Collaborative group essays based on a DVD

Simon Humphries and Haruki Takeuchi, Kinki University Technical College

Quick Guide

  • Key Words: Brainstorming and asking questions
  • Learner English Level: Upper intermediate and higher
  • Learner Maturity: 3rd year high school and above
  • Preparation Time: Three hours to watch the movie and think of questions for discussion. Allow time for reservation of rooms and checking that the DVD and TV work
  • Activity Time: One semester
  • Materials: DVD player, TV, DVD movie and whiteboard

It seems difficult to encourage Japanese students to express their opinions on topics. This is a teaching strategy to stimulate students to write good group essays. It begins with interesting material on which to base their essays (a DVD movie) and then uses strategies over a semester to build up their essay-writing skills and vocabulary. At the end of the course, students should be able to write a well-structured essay containing personal opinions, backed up with evidence, and answering a set question.


Step 1: Before watching the movie, the students are given the discussion questions. These focus on the analysis of characters, key scenes, music, and lighting. There is also a more philosophical question (see Appendix 1) and the essay question asking for personal responses to the movie (see Appendix 2).

Step 2: Students form groups of about four and divide the tasks before watching the movie—one student can look at the characters, another at the music, etc.


Step 1: Students watch the DVD movie in English with Japanese subtitles to aid comprehension. After this first showing they join their groups for one class to discuss their answers to the questions.

Step 2: Students watch the movie a second time with English subtitles so that they can pick out the key vocabulary. Again, after this showing they join their groups to discuss the questions. Discussing in groups enables students to reflect on their answers and increase their confidence prior to the whole class discussion.

Step 3: Whole-class discussion. This is a good way to pull together the various responses of the students and boost vocabulary before students type their group essay.

In a perfect world, students would convey their opinions readily in English. We tried to encourage the students to do this. However, we also allowed comments in Japanese, because the important thing is to solicit student opinions. We recorded their ideas in English using a spider diagram on the whiteboard. Students then copied this information into notebooks. At the beginning of each class it is important to review what was said in the previous one and insist at this point that the students speak English. We made it clear to the students that participating in this way would help them to learn the necessary vocabulary to express their ideas, plus the evidence to back up their thoughts in the essays. However, we also added an extrinsic motivation to participate: points were awarded to students who spoke. Some questions can be difficult to challenge the higher level students, but most should be as simple as possible in order to encourage wide participation.

Step 4: Explain to the students how their essays will be assessed (see Appendix 2). A good essay is a well-structured answer to a question, containing personal opinion backed up with evidence from the movie. It is written in English that can be understood.

Step 5: Analyse the question. Explain to the students that it is important that they answer the question, rather than just throwing in everything they know about the movie. Write the question on the whiteboard and ask them what the keywords are in the sentence. Box each keyword and ask them why it is important. It doesn't matter if all the words in the sentence end up inside boxes; the most important aspect is that they learn how to break down the question in order to answer it.

Step 6: Teach students how to plan the essay. Do a sample plan on the whiteboard in flowchart form. For a 300-400 word essay, students can base their answers on three key areas. Select three key areas from the sample, for example, characters, music, and lighting. Box these key areas, and then decide with the students if each aspect is good or bad. After this, draw three arrows from each box and ask students to give examples of the music, etc. The arrowed examples represent, of course, the evidence for their opinions. Then draw a box at the top of the flow chart for the introduction and a box at the bottom for the conclusion. Tell the students that each box should represent a different paragraph and the arrowed examples can make different sentences.

Step 7: Students form groups to plan and type the essays. A great deal of time should be set aside for this. We allow the students two weeks of classes—six periods of 45 minutes.

Step 8: Mark the essays and correct the errors. Ask the students to hand in floppy disks with their typed essays. Save your corrected version in a different file for groups so that they can compare the errors.

Step 9: Give feedback on their written essays. Extension: Students can make oral presentations based on the corrected forms of what they have written.


After the course, we asked the students for their opinions. Generally, students enjoyed watching the movie and being able to share their opinions in their groups and in front of the class. They also felt that they had improved at listening and that their confidence in speaking increased.

We think this style of education is useful in Japan for the social development of the students. It is definitely a gamble that relies on the students' motivation, so it is important to choose a movie that will stimulate them. Trying to get our students to talk was, at first, a problem, but after a couple of weeks, their ideas began to flow well. Students weren't used to this persuasive/logical way of writing essays either, so it did take some time for them to become accustomed to it. Finally, and importantly, we enjoyed the class and hearing what the students had to say.


Takeuchi, H. (2003). Effective and Attractive Method to Utilize a Movie.

Appendix 1 Questions for discussion

  1. Which person has the biggest influence on Richard? (Richard is the main character, played by the movie's star, DiCaprio.)
  2. What are the key events/reasons leading to the group breaking up and leaving the beach?
  3. What effect does the music have on the movie?
  4. What visual tricks does the director use?
  5. Is it possible to truly find paradise?

Appendix 2 Essay question

Based on our class discussions and your own opinions, what is your impression of the movie: The Beach?
You must type 300-400 words.
You will be marked for the following:

  1. Personal opinion (backed up by evidence)
  2. Interesting and original work that answers the question
  3. A good structure (well planned, use of paragraphs and within word count)
  4. Clear, well-written English (no use of computer translation, no copying passages from the Internet, and no careless mistakes)

You will be awarded a maximum of five points for each assessment category (total 20 points).