The limited use of feature films — carefully selected, properly introduced, perhaps shown with a movie worksheet, and always followed by discussion and assignments — will interest students in their schoolwork and allow teachers to meet standards. Some of the new Common Core State Standards acknowledge this by specifically referring to the use of film and other multimedia. In addition, movies can assist in meeting many of the standards that make no specific reference to film. Therefore, the use of movies in class, on a limited basis, is a valuable tool for ELA teachers.

Background — a Crisis of Motivation in Education:

One of the key problems in American education is that students have little motivation to learn. A major cause is that students live in an age awash in personal computers, iPods and smartphones, while they’re required to attend schools that use an English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum originally designed in the 19th or early 20th centuries. Other contributing factors are that current teaching methods and technologies make little use of personal digital devices and that classes are held in buildings with a design similar to schools built after the Civil War. For today’s wired students, walking through the schoolhouse door is like entering a time warp and going back more than a hundred years.

Every school day, hundreds of thousands of ELA teachers attempt to swim against the current of modern technology and the fact that today’s youth are more interested in watching stories on a screen than reading a book. Teachers come up with interesting assignments, they look for the most exciting text-based stories, they entertain, they cajole, and they discipline; committed teachers work long hours trying to motivate their students — and for many students they succeed. However, screen-based stories are the literature of today’s youth and teachers who don’t use movies as an integral part of their lesson plans are denying themselves and their students a powerful motivator. They are foregoing the benefit of the strong current of modern technology to assist in education.


One Small Part of the Solution:

Over the years, thousands of movies have been released which are works of art dealing with important issues of modern life or which are reasonably historically accurate. There are many more feature films that contain isolated scenes which can be used in education. In order to appeal to a mass audience, Hollywood advertises movies as merely entertainment but frequently, directors and actors put heart and soul into making great art and providing accurate portrayals. Sometimes, it’s just a scene or two that can be isolated and used in class as a snippet; often it’s the entire movie. has prepared lesson plans and Learning Guides to 350 of these films, from artistic classics like The Searchers, Cyrano de Bergerac or Casablanca, to films which portray historical events with fundamental accuracy such as Remember the Titans or The Right Stuff.

A properly used film will be carefully chosen to interest and engage students and to support a lesson plan that meets curricular goals. Showing the film will be preceded by an introduction which places the film in the context of the curriculum and provides appropriate background. After the introduction, students will be given a movie worksheet to read before the film starts. The worksheet requires students to answer questions that relate to subjects that are being covered in class. After the movie is finished, there will be a class discussion or an assignment to make further use of the interest that the film has generated.

For example, when a class is going to learn how to derive theme from printed texts, the movie worksheet should include questions about the messages of the film. It should also include questions that serve as a review of past instruction. If, in the past, the class had studied plot structure, learning about rising action, climax and falling action, prompts on the worksheet can require students to apply that learning. During the screening of the movie, students should be given a few short breaks during which they are allowed to make notes of responses to the prompts contained in the worksheet. When the movie is over, students should be given time to write out their responses or engage in class discussion about the issues raised by the prompts. In the alternative, students can be required to write a short essay or respond to the worksheet prompts as homework. When the right film is fully integrated into a lesson, it becomes a powerful educational experience that will not disappear from the minds of students as soon as they leave the classroom.

Unfortunately, teachers who are stressed or who have given up trying to educate their students often use movies to babysit classes. Teachers seeking to reward their classes for completing a difficult assignment will let them watch films with no artistic merit, no relationship to the curriculum, and no benefit for the students. These practices have given the use of movies in class a bad name. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The experience of good teachers has shown again and again that film can be a powerful educational tool.

To correct the problems of modern education will take fundamental reform and more resources than American society is presently willing to commit. However, until the reforms are implemented, removing one factor that depletes student motivation is a good interim step. Using some of the screen-based stories that comprise the literature of today’s youth can inspire students and interest them in schoolwork.


