Adult students who enroll in an ESL program come in with preset norms that are reflective to their culture or religion. A subject that is open to discussion in the United States may be a taboo in their particular culture. Many of these social issues can be a part of the learning agenda. How can the instructor get the message across while bridging over language and cultural barriers? Through film. The focus of this will be on three areas in which film, along with reading and writing activities, can help to bridge the gap and hopefully lead to some enthusiastic discussions.


Prejudice in an ESL classroom can be a real problem and most students do not have the skills to face the challenge. For many ESL students this may be their first encounter with people who are a different race and cultural from their own; as a result, they have not practiced acceptance skills. After witnessing several events of prejudice, Janie Stuart felt that ESL instructors were not given the training to solve this issue head on. She felt the instruction, although good as far as teaching grammar and writing skills, fell short in the recognition of prejudice, which she points out in the article "In the Classroom Prejudice in the ESL Classroom (2005)." The incidents may be subtle, such as a man speaking over a woman. This gender prejudice may not seem insulting to the woman, because in some countries women are seen as second class citizens and what they have to say is unimportant, but it is important to help her recognize this is no longer the case.

A useful tool to teach and recognize prejudice is film. Janie Stuart uses an American film to teach a group of ESL students to recognize racial and educational prejudice. Ms. Stuart writes of an incident of racism between a group Hungarian and Slovak students who were participating in Summer English camp. The racial comments were severe enough that the parents of the Hungarian students were undecided about allowing the children to return to the camp. Secondly, there was witnessed “educational prejudice” (Stuart, 2005, p. 63), when a more advanced student teases a beginning student. Both types of prejudice were witnessed during a class that lasted only two weeks and contained a group of twelve-year-old students. The author decided to use the film, along with group activities, reading and writing tasks to promote the awareness of these prejudices and for the students to learn acceptance.

The film Janie turns to is an experimental film on prejudice made in the mid 80's called A Class Divided. It takes place in 1968 and focuses on a third-grade teacher who teaches in a small all-white community located in Iowa, attempts to demonstrate prejudice to her students. The film opens with a discussion of what it must be like to be a person of color. The children of this community have little encounters with people of color, so to demonstrate prejudice; the instructor segregates the class according to eye color. The lesson in discrimination is daring but leads the students into a life-long impression of how prejudice feel (Frontline 2003).

Before watching the film, the students will do a "What is your Name" exercise, where the students will write down the answers to these questions.

1.Who gave you your name? Why?

2. What is the ethnic origin of your name?
3. What are your nicknames, if any?
4. What do you prefer to be called?
Students will divide into pairs and discuss their information (Stuart, 2005, p. 69).

After watching the film clip, the students are lead in an activity, which is called “Lifeline” (Stuart, 2005, p. 70). The students are directed to create a timeline of special events that have taken place in their lives. After completion, students are encouraged to share their personal lifeline for the class. The follow-up activity is for the students to journal a time when they felt that they were treated with prejudice. According to Janie Stuart (2005), literacy developers Cummins et al. believe that “ample opportunities for expressive writing appear to particularly significant in promoting a sense of academic efficiency among minority students” (p. 73). Thus students’ journals need to be confidential, and only those that show willingness be asked to share.

Deciding What Film Topics are Acceptable

Choosing the titles to be used in an ESL classroom is not just a matter of taste, especially when working with adult ESL student. All students’ religions, culture, and ages must be considered before any films or media are shown in the classroom. Even a brief glimpse of sex, violence, or profanity can be unacceptable and offensive to some students (Gareis, 1997, p.220), so all choices must be carefully previewed. When in doubt, offer the students more than one choice of titles to watch. At present with the ease of YouTube, the movie’s trailer can be easily viewed to assist in selection. A written ballot is encouraged over a show of hands due to the pressure to assimilate into the classes populous (Gareis, 1997, p. 220). It is not always necessary to show the entire film (Golden, 2001, p. xv), especially if there are any parts that could be considered offensive, instead show clips and facilitate discussion from there.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird contains the allegation of rape and exhibits the unwanted sexual advances that is hidden under the guise of rape. The film also examines the fairness of the court system of the United States on minorities. As a previewing activity, place the students into groups and ask the question, "What is the job of the police and what should they have the authority to do?" Discuss these key terms:

reasonably sure
he can go free

Surprisingly, violence is considered less offensive, so using episodes of Bugs Bunny and scenes from The Godfather could be used as an example to contrasts different forms of violence and why one would be considered less violent over the other (Gareis, 1997, p.221). There are many forms of Violence and one form touched American soil on 9/11, which deeply affected many Americans, open the discussion of where you were when this occurred, and ask for volunteers how this event affected their lives. Discuss key words (Foley, B. 1994, p. 95):
knocked out

Film clips may be a way to bring awareness to such taboo subjects such as homosexuality. Film clips from such features as The Color Purple, where homosexuality is shown with a type of innocence. The sweet kiss shared between Cecile and Shug has the innocence of first love without being intrusive, thus another opportunity for lively discussion.


