Volume VI - 2001

Novels and Films in the Elementary School Foreign Language Class
by Jacqueline Garçon

Jacqueline Garçon is a teacher educator on the WICE/Rutgers State University TEFL Certificate in Paris, France. She has Masters degrees in French and in TESOL. She taught French and was Team Head of Real World Listening at Harvard University. Her interests include listening skills, literature and content in language learning.

For a story to truly hold the child's attention, it must entertain him and arouse his curiosity. But to enrich his life, it must stimulate his imagination; help him to develop his intellect and to clarify his emotions; be attuned to his anxieties and aspirations; give full recognition to his difficulties, while at the same time suggest solutions to the problems which perturb him.
Bruno Bettleheim, The Uses of Enchantment.

     In exposure to literature and films, there seems to be an unfortunate double standard for elementary students studying their native language and those studying a foreign language. In their own language, children are exposed to stories and texts that are above their production level in writing and/or speaking. This is very welcome: real language that is relevant and meaningful sparks interest, imagination and creative language use. Indeed, literature and film have been used in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) with adults and secondary school learners (Snow, Met, Genesee, 1989). Yet it is assumed that for younger children, overly simple and entertaining storybooks in the foreign language are all that is needed. In this paper, we maintain that exploring themes and skills that are relevant to the child's world might well lead to a richer and more productive experience in the foreign language. This experience would be closer to the language development required in the mainstream classroom. More specifically, we will develop the idea that interweaving film and literature can contribute significantly to a far more dynamic classroom, especially if the actual story corresponds to the age level of the child. Such activities could avoid fragmenting the foreign language into component parts, which often characterizes contemporary methods.

Living a Fascinating, Fictional Tale

    A children's novel-a modern, provocative fairytale by a popular British writer-plus the American film adaptation provided stimulating course content for young learners. Motivationally, French children were very excited about reading a book and watching a film-all in English. The material stimulated their creativity, leading to a real involvement with the text and projecting well beyond the written word. It was as if their imagination took over and they were truly living a fascinating, fictional tale. Language learning became secondary. The children were eager to share their feelings, ideas and fears; to speak out and about the content of the material. They naturally communicated energy, curiosity and involvement with the material: in fact, this excitement was somewhat difficult to control at times. The children also seemed to learn from absorption and imitation, being immersed in rich input, but not by simply mimicking what they heard. The teachers found that after each class, the literature and film naturally generated more ideas for language use and new themes to explore. The novel and film adaptation, in their entirety, were used with children between the ages of eight and twelve years. They were doing things "with language not to language" (Rigg, 1991). This article explores a task-based approach and an integrated focus, drawing on and developing all language skills. In the following paragraphs, we will explore activities interweaving themes, meaning and imagination.

The Context

    The European Community has given priority to foreign languages in education, leading to multicultural exchange and communication. France requires foreign language learning in primary school. Children begin English at an early age, finding it full of fun, songs and games. When they reach middle school, the process changes to sentence-level, structure-oriented oral/aural methods. We did something different in our study. In taking the same approach as with adults-using film and literature as content for language classes-we attempted to answer several questions:

o How might young learners remain active in the language-learning process beyond the use of songs, games and simple structures?
o How can we draw upon their developing literacy skills in their own language?
o How might they be motivated for the reading and writing of the assortment of texts and varieties of English they would encounter in secondary school and beyond?
o How could the EFL experience move beyond the word and sentence level with a meaning-based whole approach?
o How might the children make a better transition from a play-centered approach to a gradually more conscious and cognitive learning through a content-based approach to skills?
o How might we give EFL learners at a young age the desire and skills to read with pleasure in a foreign language?
o European children receive a substantial grounding in the structure of their own language. How might we transfer this linguistic background knowledge early on to the learning of a second language?

    The project we will describe was used with French children in an international school in Paris who had a special "Wednesday English" immersion class. Once a week, they had a whole day in English, based on a variety of subjects, including language instruction. The second group was German children, living temporarily in Holland and attending an international school. They had 45 minutes of English language instruction, Monday through Friday, during the entire academic year. The material was also used in a one-to-one instructional setting with a child exposed to spoken English at home in France. This child was somewhat dissatisfied with being in the English class at public school with his classmates who were just beginning English. All the children were between the ages of eight to eleven years old. Most of them were in the second-to-last year of primary school before moving into the middle school. The children's reactions to the material in each of the different European communities also provided interesting and somewhat unexpected cultural perspectives, which we will look at. The author was asked to work with the primary school EFL teachers who were eager to develop various ways of using video in the classroom and to use more extended and "real" language with the children. As the project evolved, the language teachers also became increasingly interested in using the material across the curriculum. The film and literature were used for almost four months as instructional material in the English classroom.

