Engaging Language Learners through Video

Hayo Reinders

By the age of 21, the average language learner will have spent just 5,000 hours reading, but will have spent about 10,000 hours playing video games, and 20,000 watching TV (Prensky 2004). Clearly, the visual medium is very important in learners’ life experience. Its role in language learning is still somewhat undervalued, however. Although there are significant benefits to using video in the language classroom, not all teachers have the time to find appropriate materials, or the know-how to integrate them successfully into the curriculum. In this short series of posts, Professor Hayo Reinders will look at ways in which video materials can be brought into the classroom and help enhance the language learning process.

The Pedagogical Benefits of Video Materials

With over one billion hits for the “Gangnam Style” music video a few years ago, and over 500 years of video being watched on YouTube every day, video clearly plays a major role in our lives. Given how popular and how widely available video materials are these days, it is remarkable that many language courses do not draw on them more frequently. Mostly, courses only include an occasional video snippet, but few build a strong pedagogy around the use of video materials.

In part this is because there may have been a previous perception of movies, video clips, and TV programs as forms of entertainment, but not sources for serious learning. It has long been shown, however, that less “formal” types of activities can and do lead to learning. Johnson (2005), for example, has convincingly shown how various forms of popular media—including movies, video games, and music—engage learners and allow them to acquire skills that are relevant in modern society. And Benson and Reinders (2012) have shown how out-of-class activities greatly contribute to language acquisition.

Although the language profession has made use of video materials for decades, the recent proliferation of video content, the ease of accessing resources, and the sharing of user-generated content, offer specific challenges and opportunities for language teaching.

What are some of the benefits of video for language acquisition?

  • Familiarity. The medium of video is one that our learners are intimately familiar and comfortable with.
    Authenticity. An almost unlimited range of authentic video materials is available online. In addition, learners are accustomed to communicating through video (see below), and as such the use of video as a classroom activity is itself authentic.
  • Multimedia. Research has shown that learners benefit from encountering content in different modalities. Video inherently combines audio and visual content.
  • Learner autonomy. Learners do not only consume videos, but also enjoy creating their own video content, or adapting others’ materials, and in doing so have control over the product. They can determine the topic, linguistic content, tone, and style of the video, and take responsibility for the process of imagining, planning, making, and revising the content.
  • Sharing. Learners can easily upload and share their videos with others. Learners can comment on each other’s videos, respond with further videos, have group discussions (either online or in class) about them, and so on. This social aspect of video is an important reason why some now consider video a form of communication (Zappavigna 2012).
  • New ways of learning. All of the above demonstrate the use of video as contributing to new ways for learners to engage with content, new ways of self-expression, and new ways of connecting with others (Cope and Kalantzis 2007). An example of this is the increasing popularity of digital storytelling, where learners create collages of audio, text, music, and video materials, often incorporating their own and others’ (adapted) work, as well as multiple “voices” into an individual expression (Reinders 2011).


To illustrate some of the above points, consider two versions of a classroom activity for high-intermediate level learners about the Chilean miners who were trapped underground in 2011. The first would be the traditional model showing text followed by some comprehension questions and the instruction to “discuss…”.

Now compare this with the example below from the Cambridge Discovery Education Interactive Reader titled “Rescued: The Chilean Miners’ Story,” which starts with and is based on a high-quality video of the event, showing the experiences of the miners and their families as they are rescued. The emotions of those involved are clear, and viewers get a real sense of the agony the miners have experienced, as well as their joy of being reunited with their loved ones.

The questions that follow in this reader draw on the viewers’ knowledge of the events and also on their personal response to the content. The video appeals to the viewer as a human being, at both a rational and an emotional level. The activity suddenly becomes engaging, as the learner is encouraged to connect with the content.

(A1) Saved! Heroes in Everyday Life – The Chilean Miners’ Story from Cambridge University Press on Vimeo.

Hayo Reinders has written another article, where he discusses incorporating video materials in the classroom.

Reference List
Benson, P., and H. Reinders. 2012. Beyond the language classroom. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cope, B., and M. Kalantzis. 2007.. New media, new learning. International Journal of Learning 14:75–79.

Johnson, S. 2005. Everything bad is good for you: How today’s popular culture is actually making us smarter. New York: Riverhead Books.

Prensky, M. 2004. Presentation at the Secretary’s NCLB eLearning Summit, Orlando. (available here)

Reinders, H. 2011. Digital storytelling in the language classroom. ELTWO Journal 3.

Zappavigna, M. 2012. Discourse of twitter and social media: How we use language to create affiliation on the Web. New York: Continuum.

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