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Scene 7! Take 7! Video Cameras in the EFL/ESL Classroom

You probably already use video in the classroom – that is, you play and view video content of whatever origin. And your students certainly gain a good deal from exposure to the language-in-context that is typical of most video. But how often do you take the next logical step and venture into originating video content […]

Written by Josef Essberger for

You probably already use video in the classroom – that is, you play and view video content of whatever origin. And your students certainly gain a good deal from exposure to the language-in-context that is typical of most video. But how often do you take the next logical step and venture into originating video content yourself? In fact, using a video camera in (or out of) the language classroom can be at least as productive for your students as playing back existing material.

Using the video camera stimulates students because it:

  • is thought-provoking
  • is demanding
  • is dynamic
  • is close to real life
  • is creative!
  • requires whole-body involvement
  • gives responsibility to students

Here are some thoughts on seven areas of working with video cameras.

1 Equipment

You will need:

  • a video camera/camcorder
  • a television or monitor for playback
  • all necessary cables (camera/tv, camera/mains, tv/mains)
  • a remote control for the camera
  • a tripod (optional but can be very useful)
  • other items such as clapper-board or director’s chair are optional

The camera should preferably be auto-focus and equipped with a zoom lens. Above all, it should be relatively simple and easy-to-use, and have a good-quality microphone (if the voice quality on playback is poor, the exercise will be pointless). You will probably need one (better still two) rechargeable batteries for the camera. The camera remote control can be used during filming but is really indispensable during playback direct from the camera.

2 Familiarize yourself with the equipment

Always be fully conversant with your camera and playback equipment. Make sure you know the controls, at least the more important ones – on/off, record/playback, zoom in/out etc. Be familiar with all cabling, including hooking up to television and mains electricity. The camera needs electricity to operate. The electricity is supplied either from the mains or from a battery. If you use the mains you will be sure of an uninterrupted supply but restricted in movement by the supply cable (which may not matter if the camera is mounted on a tripod and/or you are in a restricted space). If you use the battery, you will have total freedom of movement but no electricity after a certain time, which could be anything between 30 and 60 minutes. It is essential that you have this under control: no electricity, no video.

3 Activity: Teacher filming students

The obvious thing to do with a video camera is to film students performing some language activity for later playback, analysis and discussion. The mere act of filming will add tension to the activity and heighten students’ awareness. You can no doubt think of many suitable activities, for example:

4 Project: Students filming students

Give the camera to your students and let them produce a video with it. There are few limits here. This could be a project lasting one lesson or spread over an entire course, with a small group or a large one. The subjects for videoing are endless too: television news programme, chat show, documentary, local street interviews, soap opera, play etc. Much of the value of this sort of project comes also from the time spent by the students planning, scripting, discussing, finding locations, casting and so on. Clear directives from the teacher are necessary, as well as constant support and the supply of adequate facilities. Clearly, you have to make many decisions based on the students’ level, (technical) abilities and motivation. But given a competent, keen group at almost any level, something productive can come out of such a project. One proviso: take care that all students benefit equally in terms of language practice and that one student, for example, does not stuck behind the camera while another gets all the starring rĂ´les.

5 Scene 7! Take 7!

In most cases you will not have access to editing equipment. That means you will not be able to film different sequences in any order, cut it all up and stick it back together in the order you want (not to mention having fades, freeze-frame etc). So you will have to film each sequence in the correct order and try to stop and start each sequence cleanly in the camera so that it plays back reasonably cleanly. (It won’t, of course, and this can be one of the most frustrating things. All the more reason both for good preparation and for keeping things simple.) If, by chance, you can edit the tape (which means having both the equipment and the knowhow), then you can really go to town – with clapper-boards and even a continuity person (who makes sure that the cigarette in Take 7 is the same length as it was in Take 1)!

6 Playback/feedback

Most cameras can be connected directly to a television for instant playback. (It may also be possible to monitor the camera during filming through the television.) Playback is a time for positive critical analysis, the keyword here being positive. Students will learn a lot just by watching themselves on video, without any teacher or peer comment. By allowing themselves to be videoed, students are already putting themselves in a vulnerable position – they do not need any negative feedback. You must judge for yourself, but it is probably not a time to comment on missing prepositions. Give positive encouragement. Suggest or elicit alternative ways to say something. And grasp the opportunity to consider body language too. Your students will be fascinated by it. Above all, do not criticize a student’s acting ability! Finally, think about making copies for your students to take away with them.

7 Preparation

Are there any drawbacks to using video cameras? Well, yes: you have to be prepared. And while some teachers seem able to parachute into any normal lesson without any preparation, it would take a very experienced and very specialized teacher to conduct a productive lesson using a video camera without preparation. But you will be well rewarded for the time you spend on preparation (much of which can in any event form part of a preceding lesson). Good planning and time management are essential. What do you need to prepare? Everything:

  • equipment (including charged batteries!)
  • the location (including power points and cables)
  • vocabulary
  • instructions on use of equipment
  • instructions on activity or project
  • the activity or project itself
  • timetable

Some of this can be done in conjunction with the students (for example, choosing a subject). In the case of a project, your aim should be so to have prepared everything that when you hand over to your students they will know exactly what to do. Finally, do not underestimate the time required: nothing would be more frustrating for your students than not being able to see the results of their work for shortage of time!

Written by Josef Essberger for
January 2001 | Filed under Teaching
Josef Essberger is founder of Teflnet and EnglishClub and has taught EFL in Europe and Asia.