Reading Movies and TV: Learning the "Language" of Moving-Image Texts

5 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
Instruction = one 45-minute session <br />Follow-up and assessment = one 15–20-minute session
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In this lesson, students learn inductively and experientially that moving-image media texts such as movies and TV shows employ a visual language, just as written texts rely on conventions that exist apart from their content. To grasp this distinction between storytelling and story, students closely watch several film clips and summarize what they have seen and heard without describing anything that happened. In this way, aided by strategic prompts and partial re-viewings as needed, students understand that each shot in such media is carefully constructed, and each shot is carefully connected to another and to audio elements through editing.

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Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.

Materials and Technology

  • Video playback and projection equipment such as either a DVD or Blu-ray player and screen/monitor/projector, and a computer and LCD projector for streaming video files

  • A film or TV clip that is compatible with your equipment

  • Chalkboard or dry-erase board

  • Computers with Internet access




  1. Obtain a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) or any age-appropriate film or TV show that includes formal elements of moving-image media that can be identified and discussed in the lesson. A film such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a good model because many students have some familiarity with the basic story context, so you don't need to explain much about what they're watching. Of course, you may also select a clip of similar length from an adaptation of a novel the class has read, such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which is less kinetic and visually-driven but still makes excellent use of camera angles, lighting, editing, music, and other formal elements.

  2. Review as needed the principle of fair use as it relates to media literacy education, knowing that you are free to screen any text of moving-image media from any source/platform without concern about copyright infringement; by using the product to teach media, you are sufficiently transforming its purpose so that it is no longer used for mere entertainment. To this end, you may want to review the Center for Social Media: The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education and even copy relevant passages for classroom use should students (or others) question the use of a Harry Potter movie (or an alternative feature film not in the public domain) as an instructional resource.

  3. Ready an additional clip for the second, briefer part of the first session. Ideally, it should have little or no dialogue, take place in a single setting, and be dramatically straightforward, like the Harry Potter clip (to save time, you could use another clip from the same film). Using such a text allows you and your students to focus on the formal elements of the medium, and the Moving Image Archive: Internet Archive's movie section provides many options, including TV shows, short films, and so on. If you select a clip from a TV episode, opt for a dramatic series as these have much in common with film; sitcoms, by contrast, are usually extremely limited in terms of storytelling techniques.

  4. Browse the Moving Image Archive: Internet Archive for a group of 3-5 clips of similar length that you can provide as options for the homework assignment. Be sure to note the "time-in" and "time-out" for each clip so that students are able to navigate to it easily and precisely.

  5. Familiarize yourself with the scene that begins when Harry, settling into his lodgings at the start of the film, turns from his window as a noisy train passes nearby to focus on the Monster Book of Monsters in his possession. This sequence begins around 14:55 and ends at 16:07 when Harry jumps upon the book. If you are choosing a different clip from this or any other source, make sure that it is between 30 seconds and 2 minutes long.

  6. Preview the clip yourself several times, jotting down your own observations about the filmmaking techniques on display. If you need support in this regard, you may want to refer to Film Site: Film Terms Glossary or simply look ahead to the Instruction and Activities section. Do this for your second clip, too, as well as for those that you select for the homework assignment.

  7. Make sure that classroom seating is configured to optimize viewing and that you have, concurrent with the screening, access to an easily visible chalkboard or other writing surface.

  8. Arrange as needed for the appropriate video playback and projection materials to be set up in your classroom.

  9. Print and make copies of the View-and-Record Organizer and the Rubric for the View-and-Record Organizer and Evaluative Paragraph for each student. For the organizer, make 2–4 copies per student because some are going to require additional pages for class work and/or the homework. For the rubric, make one copy for students to keep and one per student for yourself to use for assessment purposes.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Distinguish between story elements and storytelling elements in regards to moving-image media by taking notes on each element after viewing film clips

  • Acquire and use domain-specific vocabulary in the fields of TV, film, and related media, including terminology related to camera movements and angles and editing basics, by viewing and discussing film clips with the class

  • Record audio-visual impressions and observations when presented with moving-image media

  • Apply their newfound ability to read moving-image texts by observing and identifying formal techniques and elements when provided with an unfamiliar moving-image text

  • Analyze and evaluate how "authors" of film and TV media texts construct narratives by selecting from, and combining as needed, particular techniques and conventions

Session 1<br />Before Viewing

  1. Begin with as little preamble as possible by not explaining the lesson's purpose or its inductive approach upfront. Direct students to pay attention to everything that they see and hear in a brief clip since they're going to be asked about these things immediately following the screening.

