England, Oh England (and a little bit of Wales) – From Authentic Video to Student Video

Part 1 of an amazing three-part film on England and Wales that Ella Grangärd and Amanda Niskanen made for their English class in grade 8. This creative duo had a vision and  went all out to make it real – even their unquestionably demanding teacher is still filled with awe at the result.

      •  “That is the English Channel, a small stretch of sea that separates England from the rest of the world, and it’s got to be partly responsible for what England and the English are all about. This tiny island nation gave birth to an empire that at one time ruled the world, and today almost a quarter of the world’s population speaks its language. How did this country come to exert so much influence? Small island – big history!
      • England is a densely populated country that sits at the edge of continental Europe where evidence of civilisation dates back to 7,000 BC. I begin my historic journey at the site of the Battle of Hastings, and then I travel along the coast to Brighton and make a quick stop in London, and then on to the Yorkshire moors, and then up to England’s northernmost border. In Liverpool I take a ride on the Magical Mystery Tour, and I end my journey in the West Country, at the mythical birthplace of King Arthur in Tintagel.

History of England2These are the first lines in a Pilot Guides 50-minute video on The History of England, giving a short outline of what the viewer can expect to find. Previously I have presented suggestions on how Pilot Guides videos could be used in the EFL classroom, on Ireland (here and here) and on the USA here. Consequently, this post on “The History of England and “England and Wales” would constitute a fourth approach to what one can do with authentic video and ICT. (Obviously, the same ideas can be implemented on any video on any subject really, provided you are permitted to do so – the ideas are not limited to the Pilot Guides videos. I use them because they appeal to the teenagers I teach, and because I have permission from the production company to use them in my classroom and in teacher training.)

When it comes to the topic of England, most textbooks that I have experienced limit themselves to London, whereas the rest of the country remains virtually neglected, yet there is no end to interesting places, traditions and phenomena taking place in “this tiny island nation” outside of London, a lot of which can be found in these afore-mentioned films. The route plans look as follows:

"History of England"

“History of England”

"England and Wales"

“England and Wales”

 Whereas one concentrates on understanding modern phenomena by consolidating them in historic facts and narratives, the other is taking a closer look at famous institutions, like Eton or the Cornish pasty, for example, establishing in them the essence, if you like, of iconic Britishness. At times they overlap – for instance, they both start off with the symbolic white cliffs of Dover and both make stopovers at Glastonbury, although for very different reasons – but that is no grounds for forgoing either of them. Both approaches complement each other in giving the viewer a deeper understanding – surely useful to a the young  mind constantly inundated with concepts and cultural references that he has no means or method of really grasping, especially so in popular culture. In this particular case I would be working with 8th-graders who very well might have encountered names like Glastonbury, Avalon or Strawberry Hill  before, but  they would more than likely be absolutely meaningless to them. The goal is that these and many more mentioned in the videos would elicit associations, both visual, auditive and factual, the next time the student was exposed to any of them.

So much then for some of the reasons for choosing the videos. But what are the students supposed to do with them?

Encouraged by recent positive experiences of having the students preparing or filming their own videos (described here and here), I tried to come up with ideas for transferring those to the area of using authentic video, as well. There were several alternatives, all ending in new videos expressing both comprehension of the topic at hand as well as the students’ own creative vision.  Ella Grangärd and Amanda Niskanen


Briefly, the assignment is to make a new video on the basis of two existing ones. Facts (and to a certain extent visuals) are to be transferred into the new one, even the language and choice of words can be identical, but they must be transmitted in the student’s own voice. This means that copying here is not necessarily a bad thing at all – the student still needs to make a manuscript for himself, and to copy exactly what is said from listening is no easy task at all and requires a lot of  concentration but also advanced language skills – I would argue that it is all but impossible to “translate” language from auditive perception into writing successfully without perfectly understanding what is being said. As soon as there is any gap in the comprehension, the resulting written text will inevitably be nonsensical.

The starting point would be the same for all:  to write a manuscript on a journey of their own through England (and Wales) based on passages in at least seven of the video clips (13 in all).

The possibilities from then on were:

  • 1) taking representational screen shots of crucial scenes in the video, compiling them in Movie Maker or iMovie and adding voice-over sound of their own making (in Audacity or similar), and, finally, to synchronize the screen shots with the sound file, making it into a coherent whole where visuals support the auditive medium. Images from other sources also possible.
  • 2) substituting the original soundtrack with one of the students’ own making (working on mute versions of the videos provided by the teacher). Synchronizing visuals with audio important.
  • 3) roleplay re-enactment of the video contents.
  • 4) a combination of two or all of the above

Ella and Amanda went for the fourth option, a combination of several. Here is Part 2 of their work (the climate here could not be more un-English if  we tried –  but you need to consider that the project deadline was in February and this is what Finland usually looks like in the middle of the winter):

Teacher work

It all sounds very easy-going on the teacher, doesn’t it – the students do all the work, whereas the teacher can lean back and enjoy the buzz of student activity …?