What is a traditional family unit?
What is a nontraditional family unit?
What is a household?
Who is responsible for child care?
Who prepares all the meals?

Many people in the United States smoke, which has become a social taboo, so one must learn where and when it is acceptable to smoke.
Open the discussion with a true/false quiz:
1. About one out every 10 Americans smokes.
2. The number one cause of death by cancer for both men and women is lung cancer.
3. About 15,000 Americans die of lung cancer a year.
4. Every day, about three thousand young people begin to smoke.
5. Smoking during pregnancy may cause premature birth.
Next, show the class a Public Service Announcement (PSA) on the health risks of smoking

After watching the PSA, discuss some vocabulary words:
short of breath
End the lesson by dividing the students into pairs and initiate an in-class interview by asking the following questions:
1. What country are you from?
2. How old do you have to be to buy a pack of cigarettes?
3. Is there a warning label on the pack?
4. Are cigarettes advertised on television?
5. Where is smoking allowed?
6. Where is smoking not allowed?

Broadcast News in the ESL Classroom

Many ESL students have a difficult time in processing the rapid speech that comes from the radio, TV, and film. Brinton and Gaskil (1978) both agree that the deficiency is not in the listening skills but a “lack of adequate classroom materials used to train the students’ listening skills” (p. 403). However, the use of previewed broadcast news has produced positive results in the ESL classroom. On the outset, students would benefit from initialing reading articles in print, which could be taken from websites like The New York Times or news magazines. It is much easier to learn a language written, where often the spoken language is weaker.

The addition of broadcast news was as result of students’ requesting to hear more spoken English and the instructors hoped that through the addition of broadcast news there would be an improvement to the students’ language skills and an increase in enthusiasm and motivation (Brinton & Gaskill, 1978, p. 405-6). The time for instruction was broken up so students are exposed to one hour of broadcast news a week. A second hour is set aside for related readings and discussion. The front-loading would consist of covering unfamiliar vocabulary words and the lesson would wrap-up with a combination true-false and multiple-choice evaluation (Briton & Gaskill, 1978, p. 406). But initially it is more important that students understand the gist of the topic being presented in the broadcast and this was a welcomed relief from the constant drilling of grammar (Briton & Gaskill, 1978, p. 407). For the discussion not to be teacher-dominated, the students are encouraged to share what they knew about a news topic.

The biggest pay-off of using broadcast news in an ESL classroom is the numerous explanations of vocabulary words. Often in the broadcast, the vocabulary is recycled, giving the student additional time to become familiar with the words. This reusing of vocabulary “provides the student with a more useful core vocabulary” (Briton & Gaskill, 1978, p. 412).


First chose two articles that are related, one from The New York Times and one from a news magazine. Click onto the links I have provided and you can see the two articles I chose. Both articles cover the after affects of the earthquake that took place in Haiti two years ago. Before the topic is even discussed, vocabulary words need to be front-loaded. Chose words that would affect the context of the story, such as apocalyptic or macabre. Have the students spend some time defining the terms. A geography lesson would be a good idea, so the students are aware of the location of said disaster.

The students will quickly learn the words and will be able to read the article out loud, but most likely they will not understand the contents of the story. Carefully explain, the situation that took place in Haiti. The broadcast news will allow them to hear the story and watch the visual images. The link from the PBS News Hour, relates to the topic of Haiti.


(2003). A Class Divided Frontline. Retriever from

Brinton, D, Gaskill, W. (1978). Using News Broadcasts in the ESL/ EFL Classroom. Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL). 12(4), 403-413.

Foley, B. (1994). Now Hear This! High Beginning Listening, Speaking, & Pronunciation. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Gareis, E. (1997). Literature and Film Adaptations: Dealing with Hot Topics in ESL and Literacy Classroom. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. 41(3), 220-222

Golden, J. (2001). Reading in the Dark Using Film as a Tool in the English Classroom. Urbana: NCTE.

Stuart, J. (2005). In the Classroom Prejudice in the ESL Classroom. TESL Canada Journal/ Revue TESLOU Canada. 23(6), 63-75.