Skyping with Ashley Hastings

I left my notes on our Skype session at school, so though it may seem poor blogging practice, I am going to share impressions about our meeting, and then I’ll come back later and fix the post as necessary. It was exciting to be able to talk with the creator of a method!

Maybe experts will correct facts I am sure to get wrong here.

MovieTalk is part of the Focal Skills program that teaches in modules. Students stay in a given module until they test out. They do not have in-class assessments as such. MovieTalk is aimed at increasing listening skills, and is taught in 20-hour/week segments. Some students test out after four weeks, but many take ten weeks to test out. They have reached an intermediate low-mid level at that time, and are ready for the Reading module. After the Reading Module, they go to Writing, and from there to Advanced. Having completed the Advanced Module, students are ready to participate in university classes.

Two of those hours of the Listening Module are straight MovieTalk. Another hour is (something like) active conversation, in which two teachers carry on a dialogue about something they are doing in front of the class: carving a pumpkin, making a dessert, doing an art project, showing pictures. A fourth hour is an elective class, on anything from grammar (!) to photography. So even with university students, MovieTalk is not full-on for the entire four-hour daily class time. Still, over the course of one week, an instructor can show an entire movie. That could equate to two weeks in a high school program where the teacher did nothing else but MovieTalk, or four weeks, if the teacher mixed up the class in a similar way. This discussion gave me some ideas for working with native-speaker aides.

As we’ve heard before, MovieTalk movies should be rich in action, rather than being propelled by the dialogue. It is realistic to choose advertisements or silent films. Our teacher group was mixed on the idea of using only target-culture films; I think that since this method has been used to teach English, it has been natural to use English-language video. The question hadn’t been raised about using target-language video. And we’ve all used Alma, a silent movie by Spanish speakers. Still, I am pretty solid in believing that if I am going to use this method, I need to find engaging films from the target culture, because there’s so much that students gain from them outside the language.

Now I’ll step off the soapbox and get back to the impressions!!

On the face of it, MovieTalk seems pretty simple. The instructor prepares for teaching the movie, and then narrates it for the students. There is no time that the instructor shows the movie all the way through without narration, because screening then would be for entertainment purposes, not educational ones, and would be breaking copyright laws! In any case, showing it without the narration would be of far less purpose for the students. It is through narration that the students gain the language.

Dr. Hastings has very complete instructions posted on the Focal Skills MovieTalk site. Even with those, we who had tried out the method had missed some points. One was to use segments of about three minutes or less. Another was to show that segment before narrating, to give students context. Interestingly, when we discussed this pre-screening, teachers thought that it spoils things for the students. It would be interesting to try it both ways in our classes. I have personally been stopping the flow regularly and talking about the picture at length, without pre-screening or post-screening. Part of the reason for that pre-screening is to set up context for the students, and another part is to save the teacher’s voice.

Some of us have been showing movies with subtitles in the target language. Dr. Hastings says that having text and sound (narration) is probably not as effective, since the subtitles may have little to do with what the teacher is narrating and diverts attention by making students try to absorb text and sound. Only when dialogue is pivotal to the plot should a teacher paraphrase it.

This idea that the narration is the thing should have been obvious to me earlier, but I’m still wrapping my mind around it. The movie is there to provide the visual and a context, or plot. It keeps us from having to figure out what to talk about or to create stories on our own. The students find out what is happening in the movie, and it provides our visual generation with motivation, but the sound in the movie is not what we care about. Our narration can be much richer and give our students much more than the dialogue alone.

I think I have that now!

We talked a little bit about level of language for our narration. When we are narrating a movie for beginners, we keep the sentences simple. With time, the complexity will increase, based on our comprehension checks. Typically, we ask yes/no, either/or questions of students as the narration proceeds, or we ask who questions, since the students know the names of the characters. “Who is his mother?” Wow. That hadn’t occurred to me. Some teachers wanted to know whether we needed to pre-teach vocabulary, or pronouns. The answer is “No.” We don’t really pre-teach anything, except if the characters are going to be confusing, or if we want to show where the movie is set, to give greater context. It’s all about meaning, not vocabulary or grammar structures. (Where have we heard that before?!) On the other hand, there is not the same focus on maximum repetitions in MovieTalk as there is in TPRS. Dr. Hastings said that, over the course of a movie, many structures will be repeated in our narration, thus giving students access to the vocabulary over time.

It is striking to me that when we discover “true” (defined by me!) methods of comprehensible input (TPRS, Scaffolding Literacy and MovieTalk as examples), we find that those who teach the methods have the same passion for assuring student success and similar ways of checking student connection: they teach to the eyes! Ashley Hastings said that ESL students quickly figure out how to pretend that they understand, but that we teachers can look at their eyes and know for sure.

Another striking impression was how respectful Dr. Hastings was of our different situation. He said that he would never want to tell us how to do things, since he hasn’t taught world languages, and since he hasn’t taught below university level. We felt empowered! We are breaking new ground!

Well, that’s enough for now. I promise to go look at my notes and see what I’ve left out. Hope that anyone else who was there will consider adding to this piece.

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9 responses to “Skyping with Ashley Hastings

  1. I just re-read some of the comments from an earlier post, and was able to watch the video that Laurie shared back then. I hadn’t been able to watch from school at that time, but it seems to me that this video works perfectly with the “What happens now?” videos that Nathan posted, and could keep us all going for a while, even if not specifically target culture. We do have to be flexible, right?