The New Curriculum Standards:

The 2010 Common Core State Standards in ELA and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects (the CCS Standards) describe a set of skills necessary for success in college and the workplace, i.e., proficiency in reading complex texts, writing, speaking, and listening. Each skill area is divided into strands called “College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards” (CCRs). Under each CCR there are a number of specific standards. Through grade eight, each standard sets out goals for the skill levels to be met by the end of the school year. For high school, the standards set out skill levels for the end of 10th grade and the end of 12th grade. The CCS Standards “focus on results rather than means” and do not prescribe how teachers are to reach the goals set out in the document. CCS Standards, p. 4. The manner of teaching the course is left up to the teacher’s discretion.

Despite its emphasis on teaching students to read complex texts, a substantial number of the CCS Standards set out goals for teaching about movies and “diverse media”, which includes filmed presentations. Because class time is limited and there are many standards to be attained each year, the opportunities to both meet the requirements of the CCS Standards and use movies in the classroom are limited. However, because certain standards require the use of movies, classrooms without film cannot meet all the CCS requirements. Moreover, when properly used, movies are helpful in attaining the non-film related CCS Standards. Good educational practice, therefore, argues for the judicious use of film in education, perhaps one or two movies per semester and short film clips more frequently. The key, of course, is that movies used in education be focused on the curriculum and part of a carefully considered lesson plan.


CCS Standards that Require or Specifically Permit the Teaching of Film:

28 important CCS Standards, most relating to grades 6 – 12, refer directly to the use of movies, employing the word “film,” the term “diverse media” or similar terms. Several standards refer to “drama”, which at page 57 of the Standards is defined to include filmed versions of plays. There are many plays set to film including most of the works of Shakespeare, The Crucible, The Glass Menagerie, Cyrano de Bergerac, Pygmalion, etc.

The Standards referring directly or indirectly to film are highlighted in yellow in Common Core State Standards Requiring or Authorizing the Use of Movies. Some are described below. The italics have been supplied for emphasis by TWM.


Reading: CCR 7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Grade 4: RL.4.7. Make connections between the text of a story or drama and a visual or oral presentation of the text, identifying where each version reflects specific descriptions and directions in the text.

Speaking and Listening: CCR 2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Grades 1 – 5: SL.1.2. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text read aloud or information presented orally or through other media. [Standard 1.2 for Grades 2 – 6 contain increasingly complex activities with text read aloud and information presented . . . in “other media” or “diverse media”. These activities include distilling and describing the main ideas, paraphrasing, etc.]



Reading: CCR 3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Grade 6: RL.6.3. Describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution.

Grade 7: RL.7.3. Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot).

Grade 8: RL.8.3. Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.

Grades 11 – 12: RL.11-12.3. Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

Reading: CCR 5. Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

Grade 7: RL.7.5. Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning.

Reading: CCR 7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.



Grade 6: RL.6.7. Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.

Grade 7: RL.7.7. Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to its audio, filmed, staged, or multimedia version, analyzing the effects of techniques unique to each medium (e.g., lighting, sound, color, or camera focus and angles in a film).

Grade 8: Analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or departs from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors.

Grades 9 & 10: RL.9-10.7. Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment . . . .

Grades 11 & 12: RL.11-12.7. Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.) . . .


See Common Core State Standards Requiring or Authorizing the Use of Movies which highlights in yellow all of the standards that directly require the teaching of film or “media”.

The fact that 28 important CCS Standards refer to the use of movies is a statistic of profound significance for film in the classroom. It means that the authors of the Standards recognized the importance of movies in education, while at the same time insisting that the emphasis be on teaching students to read complex texts. Since some of the CCS Standards refer to the use of film in the classroom, school boards and administrators that refuse to allow movies in their schools and teachers who decline to use any film in their classrooms are, in effect, rejecting an important element of the CCS Standards.


Using Movies to Meet Curriculum Standards that Do Not Refer to Film or Other Media:

An equally important reason to use film in education (for homework or in the classroom) is that movies will assist in attaining the standards that do not mention film or other media. There are several ways in which movies can assist in meeting general curriculum standards. First, it should be noted that most ELA standards require the development of skills in the areas of reading, writing and speaking. The CCS Standards are no exception. The emotional impact of movies will cause students to do their best in assignments that develop and exercise their skills in two of those areas, writing and speaking. Thus, movies can assist teachers and students in meeting a large swath of the CCS Standards relating to skills. The key is motivation. Many students will do a poor job on writing or speaking assignments that don’t interest them. Almost all students will do a better job on writing and speaking assignments when they are emotionally engaged. The ability to tap into the emotions of its audience is the hallmark of a good movie.

