How teachers can use film with displaced and EAL young people

12 May 2022 BY Becky Parry

4 mins

Film is such an effective teaching tool, partly because it is a visual and accessible medium that all young people can engage with, regardless of background, language or ability.

Author, independent arts educator and lecturer at the University of Sheffield, Becky Parry, delves into this idea in our latest guest article. Below, she discusses her experience as an educator and researcher, and explores exactly how teachers can use dialogue free short film to connect with young people in the UK education system that have been displaced from their country of origin, as well as with EAL (English as an Additional Language) learners more generally.

Children become motivated by talking about films because they have experiences they can usefully share and learning is above all else a social activity. If we exclude children's own knowledge by ignoring film, we risk excluding them, and that leads to disaffection.

Author, independent arts educator and lecturer at the University of Sheffield, Becky Parry

When displaced, the type of welcome children seeking refuge receive in schools can be something of a lucky dip. School staff and resources are more stretched than ever and many do not feel equipped to deal with such circumstances. I know in my first year of teaching, I felt woefully ill equipped to respond to the Somali children escaping war and arriving in my drama class.

There continues to be many children seeking refuge in the UK though and schools are often key to enabling them to access the support they need, so it is vital we create a series of best practices that can help everyone overcome any initial language or cultural barriers. In this article, I want to share the ways that a film-rich classroom can enable schools to offer displaced children an imaginative refuge in their school community.

I have often witnessed teachers expressing surprise when a child, who is usually quiet or disruptive, suddenly changes their behaviour during a lesson focused on film. Teachers and researchers alike have put this engagement down to children being motivated by film; a popular medium that children enjoy and are familiar with. I am not entirely convinced by this logic as children also enjoy/are familiar with food and friends but these do not necessarily help them engage with school-based learning.

In my own research I have tried to understand the motivation we see when we include popular culture such as film, games and comics in the literacy classroom. My findings are not that surprising. Children become motivated by talking about films because they have experiences they can usefully share and learning is above all else a social activity. If we exclude children's own knowledge by ignoring film, we risk excluding them, and that leads to disaffection. It is as much about being part of a conversation in which your understanding of the world is valued, as it is about whether a particular film is enjoyably funny or scary.

Showing a class of children a new film gathers them together as an audience and gives them a shared experience. These shared cultural and creative experiences are critical to children's sense of belonging to their class and community.

Short films are particularly useful in enabling teachers to provide shared experiences frequently and relatively easily, motivating children to discuss themes and ideas, and also develop comprehension of film language and narrative. However, when displaced children arrive in schools, they are often at a disadvantage because they need to learn a new language before they can demonstrate their understanding. I was lucky to be part of a moment in a film-rich classroom where this barrier to learning was overcome.

This particular moment was part of a wider project focused on scary films in literacy lessons. One of the titles chosen was Lucky Dip, a short film with no dialogue. A class of year four children viewed the film and then storyboarded a sequence. We (teachers and researchers) were struck by the way their storyboards went well beyond the usual stickman drawings in ‘mid-shot,' showing in-depth understanding of film language. The children were then invited to create a storyboard of a new scene and I noticed the way one usually silent, recently arrived boy, had really become immersed in the process. He drew the rabbit, a mischievous character, running away to the big wheel, leaving the little girl alone and crying. His classmates were interested in his drawings and also his written notes, which revealed a far greater grasp of English language proficiency than had so far been visible. This experience enabled one boy to move from being on the periphery of the group to a place at the centre, and this became a pivotal moment in what the teacher describes as him ‘settling in'.

Lucky Dip is a short animated film that uses image, sound and music but not dialogue. Introducing this film provided an opportunity for a newly arrived child to show their connection and creative response to the story. This, in turn, enabled the class of children and their teacher to begin to make connections. The choice of a short with no dialogue and the creative approach of the teacher were important, but the moment emerged not from a planned learning objective or a film focused on migration, but from a broader, longer-term commitment to providing a film-rich classroom. In this context, the possibility of being a community provided opportunities for making connections and exploring meaning together, and this is an important way of tentatively and gently providing refuge.

Whilst Lucky Dip is not currently available to watch on our catalogue, if you're interested in following Becky's lead and using dialogue free short film to engage with your displaced and EAL students (or simply your class in general), there's almost fifty titles available on our streaming service, Into Film+. Meanwhile, as we fast approach Refugee Week (20-26 June), make sure to also explore these four brilliant short films with your class.

Author and independent arts educator

Becky Parry, Author, Independent Arts Educator and Lecturer at the University of Sheffield

Becky has had a long-career in film and arts education and is especially interested in creative pedagogies. Becky’s research focuses on children’s film and film production pedagogies and she is a board member for The European Children’s Film Association (where there is a list of many new short films). Becky is also an independent arts educator who leads evaluation activity for local cultural organisations. 

Becky is the author of Children, Film and Literacy published by Palgrave Macmillan UK, her thesis won the UKLA Research Prize in 2013 and findings are presented in animated form here. Some of the ideas from this blog are further explored in this paper:

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