By Sheona Smith

06 Nov 2019 - 10:52

6 tips for helping children learning English through films

Nowadays our children are exposed to a lot of English from the internet, youtubers and influencers so why not encourage them to watch movies in English. Surely they’ll learn to pick up some English while they watch?

Many of us, in our search for ways to improve our language skills, have turned to TV shows and films to help us, only to find that it doesn't seem quite as useful as we'd thought. But there's no getting away from the fact that the English spoken in movies is authentic and has a clear context which means that original versions of films can help primary children improve their skills as long as we approach this resource in the right way. 

What and for how long

First of all, let’s look at the type of things primary kids will want to see, especially if they're watching in English.  Starting with short movies is important if your son or daughter is not accustomed to watching programmes in English. It’s unlikely they will want to sit through a 2 hour movie the first times they watch so begin with something relatively short so that they have a chance to get used to listening in English. There is an excellent selection of free short films at or try 6-fabulous-short-films-from-childrens-books.

If you can’t find a short film, try breaking the film into shorter viewing sessions of perhaps 20 -30 minutes. You may even find that they get so engrossed that they ask you to leave it on for longer! 

Remember not every film will be a hit. There will be some that just don’t work for your kids. This can be due to the plot, the combination of accents or even the music. But don’t give up because there are loads of movies to try.  It can be a good idea to watch the trailer in English to allow the kids to see if this is a movie they're interested in watching.

Subtitles: Which language? 

I have met many parents who insist on their older children viewing films with the subtitles in Spanish and the sound in English.  If you have tried viewing programmes and films with subtitles in Spanish yourself (and I bet you have) then I’m sure you found that you end up just reading the subtitles so all your efforts are wasted because you don’t practice fully your skills in English. 

Having the subtitles in English, on the other hand, is a great way to see how much vocabulary you actually know and although many people say that listening and watching movies is a passive skill, it’s actually the case that, when your child is watching and listening in English there is a lot of brain processing going on which is really important to help them remember what they hear and see. So even though having subtitles or not clearly depends on the age of your child (it may not be an option for kids in lower primary who may struggle to keep up with fast moving script) if the kids are not bothered with the subtitles being there, I’d recommend leaving them so that they get used to having them on screen while watching films

Which movies?

One of the most important topics for learners of English is talking about themselves and  there's no better recent movie than Disney/Pixar's 'Inside Out' for this.

It's full of basic emotion vocabulary that children learn from day one of class. This means that they will immediately be familiar with some of the vocabulary. Experts say that it's easier if we start with something we know to then build on this learning,  'Inside Out' does this for you. The storyline follows Riley, a girl who has moved home because of her father's job. Her emotions help her in her new life and the situations she experiences. These experiences will already be familiar to many children.

Of course there are other 'classics' you can watch in English, for example, Disney's 'Frozen' or Pixar's 'Shrek' and 'Toy Story' so don't rule out movies that your children have already seen. These movies can be a really good introduction to watching in English for those kids who are not so keen. The fact that they have already seen the film will help them to feel less stressed because they will understand what is going on without needing to understand every word. 

Resources generated by the movies

It’s important to talk about what the kids have understood after the film has finished and if it’s a film which has a lot of related merchandise like comics, cartoons or  books, you can also use this to maintain further conversations about the characters in English. Colouring pages can be used to describe the characters. You can find some colouring pages here and comics in English can provide more reading practice on a now familiar theme.

Most films directed at this age group have excellent soundtracks which are another great resource for improving their English. After the initial viewing of the film, the kids can be encouraged to sing along with the soundtrack and learn useful phrases from each of the songs. For an example from Frozen click here.  This could become a regular English Karaoke session! The movie ‘Sing’ by Illumination is a great example. It includes catchy, familiar songs as well as new ones that kids will love.

Encouragement and Critical Thinking!

One way to reinforce the positive learning that takes place when watching movies in English is by making it a family occasion. Make it a ‘night –in at the movies’, make sure you have the popcorn ready and lights off so that the kids see that it’s not just practicing more English but a regular, fun, family evening. By watching with your kids you also get the chance to promote active listening and critical thinking. When the movie is over you can ask your kids to explain parts that you ‘missed’.  or dig deeper about ‘why’ something happened that way and what your child would have done in the same situation.  In this way you can encourage them to listen actively by telling you what they’ve understood and how they would have reacted. You can even pretend to have misunderstood so that they can set you straight. This means that they are processing all they have seen and heard after the movie, making the language even more memorable and therefore easier to remember. 

So when it comes to improving your child's English with movies remember the following:

  • Keep viewing sessions to between 20-30 mins at first
  • Try different types of movies and don't give up if there's one they don't like
  • Promote critical thinking and 'active listening' by asking your kids what they have understood, why something happened or pretend you didn't understand so they have to explain.
  • Look for additional 'spin off' resources like comics, songs, worksheets etc from the movie to engage your kids more in the topic and review what they have learned.
  • Watch 'classic' movies in English that the children have already seen to support understanding