Video and imagination

This article was published on the ELT NEWS website, Japan as part of the ‘Think Tank’ regular feature.

Imagination in Language learning

I’m going to take one specific activity this month – the use of student imagination to enrich viewing a video. This isn’t an overt imagination activity, but a tapping of imaginative channels students are using all the time without being aware of them.

Video gives us an additional dimension of information about characters’ body language, facial expressions, gesture, stance, reaction and response.  Students are sophisticated viewers nowadays. Because we’re used to a visual medium, we pick up a huge number of clues without being aware of them. Students can deduce further information about the characters in a fictional ESL video, based on what they have picked up from the video, but requiring the use of their imagination.

Robert O’Neill once described this activity as ‘Silly Questions’ on the grounds that students think you’re silly when you ask them. You’ll see what I mean. I have to take a specific example as always with video. This comes from Grapevine Three Video. The scene has a rather seedy private eye interviewing an extremely glamorous woman. The scene is about four minutes long, and the questions you ask have nothing whatsoever to do with the content of the scene, but are based on the subliminal clues you have picked up about the characters.

Lauren, from Grapevine 3: Unit 8, Eddie-Barber Private Eye

Eddie Barber

The characters are illustrated above, but it works nowhere near as well with photos. It needs the involvement of watching the full scene, hearing the voices, watching the body language.

After viewing you ask questions.

T:  Does he live in an apartment or in a house?

S1:  I don’t know.

T:  Guess.

S1:  But I don’t know! He doesn’t say.

T:    Well, does he live in a large modern house?

S1:  No, he doesn’t.

T:   How do you know?

S1:  He’s not a rich man. And he’s not modern.

T:  OK. So where does he live?

S1:  In an apartment … a small, old apartment.

T:  What colour’s the sofa?

S2:  I don’t know!

T:  Is it black leather?

S2:  No.

T:  Is it white leather?

S2:  No.

T:  Is it pink with flowers?

S2:  No, it isn’t.

T:  Are you sure?

S2:  Yes. I’m sure.

T:  So, what’s it like?

S2:  It’s an old brown sofa.

T:  What about her?

S3:  She lives in a beautiful modern apartment.

T:  A penthouse?  On the top floor?

S4:  Yes. A penthouse.

T:  Describe her sofa …

S5:  It’s white leather.

Every time I did this, she got a white leather sofa, and he got an old brown one. Why? They had absolutely no way of knowing. Then I might ask:

T:  What did he have for breakfast?

S6:  I don’t know.

T:  OK, Well … Did he have an orange juice and a yoghurt?

S6:  No. He had a cigarette and a cup of coffee.

T:  What sort of coffee?

S7:  Black.

S8:  Strong. Double espresso.

S9:  With lots of sugar.

S8:  Yes! Lots of sugar. Maybe a donut, too.

T:  And her?

S9:  She had some fruit.

T:  Go on …

S9:  She had some pineapple- fresh pineapple, and a yoghurt and coffee.

S8:  Not coffee. Tea.

S9:  Yes, she had tea.

T: With milk?

S9:  No. Not with milk. With lemon.

T:  Green tea?

S7:  I think maybe black tea …

Then you go on. Has she got a pet? Everyone agreed that she had a white cat with long hair (a Persian cat) and that it was beautiful …

There’s no end to it. It works with any video sequence where strong characters are presented. You can extend it to textbook illustrations, but it works far better with video. Note how the teacher uses leading questions (which will probably elicit ‘no’ answers), and gradually says less as students begin to get the idea.

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