Actually, a scenario like that would in all probability result in disappointment for teacher and students alike. It’s a huge project just considering the source material. Two 50-minute videos need at last two lessons for viewing alone, not to mention choosing what to include and what to skip, and then there is the manuscript, which in itself requires a lot of time and effort. And that is just the beginning. This means that most students would lose both heart and interest in the project before they’ve even reached the middle of the initial stage. First of all, clear stepping stones are desperately needed in order to prevent that from happening. Also, clear deadlines for each stepping stone so that the project and each student’s individual progress are transparent and  clearly outlined from the very beginning.

In addition, you might want to  produce some scaffolding in order to ensure that the students at least have the possibility of learning to understand and possibly even to produce words hitherto unknown to him, or to give him hints at good search words in order to find more information on the subject. The alpabetical wordlist below is an example of such scaffolding. Words and names from “History of England” are listed, but I don’t want to make it too comfortable for the student by adding translations in L1. Nothing in real life is given with a two-way wordlist and the sooner students learn to find out for themselves the better. Now, if he hears a word which is crucial for his overall understanding, he has been given the means of finding out how it’s spelled and having done that it’s up to him to google it and find out the meaning and how to use it. He already has the pronunciation.

WORDS1Pre-project work

  • – Cutting the videos down into 5-9 minutes video-clips based on destinations along the route. Easily done in Movie Maker Live (free) or in Adobe Premiere (pay programme)  or any other video editing programme available.
  • – Making mute versions, which I do in Adobe Premiere but there probably are good and reasonably priced Apps for this, too. Alternatively, one could leave this option out altogether.
  • – Decide on project timeframe, deadlines, assessment etc.
  • – Putting together material online for student use – in Didactor a compendium with 13 tasks in all; each with a video clip for manuscript writing.

Didactor - kompendiumEngland and Wales: 6 video clips

Didactor - E&W

History of England: 7 separate video clips

Didactor - History


Assessment criteria have to be transparent and clear to all from the outset. These are what I decided on for this particular project:

Grade 10 (stands for Excellent)
• comprehensive as to content, attention to detail
• expressing creativity and ambition
• excellent ”authentic” pronunciation
• extensive vocabulary
• mostly correct and idiomatic English
• Visuals and audio synchronized (picture supports what is being said)

Grade 5 (stands for poor, barely OK)
• covering at least one fact from each of the seven requisite video clips
• tedious structure – monotonous, uninteresting
• vacillating or recurrent downright incorrect pronunciation
• poor or limited vocabulary
• abounding syntax errors
•  Visuals and audio synchronized (picture supports what is being said)

Grade 4 (stands for Fail)
• Odd or irrelevant information not to be found in any of the video clips
• showing no sign of new learning
• no submitted work

The criteria for grades between 10 and 5 weren’t explicitly put down in writing, but I explained to the students that those grades would be given in relation to the critera for 10 and 5. It was, in fact, quite easy to grade the films eventually when I had the parameters for 10 and 5 stated.

Ella and Amanda’s work were obviously a 10 – remember, I didn’t demand perfection – I was aiming for excellence in relation to their age and proficiency level. This is Part 3 of their film:

Warm-up or tuning in

In order to later choose what to work with and what to leave out, as well as get an overall picture of the whole material, it is advisable for the students to start by watching through all the clips. I chose to do one of the films, “History of England” in class and have the students look for answers t the following 18 questions:

QuestionsThe other film, “England and Wales”, they watched online as homework and answered a similar set of questions.

The project work itself

As previously mentioned, the students have to start with the manuscript once they’ve settled on which clips to focus on. The reasons why I decided on dividing the films into thirteen separate clips were threefold. First and foremost I needed to give the students a distinct understanding of the minimum requirements: the main contents of seven clips were to be included in their own video – exactly which seven was up to themselves. Secondly I wanted to be able to monitor their progress, and it was a great deal easier in this manner where they had to work clip by clip and upload their manuscripts one by one. It also facilitated a smoother reviewing phase as they could start working on their next clip while waiting for feedback on their first. Also, when there were several small deadlines instead of one big, I would know sooner that there was reason for worry and step in if there were students who missed their first deadlines altogether.

When the manuscript stage was passed it was time to collect images to go together with the manuscript and to start getting it into one whole.  The synchronizing seems to have been the most difficult thing to get right, and I need to re-write the instructions for that part of the project until the next time I have 8th-graders. I also find that most teachers tend to assume teenagers, “diginatives” as they are, have a lot more computer skills than they actually have, so even comparatively easy computer stuff like taking screen shots or using the Snipping tool (on Windows machines), not to mention making sound files, most probably is unfamiliar to most. A lot of teacher guidance and instruction are needed here, but don’t do everything at once or the students will be really confused. Guide them how to make screenshots when it’s time to start working on the visuals and do a studio recording software when it’s time to work on the soundtrack. Movie Maker, in turn, is pretty intuitive and students usually are relatively knowledgeable around it, except for two things. First we have the moving around with it, ie. first working at school and then wanting to continue at home or vice versa. I can’t say how many times I’ve known students be absolutely dumbfounded when they’ve opened a Movie maker-file at school after saving it at home – and all the visuals are gone, only broken-image-icons left where they were supposed to be. And they ‘re obiviously not particularly used to working with sound or video editing programmes when seem to think that pressing “Save” automatically will produce the finished audio or video file and not a project file. I won’t go into explaining or solving this here and now – that will be left for a separate blog post later on.

