The Listening-Viewing Video Diary: Doubling Your Students' Exposure to English

by Michael Furmanovsky, Ryukoku University

The increasingly widespread acceptance of video as a tool for second language acquisition precludes the need to list again its numerous advantages for the language teacher and learner. Indeed most recent articles and books on video in the EFL classroom focus instead on whether or not to use "authentic" or EFL videos, or on how to use them most effectively. Recently published teacher resource books such as Video in Action (Stempleski, Tomalin, 1990) and Video (Cooper, Lavery, Rinvolucri, 1991) list an exhaustive number of techniques for using, or creating, all kinds of video material in the classroom. This in turn has led many publishers to produce video supplements to their textbooks and to create elaborate commercial packages for teaching through video, among the most notable in Japan being Sony's Movies for ELT CINEX School curriculum which uses open captioned videos for class and self study.

The "Listening-Viewing (LV) Diary" described below is based on the view that the single best justification for using authentic video is it's cultural and narrative subtext. The latter make authentic video intrinsically interesting for most students, and this interest can readily translate into more time spent on listening to English and more exposure to non-Japanese cultures. Indeed, it is my contention that the 90 minutes per week of direct exposure to, or interaction with native spoken English experienced by the typical Japanese university student, can easily be doubled through the LV Diary.

Genesis of the idea

The original idea for a LV Diary came as an offshoot of the "Listening Diary" project outlined by Barbara Fujiwara (Fujiwara, 1990). In the first semester of the school year, Fujiwara's students are expected to listen to English a certain number of times a week, and to keep a record of how and what they learned, in a diary. Among the possible sources listed for the students were songs, textbook tapes, NHK radio programs, movies, TV shows, books on tape or even conversations with, or between, native speakers. In their diaries students were encouraged to explain their listening strategies-such as dictation, use of a script or Japanese subtitles, frequent playbacks of the tape and repetition of key phrases and words etc- and to write questions to the teacher about aspects of language or culture that interested or puzzled them. The teacher then responded to the diaries with answers to these questions, suggestions about other techniques and general encouragement. In the second semester, students were asked to utilize the lessons learned and discoveries made about their own learning style and listening strategies in the first semester, and to write an "extended listening diary" based on a single source. This could be a book on tape, a movie or a TV show. Finally students were expected to write an evaluation of their own progress as learners.

Although some teacher-created examples of diary entries were modeled, and a variety of listening exercises given in the first month of the year, the first semester diaries of my second year university students produced, at best, mixed results. For while virtually all students seemed to enjoy their listening to some degree, at least a third of the diaries were so short, unfocused and vague, as to make the assignment little more than an opportunity to listen to their favorite songs or movies, or to express their disappointment at not being able to understand a particular pop song. Another third went beyond this to give some brief details of listening techniques and perhaps some examples of a word or phrase learned. The best of these diaries, however, frequently showed remarkably perceptive and unanticipated insight into various linguistic aspects of modern spoken English, as well as an extremely strong curiosity about American or British cultural practices and lifestyles. Indeed some of the very best of these diaries contained surprisngly astute and perceptive observations and ideas. Yet at the same time, even the most thought-out of these diaries lacked any systematic attempt to analyze what the student had seen or heard. It was this failure, even after distribution of some samples of the most thoughtful and interesting diaries, that led to an effort to codify and organize the viewing and notetaking process in time for the second semester's extended diary project.

Developing the Notetaking Form

During the summer break I read through approximately fifty of the best diaries and, using the insights and comments of the students, developed a notetaking form in which students could carefully and systematically focus on both lingistic and cultural information as part of a larger movie based L-V Diary project. The overall design of the project was influenced in part by the work of several video experts in, JALT's video N-SIG, whose creative classroom use of video sources, seemed to be producing exciting results. Equally important, however, was the students'own seemingly unquenchable desire to be able to understand foreign movies (and by inference foreign ways of living and behaving), without total reliance on Japanese subtitles or some other intermediary. In addition the famed weakness in spoken English of many Japanese students often seemed to be inversely proportional to their quite well developed writing and reading skills.
The end result of this process was a project in which students were asked to watch a rental or dubbed English language movie of their own choice over 12 weeks and to carefully focus on one or two discreet scenes each week. After watching the scene several times, and utilizing their own listening and viewing strategies, they were required to fill in a special one page notetaking form divided into language and culture sections. On the back of this sheet they were to write a 100-200 word diary in which they briefly explained their viewing technique; summarized the content of the scene and commented and posed questions on what language, culture and information had interested them.

