3 images of English Language Learners using their phones to record video. Text says Pushing The Edge for English Language Learners.

Building Confidence and Literacy through Film-Making

It was one of the most powerful film-making experiences I’ve had with my adult English as an Additional Language (EAL) students. 

It illustrated how how we can ‘shoot for the moon’ with our students and actually get there.

The key ingredients in our film-making adventures were:

  • a fierce passion for film-making;
  • giving it a go;
  • a commitment to critique and improvement; and
  • crucially, being true to ourselves – celebrating who we are.

As our learning adventure ended, I could not feel prouder at what we achieved as a class. I was on cloud nine and so were they.

So here’s a condensed record of our journey together, along with some of the key resources and strategies we employed along the way.

No Matter What: Film-Making’s The Go

I’m absolutely convinced about the power of film-making to build literacy and self-confidence (along with a myriad of other skills).

Regardless of the class, curriculum and modules I’m given, I always ask – how can I use film-making in this class?

So it was with my one day a week adult EAL class.

  • My teaching module: Comprehending News Items and Advertisements.

Film-Making Equipment

Students filmed on their own devices, sharing devices where needed.

I also taught them how to use lapel microphones and tripods (using my own equipment) for films that had a wider audience than our class.

Embedding Video into Modules

Sometimes we get caught up in limited thinking about the modules we’re required to teach, thinking they afford us little scope for creativity or initiative.

I tend to approach modules from a different perspective. I want to do film-making with my students so I ask, ‘how can I link these modules to film-making?’

In short, how can I make it happen?

With my news and advertisement modules, we did the usual comprehension and critical unpacking type tasks involving written and discussion type work.

What I added were video components. Here’s some examples:

  • I focused the news component aspect of my module on technology-related articles covering topics such as online security and privacy, ethics on the internet, and the use of VPN tools.
    • Students were then required to create short informational or instructional documentaries (under a minute) relating to the issues being discussed.
      • For example, how to create a secure password.
  • I focused the advertisement component of my module around ads that the students liked.
    • Together we critically deconstructed the ads.
    • Then students created short video responses that addressed the key assessment criteria. For example, target audience, and advertisement techniques.

Changing Mindsets

Adult English as an Additional Language students, in my experience, have had little experience using their mobile devices as learning tools in the classroom.

So a key challenge emerged in the early classes:

  • Why are we making videos in an English class?
  • How can we learn English by making videos?

This question or variations of it were often asked by my students in the early classes.

I had some key lines that revolved around building their confidence and their speaking skills. But rhetoric only goes so far and ‘action speaks louder than words’ as they say.

And so it was through the structures that I set up, and we committed to that I was able to win over my students, as exemplified by a number of ‘aha’ moments:

Ahh, now we understand what you were saying Greg!

You’ll see some of these aha realisations in the reflective video I’ve shared at the end of this post.

Teaching Film-Making Technique

Alongside the creating of videos, together we learnt about film-making techniques and endeavoured to put these techniques into our practice.

Learning technique occurred alongside action and critical review of our performance (which I’ll discuss in a moment).

All these components were I believe critical to the success of the program.

  • So when students made videos, they had set techniques (which we’d been discussing that day) they were required to try out;
  • Or they were required to investigate the impact of particular variables on their films (like wind and traffic noise).

Here’s some of the techniques we learnt about:

  • Framing: We learnt about super close-ups, close-ups, medium shots, medium close-up shots, and wide shots. Here’s a useful video by James Keating:

Another key aspect of Framing is Rule of Thirds. Here’s a helpful video by Mike Browne:

Another important aspect of framing is camera orientation. When filming it is best to orient your camera to landscape mode (rather than portrait mode).

  • Lighting: We learnt about light sources (in front of, behind us, beside us) and the impact on our subjects in the film.

    For example: Are there shadows on the subject’s face? Is there too much light on one side?

  • Sound: We learnt about the quality of our sound sources.

For example: What is the effect of traffic and wind on sound and the capacity to hear our voice clearly?

Students couldn’t believe how loud traffic and wind was – compared to their voices.

  • How does your voice sound when played on your phone compared to the sound system in our class?

    There were much shock when students heard the difference in sound quality once played on a large sound system.

  • Stability: We learnt about the importance of keeping our camera steady.

In all the above areas, a powerful teaching tool was demonstration. We plugged phones and iPads into the teacher computer mirroring what was on the device screen onto the classroom screen.

This teaching strategy enabled us to try out the techniques being discussing. Instantly, we could see what worked and didn’t work – live on screen.

The power of film-making for EAL Learners
A Key Structure: The Critical Review Process

In each class, we had a film-review session. An important foundation of such was learning about the giving and receiving of constructive feedback.

Also critical was recognising the value of taking on board critiques to improve our film-making and speaking skills.

This critical review process was linked to the techniques we’d discussed in class plus I added a few that pertained to the development of speaking skills.

So after we’d finished filming, we’d review each film using the following structure:

  • Framing:
    • Has the Rule of Thirds been used?
    • Have bright, clear locations without distractions been used?
    • Is there appropriate head-room in the frame?
  • Lighting:
    • Can we clearly see the person’s face – without shadows?
  • Sound:
    • Is there any background noise?
    • Is there any microphone noise? Is the speaker too close to the microphone?
    • Are there any plosive sounds (p, t, b)?
    • Is the voice volume too loud or soft?
  • Stability
    • Is the camera steady (not shaky)?
  • Images:
    • Are the images used clear (not blurry)
    • Are the images specific and focused (without distractions)
    • Are the images relevant to the topic? Are they inclusive?
    • Are the images copyright free and acknowledged?
    • Is the music relevant and appropriate to the issues being discussed?
    • Is the music copyright free and acknowledged?
  •  Voice:
    • Can we clearly hear the speaker’s voice?
    • Is the speaker’s pronunciation clear? Are they using good intonation?
    • Are they speaking too fast or too slow? Is there a flow in their speaking?
  • Personal Confidence:
    • Does the speaker look or sound confident?
      • I’ve got something to say, listen to me.
    • Is the speaker showing their personality?
  • Grammar and spelling:
    • Can we understand what the speaker is talking about?
      • Are there any obvious grammar or spelling mistakes (that can impact on meaning or viewers’ impressions of us)?

