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How film can help literacy in the classroom

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 09 Sep

 -  How film can help literacy in the classroom  -  


I was once roaming the corridors at school and peered through a classroom door. The pupils had eyes fixed to the front, spellbound. This was wonderful. They were not the easiest group and found it difficult to concentrate, especially if you had the death period late on a Friday afternoon. Fascinated to see what it was that was keeping them so engaged I peered in further. On the whiteboard the film ‘Prince of Egypt’ was playing. My colleague in the history department was always keen to show his students in Year 5 this film. He claimed that is gave his pupils a better insight into the Egyptian world and captured their imagination before delving more deeply into the subject, researching information and evaluating the sources. And there was me thinking he just wanted an easier period 8 on Friday. Higher level thinking he went on. Brilliant.


Higher level thinking is the Holy Grail in much of school thinking presently and Blooms Taxonony is held up as the road map. Getting pupils to think more deeply is crucial if education is to mean more than remembering things. For those of you unaware of the taxonomy it has six levels of thinking: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyse, Evaluate and Create. The idea of the first level is that you can recall and repeat simple facts and concepts. In understanding you can describe, classify, explain, translate and discuss these. By applying a student can solve, use, interpret and implement these concepts and ideas. When you reach the level of analysing  one draws connections, differentiates, compares and contrasts and questions. By evaluating a student is justifying his/her position, defending the argument, giving a critique and when creating they are producing new ideas, constructing, designing and investigating.


I was mentoring another colleague in his first year teaching and this was the area with which he was struggling. Much of it, as is so often the case, was to do with preparation and thought beforehand – frequently with very little time. We spent some time looking at ways of extending pupils above the ordinary lines of thought. Along with this higher level thinking we linked it with the idea of growth mindset. Barry Hymer, one of the country’s leading figures on the subject, had given a particularly good inset on this and it paved the way for extending our thinking too. My colleague was teaching mainly History and Geography – and both of these, as well as English, are perfect for the use of film – whether a short educational video made for the purpose, or a feature film.


In my teaching career I have used film in many ways. When looking at how to siege a castle, for instance, the Robin Hood film with Russell Crowe has an excellent sequence that stirs the imagination and gets pupils thinking about Hollywood and reality as well as many other things to do with sieges. When looking at the character of Richard III and the mystery of the Princes in the Tower I used the cartoon Shakespeare animations. The dark, brooding figure of Richard III and the similar background lighting and background music gives way to the light and happy music when Henry Tudor becomes Henry VII. Excellent propaganda and discussions over the role of history, its interpretations and how history is handed down to us.


There are more and more short clips available to teachers than ever before and many have been tailor-made for the classroom, such as Sixty Second Histories. There are ways that pupils can be given access to these at home to watch before the lesson to give them some stimulation about what is to come – often referred to as lesson-flipping. Small, nuggety, purpose-made films are ideal for whetting the appetite and stirring the imagination. They can be especially useful when it comes to literacy too.


I have found that watching snippets of film increases engagement in pupils and encourages their creativity as well as boosting attainment in reading and writing. It particularly helps those who struggle with longer texts and vocabulary. Certainly with Shakespeare much of the language is hard yet the stories are so exciting. Breaking into a pupil’s psyche that this is going to be a good story and worth their emotional and time input is so important. It helps visualise stories – allowing for comprehension skills associated with reading. I know that for many the love of reading is the ability to let your imagination run wild and to see it for yourself – but this isn’t the experience for many particularly in today’s age. If we can use film to stimulate an interest in reading, particularly among boys, then so much the better.


Teachers can also explore the similarities and contrasts between text and film. By creating a storyboard of a film you can add a sentence or two to each picture to start to make a story or commentary. It is certainly my experience, and for many other teachers that I know, that using a short film instead of a text as a lesson/topic starter helps boost engagement with stories and themes. It is certainly a motivator, it is entertaining and enjoyable. Pupils are able to interpret in a full visual context and use visual clues to support the written message. Film has the power to make emotional connections for many pupils where texts can fail. This is not to say that texts cannot fulfil this function.


Certainly I have heard said that film is a great leveller for those who find books/texts hard or for whom they are not readily available at home. They give pupils more confidence when discussing something they have seen and happier with that medium – ‘Film is a universal language.’ Students who struggle with a text can still join in a discussion about a character or plot. Showing a film for 5-10 minutes every few chapters can inspire and give confidence. Children with severe learning difficulties can relate well to film and students with strong comprehension skills can compare their own images from the text to what they have seen on the screen. They can also fill in the others on the parts the film may not have mentioned and add to all pupils’ understanding – especially of the characters involved.


Showing a film at the start can also be fun when asking pupils to give their predictions and then to see if their ideas play out. Higher level thinking again. Pupils are investing in their reading and feel they have an ownership of a book/topic as well as a way in.


We, my mentee and I, had fun in planning lessons using film. Not over-using it but using it to stimulate engagement and interest as well as help them in written tasks. As the year wore on he had got the balance right. Short, sharp, focused clips have, in practice, helped students in their written work by using a variety of written exercises. Film lends itself to higher level thinking – analysing, making connections, creating their own short films based on what they have seen and read, understanding and using information in them to supporting their work and justify their opinions.


I’m sure the Prince of Egypt inspired the class I was watching. It’s a great film. Whether higher level thinking and helping literacy was at the forefront of my colleague’s mind only he will be able to tell us. In its right context it is one of the most valuable resources we have with companies making clips specially to coincide with the National Curriculum in a variety of media. It is certainly a medium that our current pupils are very confident and comfortable with and 5-10 minutes fits in perfectly with their modus operandi of ‘clip watching’.


A free trial of 60 Second Histories film and teaching resource is available at


Written by Robert Lloyd Williams 
Educational Consultant at Mind.World

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