5 elements that make a film understandable to non-native speakers



5 key elements that make a film understandable to non-native speakers


Learners enjoy watching films and usually benefit from the experience. It is important that this experience is not frustrating because students are struggling with listening comprehension.



The five elements outlined below are important prerequisites for making a film understandable for non-native speakers. The more elements that apply to a film, the more comprehensible it will be to learners. This means that a film that meets (almost) all the criteria can be used at a low language level, while films that meet only a few criteria can be considered challenging. In addition, the viewing activities need to be adapted to the expected level of difficulty for the learners. If the teacher anticipates that the film will be difficult to understand, mainly general questions should be asked. In addition, the activities require sufficient preparation to avoid overwhelming and frustrating the learners.

The following aspects help to understand a film:



Story, structure and plot

  • Students can relate to the situation presented in the film and its socio-cultural context.
  • Visual elements predominate over the spoken word (rather than a dialogue-driven story with little action). 
  • Dialogue and visual elements are congruent, allowing the viewer to infer the plot without fully understanding the conversations.
  • The visual elements help the viewer infer the plot.
  • Events are presented chronologically. When narrative techniques such as flashbacks are used, they are easily identifiable, for example, by being shot in black and white to contrast with the colour scenes of the contemporary story.
  • The story is told without ellipses (omission of parts of the story or action).
  • The number of characters is limited.


Language used

  • The number of characters engaged in conversations is limited.
  • Characters enunciate clearly.
  • Characters use complete phrases and speak with little hesitation.
  • Characters speak without an unfamiliar accent or dialect.
  • In conversations, usually only one character speaks at a time and there is no overlap in turntaking.
  • The vocabulary consists mainly of words and expressions familiar to the audience.
  • Characters express themselves without resorting to slang, jargon or other other unfamiliar domain-specific lexicon.
  • There is little or no metaphorical language, inventive wordplay.


No distracting elements

  • The sound is of high quality.
  • The soundtrack is free of background noise, loud music or other distractions that make it difficult to understand.
  • The narration and editing are straightforward and do not cause confusion.


Adapting tasks to students' level

  • Preview tasks effectively prepare students for viewing.
  • Tasks and questions are adapted to students’ level and prior knowledge.
  • Students are familiar with the language to discuss and describe films.


Availability of auxiliary materials


A film script, transcription and/or subtitles are available.



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