (their native language), and what have some combination of both. For the last four courses, in the first class I have presented the first scene of about three minutes from the 1964 spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood. I do not provide Japanese subtitles, but they can read the English closed captions. One key question I always include is, What country is this? The expected answer is Mexico, but from experience I know that half of the students will place this as the being in the United States, and there will also be a few answers such as Egypt, South America, Peru etc. These answers indicate that some things that teachers, maybe unconsciously, regard as important are not so regarded by students. You may argue that is simply their lack of knowledge. However, the reverse of this is that their perspective is more neutral; they do not bring their cultural claptrap. Specifically, Japanese students do not understand the Western genre of the Mexican bandit or the clean-cut American cowboy. At a deeper level, it is possible to recognize stereotyped positions with regard to domestic violence and the treatment of women.

Dangers of a Prescriptive Position

Maybe the above example is extreme. However, it can help identify two danger areas sometimes present in teaching. First, with movie introductory sequences, there is sometimes focus on areas that the students do not perceive as important or interesting. Second, what the students themselves perceive as important or interesting is ignored, or there is no attempt to identify these areas. Although teachers may not think so, this is, in fact, adopting a prescriptive approach, and sometimes one that is also proselytizing from the perspective of a certain culture. For both pedagogy and research, there are dangers with such an approach. For pedagogy, if students have different perceptions, it may mean that the activities used or designed may not be making optimal use of time and the potential for language acquisition. For research, it may be that experimental questions are directed at areas which students are not focusing on and may result in false conclusions being drawn.

Why Introductory Sequences

It is the beginning of any movie that learners find the most difficult. Class time is precious and it is very difficult to justify the use of a whole movie unless it is done in serialized form with good accompanying activities. However, time invested in helping students understand the background and key vocabulary means that they can continue to watch the remainder by themselves, if the necessary support infrastructure and materials are available. Here in Japan, the ever increasing availability of closed-captioned decoder machines and the publishing of script books is helping this process. In many academic institutions, the captioning decoders are often put in an AV or media center as an appendage, with little consideration as to what and where learners could be aided by support materials. As incidental viewing is probably the most common mode of watching movies, and will continue to be so, it is important to try and identify what learners are actually perceiving at the beginning of any movie.

A Research-Based Approach to Discovering Perception Patterns of Airplane and The Graduate

In 1996, I conducted a comprehensive study on the effect of closed-captioning upon language acquisition. Within that study, two of the research questions were:(Here, the definition of the term genre is used loosely as being 'in some way different'. Strict film critics would argue that The Graduate is not a genre. For a strict linguistic interpretation see Swales 1990.)

The participants were ninety Japanese learners (two groups) of low to intermediate English language proficiency attending a university in Japan. The movies Airplane and The Graduate were selected because of the similarity of the introductory sequence length, amount of dialogue, and interest factor (from use with other groups).

Plotting the Ideas

Students viewed the introductory sequences twice. They then answered a multiple choice comprehension test. Following this, they were asked to write down in Japanese, one per line, events or things that they found either interesting or important. No restrictions or requirements were placed upon how many or few ideas they wrote. For each introductory sequence, two raters listed all of the ideas produced by the students. There were 15 for Airplane and 16 for The Graduate. Each student's answers were then plotted onto an Excel spreadsheet grid.

Results: Analyzing the Patterns

A) The Spreadsheet Grids

A cursory perusal of the spreadsheets showed that for Airplane four ideas outweighed all the others. For Airplane, 66% of all Idea Units were concentrated in the four most frequent Idea Units, whereas for The Graduate, this was only 44%.

For Airplane the top four Idea Units were:

