Issue 4
February 1999

Editorial Staff: 
David Lloyd
Gail Mann 
Ellen Serfaty 
Ann Shlapobersky
Renee Wahl

Using Sub-Titles in Video Programming 
to Promote EFL Goals

by Adele Raemer 


History of EFL video programming in Israel

Making Use of Sub-titles



English in Israel is practically a second language.  It is on all of the road signs. It is the language of academia, since much of the merchandise sold in Israel is imported, instructions for most anything that is purchased will be in English.  A person who cannot read and/or understand English is at a definite disadvantage in this country.  Politicians who are not fluent in English are stigmatized and entry to any institution of higher learning demands a minimal level of English.  In the first year or two of college or university, certain levels of English proficiency are demanded, otherwise, the student cannot successfully complete the course of study.  This is mainly because almost all of the professional literature is in English.  English in high school, therefore, is considered one of the most important subjects to be learned (neck in neck with Mathematics).  It is no wonder, then, that students, parents, and administrators alike expect English teaching techniques to be as sophisticated and motivating as possible.

Among the many teacher training seminars which this writer has attended, the ones which have left the deepest impression have invariably been those which have addressed the use of video in the classroom.   Today’s learners are brought up in an age of immense audio-visual stimulation. Dilemmas are resolved within 20 minutes (minus the commercial breaks).  Modern wisdom can be relayed in neat sound-bites. Information about the world around us is transferred in real-time Technicolor, instant gratification implied.  Assassinations of national leaders and results of natural disasters are no longer left only to the public’s imagination or the descriptive abilities of newspaper reporters.  Footage of mangled busses caused by terrorists’ bombs is on the air and in our living rooms before the bodies are identified, before the smoke even clears. 

The television in our home plays a central part in our lives.  Why shouldn’t it play a larger part in the classroom? Especially in language instruction. The proliferation of VCR machines in the classrooms, render this medium more accessible than ever before.   Today’s learners need to be stimulated in ways that they can relate to. The television offers authentic English in settings that attract our learners' attention and can expose them to elements which we, as teachers, could not ordinarily do. For example, the learners can be exposed to a wide range of accents, not only the one which their teacher happens to have. 

Another aspect is an interesting story line. The television entertainment industry spends billions of dollars on each program they produce in order to bring popular entertainment to the public.  At their disposal, they have famous actors, expensive sets, and story lines which top writers have researched and found attractive to a viewing audience.  Often, the popular programs try to make educational points as well, especially regarding morals that are valued in western society.  Not to say that EVERY program that is produced is relevant or appropriate for the classroom, but why not take advantage of those that are? 

History of EFL video programming in Israel

Until the mid-eighties, the popular form of video use in the EFL classroom in Israel was with programs, which were made especially for the language learning classroom.  The resulting programs, considered innovative at the time, left much to be desired.  First of all, the budgets at their disposal were limited (compared to Hollywood television budgets, at least). Therefore, although the teams who worked on these programs did the best they could within these limitations budgets, the programs produced could not compete with the professional productions.  The same could be said for the writers and the rest of the staff. 

Secondly, the story lines were usually awkwardly contrived.  This was due to the fact that the aims of these programs were not usually to tell a story, but rather to expose the learners / viewers to a specific grammatical or linguistic aspect which was being taught and exercised in the classroom at that point in their EFL learning syllabus. 

This system of video-programs underwent another revolution in the mid-eighties due to a shift in learning objectives in the Israeli EFL syllabus to a communicative approach of language teaching. In order to facilitate this shift, the Israeli Educational Television Broadcasting Authority purchased the rights to authentic, English language programs from North American production companies.  These television programs had been originally produced for use in classrooms in Northern America to be used in the framework of Citizenship lessons: promoting social issues and values.   The Israeli writers wrote textbooks that were built around these programs.  For the first time in Israel, the programs used in the EFL classrooms were of a much more professional level, and told a story which was relevant to learners of the age group being targeted.  Unfortunately, these types of programs are no longer being produced, due to bureaucratic problems of renewing broadcasting rights and pedagogical decisions (the lack of appropriate new programs of the same type).  The original programs from the eighties are so dated that our late-nineties learners find them silly and difficult to relate to. This left a vacuum in the classroom.

In the early nineties, a pair of writers by the names of Stemplesky and Tomalin came to Israel and lectured at the International TESOL Conference in Jerusalem, about the many ways video recordings of popular television programs could be used in the EFL classroom.  Their methods were impressive and inspiring, and their book Video in Action became a much-used book in this writer’s repertoire of lesson planning.  However, there was a serious problem: at the time, cable television and satellite hook-ups were not available to every home (nor are they today, in fact) and many teachers could only record programs which were broadcast over the Israeli government channels, which included Hebrew language subtitles. 

Some teachers coped with the problem of having the subtitles at the bottom of the screen by covering them over with a strip of paper--a technique which annoyed the learners, as they felt they were missing out on the bottom part of the picture (which, indeed, they were). 

Making Use of Sub-titles

At approximately the same time, this writer noticed that her 10-year old daughter would watch an English language television program, read the subtitles and, as the daughter of a native English speaker who had spoken English to her from the day she was born, was used to listening to English  (listening to the spoken language) as well. (However, she would not be considered a native English speaker.) From time to time, she would ask questions about different words: "Is that how you say so-and-so in English?"  Or, "Why did they write this word in Hebrew, when the actors said something else in English?"

In fact, it seems that many bilinguals read the subtitles automatically, while listening, simultaneously -- either to improve their language skills, to catch every word when there is interference, or just out of habit. 

Typical Israeli television viewers, unfortunately, are not used to listening to the television when it is in a language other than Hebrew.  They are used to having the television on as background noise.  Or--as will often happen in an Israeli household, due to the relatively small size of a typical Israeli apartment--the viewers will be asked to turn down the volume so as not to disturb the other people in the room who are holding a conversation. This fact reinforces the Israeli child’s style of viewing as being more of a visual, rather than audio-visual one, as television should be.  Rather than learning to hone in on the words they hear, they learn to block them out.

It was on these premises that the technique of working WITH subtitles in the classroom - using them to the advantage of the learner- was developed.

The translation technique is a bi-directional one.*  One approach is to give learners a worksheet with the Hebrew words as they appear in the subtitles in the recording, and ask them to listen for the corresponding English equivalent spoken by the actors. 

The other approach, from the second direction, uses the English words written on the worksheet, as spoken by the actors.  The learners are then asked to read the Hebrew subtitles as they appear on the screen, while at the same time listening for the words in English in order to see how those words are translated into English. 

This technique has the added benefit of being appropriate in heterogeneous classes, as learners with less control of English will not be lost in the process.  They will be doing the work at the same as the stronger learners and be able to follow the story line, thanks to the subtitles. 

This writer does not use the technique on its own in an entire television program.  Instead, the technique is incorporate into worksheets comprised of a variety of ideas gleaned from Stemplesky and Tomalin’s book of recipes.
Try it - you’ll like it!

*"bi-directional" means - from English into Hebrew, and at other times, from Hebrew into English. (Sometimes students read the Hebrew and have to guess the English; other times they are given the English and have to guess what Hebrew words will be used in the subtitles.)