The Five Pillars of Engaging Educational Video

As educational filmmakers working with authentic footage on a daily basis, we know a thing or two about what makes an effective, engaging video for ELT. We’ve previously written about how we see video as part of an immersive learning experience (see our post on Video Integrated Learning). Today, we’ll take a look at the five pillars that are fundamental for creating engaging authentic video experiences in the ELT classroom.

1) Plot and characters

The people in the video and what they’re doing need to appeal to learners’ interests to allow students to bond with the characters, language, and topic. Choose stories with characters who have interesting personalities and are in situations you want to know more about. These characters might be investigating, debating, travelling, proving something, challenging themselves, trying out a new way of life or revealing their own.

Avoid: forced circumstances. Situations that feel overly manufactured can limit learners’ connection with the people, language, and topic. For example, actors playing shop assistants giving changing room advice or interviewees solely talking about what they did on holiday are often dry, and will turn students off as the characters’ educational roles become confined to playing ‘the talking dictionary’.

2) Narrative

A video with a clear narrative direction and effective pacing can help learners to understand action and speech in context. Meanwhile, voiceover narration can be use to different educational or stylistic effects – it can be applied to set a language level, scaffold vocab, grammar and authentic scenes, or create tone and style. However narrative also encompasses, the distinct elements of video (edit, sound, music, image, voiceover, speech, characters, etc.). If these are assembled well, they can effectively deliver a story with educational value. A video with a compelling narrative will inspire questions, emotions and opinions from learners, giving way to deeper critical thinking and demanding participation with the language. See our post about the grammar of video here.

3) Natural language and rhythm

Natural language and intonation widens student’s listening range as they encounter diverse accents, phrases, and the real ebb and flow of the spoken word. This in turn aids their perception of pronunciation and prepares them for conversation with native English speakers. When authentic scenes encompass above-level language, grammar, idiomatic expressions or slang – don’t switch it off immediately. When the action and energy of a clip is strong enough, learners can still form an understanding of the scene. Often, enjoyable or important scenes of climax, humour, or tension include speech using slang or idioms. Cutting these out and bearing only ‘level-friendly’ snippets of conversation will mean sacrificing a well-told narrative and in turn, the learners’ engagement.

4) Sight and sound synergies

Students today are used to watching video after video scrolling through social media feeds and YouTube. Their attention demands visually and audibly compelling information and since they’re exposed to so much media already, they’re quicker to spot and be frustrated and disengaged by assets with low production values. A smoothly edited video with illustrative music, sound and if necessary, graphics will not only command their interest, but add mood, drama, humour, style and information. We mentioned earlier that the edit helps to deliver the telling of the story, and a story told with decent production values is paramount to VIL.

5) Closed Captions (subtitles)

Closed captions mean that students benefit from a dual input of language composed of audible and visible words as the video plays. Closed captions are of great benefit for helping students to match the written word with the spoken word. Meanwhile, since they can be shown or hidden providing greater scope for engaging with the language if the video is played multiple times to test understanding with or without them. Read more about using subtitles to keep up with authentic speech here.