What Do EFL Students See in Introductory Sequences of Movies
gordon [at] gol.com
IntroductionThe 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.
BackgroundOne 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 PositionMaybe 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 SequencesIt 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 GraduateIn 1996, I conducted a comprehensive study on the effect of closed-captioning upon language acquisition. Within that study, two of the research questions were:
- What do learners perceive as being important and why?
- Are student perception patterns different across film genres?
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 IdeasStudents 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 GridsA 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:
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- Mrs. Robinson asked Ben to unzip (the back) of her dress. Reluctantly Ben undid the zip. (17)
- 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 ScalingThe 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)
- 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
A Pedagogic Approach to Discovering Students' Perception Patterns
Stages in Accessing the Ideas
- 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.
- 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.
- (Optional) List up ideas on grid sheet, blackboard, and computer. How do groups differ?
- (Optional) Have students assign a ranking for their top 5-8 ideas.
Link Scenes and Ideas
- Students identify and title the scenes, and the people present
- Plot the idea units into these scenes
- Identify where the Idea Units are. If scenes are long, break up the scene into sub scenes.
- 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.
- Idea units on one set of cards, scenes on another. Students must find their pair.
- Scramble scenes and/or ideas. Students have to find the correct order.
Research and Pedagogy: Reasons for Differences in Students' PerceptionSo 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.
- Nature of the Input
- Linguistic: Analysis using VocabProfile (Nation & Heatley, 1994), computer software, which analyses vocabulary by headword families, showed that the vocabulary from Airplane is slightly more difficult. There is more slang, more technical words, and being a comedy (spoof) more jokes, some slapstick and some verbal.
- Visual: Airplane has higher visual input than The Graduate does (32 vs. 7 scenes, respectively). The scenes from Airplane are all less than one minute, except for three, whereas for The Graduate it is the reverse, apart from one scene. The contextualization process within each scene from The Graduate is slower starting with silent scene shots and changing to more close-up shots. (Visual here does not include reading, visual-verbal input; it refers only to visual-non-verbal input - the scenery, peoples' appearance and action. Mixing of the two can create false constructs: Liversidge, 1996, on Reid, 1986).
- Discourse: This is a combination of A and B. The Graduate has a clear story in which Mrs. Robinson, friend of Ben's parents, attempts to seduce the just graduated Ben. Airplane, a comedy spoof of the Airplane disaster series of films, has a tenuous story thread of the relationship between Elaine, a stewardess, and Ted, her long-standing partner who has been unable to hold down any job since a wartime failed bombing mission.
- Proficiency Level
- Captioned Authentic Material: The two groups were of equal proficiency. Both groups viewed captioning versions of the movies. In Japan, the majority of learners have not lived in an English speaking country. The present education system devotes little curriculum time to spoken and listening skills. Therefore, it is difficult to justify the use of authentic materials such as film unless captioning or other support procedures are present. Without captioning, it is likely that student patterns of perception would have become more focused upon the visual input alone. Students are also more prone to resort to guessing.
- Matthew Effect: This refers to the rich getting richer; those who have the greater listening/reading skills will benefit the most. With comprehension, there is a cumulative gain related to proficiency. However, previous trials had indicated that students had enjoyed the sequences from Airplane and The Graduate and were not frustrated because they could not understand all of the dialogue.
- Critical Cut-Off Points: For every film, and for different scenes within one film, there are critical cut-off points, beyond which even with captioning present it is difficult for learners to catch or read the discourse. In Airplane, both the cockpit scenes and the scene containing jive were almost certainly beyond the proficiency level of the students. This is possibly why these were not written down.
- World and Background Knowledge
- Neither Airplane nor The Graduate can claim to be culturally neutral. There is a strong US influence. However, the students' ideas showed that they understood the main parts of the two introductory sequences. Thus, for the present films this factor was not a major influence. In films such as Chariots of Fire, The Crucible, and Gallipolli lack of background knowledge would present comprehension difficulties.
- The Airplane and The Graduate sequences were selected because a survey of 40 movies had shown that almost none had seen either movie before. As a general rule, not many students in Japan have seen a film that was made more than five years ago. A number of classes had shown favorable responses when these sequences were used. However, when given a choice, Japanese students prefer to watch films that they have already seen. Knowing the story ahead of time does not appear to annoy most students. In fact, it seems that they almost prefer it.
- Control over the System
- In the research study, the group nature of the viewings in class offered students no control over their viewing. However, the opportunity for learners, at their own pace and in their own time, to rewind, pause, and by remote control to turn off the captioning, would effect their perception. Learners would be able to confirm or clarify points about which they were uncertain and be able to reduce guessing. They would also be able to rewatch parts that they enjoyed.
- Support includes in-class activities, pre-teaching, notes, handouts and self-study access to AV centers, the opportunity to borrow the movies and the scripts, or notes. None of these were provided in main studies (Liversidge, 1999) because they, of which this study is a part, examined the presence or absence of closed-captioning with incidental viewing. As with the previous factor 5, support must be provided in classroom activities, with out-of-class assignments, and for self-study and AV centers. This will increase overall language learning.
Conclusion and Recommendations
- Introductory sequences are where the key elements of the story and the vocabulary central to the story occur. Obviously, these will reoccur during the movie, so focusing on introductory sequences by students and teachers both inside and outside the classroom will result in a greater return for effort invested.
- Establish a feedback process from students for each movie.
- How long they feel the introductory sequence is? / Where is a suitable cut-off point?
- Which parts / scenes of the introductory sequence do they feel are important or interesting? And which could be omitted?
- The feedback can be obtained through a variety of classroom activities (see Pedagogic Approach section) or through spreadsheets and statistical analysis (see Research section).
- Determine why certain scenes or event in scenes are not felt to be important or interesting. Is it due to
- Difficulty of language input?
- Lack of visual input / contextualization?
- Lack of world or background knowledge?
- Through feedback, construct a scale of difficulty, which can be used by teachers and students in selecting appropriate films. List vocabulary and events that students do not understand.
- Check the above point by running vocabulary programs such as VocabProfile. This can provide an overall analysis of an introductory sequence or scenes.
- Have students scale each movie introductory sequence for interest and difficulty on a 1-5 scale. Remember that a high difficulty rating does not always mean that learners' interest is low. Cross-reference this with individual learners' proficiency levels.
- Try to give learners more control over their viewing: at their own pace, in their own way, and in their own time.
- Although administrative and cost consideration may not allow 8 and 9, ensure that learners get support materials and activities. Ins
Final CommentStudents 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.
- Biber, D. (1986). Spoken and written textual dimensions in English: Resolving the contradictory findings. Language, 62, 384-414.
- Liversidge, G. B. (1996). Learning styles: An attempt at a quantitative assessment. Otsuma Joshi Daigaku Kiyo 28, 93-114.
- Liversidge, G. B. (1999). Video-captioning: Multidimensional Scaling of student idea units from Airplane and The Graduate. Temple University Applied Linguistics Colloquium 1999: TUJ, Tokyo.
- Liversidge, G. B. (1999). The role of closed captioning in second language acquisition. Doctoral dissertation (in press), Temple University Japan, Tokyo.
- Nation, I. S. P., & Heatley, A. (1994). VocabProfile: A program for analyzing vocabulary in texts. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University of Wellington, School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies.
- Reid, J. M. (1987). The learning styles of ESL students. TESOL Quarterly 21, 87-111.
- Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- West, M. (1953). A general service list of English words. London: Longman, Green and Co.
The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 3, March 2000