  2. Before screening the clip, invite volunteers to share what they know about Harry Potter generally and the fictional universe in which he resides. Students can draw upon their knowledge of the books. Explain that what they see during the lesson requires no information about the plot of The Prisoner of Azkaban to follow and appreciate. Of course, if any alternate clip you choose to screen cannot be easily connected to prior knowledge, make sure that it is self-contained and straightforward in terms of narrative content: a pursuit, a sporting contest such as a basketball or baseball game, or simply a musical number. The clip should not be one that is dependent on dialogue or on the viewer's detailed knowledge of the plot or characters, but one that conveys action that can be summarized as "X happened, then Y happened, and finally Z happened."

While Viewing

  1. Screen the clip straight through, pausing/stopping playback immediately after it finishes. Expect students to laugh or gasp; you need to allow them to respond to the content as any movie audience would, especially those responding to a first viewing or those not accustomed to "reading" a clip more analytically.

  2. Remind students before screening the clip a second time, "Pay close attention to what you see and hear. Try to remember as many details as you can because I'm going to ask an important question when we're done."

  3. Screen the clip again. Do not show any other parts of the film. For any questions about the content of what they have seen, encourage students to talk to each other to provide clarity or additional information.

After Viewing

  1. Pass out copies of the View-and-Record Organizer, and ask by a show of hands who can describe in detail what they saw and heard.

  2. After acknowledging the enthusiasm of those prepared to respond, throw students a "curveball" to spark metacognition and critical thinking by asking who can describe what they saw and heard without recounting anything that actually happened.

  3. Steer the ensuing discussion so that what may be immediately clear to some students-that you are asking them to identify general types and categories of sounds and images rather than narrative incidents-gradually becomes understood by the larger group. To this end, model a response such as "I noticed that the film was in color. And it was not a silent film." Adjust such prompts and models to match the gaps in student responses, e.g., "Some of the sound came from off screen: its source was not shown while we heard the sound."

  4. Students should begin to process the details they have retained so that they can be verbally described without specifically referencing Harry, the book, or any other actual, nameable content. Continue to model the kind of abstract and aesthetically centered responses you are looking for, introducing important domain-specific terms as needed. For example, "Sometimes the camera approached the subject of the shot-that's a dolly in. Sometimes it moved away, which is referred to as a pull-back or dolly out, as in the very first shot. Often it did neither."

  5. Explain that film and TV (as well as animation, video, and other forms of moving-image media such as video games) have a "language" that is largely based upon what is called a shot, a single continuous running of the camera before a cut or other interruption of the image. Invite students with background knowledge in media to describe different kinds of shots. For example, an establishing shot shows a location, an over-the-shoulder shot is just what it sounds like, and a tracking shot involves moving the camera on tracks to capture an also-moving subject. To reinforce what a shot is, and to begin to train students to read them as the building blocks that they are, consider showing the clip or even just a portion of it again so that as a class you might count the number of shots aloud. You can also incorporate this strategy into the guided viewing activity that follows.

  6. Emphasize that effective visual storytelling, like prose storytelling, always has the audience in mind. State that you are going to screen the clip one more time, and now students should focus on how they are positioned relative to the action, both physically and emotionally. Encourage students to ask themselves questions like the following while viewing moving-image media to make sure they pick up on how the formal elements of the medium are being employed. (You might want to explain that formal in this case means "related to its form.")

    • How far away from the characters am I?
    • Does this distance change?
    • What can I say about the images themselves-lightness/darkness, degree of movement, whether they are "above" or "below" me-apart from what the images depict?
    • Additionally, and in consideration of the multi-modal nature of most film texts, what do I hear that signals a particular mood? How is silence used to heighten anticipation or suspense?

    As an option, consider listing such foundational questions on your chalkboard or dry-erase board so that students may refer to them when encountering new moving-image texts.

  7. Conduct a guided viewing of the clip (this makes the third time students see it) by pausing and replaying segments of it as needed as a form of scaffolding or in order to review concepts you have already introduced. Rather than teach concepts such as camera angles and editing as entirely discrete topics, use the clips to show how the two work hand in hand to pull the viewer into the story as if part of the action; most students are unaware until you point it out that what the audience sees in most TV dramas and movies is determined by what the characters look at.