Learning process

What did the students in the end learn? For one thing, they learnt a lot about the geography, the history and the cultural traditions of the country of the target language. As to language they learnt a great deal more new vocabulary and about pronunciation than they could ever have done through reading texts from any of the available English textbooks for language learners. All language skills – listening, reading, writing, speaking – were involved, much more so, in fact, than if the research material had been in the form of text and not video. They probably worked harder on this project than if we had had a test at the end of it instead of video production, and they did so because most of them agreed it felt meaningful to them. Hard work, yes, but meaningful hard work. But had I said at the end of it all that now would be a good time to start a new video project like this one, they would in all probability have groaned and refused point blank, quite understandably. All language skills were involved, but so were many of the five senses, and as the visuals had played such a prominent role in each step of this multi-levelled learning process, I would argue that what they had learned here had a much higher memory retention factor than most other activities in the language classroom. And for active, functional listening activities, few activities could beat using authentic video in this manner.

Because content and language in projects like this one are so tightly knit together, they will also be closely embedded together in the student’s cognitive system, in their brain. And of course, all students did not invest as much time, effort and energy into the project as Amanda and Ella did, but many did and came up with completely different productions and yet, quality-wise, exactly as impressive. And then there were those, not many – two out of  40 – who just couldn’t be bothered and did not submit a thing, and they got an F, as promised in the Assessment criteria. The thing is that these individuals do no better when it comes to studying for traditional tests either, and then I just have to admit that these students are beyond me .

Alternative versions

One could argue, with good reason, that the scope and scale of the project, as outlined here, would be too extensive, too overwhelming for any normal class of normal students at the age of 14-15. Perhaps… But these two classes of 8th-graders I pulled the project with were completely normal teenagers. They were normal students some with concentration issues, some with dyslexia, and they pulled it through, sometimes even much to my surprise. But I agree that I might have gone overboard with two videos – one could have sufficed really. And the instructions could have been as follows:

words alternative instructions









Speed dating, icebreakers and PowerPoint



A couple of months ago my son, who lives in Stockholm, Sweden, at the moment, sent me a card game upon request, Icebreaker. I had read about it, gotten curious and thought it might come in handy in the classroom at some point. The game is simple enough, each player takes a card and has to answer the question on that particular card. The questions are bilingual – Swedish and English – and the ultimate goal of the game is to get to know your co-players better.

Well, I couldn’t really use the cards themselves very well in the classroom. First of all, I had only one pack and I didn’t want to divide them up among the students either. But I could use the idea and the cards as inspiration. This is how it actually turned out IRL and the students loved every minute of it and spoke English as never before.


Step 1

Every student gets a blank piece of paper and is asked to write down a number between 20 and 29. That would be the age of their new alter ego, but I didn’t tell them that. I choose to restrict the numbers because these ages are sufficiently removed from the students themselves (who are teenagers) and for the dating game to run smoothly, but of course one can modify that for one’s own purposes.

Next they had to choose a first name (a boy’s or a girl’s) – I could let them come up with one of their own, or I could give them a list of names to choose from. I made life easy for myself and used a list from the most popular boy and girl names in the UK.

The same goes for surnames.

For the students to get a complete picture of their new identity, I also wanted to provide them with a profession, but this time I didn’t let them choose one for themselves. Instead I had armed myself with profession flashcards, and each student had to draw one card for themselves. (This might also be elaborated into a mini-lesson of revising vocabulary on professions or this speed dating lesson could have been preceded by a vocabulary lesson on professions.)


Next the student may choose any place in the world.

All these data should now be recorded on the blank piece of paper they got at the beginning of the lesson.

 Step 2

The students will now learn the purpose for all of this; their new identities with age, names, profession, hometown etc included. Now they needed to imagine what their new identity/personality entailed. Also, at least my students need a reminder that are were now leaving their typically Finnish taciturn personality behind and assume that of an English speaker, who by nature is an excellent small talker and verbal at all times. No silent meditative pauses are allowed in this game.

 Step 3

Presenting the rules: Half of the class need to rise, while the other half remain sitting. Rearrange the furniture so that there is one empty chair in front of the desk of each sitting student. The students are then told the principles of speed dating, which involves intense social and verbal interaction between two strangers for five minutes max, until the bell sounds. The video projector will run a PowerPoint slide show with questions, changing every 30 seconds or so, and these should be covered during the sessions. At the bell sound the mobile dating part has to leave his partner immediate and move to the next sitting student and start a new conversation.


The game could further benefit from introducing individual “dating forms” for the students to fill in data on each dating partner at every switch. These might then be discussed in pairs or in the class as a whole.

 Step 4

Start playing the game.  The teacher’s role is now to remain in the background, control the slide show and the bells for the partner switches, whereas the students take over for the remainder of the lesson.

This is a video made to illustrate the steps of the preparatory as well as the actual game phases, but the rate of the conversations questions has been fast-forwarded for obvious reasons and only one partner switch has been inserted.