Why a Fairytale?

    Themes of growing up, societal roles, malevolent beings and cunning strategies are relevant to young learners. Fairy-tales address the deep human problems in an imaginative form, helping children to find meaning and security in life by approaching their personal problems through clearly defined characters representing good and evil. Fairytales have a rare and unequaled value for children while they are growing up. These stories offer (1) new dimensions to a child's imagination and (2) original solutions to essential human problems. Children may become personally involved in the story, identifying with the characters, interpreting illustrations and clarifying the narrative in their own manner. Such imaginative flights of fantasy guide children to expand their own creative powers.

    Popular stories and their film adaptations allow children to be in contact with longer stretches of language in context. Fairytales are a narrative genre which the children are familiar and comfortable with in any language. The narrative structure also guides their ability to understand. Extensive reading becomes a rich source for language skills development. In addition, the children often ingeniously translate their reactions into original colorful drawings or personalized versions of the deeds of the hero or the heroine. Even older children use images to make sense and articulate their visions and lives.

No Fear of Constructing Meaning in L2

    In their first language, children enjoy reading and listening to fairytales and stories, which are a part of their everyday lives. They provide extremely rich content, as well as language input. In this project, the children were similarly immersed and surrounded by the book and film of The Witches for several months. Such material is often categorized as too difficult or inaccessible in the foreign language classroom, especially for young learners. In this case the children's spontaneous responses and reactions to the material reveal how much they had really understood and processed. At the beginning of the project, the teachers were very surprised at how much the children actually did understand. Suddenly, they felt their learners had a lot of vocabulary and were interested in how to activate the passive reserve of knowledge. The children were also willing to construct meaning, their meaning, with no fear of their limited English proficiency. Even more rapidly than adult learners, they took words, phrases and expressions directly from the novel or film and used them. The children were guided through simple tasks to understand a complex story in language well above their spoken command.

    Children are also sophisticated consumers of visual media, responding to special effects, music, camera movement and images relevant to their age. The same story with slightly different perspectives or twists in the film version impressed the children and recycled many of the major themes. The children often made remarks on the quality of the film techniques and special effects. This was very important in engaging the children in attentive listening and viewing. They liked how realistic all the imaginative scenes appeared. They were able to discern rapidly how they had been "manipulated" by the media, but they loved this game. Thus, a judiciously selected story and its film version give young learners an attractive media for listening, interacting, reacting and responding in English.

A Storytelling Approach to Literature and Film

    Storytelling plays an important role in children's lives. Approaching the novel and film as one story to be told, shared and experienced over and over made the language learning experience much more collaborative. The children gradually reconstructed the general meaning and ideas along with their own feelings and existing knowledge. The teachers told or read the story dramatically, used the illustrations, played the story on tape and on film. The children took a much less analytic approach to text at this age. They used it to expand their imaginative and creative powers and play with the fun sound of words. The key element was the learners' reactions and responses as they were encouraged to participate out loud, ask questions, interrupt, clarify, give their interpretation to make this a storytelling event. The participants were inspired to get actively and creatively involved in retelling, remembering, predicting a memorable and meaningful context. The story was broken into sections, chapters or scenes where the children developed their predictive skills and inferencing strategies. The audiotape listening also provided the children with mood, cues and clues, through music and sound effects.

    One teacher began by telling and then reading the children various well-known fairytales. She created a very comfortable story-corner in her room and filled the classroom with pictures and drawings, encouraging the children to visualize their understanding. She also moved closer to the type of fairytale the children would be reading by using modern versions or fractured tales with sound effects and modern outcomes. The children were particularly sensitive to the illustrations and sound effects of the more modern versions. They felt them to be more relevant to their age as they approached adolescence. Another teacher brought out familiar animals she had used with the children previously. They became actors or characters in this story. The lessons became a group experience for the children. The goal was a general understanding of the basic action, plot and themes-not an introduction or practice of grammar items.

