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They need subtitles, don’t they? A PedagooMuckle learning conversation
October 16, 2016

Short films are brilliant contributions to literacy-rich classrooms. Combining storytelling, culture, creativity and tech all in one fabulous package, a short film is a carefully constructed text that can engage learners in the most unexpected ways.

And some aren’t even in English!

In this conversation we shared experiences and ideas for watching and making short films in languages other than English.

So no, they don’t need subtitles … well, not all the time.

N.B. This post contains far more than was covered in the learning conversation itself precisely because of all the chat on the day.


There’s a clue in the name, the beauty of short films is that they’re short and as such they can be watched more than once.

In terms of film literacy, there are six important features. The 3Cs – character, colour, camera – and the 3Ss – sound, setting and story. Particular films, whether short or feature length, will merit exploration of different Cs or Ss.

World cinema is a culturally and linguistically rich source of texts for our classrooms. In the workshop I shared three ways of engaging learners with short films by film-makers from other countries or about other cultures.

1. Cheat a little bit

No dialogue, no need for subtitles! Take the fear out of watching ‘foreign’ films by watching ones which don’t have any spoken dialogue at all but which have a healthy dollop of cultural interest.

In the workshop we did a ‘sound on, vision off’ exercise to start using the first two minutes of El Caminante (Glow login required). We listened to the soundtrack of the film, without the seeing the images, then afterwards we shared what we had heard, what we thought was going on and where we thought it might have been taking place. Then we watched the same two minutes of the film and discussed the extent to which our initial thoughts had been borne out. In the event, it’s the discussion that matters more than the ‘accuracy’ of the original predictions.

Bring in some target language by expressing straightforward opinions about the film, characters or the story or creating a poster for a cinema screening of the film.

Alternatively, challenge confident language learners in your class with a ‘vision on, sound off’ activity. Watch the images with the audio muted and afterwards discuss what the characters might say and what sound effects they would expect to hear. Watch the film again with the sound on to hear the soundtrack of sound effects and/or music. Discuss the effect/impact of the soundtrack on the audience. Does it add anything to the images?

Pupils could then prepare spoken dialogue for the characters in the target language and perform it as the film plays on screen.

Intrigue your learners, focus on culture and location rather language to begin with.

2. Pave the way.

Preparation, preparation, preparation! Before watching a film, it’s helpful to give learners opportunities to explore the characters, colours, setting or story in advance so that their curiosity is piqued. Before long, they are desperate to watch the film and are unphased by the subtitles because they have a pretty good idea of what’s coming.

Start by looking at stills from the film and talking about what you can see. Discuss who and what you can see and where and when you think it might be set.

For example: La queue de la souris based on a traditional French tale by de la Fontaine.

First give pairs of pupils a selection of still images from this French language short. Discuss the characters and setting, try and sequence the stills to tell a story.

Then pupils match English captions to the images.

Lastly, pupils match the French captions.

A whole class discussion about the various elements of the film and also the skills and techniques used to match the French captions will reveal the extent to which learning in literacy and languages is being applied.  Consider reasons why Benjamin Renner, the animator might have chosen to use only four colours in the film – black, white, red and green.

Finally, watch the film with or without English subtitles. Afterwards, discuss the effect of the colour choices – black (lion, bad), white (all other animals, innocent), red (danger, environment around the lion) and green (among the trees, away from the lion) and the impact of the instrumental soundtrack – Why string instruments? Why sometimes plucked and sometimes bowed?

By accessing this film through www.languagesonscreen.org (Glow login required) you have the choice to stream or download it with or without subtitles. You could watch it without subtitles the first time and then with subtitles on a second viewing.

3. Create and be comfortable.

Intuitive tech and local creatives can make film making easy – regardless of language.

Live action movies are easy to edit with move maker software and for animations, free iPad apps such as Sock Puppets, Yakit kids, My Talking Avatar, Chatterpix Kids, Tellagami and Voki Ed are very simple to use. Depending on the app, you can create an animated background and character(s) then record your character(s) taking for anything from 10-30 seconds. To make a longer film, save several clips to your camera roll then stitch them together to make a longer film using iMovie or equivalent.

Another option is to involve local creative companies. Last session children at Elderbank PS in Irvine and St Anthony’s PS in Saltcoats, North Ayrshire worked with animators from Halo Digital Arts. P3 and P6 pupils at Elderbank produced The Portal Loo a film in French, English and British Sign Language, while P7 pupils at St Anthony’s made ¡Go, go Globo! a film in Spanish and English (Glow login required to view both on North Ayrshire 1+2 Primary Languages Video Channel). In both cases the children did the script, artwork, music and voices while Halo staff supported the technical side of things. In both cases it is clear that the level of language in French/Spanish was appropriate to the children involved. Rather than the alternative of developing a script in English and translating it into French/Spanish which would have reflected their proficiency in English and the use of Google translate, the children developed stories which enabled them to use vocabulary, phrases and songs that they were familiar and comfortable with, but still within a highly creative context.

With a bit of understanding about the 3Cs and 3Ss, children and young people will be well informed when it comes to making their own films.

Finding short films to use in class

Looking for films to use in class? Look no further than:

    • Screening Shorts, Languages in Screen and Scotland on Screen websites have all recently had a makeover and are still free to access for Scottish teachers via Glow. Screening Shorts has some of my favourite films without dialogue. Languages on Screen features shorts in French, German, Italian and Spanish. My favourite experience of using Scotland on Screen so far was P6s adding a mechanised French voiceover to the Daleks in Glasgow clip! All three sites have lesson guides and video tutorials.
    • Film G: the home of an annual Gaelic film making competition for schools, community groups and professional film makers.
    • Literacy Shed: a wide ranging and regularly updated collection of short films in a range of languages and with accompanying teaching ideas.
    • My ‘Shorts’ board on Pinterest currently has more than 260 short films in a wide variety of countries and in a range of langauges, or indeed none at all.
    • Into Film has teaching resources related to lots of feature films in many different langauges – Love Languages Spanish being one of the newest.


This is a abbreviated version of a post originally posted on the PedagooMuckle wiki.

They need subtitles, don’t they? is the Prezi that accompanied the learning conversation.

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