  1. Ted, not giving up, went to the ticket counter and confirmed that Elaine was on board. When he bought a ticket for the smoking section, the ticket he received was actually smoking. (49)
  2. Ted found Elaine, who was a flight attendant, in the departure building, and asked her to give their relationship another chance but Elaine refused saying that she could no longer "live with a man" she no longer respected. (34)
  3. Elaine (in the airplane cabin), handing out reading material, came face to face with Ted. Ted said to the startled Elaine that he wanted to talk but she, being too busy, coldly dismissed him. (27)
  4. With his passenger still waiting in the taxi, Ted went to the plane. When he saw the plane in front of him, he had a flashback to his hard wartime experiences. (20)
For The Graduate the top four Idea Units were
  1. When they got inside (the Robinsons' home), Mrs. Robinson offered Ben a drink and when he refused, she asked him to stay until her husband came home and handed him a glass of bourbon. (22)
  2. Mr. Robinson came into the house and when Ben explained that he had driven Mrs. Robinson home and was waiting for him to come home, Mr. Robinson accepted it without question. (19)
  3. Mrs. Robinson asked Ben to unzip (the back) of her dress. Reluctantly Ben undid the zip. (17)
  4. Seeing her in her underwear Ben thought that Mr. Robinson might get the wrong idea if he were to come home. Ben was about to leave when Mrs. Robinson asked him to bring up the bag that was on the hall table. Then Mrs. Robinson went to the bathroom. (15)

B) Multidimensional Scaling

The spreadsheets showed that the students' perception of the situation for The Graduate was more complex. In the case of The Graduate several other Idea Units not mentioned above were selected by ten or more students, whereas for Airplane the separation between selection by many or by only a few was much clearer. However, there are underlying patterns of how students' ideas link together. Such patterns are not as easily discernable. Multidimensional Scaling searches for these patterns which are called dimensions. This is very similar to the way that Factor Analysis searches for factors. Each dimension is assigned a ranking and each idea unit weighting (or loading) for each dimension. The researcher has to look at the Idea Units which are prominent in each dimension and identify and give a name to what each dimension represents. (For those interested in this process, Biber (1986) is an excellent study on the supposed linguistic differences between different kinds of spoken and written texts).

For Airplane the dimensions were named as:

Dimension 1
Information Stated/Not Stated
Dimension 2
Ted's Efforts (not to lose Elaine) vs. His Past
Dimension 3
Respect (Elaine's loss of it for Ted) vs. Fear (Ted's fear of flying)
For The Graduate the dimensions were named as:
Dimension 1
Information Stated/Not Stated
Dimension 2
The Stages of Seduction vs. Normal Behavior
Dimension 3
Mr. Robinson's Interpretation (if or when he returned home) - Normal vs. Strange Behavior
Dimension 4
Clearly there is overlap at some points. Some of the Idea Units that were answered by students had a significant weighting on more than one dimension. However, the main conclusion is that students did perceive The Graduate as being more complex than Airplane.

A Pedagogic Approach to Discovering Students' Perception Patterns

Stages in Accessing the Ideas

  1. Students think and make notes individually, in pairs, or in groups, of the ideas they think are interesting or important. If possible the language used should be English. However, students in lower level classes EFL monolingual classes may use Japanese on the understanding that the next stage will be in English.
  2. Students write full sentences of their Idea Units (Students cannot add new ideas) Provide support: scripts of dialogue, downloaded printouts of captioned text, lists, examples of usage of vocabulary and phrases which have appeared in 1.
  3. (Optional) List up ideas on grid sheet, blackboard, and computer. How do groups differ?
  4. (Optional) Have students assign a ranking for their top 5-8 ideas.

Link Scenes and Ideas

  1. Students identify and title the scenes, and the people present
  2. Plot the idea units into these scenes
  3. Identify where the Idea Units are. If scenes are long, break up the scene into sub scenes.
  4. Identify the parts, not considered to be interesting or important and try to discover why. The reasons for differences in perception could be a framework.

Other Activities

  1. Idea units on one set of cards, scenes on another. Students must find their pair.
  2. Scramble scenes and/or ideas. Students have to find the correct order.
To prevent boring students or overkill only some of the above should be used with any one class. Neither do they necessarily have to be done in class. In fact, it is probably better that parts are follow-on activities in another class, or as an assignment.

Research and Pedagogy: Reasons for Differences in Students' Perception

So why were these differences found in the research study and what factors can be expected in a classroom or self-study environment? This section outlines the factors that can affect students' perception.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Final Comment

Students regarded some of the scenes from Airplane as not important or not interesting. Therefore, some scenes could be omitted. This jumping of scenes or parts of scenes is possible with some laser discs, but with videocassette tapes it is more difficult and overuse can damage the tapes. However, the spread of digital video discs (DVD), and the linking of video and computers will make this easier, both for learners and teachers. It will increase the enjoyment and rewards of language learning through movies by customizing use for each separate occasion and need. In this teachers should always ascertain what students perceive as important and interesting and why.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 3, March 2000