The Witches by Roald Dahl

    The Witches was selected as well-written imaginary literature. The full length feature film adaptation includes refined film techniques and special effects by Jim Henson Productions (associated with the television show The Muppets). The sophisticated effects were especially appreciated by children of this age group. Dahl loves to provoke, in joyous, mocking cruelty, using the imaginary as a response to the real world, much like in traditional fairytales. The opening statement challenges: "A REAL WITCH is easily the most dangerous of all the living creatures on earth". How can a child tell when he or she is face-to-face with a real witch and what must he or she do?

    The Witches begins with "A Note about Witches": "In fairytales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairytale. This is about REAL WITCHES." The story that then unfolds follows every convention of a classical fairytale from narrative structure to the roles and deeds of the principle characters. The children seemed to thrive on this central contradiction between what is real and imaginary. They often asked questions, for clarification or made pertinent comments trying to resolve what is imaginary and what is real. Such an engagement with the text reveals the true magic of Dahl's novel.

The Novel and its Characters

    The hero, Luke, and his greedy counterpart, Bruno, are the same age as the learners. Mr. Bean, a well-known British comedy character, also played a decisive role in the film. The children were excited to see his familiar face. Angelica Huston frequently plays the role of a witch and was well-known to the learners. Here the Grand High Witch has plans to get rid of all children in England. Other characters include mice, which are popular in fairy tales and children's stories. They, too, are often associated with witches. When Luke is turned into a mouse, he becomes even more intelligent, wise and brave; definitely the fairytale hero fighting evil with good. The film ends differently from the novel. The children predicted possible endings, not caring much for the typical Hollywood ending after reading the novel. Their main concern was that the boy be happy as a mouse. The film was used alongside the novel, simplifying the story line, leaving out certain events without spoiling the overall effect . In addition, the film softens certain deeper fairy-tale themes in the novel, such as death or anxiety, creating a quick pace with a positive resolution.

    The young learners were encouraged to be active while watching the film, not silent, passive participants. They instinctively referred to the images to construct meaning. Using images to make sense of the world and of their lives was natural to the children. They watched the film rather than trying to listen to it (as adults). The children accepted the gist from the visual input and built on this knowledge. An abridged version of the novel on tape did not simplify language, but cut some descriptions from the literature. Slightly different information was supplied on tape for contrast and comparison, expanding, reinforcing and repeating the main themes. The teachers also used visual cues in the form of illustrations and video freeze frames to guide the children. Several children had previously read Roald Dahl, a familiar author to European children, in their own language. They were enticed by the unusual plots and the great deeds of children, in face of an unfair adult world. Several children had seen film adaptations of Dahl's novels, including The Witches. Thus, the familiarity and well appreciated content increased motivation and interest. One of the quieter German girls expressed her pride, in English, that she was old enough now to watch the film and not be afraid of witches. The American international school first hesitated on a course based on the theme of witches, as culturally and thematically inappropriate. However, the overwhelming enthusiasm of the children for this author and story, including the director's own daughter, convinced them the program should be tried.

Holistic Meaning

    A theme-based integrated skills approach was taken. Listening and speaking became primary. The children loved repeating whole sentences to entire paragraphs from the film or tape, playing with rhyme and alliteration: "itch and witch" were constantly repeated and became a class slogan. The speaking goal was to allow for fluency in meaningful personal reactions and responses. Reading and writing (especially beyond the sentence level) were not developed extensively. One exception was in the one-to-one with the more advanced speaking child who used a guide-sheet with visual and sentence level cues to write his own portrait of witches. One teacher tried to use the content material to develop sentence level grammar exercises and focus on structure. The children did not appreciate treating the language as an intellectual game of abstract systems and naturally focussed on the meaning rather than structure. This led the teacher back to a more holistic approach to meaning.

