Some years ago, I read an article about monolingual English-speaking parents in the U.S. who, wanting their toddlers to learn Mandarin, sat them in front of Chinese-language videos for long periods of time, expecting them to absorb the language. Not surprisingly, the children did not learn Chinese. I am not sure what lesson the parents learned. It is possible they attributed their children’s “failure” to learn Chinese to the materials rather than the process, but what was missing was the most important element—interaction. Sociocultural and social interactionist theories suggest that children acquire language by interacting with adults and (in particular) other children around them (Bruner, 1983; Vygotsky, 1978, 1986 ). No matter how well-produced or attractive audio-visual materials are, to toddlers the language remains background noise. However, when a parent, caregiver, or older child points to the television or Youtube video and interacts with the toddler about the program or video, then the magic happens. Then we are on the road to language acquisition. The language acquisition process is social and interactive (Eun & Lim, 2009; Kuhl, 2004; Lytle & Kuhl, 2017; Ramirez-Esparza, Garcia-Sierra & Kuhl, 2017). In the language classroom, the same principles apply. Animation shorts and other videos can be effective tools in foreign language classrooms if we interact with them and each other.
As a cinephile, I have long appreciated movies, but seamlessly integrating movies into my lesson plans has not always gone well—even after the invariable technical difficulties were worked out. Moreover, the use of movies and video clips has sometimes been seen, including by some supervisors, as “lazy”—as a way to entertain rather than teach. However, when it comes to young learners, is it necessary to draw a line between entertainment and learning? Ultimately, I believe whatever we can do to engage young learners and support them in developing and communicating their fantasies and ideas is valuable. Learners are all individuals and learning strategies can vary between and among language learners from different cultures, regions and language groups. As teachers, we should try to activate as many of these strategies as we can in order to meet the diverse needs of learners. Let me be clear; this is not to suggest that each individual has only one “learning style” that must be supported (Hood et al, 2017; Newton & Miah, 2017). Instead, I believe we develop tendencies or preferences for particular learning strategies. Moreover, schooling socializes us into particular ways of learning which are not always effective. So, rather than trying to categorize learners according to their individual styles, we should encourage multiple approaches in teaching and learning. I believe we and our students have the capacity to learn in a number of ways, and we don’t yet know the best way to access this potential. By activating and sharing different approaches, we can gain insights into the complexities and possibilities of learning. Moreover, utilizing collaborative learning—working in pairs and small groups—allows for multi-peer feedback and co-construction, active learning activities which support children who enjoy learning with peers. I believe the effective use of videos allows students an opportunity to learn using all these strategies.
So, how should we do it? What is the best way to use videos interactively with children in foreign language classrooms? Although I cannot answer these questions definitively, I hope to provide a roadmap (or small lane) to those of you who, like me, enjoy and want to know more about using videos as a way to engage young learners in interactive, creative play with language.
For the past few years, I have been teaching a university project-based learning (PBL) class on storytelling. The final project is an English (bilingual) storytelling/story sharing event in which my students share stories with children in the local community. Students in the course find or create a story, create visuals, and plan activities to accompany the story in order to engage and interact with the children. In preparing university students to work with children, I ask them to organize their storytelling time and activities into three parts—Before, During, and After (BDA) (Shin & Crandall, 2014). I apply these same principles when sharing short animated stories with children. In the remainder of this article, I will provide an example of how to use videos in language classrooms with elementary school children using Mouse for Sale, by Wouter Bongaerts. This short animated film includes music but not dialogue, which allows the instructor and students to create dialogue together and tell the story from different perspectives.
Short Summary of Mouse for Sale (4.15 minutes)
This short animation is about a mouse in a pet store who wants a home. He is teased because he has big ears, but he keeps trying to attract someone who will bring him home. Take a few minutes to watch the video and decide if the activities described below will work with the young learners in your classes. The weblink to the video is provided in the reference section.
I usually ask the children to think about the title. For example, I might ask some or all of the following questions: What do you think the story will be about? What will happen in the story? Where do you think the story takes place? Do you have a pet? Do you like pets? What kind of pet would you like to have? Have you ever bought a pet? What kinds of pets have you seen in pet stores?
At this beginning stage, I want to prepare the children to watch the video and allow them a chance to predict what they will see. This is also a good time to review or learn some of the vocabulary they may encounter. In the video, there is a small bug or beetle which is a minor character, so it is possible to introduce this character before watching. The children probably don’t know the word “beetle,” but some may have kept one as a pet.
