Using Sub-Titles in Video Programming
to Promote EFL Goals
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
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
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
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,
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.)