Oct 5, 2014

Not a word was spoken (but many were learned)

Video is often used in the EFL classroom for listening comprehension activities, facilitating discussions and, of course, language work. But how can you exploit silent films without any language in them? Since developing learners' linguistic resources should be our primary goal (well, at least the blogger behind the blog thinks so), here are four suggestions on how language (grammar and vocabulary) can be generated from silent clips.


Split-viewing is an information gap activity where the class is split into groups with one group facing the screen and the other with their back to the screen. The ones facing the screen than report on what they have seen - this can be done WHILE as well as AFTER they watch. Alternatively, students who are not watching (the ones sitting with their backs to the screen) can be send out of the classroom and come up with a list of the questions to ask the 'watching group'. This works particularly well with action or crime scenes with the watching group acting as witnesses and the other group as investigators or reporters. However, in the activity below you can stick to the usual scenario with both groups present in class.

See Dimitris Primalis's post about split-viewing and other information gap activities on Vicky Loras's blog. Click HERE


Show the movie till 2:46 (till the end of the dream sequence). Ask the watching group to describe what they see as they watch. Then the groups switch, i.e. literally switch places. The new watching group now watches and describes what they see from 2.47 until 5.54 (until the protagonist closes the door). At this point, you can ask how they expect the story to end before showing the rest of it, OR you can show the movie from the beginning to the whole class first and work on the language.


Walk around the room and monitor noting down any problems with language - these don't have to be grammatical errors, very often students will not have the right words to express what they see. Despite the bizarre premise, there is a lot of useful, everyday language that students may not know. Some chunks that you can point out include, but are not limited to:

ask for some sugar
strange noise coming from…
trying get out of the room
a pack of sugar
a bunch of carrots
refuses her help

Note that I don't pre-teach language. I just let students get on with the activity and work on the language afterwards. Of course, if you feel that students' own linguistic resources are not sufficient to cope with the activity, you can pre-teach some items before watching, or better yet, use a different, shorter clip.

Really split viewing

If in the previous activity you split the class into two, here you also split the screen into two. The film you are about to watch utilises a split screen to show two parallel realities. To "split" the screen I drag a blank Word document over part of the screen - the half I don't want students to see.


Open a blank Word document and resize it to about half-the screen size. Open the Youtube video in your browser and go into full screen mode. Using Alt+Tab, bring up the Word doc to the foreground.

If you are using an Interactive WhiteBoard (IWB), you can achieve the same effect by using the IWB software.


Follow the same procedure as in the activity above, with two alternating groups watching one (left or right) half of the screen. I play the clip until about 1:02 at which point parallel realities converge and the whole things becomes to confusing to follow if you are watching just one half. The whole class then watches the ending together.


Once again, a lot of everyday language can be generated from the clip so even elementary level students should be able to cope.

Note that the reality on the right side of the screen (where the main character gets out on the wrong side of the bed) might be a bit more challenging to describe so assign it to stronger students. Some "difficult" chunks may include "water splashes all over him", "scarf gets trapped/stucked in the door","gets pickpocketed / gets his wallet stolen". Otherwise, language students will need is fairly easy and is usually covered in class as part of lessons on daily routines.

wake up 
get up
get dressed
put on his trousers/glasses
open the curtains
wash his face
turn on the tap


If the previous two techniques built on the language your students produced - or rather had difficulty producing - in this one input comes from the teacher.

THE BLACK HOLE from Philip Sansom on Vimeo.


Before you watch the clip, dictate the script making some factual errors. Students write down the script in full, then watch the clip and correct the mistakes.


This is the text I used but feel free to adapt it to suit your students' level.
The factual errors are highlighted

It’s late at night in the office. A tired office worker is at a photocopier making copies. He is wearing a blue shirt and a red tie. He angrily presses the start button and hits the copier with his fist. The machine spits out a sheet of paper with a large black spot on it. The man picks up the sheet and looks at it with a smile on his face. He finishes his coffee and puts the empty mug on the black spot. It disappears into this black hole. He sticks his hand inside the black hole and fishes out a pen

He walks over to a vending machine and uses the black hole to get a can of coke from it. Then the greed gets the better of him (=can’t control his greed) and he uses the black hole to open the door to a room with a safe. And then uses the black hole to steal the money from inside.

Vision Off

This is not my idea. It's taken from Steve Muir's allatc blog. The video is not completely silent - while there is (almost) no dialogue in it, there are a lot of background noises so the idea is to listen and try to guess what the main character is doing at each point.


See Steve's detailed lesson plan HERE. I felt that the idea with groups A and B didn't really work for me so instead I show a list of activities (on the board/screen/handout) in the wrong/jumbled order and get students to work in groups to put them in the right order.


While Steve suggests focusing on word formation with this video, I found there were too many instances of the preposition AT for me to resist. AT can be notoriously difficult for students. Using Steve's suggestions (lots of chunks there), I focused on how we use AT with events.:
AT + events
at a birthday party
at a stand-up comedy show
at a gig

As a follow up, you can ask students to tell you if people using mobile phones have ever annoyed them and where: at a wedding, at a concert etc.

Sources of silent clips




These great blogs, some of them already mentioned above, were a great inspiration when writing this post.
www.film-english.com - Kieran Donaghy’s award winning website has a different teaching suggestion for The Black Hole. And while I was working on this post, I also came across his lesson plan for The Wrong Side of the Bed.  
See also how I extended Kieran's video lesson Symmetry into an activity of my own - click HERE

http://allatc.wordpress.com  - On his blog, Steve Muir has activities for using video (not only silent clips) for higher levels - C1/2, hence the name of the blog.

http://theteacherjames.com - James Taylor has three posts on his blog with lots of silent movies and ideas on how to use them. Follow THIS LINK

Even more great ideas for using silent clips in the EFL classroom can be found on David Deubelbeiss's EFL 2.0 Teacher Talk blog and Naomi Epstein's Visualising Ideas blog

Download my workshop handout with all the links - click HERE


  1. Great ideas thanks a lot

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  5. Hi Leo,
    I am using sooo much of what you taught us last year.\
    alreday used "the black hole" video for writing assignments.
    tomorrow will use "I forgot my phone" video for writing assignments and include teaching the At with events.
    so, Thanks.


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