Journeys in Film promotes use of movies, documentaries to teach

How films can explore and examine cultures in classrooms



“Film has the power to educate the most visually literate generation in history.”

―Liam Neeson (1952- ) Irish actor
Neeson speaks specifically about Journeys in Film, a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 from the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, and its mission to educate at the middle and high school level through the use of movies and documentaries. Journeys in Film provides free film and lesson plans that link a motion picture with a particular learning objective. For example, the lesson plan Discovering China is directly tied to the 2007 documentary Please Vote for Me. Please Vote For Me explores the implementation of democracy in China in a classroom setting, as third graders from Wuhan prepare to vote for class monitor. The questions and activities that accompany the film reference specific scenes in order to teach history, culture and perspective.

These objectives focus on social studies topic like China, India and South Africa, but the materials can easily be deployed in ESL and EFL classrooms to teach cultural awareness too. Film is too often overlooked as a powerful way to teach and shape ideas. In addition, English learners will benefit from hearing and discussing important topics based around an enjoyable activity. As the Journeys in Film’s website says, “everyone loves a good movie.” The strength here lies in Journeys in Film’s dedication to every second of the movie–the lesson plans provide specifics on where to “pause” to start discussion, and the worksheets tie in with the storyline and relevant historical aspects. In fact, in Discovering China, the curriculum guide even brings in elements like common Chinese phrases, ones that appear in the movie and give a glimpse of what life is like in the country. What teachers all around the world can appreciate is that Journeys in Film does not follow one state standard for teaching, instead, it adheres to the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) standards. The McREL’s five standards for foreign language emphasize conversation, familiarity, culture and communications–things any ESL classroom should strive to emphasize as well. Therefore, its lessons can be immediately employed in the classroom setting.

(By the way, teachers interested in using films to teach history or examine social issue will find both Teaching History With Film and Past Imperfect of considerable interest.)


The challenge, as so often, remains how to effectively use full-length films in ESL and EFL classrooms. Many films span several hours and if the students not seem to enjoy a particular film, capturing their undivided attention may be problematic. There are reasons, after all, why using short film clips is far more popular than entire movies in ESL classes. Further, if films are not designed to teach ESL and EFL students English, and in this case, so often they are not, they may be teeming with idioms and unfamiliar situations unrelatable to the audience.

Still, it can be done. Many years ago I enjoyed teaching Groundhog Day to international students in an intensive English program (IEP). Some films, like the comedy Groundhog Day, lend themselves to intermediate ESL class because an action is repeated over and over. The vast majority, however, do not and require supplemental materials to help students benefit from watching the film from an academic perspective.

It is also important to choose films at appropriate levels–beginning, intermediate or advanced–and that illuminate a cultural aspect and provide new vocabulary. As noted in Journeys in Film’s lessons plans, know when to “pause” the film in order to ask the students questions, like “How does this compare to your household?” or “What does she mean when she says…?” Turn on the subtitles to reinforce the link between sound and print, and hold group discussions every now and then. The film becomes a teaching tool that automatically sparks up meaningful conversation and invites various opinions to the table. Journeys in Film lesson plans make this a much simpler task and provide expert guidance, including discussion questions.

Is Journeys into Film perfect for English and ESL classrooms? Probably not, but I still recommend their work because the quality materials offer valuable tips and practical techniques for teaching culture, film, or English. If you teach students from countries like China and South Korea, or plan to teach abroad in those countries, you will certainly find the detailed and visually-stimulating materials quite valuable. Perhaps I’m biased because I teach at USC, live in Los Angeles, and love movies, but Journeys in Film seems like an excellent concept to me. Besides, the comprehensive lesson-plans, with several relevant side-explorations, can be downloaded for free. What’s not to like?

How do you use movies in your English class? Do you have a favorite feature length movie that you show? Why does this movie work in your English class?

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One comment

  1. Thank you for creating these informative, detailed guides to teaching films in class!

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