The Approach with Children

    Unlike working with adults, we did not read the entire novel first, while listening to the book-on-tape, then follow by the entire film. The film was divided into 20 to 30-minute segments, based on crucial hinge scenes or turning points in the story. We were able to stop the film at critical moments to hold the learners' attention and provoke excitement and anticipation for the next class. One media constantly reinforced the other, allowing the children to come in contact with the same information from the reading passage, illustrations, listening to the tape and viewing the film, constantly interweaving all media and images available. The children also needed continual questioning and redirecting in order to process the information and make it their own. Repetition, in different forms, allowed for changes in perspective and new depth of understanding. They never hesitated to ask questions if any element of the story was not clear. Their limited proficiency or lack of vocabulary never stopped them from trying to understand the story. It is worthwhile to mention how the German children were able to concentrate on the listening, often with little visual support and answer the teachers questions immediately. They worked in a collaborative manner, as a whole class group, trying to complete tasks, answer questions and understand various levels to the story. The French children were much more restless and needed a task sheet/guide sheet focus for their attention during each listening or viewing. They enjoyed competitive games to see who got the information first. Tasks were always kept very simple and used to actively guide the children to overall understanding. Illustrations were often combined with the written word and then linked to the video image.

    As is the case in using film and literature with older learners, we felt that preparing the children with a variety of pre-activities would activate their knowledge and interest. One teacher referred back to Halloween drawings of a witch's cauldron filled with the children's imaginary brew. They had decided on the ingredients and the results of drinking such a concoction. The content-based on the themes of witches and of reality versus imaginary-provided a meaningful context to practice a variety of language and even academic skills. Meaningful content-related vocabulary was reinforced and often recycled. The children practiced asking and answering questions, taking brief notes, and summarizing information in connected sentences. To "believe in," "I believe you," "magic spell." "turn into," "power," "real" and "imaginary" were clear concepts for the children as they began reading the book and watching the film. They became fascinated by the sounds of words in the Dahl text. Rhyming words to playfully amusing sounds intrigued the children who were not disturbed by meaning beyond the sound. One descriptive paragraph contained the list: plotting, scheming, churning, burning, whizzing, phizzing. The children repeated and played with these words again and again. The list took on more and more meaning as the story unfolded before the children.

The Physical Classroom

    The classroom was decorated with witches of all shapes, sizes and colors. Real witches have certain characteristics which were clarified and checked repeatedly for understanding. This was a key concept in understanding the entire story. The later drawings of witches revealed how influenced the children were by those present in the story. The children finished the entire unit with a sliding visual storyboard of the main scenes. The English classroom became a visible decorated sign of the immersion in the text and its imaginative world. The German children were to use the material twice a week, but the teacher found them so involved with spin-off material that the book and film were used for several months. For example, there was a geography unit based on witches, cultural comparisons, and a biology theme on rats and mice. In the French school, the art teacher also had the children draw posters for horror films. The appropriate material seemed to be self-generating with the children. They continually asked more questions that led to new tasks, activities and approaches to the material.

Formulating Ideas

    As with the adult learners, we also spent extended time on the first chapters to truly become involved and know the characters, the setting and the plot. A clear knowledge of the narrative structure helped prepare the basis for the evolving story. Children were well aware of narrative conventions because stories are important part of their lives. We spent time clarifying how to recognize a real witch, and what happens to children who are not aware and careful. Many of the activity ideas came from teacher resource books on video and literature for adults. Predicting through chapter titles and freeze frames on the screen excited the children and prepared them for the next viewing. They enjoyed describing what happened previously and what might happen in the next sequence. Descriptive vocabulary (bad, nasty, evil, frightening, kind, generous, intelligent, brave, understanding) was taken from the text and associated with illustration or drawings of characters. The children then did their own linking and semantic mapping. These tasks were later used for bare-bones retelling of certain key episodes. Students were always excited to tell their favorite part with prompts and questions from the teacher. Constant questioning and redirecting by the teacher helped the children formulate their ideas and check their understanding. Their multitude of creative questions also revealed the imagination was at work.

    At the beginning, several chapters in the novel were covered in some depth to establish the characters and setting before watching the film sequence. This was also done to stimulate imagination before viewing. Parts of the novel which did not appear in the film were done in some detail to clarify emotions and fears later expressed in the film. Tasks centered on the general content of the story. Unlike adults, listening for words, we did not have to teach the children how to view or watch the film images for content. They never tried to understand each word. Thus, the tasks often related whole sentences or longer extended language use.

A Few Favorite Tasks

    The children enjoyed doing simple pedagogical checking tasks such as: true/false (plus explaining "why?"), sequencing, sorting and labeling visuals or parts of the text. They also enjoyed matching sentences from the text to pictures drawn or illustrations. At one point, while matching sentences to pictures, the children automatically sequenced the pictures according to the story-line, colored them and began to tell the story. The young learners were adept at finding solutions or solving problems posed in the novel/film: How would you recognize a witch? What would you do? How would you get rid of the witch? Who is a witch? The children found the tasks fun and involved interacting with the texts on different levels, but did not want to do too many, as they were anxious to get on with the story.

