Practical ideas for using film

Written by: Jane Fletcher | Published:
Film education: A scene from the 1946 film adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations. The film features in Into Film’s Reel To Real: Great Expectations resource (Image: CINEGUILD)

After reading a recent SecEd article warning of the dangers of the poor or lazy use of film in the classroom, we asked Jane Fletcher from the charity Into Film to offer advice on what an effective use of film might look like

I read with interest Paul Gammans’ recent article Pedagogy: Video Killed the Teaching Star (SecEd, October 2016: I agree with his view that there is little value in using film indiscriminately and I welcome his concluding comment that used correctly film or video can be highly beneficial.

However, I challenge the implication elsewhere in the article that film should only be used as a last resort or end-of-term treat.

I believe that the merits of film in education are often sidelined and have witnessed first-hand how film, used in a considered and contextualised manner, can be a powerful means of engaging young people and promoting memorable learning right across the curriculum.

I won’t elaborate here on the reasons why film should be valued in education – though there are many. Instead let’s look at how to incorporate film, including a few simple strategies for active film watching and understanding it as a text across a range of subjects, and a couple of detailed lesson ideas to support literacy and English literature, which are Paul’s main focus.

Hopefully these will enable more educators to use film confidently and effectively, leaving little room for “lazy teaching” and dispelling the image, referred to by Paul, of “pupils sat bored in front of a two-hour film”.


In history, films, clips, stills and archive can be used as a source for topics ranging from the First World War to the Civil Rights Movement, and act as a catalyst for further investigation using other materials.

They can play a role when discussing sources or critically evaluating the structure of the film to explore historical accuracies or inaccuracies of an event, such as the Kennedy assassination (JFK, 1991) the Holocaust (Schindler’s List, 1993), or the Suffragette movement (Suffragette, 2015).

Literacy skills

Learning to read and evaluate film as text provides students with memorable ways to analyse, encode and decode any text. For English language, use film to practise different writing styles. By looking at elements of the film (how it is put together) and looking at film reviews students can then write their own to practise analysis, reviewing and commenting.

Ask students to write a formal letter to the British Board of Film Classification arguing, persuading or advising them to alter the certificate for certain adaptations. Students can check the classification guidelines on the BBFC website first. Use film stills to practise descriptive writing.


Watching and understanding a foreign language film is a perfect way to learn a modern foreign language in context and introduce new vocabulary. Simple activities include: choosing 10 words in a film and asking pupils to find synonyms, asking them to describe a character or place practising nouns, adjectives and phrases such as “he/she/it is” or “he/she/it has” etc, or write a review in the language of the film. You could also show an English language film clip and ask classes to write their own subtitles in the relevant language.

Set texts

Much of Paul’s article relates to the use – and misuse – of film when teaching set texts. Here are a couple of tried and tested strategies which can be adapted to suit the needs of your students.
3Cs and 3Ss

The 3Cs (colour, camera, character) and the 3Ss, (story, setting, sound) can be used to help students discuss and analyse all the elements of a film text. Working with the 3Cs and 3Ss will develop learners’ critical-thinking, analytical and contextualisation skills – skills which can then be transferred to the written word. Resources to support active film watching with the 3Cs and 3Ss are available from IntoFilm.

Writing from sound

This is a great starter activity to encourage students to identify and analyse how ideas are communicated through film and written texts, by creating their own piece of writing before attempting to analyse a section of a set text.

Play the sound only from your chosen sequence of the film text you are studying. A clip no longer that 90 seconds and with sounds other than dialogue works best. Allocate groups of students one of these terms and definitions:

  • Diegetic sound (sound set within the world of the film, which characters within that world can hear).
  • Non-diegetic sound (sound external to the world of the film, which characters within the film cannot hear).
  • Sound FX (sound other than speech or music made artificially for use in a film).
  • Foley sound (everyday sounds recorded for use in post-production to enhance audio quality, for example footsteps on gravel or a squeaky gate).
  • Parallel sound (sound that matches the mood or tone of the sequence).
  • Contrapuntal sound (sound that strongly contrasts with the mood or tone or the scene).

Play the sound clip twice more with students focusing on their particular term and definition. Ask each group to feedback the sounds they identified. At this point provide all students with all the terms, so they can become familiar with them during the discussion. There may be some overlap, for example foley sound can be an example of diegetic sound. Ask students, in turn, to write and draw the shared ideas to create a large-scale mindmap on the wall or whiteboard.

Now ask students, alone or in pairs, to write a maximum 150-word description of the scene, using the 3Cs and 3Ss framework as a checklist to ensure they are covering the key elements of a film text.

Ask some students to read out their descriptions and explain which sounds in particular they have referenced in their piece of writing.

Now play the film clip with the visuals (you may like to do this twice). Give students a couple of minutes to discuss which ideas were present in both their pieces of writing and the film sequence, and any visuals or elements of the film text they had not predicted.

Now look at the relevant extract of the set text, and ask students to work in pairs or small groups to complete a three circle Venn diagram to identify similarities and differences between the film sequence, their piece of writing and the section of the set text.

Encoding meaning: Creating atmosphere

This activity is taken from the Into Film and V&A partnership resource Reel to Real: Great Expectations. Divide students into four groups and give each group a different descriptive passage from the text. Passages that would work well include:

  • Graveside and marshes (chapter 1).
  • Miss Havisham at Satis house (chapter 8).
  • Arrival in London (chapter 21).
  • Wemmick’s home (chapter 25).

Students analyse the language closely to identify how Dickens creates atmosphere and tone, and annotate the text with their findings. This could be developed into an essay-practice task such as writing PEEE (point, evidence, explanation, effect on reader) paragraphs.

Then ask students to use the descriptions to visualise their allocated setting and create a location sketch. Students should label their sketch with the following elements:

  • Costume, hair and make-up.
  • Performance (the actors’ facial expressions and body language).
  • Setting and props.
  • Sound and music.
  • Lighting.
  • Camera (where is the camera positioned? How is the audience viewing the scene and the characters?)

Ask each group to present their sketches and explain their ideas, then watch the clip from the film. Ask students to make notes and compare and contrast the way they had encoded the scene and created mise-en-scene, with the techniques the director had used. Was there anything missing, or anything that was better than they had imagined?


These ideas are a taster – there are many other possibilities. I hope they will help to convince those in doubt that film has far more to offer in teaching than one might initially expect. Happy active viewing and learning.

  • Jane Fletcher is education director at Into Film.



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