    • When we see Harry lean over to look under his bed, this shot is followed by a floor-level shot of the book, waiting. Because of the juxtaposition of the two shots in succession we naturally feel that we are then viewing the book through Harry's eyes.
    • In that shot of the book, it is also "gazing" back at us, and this is immediately followed by a repetition of a shot of Harry peering upside-down at the edge of the bed. In short, the filmmakers have switched our point of view.
    • Explain that this most basic style of editing is called shot/counter-shot editing and is present in almost every movie or TV scene where characters hold a conversation: a shot of one character gazing is immediately followed by another shot such that we infer that the second shot shows what that character was looking at.

    This is what is meant by the visual grammar of moving-image media-the way that images and sounds are sequenced so that the audience reads their connected meaning just as it otherwise gleans meaning from reading connected text in prose form (i.e., the individual words alone convey only part of the information).

  8. Provide a second clip to practice skills application, and follow essentially the same routine, minus the initial element of surprise: students should be given some background about the TV series or movie from which the clip is taken; during an initial viewing, students can focus on story elements so that they can comprehend the basic dramatic content; in a follow-up viewing, they should record their observations on the View-and-Record Organizer, using the terminology they have learned whenever possible. You may want to model the process by filling out a single row in the organizer based upon an item from the first clip. Be sure to point out that the first three columns are for purposes of convenience, so that moments can be recalled and discussed. For this reason, students can jot down a quick description ("H. jumps on book"), sketch an image, and record the time-in and time-out of the clip (most players or remote controls will have a "display" or "information" button that presents the time elapsed on screen.) Put students at ease by saying that they need only record as many storytelling elements as they comfortably can: when doing the same exercise as homework, they can pause and rewind the clip as frequently as they need to in order to capture information in the organizer.

  9. Screen this second clip one more time, and have students themselves conduct the guided viewing by referring to the notes they have taken in their View-and-Record Organizers. Just pause the clip at key moments, and invite volunteers to identify storytelling devices (close-ups, high angle or low angle shots, off-screen noise, sudden silence, etc.). Prompt students to speculate on why they were used by noting the effects that these techniques have on the audience in terms of information or emotion, or both. Explain that bridging the gap between story and storytelling by analyzing how the latter serves the former is a crucial part of media analysis.

  10. End the first session by fielding any questions students may have about how to fill out the View-and-Record Organizer, and if time permits, briefly walk them through the FilmSite: Film Terms Glossary before giving them their assignment for the follow-up session.

  11. As homework, have students “read” a film or TV clip independently. First, provide your pre-selected list of streaming Moving Image Archive: Internet Archive clips from which they can choose. (Alternatively, students can personalize the assignment by analyzing a scene from a favorite TV series or movie, though there is a tradeoff: they may be more engaged, but there is no way you can be familiar with all the content they select, which means that you cannot fully assess their reading of those clips.) Then distribute the Rubric for the View-and-Record Organizer and Evaluative Paragraph, explaining that the information captured in the organizer should serve as the basis for a paragraph that evaluates how well the authors of the movie or TV episode constructed the given sequence in terms of its storytelling devices. Remind students that they should consult the FilmSite: Film Terms Glossary as needed as its definitions are the ones against which their own use of proper terminology is going to be assessed.

Follow-up Session

  1. Organize students into groups based upon which clips they viewed, analyzed, and evaluated. After allowing group members a couple of minutes to divvy up the key moments in the clip, have them present the clip to the class as a team, with each member covering a different storytelling technique and explaining why it was or was not effective. Since each group should take 3-4 minutes presenting, the total time should run to around 15 minutes, but it could take longer depending on the number of groups/clips, the number of students in your class, and the length of the clips.

  2. When the presentations are over, collect the homework for evaluation using the Rubric for the View-and-Record Organizer and Evaluative Paragraph.


Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Monitor students' group presentations to see if they have learned the basics of what it means to read moving-image media texts. Evidence includes the effective use of domain-specific vocabulary while analyzing the storytelling. You can also assess the understanding of the students who are not presenting by having them listen for and identify similar techniques present in their own clips.

  • Complete the Rubric for the View-and-Record Organizer and Evaluative Paragraph to determine whether students have learned to tell the difference between story elements and storytelling elements, the lesson's central skill. Each of the sections of the rubric correlates respectively to a student objective in the service of that main concept, with the exception of two closely-related objectives that combine naturally: identifying media techniques and using the correct nomenclature when doing so. The final section on the evaluative paragraph reflects the fact that evaluation represents a "high order" extension of the lesson's focus, one that you can follow up on as students continue to master their moving-image literacy skills.

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