Second, certain components of the CCS Standards require students to learn how to analyze fiction. All stories, movies included, contain many of the elements and devices of written fiction. Thus, the vast majority of feature films will have a plot, an expository phase, a climax, and a denouement. There may be flashbacks, flash-forwards, symbols, and extended metaphor. There will be characterization, a protagonist, an antagonist, and, sometimes, foils for major characters. Since screened stories, rather than written texts, are the literature of today’s youth (it’s worth repeating), students will have a higher motivation to study the elements and devices of fiction when they are presented in a film than when they are contained in a written text. In addition, it will be easier for students to grasp concepts such as theme, character development, and plot structure in the filmed media that they are comfortable with, rather than printed texts which are, regrettably, foreign to many of them. Thus, filmed stories are an excellent way to introduce the analysis of literature. After exposure to the concepts and methods of literary analysis through film, students will be better able to apply these concepts to the less familiar printed texts. This technique is described in a publication by the National Council of Teachers of English, Reading in the Dark: Using Film As a Tool in the English Classroom, by John Golden (2001).

An excellent example of how a film clip can transform an otherwise potentially dry and cerebral lesson that kids might normally dismiss is TWM’s Snippet Lesson Plan on The Child Savior Myth and Literary Archetypes — Using a Film Clip from Man on Fire. The film clip is 22 minutes long and the entire lesson takes up one 55 minute class period. It is accompanied by a student handout explaining archetypes in general and the child savior archetype in particular. In the movie, Denzel Washington plays a jaded former special operative in the war on terror with many kills on his conscience. He is to start a job to protect the nine-year-old daughter of a rich Mexican industrialist from kidnappers. However, he is unable to shake feelings of despair and a conviction that his life is at a dead-end. He attempts suicide but by chance he fails. He then meets the young girl he has been hired to protect and is struck by her innocence. Her unspoiled sweetness motivates him to find a mission for his life and he undertakes a journey to self-respect. The regenerative power of the exposure of Washington’s hard-boiled character to the sweetness of the young child touches everyone who sees the film. Her role in his salvation is clear. This film clip will help students not only understand the concept of archetypes and the child savior but they will feel it in their hearts, a place where it will last well beyond the school day and the school year. Note that the film clip shows no R rated material.

In subjects not covered by the CCS Standards, the substantive curriculum for history, civics, health, the arts, and the sciences, there are many movies that impart information in a way that leaves lasting memories. However, these are beyond the scope of this article. Readers are referred to TWM’s Subject Matter Index for a collection of some of these films.

TWM provides a strong set of curriculum materials designed to assist teachers in maximizing the educational benefit from movies. These include more than 350 Learning Guides and lesson plans for feature films, 30 of these are lesson plans based on film clips and short subjects, such as the lesson plane using a clip from Man on Fire described above. In addition, there are many other curriculum materials to assist teachers. See Movie Worksheets, Articles, Student Handouts and Fully Developed Lesson Plans

One of the techniques recommended by TWM for using film in education that takes up very little class time is to give students a list of movies they can obtain for home viewing. They will then be required to complete an assignment relating to the film. See TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project and Historical Fiction in Film Homework Project. These assignments allow students to obtain the benefits of instruction using film without investing large amounts of valuable class time.


Underlying facts: (1) part of the problem with the modern educational system and ELA classes in particular is that students lack motivation to learn; (2) the current educational system for ELA is based on literature and teaching methods dating back more than a hundred years; (3) screened presentations are the dominant literature of today’s youth; (4) the use of screened stories in whole or in part will increase motivation and interest among students; (5) the CCS Standards for every grade, and especially for grades 6 – 12 envisage the use of film; and (6) the attainment of many CCS Standards that do not refer to film will be enhanced by the use of movies and film clips.

Therefore, when a limited number of films, one or two per semester, are carefully chosen to be an integral part of a lesson plan, are properly introduced with appropriate background, are shown with a well-designed movie worksheet and followed up with class discussion or assignments, they can enhance student interest in ELA classes and improve educational outcomes.