Approximately one minute into the video, two new characters arrive in the pet store. I usually stop the video here and ask students to work in pairs or small groups. At this stage, it may be a good idea to review and make sure your students are following the story. It is also fun to have students compare their ideas about what they have seen. They don’t have to agree on what they think is happening. Rather, it is a good chance to share their diverse ways of seeing. At this time, you might ask your students to write or say all the things they have seen up to this point, including the characters, materials, and so on. For example, you might ask them who the main character is, or to describe the mouse, or if they have ever seen a mouse like this before. You could also ask them to explain the things they saw in the order in which they saw them: “First, I saw…Second, I saw…Third, I saw…,” and so on. You might ask them who the new characters are and to describe them. What do they know about them? What do they think the characters will do? While they are watching, students can check their predictions.
At about 1:20, after the two boys make fun of the mouse, I sometimes stop the video again. Here, you might ask your students what is happening. Ask them why the boys did what they did and how they think the mouse feels. Also ask them how they feel about the boys’ actions.
After the two boys leave, the beetle laughs at the mouse. At this time, another boy enters. The boy is looking at something in a tank. He’s wearing headphones so he cannot hear the mouse who is trying everything he can think of to attract the boy’s attention. The mouse tries twice to launch a peanut to attract the boy’s attention and fails.
At 2:40, after the beetle laughs at the mouse’s failure, I usually stop the video again and ask for descriptions, explanations and predictions: What happened after the boy entered? Why didn’t the boy notice the mouse? What is the mouse doing? How many times did the mouse try to attract the boy’s attention? What will happen next? Alternately, I sometimes stop the video at 2:50 or so, after the mouse launches the beetle at the boy. At this stage, my colleagues and I have asked the children to make a storyboard and to create their own original endings to the story. For the storyboard, I usually provide an A4 or A3-size piece of paper. I divide the paper into 6 to 8 spaces or blocks for students to organize the story as they remember it. Depending on their age and inclination, students can draw and/or write text for the story.
Follow-up activities like the previous ones can be geared toward the goals of a particular class or lesson. Storyboards can be used while watching the video or afterwards. I enjoy doing it while the children are watching the video because they often come up with unique and interesting ideas that differ from the original endings. I try to choose videos with a surprise ending, so that even after the children have created their own endings they will remain interested in finding out about the original ending. In the case of Mouse for Sale, the ending is quite a happy one, and the children may be excited to compare their versions to the original. Other extension activities may include putting students in pairs and asking them to choose a scene and create dialogue for the characters. Later, they can practice their scene and roleplay it. Alternatively, I ask the class or group to tell or re-tell the story. Someone can act as a “secretary” and write the story down. From these activities, a class book can be created, and this class version of the story can be read, told, and retold.
A Word About Target Language Use
I realize I have said little about the degree to which the target language can or should be used in the classroom, and I understand that there are many contexts in which the target language is the only focus of the language class. However, in the context in which I work, in the community with elementary school students and university students, my “language policy” is that communication is key—all communication. One of the goals of the community projects I am involved in is to allow more children (and adults) access to bilingualism/multilingualism, which, for me, means including English, Japanese, and any other languages children bring with them to these storytelling events. Having said that, it is possible to do these activities in English, to limit the activities to things the children can already do in English or which they can do easily with scaffolding. However, I believe that the storytelling and story-
sharing video activities discussed here need not be a one-time event. Repetition is important in language learning, and the same video may be used for a number of different purposes. It can be a stimulus for a wide range of creative and language-generating activities in any language—the more the better. So, what do you think? Are you ready to play with language?
Bongaerts, W. (Director). (2010). Mouse for sale. [Streaming video]. Retrieved from http://www.wouterbongaerts.com/mouse-for-sale/
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Mickey Mouse. (2013, April 15). Mouse for sale. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UB3nKCNUBB4
Newton, P. M. & Miah, M. (2017). Evidence-based higher education—Is the learning styles myth important? Frontiers in Psychology, 8(444), 1 – 9. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00444
Ramirez-Esparza, N., Garcia-Sierra, A. & Kuhl, P. K. (2017). The impact of social interactions on later language development in Spanish-English bilingual infants. Child Development 88(4), 1216 – 1234. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12648
Shin, J. K. & Crandall, J. (2014). Teaching young learners English: From theory to practice. Boston, MA: National Geographic Learning.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1986) Language and thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kelly King is Associate Professor at the School of Global and Community Studies and a faculty coordinator for University Peer Academic Support Services (U-PASS) at the University of Fukui. She earned her Ph.D. in Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies at the University of New Mexico’s College of Education. Her research interests include critical pedagogy, critical literacy, social justice issues in education, and service learning. She is currently working with colleagues, university students, and elementary school students on two local storytelling/story sharing events. When not watching movies, she can be found sampling local Fukui sake—for research purposes of course.