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The role of television and televisual literacy in
language teaching and learning
by Dr Richard Kiely
- 2

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Television (and video generally) as a technology has not had as strong an impact as the tape recorder and the computer in language teaching and learning. In social life more generally however, the advent of television has had a strong impact, changing how people live their lives in ways comparable to the development of radio/recorded sound, and of digitised information technology. There are a number of possible reasons for this lack of impact on TEFL practice:

  • Video has not been associated with a specific approach to language teaching, such as audio recording for audiolingual and communicative methods, and computers in Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL);
  • Television and video have become associated with language learning without a teacher, rather than in classroom contexts;
  • Television and video involve a combination of aural and video data which present challenges for comprehension in ways which data input through these channels separately does not;
  • Television requires machines for recording and playback, which are resource demands many teaching centres have not been able to meet, and coursebook series have not assumed;
  • Television represents a form of popular culture, and language teaching has traditionally been associated with the study of literature and other forms of high culture
  • Television as authentic data presents language in culturally-specific contexts which can be difficult for learners in other language contexts to understand or appreciate.

Many of these reasons for the lack of uptake of television in TEFL practice are historical or accidental. Four aspects of recent developments of television service provision have increased the likelihood that television can be a useful resource:

  • Technological developments mean that television can be accessed through cable, satellite, and internet, so that teachers and students in all parts of the world are likely to be able to access English language television.
  • Developments in recording technology mean that it is possible to record and playback easily, often with sub-titles.
  • Global trends in the television industry mean that similar formats dominate the schedules in many countries. These include a) news and sports programmes, rich in narrative and interview genres, b) ‘franchised’ programme types such as reality shows (e.g. Big Brother), and game and quiz shows (e.g. Blind Date; Who wants to be a Millionaire; The Weakest Link), and c) programmes developed from shared social contexts and narratives (e.g. soap operas, crime detection and hospital drama).
  • Television broadcasts are increasingly accompanied by web sites and magazines, providing supporting data for comprehension and language learning.

Television and authenticity

Thus, the nature of the resource and the facility of access to it suggest that television can be a rich source of data for language learning, beyond as well as within the classroom. Where learning goals are related to communication skills, the authenticity of such data is an important consideration. Television affords authenticity to language learning in three ways:

  • It presents language in cultural contexts.
  • Language learners tend to be able to ‘read’ such cultural contexts, in terms of participants’ social and economic status, and purposes and motivations in interactions.
  • Television viewing is an activity which language learners are familiar with, and engage in for information, education and recreation.

Some teaching principles

Language learning from television is not the same as television viewing. Some principles need to be observed to ensure that the use of television in the classroom provides rich opportunities for language learning.

  • Select data (that is clips or programmes) on the basis of language learning objectives and activities;
  • Select short pieces (1-5 minutes);
  • Provide a transcript and integrate use of the transcript in the activity;
  • Mine the activity in ways appropriate to the learners’ language level and age – for example, for elementary classes, focus on comprehension and word identification; for university language courses develop the analysis dimension of tasks; for adult or workplace classes explore personal responses to television programme characteristics;
  • Link television viewing outside the classroom to language analysis and communication within the classroom;
  • Link television viewing to work on other media such as websites, discussion boards, newspapers and magazines;
  • Develop student involvement by structuring and facilitating inclusion of student-selected television material.

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