Explaining the L-V Diary to Students

The task of explaining the diary, especially the notetaking form, to the students at the beginning of the semester was a somewhat daunting one. For this reason, the use of a classroom model video with open English captions seemed the most promising teaching strategy, especially given class time limits and copyright regulations. As most video enthusiasts know, many commercial American networks now produce their dramas or comedies with "closed captions" for the hearing impaired. By converting a 22 minute American copy of the popular TV show, The Wonder Years- about a teenage boy growing up in the early 1970's- to an "open caption" version, I had an ideal video to selectively use in the classroom on a regular basis. With (95%) correct English captions, it was also relatively easy to produce a full script of the program on the computer. In addition, by using the computer to number every line of the script, it was possible to insert (numbered) questions based on the visual and linguistic information seen or heard at a particular point in the story, at the end of the page. This in turn made it easier to utilize a full variety of listening, viewing and role playing techniques, some of which could be used or adapted by students when watching their own videos.

Monitoring and Encouraging the Students' Work

Considerable freedom was given to students to select their own movies, although the non English majors were encouraged to base their diary on the in class model video or to choose one of the growing number of popular Hollywood movies for which reasonably accurate screen plays are available. Ultimately about half the students, including many English majors, purchased screenplays for their movies, and integrated the script into their listening-viewing strategy, usually at the end. In most cases too, students used video copies with Japanese subtitles which they could hide with a strip of paper, or watch when necessary. Finally, students were recommended to choose a movie with a reasonable balance of both dialogue and action. Having done this for their first homework, they were then asked to note down or think about the kinds of questions that I was asking them in class, and to pose similar questions to themselves when watching their own movie.

Student Questions and Teacher Input

Although the work of a number of students was a little confused, the overall results were quite gratifying. Indeed it became quite clear that even the least motivated students were doing at least 45 minutes or more of homework per week, while most others were clearly doing much more. In addition, a number of students were clearly pleased at being able to get answers from the teacher about some of the cultural behaviors and slang usage of young Americans that had previously baffled them. Some students, as expected, merely summarized the events of the scene, or pointed out already known facts such as that westerners wore shoes in their homes and kissed each other more than Japanese. These students were encouraged to note down at least one expression or new word, and to try to predict the behavior of key characters. Those students who went beyond this minimum to list new vocabulary, expressions, body language and cultural observations, were encouraged to ask more questions and to put themselves in the positions of the characters. Finally the most sophisticated students, some of whom wrote as much as 3-500 words for each scene, were asked to also write down "interesting or unexpected translations" and to give advice to the characters.

Student Responses

Among the most satisfying results was the work of those Japanese majors who chose the model video for their diary. Clearly fascinated at the story of a 16 year old boy and his obsession with the fortunes of his school basketball team, their work showed dramatic improvement over the previous semester's. Thus for example a normally quite passive and verbally inarticulate student wrote the following in response to the 16 year old main character Kevin's comment that he "was embarrassed to be seen with" his father at the high school basketball game. I guess it means "I felt shy to be seen with my father." I think "embarrassed" is not equal to "ashamed (hazukashi). Embarassed" here means "shy." She then went on to agree that she too was "embarassed to meet my friend with my parents," and wondered if this was a universal feeling among teenagers. The same student explained the harshly delivered rhetorical question, "What are you talking about!" as meaning "Nonsense!" and remarked on the facial response of the main character to his father's comment about the basketball team. "He seemed to be angry. As a proof of it, I watched that his mouth laughed, but his eyebrows were lowered".