    Finish the sentence was another popular task: A mouse can___________, but a human can not _______. Mice can ________; a human can _________. Another version included: A boy has to ____________; a mouse doesn't have to ___________. Their imagination was rich in their creative responses. The children watched scenes answering: who? what? where? how?, or expressing what they could hear, feel and smell. Word webs were built around an adjective, a noun, the name of a character or an illustration. The children could select which task they preferred: ones with many words or phrases, or a simpler page with just a few expressions. Many adjectives describing the characters were generated, adjectives suitable for later work in writing full paragraphs from these cues. They also enjoyed miming the adjectives. The children were also given story frames, which served as prompts to write short texts of two to three linked sentences.

Listening Tasks

    Listening tasks included a picture plus a checking question for focus. Illustrations were sequenced while-listening for retelling the story. Reading also became a prereading for the listening and viewing. Role plays were used where children pretended to be a character, mime a character or interview characters. The language remained simple, but fun. The texts gave comprehensible input that the children often recycled and used unconsciously. The children were asked to remember and predict through language activities and drawings. The input became a natural vehicle for exposure to tenses: would you… if…?, present and past tenses, conditionals, comparative, modals and so on. The focus remained on the meaning rather than the form. Language structures were adapted naturally by the children from the comprehensible input in a meaningful context. The children were given prompts for sentence-level structures such as: He likes…/She likes…, He's got… /He wants… /She can. They filled in grids with one word under such categories as: Luke wants to do, and you? I… wants to be…wants to have/… has difficulty. The language remained simple and repetitive for understanding and eventual production. During the listening, the children were asked to stop the teacher or recorder when they heard key words or phrases.

    At one point, the children were given the choice of the task they felt most comfortable doing: (1) gap filling with just one word, (2) write a sentence from a prompt, or (3) write an entire paragraph linked together from a series of prompts. Several of the more confident children wrote very well linked paragraphs. Resource books for teachers outlining tasks for adult language learners became valuable resources for children to interact with texts. The tasks were sometimes the same, but handled slightly slower, in simpler more manageable chunks, step-by-step with the children.


    The children's imagination and predictions vastly surpassed adult responses to literature and film. The teachers were initially surprised how rapidly, enthusiastically and excitedly the children became involved in the text. The first week module generated the following teacher comment, after working with the German children: "Anyway, about the witches! I can really say that I have never had more animated lessons than this week The story and the film certainly captured the imagination… They seemed to get the gist each time with little effort…" The teachers initially thought that pre-teaching would be difficult; but that useful, unknown vocabulary would be continually necessary. However, once the children were clear on the setting, the plot and characters, most pre-teaching was no longer necessary. The children became so involved in the world of the story they began to ask and wonder about who outside the classroom might be witches. The teachers now constantly search for films and reading of quality and appropriateness for their learner's age and background. The material, the children's enthusiasm and curiosity gave the teachers more than enough ideas for second language instruction focus.

    A whole approach to the novel and film was closer to the children's developing literacy skills in L1, beyond the isolated word or one sentence level. The material provided a meaningful, relevant context for the particular age group involved. In addition, developing literacy skills such as prediction, inferencing, building and verifying hypotheses worked very naturally with children. They spontaneously took a more active and interactive approach to reading and listening due to their familiarity with story-telling. Furthermore, working with a real text in English made the children very proud, moving them towards the pleasurable aspect of reading. Lastly, a more global approach through responding, reacting, sharing interpretations, insights, personal meanings, imagination and pleasure not only appealed to the learners-thereby generating rich language production-but gave the teachers an inexhaustible bank of resources for the present and future. They would be able to develop second language skills along side first language literacy skills, involving their young learners actively in an enriching, positive and motivating learning experience.

Author's Note: This article is based on the presentation given at the TESOL Convention 1997 in Seattle, Washington in the USA. My thanks and gratitude to Kathy Miller at The American School in Paris & Jenny Schuitemaker at AFCENT International School, The Netherlands, for their time, professionalism, and for using this material with their learners and suggesting additional ideas.


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