What comes before the word?

Often, when I announce to students which book or play we’re going to be studying, their first question is “are we watching the film?”

Whilst the answer is often yes, I’m always very clear about the fact that the parts of the film we watch should not form part of the student’ literary analysis of the book or play – that we watch the film for context only. But that’s for students who are at the point in their academic career where close textual and language analysis are skills that they’re comfortable starting to use. I would never ask students to write an analytic essay based on Baz Lurhman’s
Romeo and Juliet rather than the original text, but I would show it to them in order for them to begin situating Shakespeare’s language in a modern context.  

However, for students (of any age) who aren’t yet able to engage with texts in a way that allows them to comprehend and infer meaning from them, I think film is an excellent starting point. In my last post I talked about reading being like swimming, and how often swimming teachers begin to teach on land – demonstrating arm and leg movements, making sure head and neck alignment is correct. I think film is the literacy equivalent of standing on the poolside tucking your head between your arms.

When we watch films, we do a lot of the things that we also need to be able to do when reading, but without the exercise of decoding. We place the characters in their familial or situational context. We begin to piece the narrative together – are these scenes going chronologically or do some go back in time – and understand what some of those narrative events mean specifically for certain characters. By watching body language, we are able to infer a character’s feelings towards another character.

We do all this naturally, largely without thinking, because our brain is not actively engaged in having to read.

Which is why, when teaching reading to learners who have struggled with reading – often well in to their teens and beyond – I start with film. Once reading becomes fluid and automatic, readers are able to see the action as they’re reading as if it were a film playing. Just using the film in the first place mimics that sense of achievement – allowing students to feel that they already possess all the skills to read fluently. Which they do.

I’ve been told that starting with films rather than “easy” books is a waste of time, but when using a film gets my students to a place where they feel comfortable and competent, rather than using a book clearly beneath their age range which puts them in a place of discomfort immediately – I don’t see why anyone would choose the book.

Sometimes it’s best to start where you are.

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