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  2. Hi Michele
    The more I read your posts on MovieTalk, the more I ask myself if what I do in class would be considered a very “primitive” version of MovieTalk when I use videos or film shorts with my students. For example, I started the school year with my Spanish 2 class using a short series from Discovery Streaming called “La Tienda de Luis” (Luis’s Store). I played the first minute or two of the video, paused it, and then asked as many questions as I could think of about the characters, the setting, their emotions, what they were wearing, if they were working, talking, sleeping, etc. My initial questions were typical TPRS style with either/or, yes/no, and then eventually short answer questions. After there was nothing left to discuss/ask questions about, we watched another segment and did the same thing, but now I could ask additional questions about which events happened before/after other events; why a character said or did something, and other questions.
    My favorite activity of the week is Video Fridays with my Spanish 4 classes. Basically, I find a film short or several film shorts on the same theme (1-4 minutes in length), and we discuss them in segments. It’s a great way for students to hear the more complex grammar structures in a purely contextual way (such as “what would you have done if..; was he angry that she didn’t help him or relieved?; etc) Last year when I realized how quickly students were progressing through TPRS, I realized that I could even use short videos in a similar way with them.
    In my opinion, lessons with videos/film shorts benefit the students AND the teacher. They’re great for the students because students are pulled into the setting/events in the video and, almost without fail, they’re immediately invested in the video which leads to lively class conversations. For me, I found it was so much easier than trying to create compelling input on my own and it was easier to stay focused. (Well, I confess my idea of staying focused probably looks different than others’. Truth be told, I’m rarely bothered about getting off topic as long as the students stay in the target language.)
    As the teacher, I’m there to guide the conversation in the TL, but to me it feels more like hanging out with the students while we learn more about each other.
    As with everything dealing with teaching, I’m sure I’d benefit from specific training on improving my techniques to be a more effective teacher.
    Last fall I googled MovieTalk and read about it, but it’s more helpful for me to read about your personal experiences with it. THANKS for sharing with us, Michele.
    Cynthia

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    • Cynthia, I LOVE your concept of “being focused.” It’s very similar to mine: “stay in the language.” And I think that it sounds like you’re using it as MT is meant to be used: if they’re understanding what you’re saying, and getting CI to them, that’s the point. Early MT would probably not expect students to have extended answers, but as time goes on, the skills we learn in early TPRS and CI can add to more guiding with kids, that is, providing the glue for the conversations. We started talking about the way that the level of CI increases as students have more experience, but in university FocalSkills, students will be moving out of the Listening Module as they get to the stage where they can talk. We are adapting this fabulous technique to high school classrooms where students don’t move on to other teachers and modules at the moment they’re ready. I think this works really well as you explain it!

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  3. If you want a couple of additional movies that fit well with movie talk, look at this site: http://www.filmsshort.com/best-short-films/

    My personal favorite here is “Spin”, but the “Black Hole” one is also quite good. As there are films from all over the world on this site, you can see if anything from your target culture crops up.

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    • Love it! I will investigate this weekend. I’m going to try to write an article for the ACTR Letter about MovieTalk and our current experiences.

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  4. Hello,

    Thank you for your post on MT. May I ask how do you introduce to your students about MT so they understand what we are doing here—give them CI and it is a listening activity, and how do you keep them focused? Do you give quiz after a listening segment?

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  5. I find that it works best to explain the whole history of my experience with MT. I tell them about Dr. Hastings and how he developed this plan to get students to a high level of listening ability. I explain that we aren’t going to be watching the whole movie through, ever…that’s something they are welcome to do on their own. I might give them quizzes on the plot afterward, and sometimes we do a parallel story so that I can compare them.

    Those of us in Anchorage who are experimenting seem to have hit a happy number of about 30 minutes that HS/MS kids can take in MT at a stretch. Depending on schedules, that seems to work out to being half the total time of class, which is about the ratio that MT gets used in the Focal Skills overall program, when you count in the conversation piece and the “elective” class. My dream is to offer a “Russian through Movies” class that would let kids do only the moive piece, and find out from there how much they’d get. But with a standard high school class, a complete diet of MT is not what seems to work for me.

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    • Thanks very much for your reply. I will give it a try on my Chinese 2 students this week, and I will just do 30 minutes of MT. I need to think of what to do in the next 20 minutes though. Here is what I thought: giving them a story chart that has all the where, what, why, who, when and how sections, and after MT, they will have to fill it out, or a worksheet of comprehension questions. We will not speak any English at all, and their task is to engage in a meaning negotiation with me to find out what goes on in that 10 minutes of movies by asking me questions, and I will in return make myself as understandable as possible using CI, pictures, etc. Do you think this is workable? I also wish I could teach Chinese through movies just to give the class (and me) a nice break from TPRS stories before coming to it. I really hope it would work.

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      • Dear May Lee,

        I am very interested to hear what you do! I think we all have to figure out what’s going to work best with MT in our situations. I’ve been doing sort of standard TPRS or parallel stories or songs or whatever else I think is good. In terms of “pure” listening CI, I would think that the very best thing would be to follow with a team teacher doing one of those physical demo talks, but obviously that isn’t a typical setup for most of us!!

        Please keep us updated as to what you do and how it goes! I’m so excited that you’re going to try this. Like with TPRS, I think that results from working with MT have a time delay, and we have to practice and wait to feel what comes.

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