Many other students remarked on the fact that a 16 year old had asked a direct question to his friend's father. "A younger man doesn't talk to older men like this in Japan," one pointed out, while another expressed surprise "that a man and a child are talking just like a friend." Considerable interest and comment was aroused in response to the main character's delivery of a short speech pleading for his father's permission to attend a basketball game in spite of bad grades. The twenty-five word speech, a humorous parody of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, accompanied by a background bugle fanfare on the soundtrack, motivated several students to look up and quote the speech in their diaries, thus providing the stimulus for a brief history lesson in class and giving further insight into what the typical college student knows and doesn't know about American history and culture. As for cultural comparison, one student wrote that "Kevin's character is quite like Katsuo who appears in [the Japanese TV cartoon drama]"Sazae-san.
Among the intermediate level students, results were also surprisingly thoughtful and sophisticated, and a number of students asked questions which they would rarely feel comfortable articulating verbally. Watching a scene on a New York subway, a student touchingly wondered whether people, as was common in Japan, slept on trains. "Foreign trains are dangerous...if they sleep, what will become of them?" The same student was able to identify and explain several expressions and slang words in each scene. When unsure about an expression, such as "Get lost!" she hazarded an intelligent guess, "Get out." While her diary was short, and sometimes incomplete, it was full of quite outspoken advice and cultural comparisons and at least three or four perceptive linguistic observations. As for the work of students with upper intermediate comprehension and writing skills, it was often startlingly articulate and reflective, and clearly had involved at least two hours of concentrated study.

Presentations and Assessment

Towards the end of the semester, students in the higher level classes were asked to prepare a 5-6 minute presentation of their diaries. In this presentation they were asked to introduce the video itself; explain their listening strategies, and use a scene from their video and a sample of their notetaking sheet to teach the other students one of the more interesting linguistic or cultural points that they had learned. With some exceptions, the quality of these presentations fell well short of that found in their written work, despite quite detailed instructions. Clearly I had been wrong to take for granted that students could imitate one of the listening-viewing techniques demonstrated in class. More practice and help in the preparation of such presentations is obviously needed in the future. Much more successful, however, were rotating pair dialogs in which students questioned each other about their diaries for 6-8 minutes before moving on to another student. As part of a larger evaluation process of the entire project, the teacher joined in this exchange and kept a mental note of the quality of the answers. These were compared with comments made in my gradebook about their written work.

Conclusion

Apart from the obvious benefit of doubling the average students' exposure to and interaction with native spoken English, and a sharpening of listening and analytical skills, the L-V Diary allowed for a real dialog between the student and teacher. That this dialog was useful to the students was confirmed in their evaluations of the project. These comments were generally quite favorable, although many wished that they had chosen a different or easier movie, and preferably one with a script. The extra time spent on homework (and duly noted by several students) was easily matched by the time consuming teacher's job, namely that of reading the diaries and responding to every question. This effort should not be underestimated by anyone considering adoption of the L-V Diary, and obviously the project, as presented, is viable only with relatively small classes- perhaps twenty or under. Nor is the L-V Diary without it's disadvantages, in sometimes taking time away from speaking activities. However, it seems both reasonable and sensible to exploit to the full, the particular combination of strengths that the Japanese high school graduate usually possesses after six years of grammar translation and reliance on the (often archaic) written word. When this is combined with the perhaps surprising fact that many students still have a strong desire to understand western culture and to be able to communicate effectively with native speakers, a potent learning force can be unleashed. It is precisely this enthusiasm and energy that the L-V Diary project is explicitly designed to reinforce and then reward.

Stempleski,S. & Tomalin, B. (1990) Video in Action: Recipes for Using Video in Language Teaching. New York: Prentice Hall.

Cooper, R., Lavery, M. and Rinvolucri, M. (1991) Video. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fujiwara, B. (1990) Learner Training in listening strategies. JALT Journal, 12 (2), 203-217.