It’s important to note here that this structure was developed over time in partnership with the students. We didn’t start with the whole list on day one.

Initially, I’d model a constructive review process with them. We’d discuss what was ‘okay’ and what was not ‘okay’ in terms of giving feedback.

Once they were familiar with the structure and approach, they’d review the films in teams before providing feedback to the film-makers in a whole class discussion.

I always emphasised the need to notice progress that had been made, alongside what had actually worked in the video.

Also, if there were things to improve in the film, students were encouraged to give constructive suggestions as to how they might move forward in that area.

Building Skills through Critical Review

This regular review session was vital to the development of my students’ confidence and skills. It was also a commitment to quality film-making.

Over time, I saw students taking on board the critiques that were made: endeavouring to address them in their next video. For example:

  • One student made a video featuring their gym work-out.
  • After receiving feedback about distractions in the background and the way they’d ended the film, they went back and re-filmed the video addressing all the critiques.
  • This was powerful learning in action.

Students absolutely committed to the review part of the film-making process. ‘

They wanted to get feedback about their films, and they were determined be supportive of their class-mates in the process.

The review sessions were looked forward to each week, most likely because they were supportive and fun. They also helped them improve their speaking, and make better videos.

There was lots of joy and supportive laughter in these sessions as we recognised our common humanity alongside the value of learning through making mistakes.

  • A number of students compared our classroom atmosphere to the ones they’d experienced in their home countries.
  • They said they felt comfortable making mistakes here because people didn’t laugh at them. Their class-mates helped them because they were a team here, everyone was on the same level.
  • Clearly this positive learning environment doesn’t just happen in classes. It’s about building a supportive learning community over time.  That was crucial to my teaching.

As it was an EAL class, the critiques relating to their speaking and self-presentation were particularly valued. Students worked especially hard to address these critiques in subsequent films.

  • Here there were many light-bulb moments as students began to make connections between making films and improving their English skills. They were witnessing their development through the production of their films.
  • The construction of a website that was only visible to my students enabled us to look back and see how they’d improved over time.

A crucial aspect I should not forget is our focus on self-presentation. I wanted students to value and be confident in who they are on screen.

  • We talked about the connection viewers feel when they see someone being authentic on film, or being true to who they are. And we talked about how we grow through focusing on our self presentation.
    • This emphasis on self presentation was seen as especially important aspect for students looking to get jobs in Australia. It was also seen as helping them to build skills to connect with local people.

The Culmination – What a Way to Finish

It was my last day with the class – although they didn’t know it at the start of the day.

I wanted to go out on a high with the students – showing them how much they’d learnt and developed.

I gave them the task of creating a short film that captured their Top Tips for Film-making.

  • I wrote a basic structure for the film in terms of items to be covered, as well as some lead-in sentences for each section.

I explained to them that this was an opportunity to showcase what they’d learnt throughout the term (10 weeks = 10 days):

  • I wanted them to inspire other EAL students’ interest in film-making (Their audience).

The students were required to work in teams with minimal assistance from myself and I couldn’t have been prouder at what they produced.

They wrote additional segments, allocated tasks for everyone, organised the film-locations and filmed the project.

Then they labelled each segment of footage with a short description and number and uploaded them to our Google Drive site.

I then edited and assembled the segments into one short film using Final Cut Pro.

I think it’s a mighty fine effort that showcases the value of film-making in EAL classrooms.

What We Learnt from Film-Making

Towards the latter part of the term, I interviewed each student to gauge what they’d learnt and enjoyed about film-making.

I told students that we were making a video for EAL teachers: to show them why they should teach film-making with their students.

Also, we were making the video for EAL students: to show them how film-making could help improve their English skills.

Each student was given a number of prompts or questions to respond to. They choose two that they most connected with and wrote a brief response.

They briefly rehearsed and then we filmed. A maximum of 2 re-takes was allowed so they worked really hard to get it right.

After initial nervousness, they were fine. Their experience of speaking in front of the camera throughout the term clearly served them well.

How proud was I? What an achievement!

Give Film-Making a go. You won’t look back.

Thank You

Thank you to my wonderful students. It was a fabulous experience teaching you and working with you.

Your team-work and commitment to continually improving is something to be especially proud of.

You have shown what’s possible in EAL classrooms, You’ve encouraged me to keep ‘reaching for the stars’ with my students.

Thank you to my managers, and colleagues who’ve encouraged and supported my film-making endeavours with EAL students.

Additional Tools and Apps

Here are useful free video creation tools:

  • Apple and PC:
    • Adobe Spark Video – This tool is available on the Personal Computer (PC) or you can download it as an app on Apple phones.
    • Windows MovieMaker – This is a PC web-based tool.
  • Android:

Building Teachers’ Tech Skills

Media Making Resources


Now I’m off on another film-making adventure with my latest class. They are a much lower level adult EAL class so it’s a completely different film-making challenge.

I can’t wait to report on it…