Media in foreign language teaching

Ulrike Sievers

Language and image supplement one another

Embedded in the context of the classroom, spoken language serves as the primary medium of communication. Body language and direct language are situation-related, enable an encounter and stimulate the imagination. The spoken word can be accompanied by images. Objects which have been brought along, colourful drawings on the blackboard, and colourful illustrations as well as pictures the pupils draw in their jotters can stimulate the children to speak. 

As far as into upper school, images serve as a means to stimulate talking. Art postcards, for example, are a suitable medium to practice the tenses through specific questions, feel ourselves into situations and think up our own stories. Young people who listened to and read stories as children can produce remarkable results also in the foreign language which they will generally share with enthusiasm.  

In book reports and presentations, the pupils learn to supplement their oral presentation meaningfully with their own illustrations or suitable images, for example on posters they have designed themselves. They thus develop skills which can later be transferred to digital forms of presentation. 

Books as a gateway to the world

Alongside the spoken language, books are the best medium to immerse ourselves in a language area. Reading supports the understanding of a language and stimulates the imagination because in reading we create our own images. Complete works leave sufficient time to feel our way into the worlds which are described and the corresponding vocabulary, and to understand the connections. The pleasure in reading is promoted through well presented reading matter. Pupils in as early as class 6 love to choose a book from a collection covering different subject matter and levels of difficulty and to read it for themselves. Such extensive reading projects are ideal for internally differentiated and inclusive lessons and invite the children to explore the world of books.  

The experience of understanding a book in another language without knowing or looking up every single word promotes self-confidence in dealing with ambivalence and thus creates a central prerequisite for learning a language. Regular reading projects extending into upper school open the gateway to literature and thus to the world we want to explore. 

Without sounds no music

While we can determine the speed at which we read ourselves, the use of audio materials assumes quite some understanding of language. We should therefore introduce the children to this medium in manageable steps. Having perhaps heard extracts from an audio play connected with the reading in class 7, class 9 pupils are given the task to transform their reading into an audio play in group work. Dialogue has to be written and descriptions have to be transformed into speech or sounds in an appropriate way. Then speaking it is practised. Modern mobile phone technology means that the recording does not generally present any great problem. Podcasts and audio files can help upper school pupils to familiarise themselves with different voices and learn about dialects. Original recordings of famous personalities, such as for example a speech by Martin Luther King, leave a deep impression. Since listening together however easily leads to a passive attitude, I use audio files in lessons only occasionally and with a specific purpose. 

Letters, blogs, news and Twitter

Writing fixed words and content becomes transportable through space and time. In class 6 or 7 we can begin with letter writing. We might even find a partner school for an exchange of letters. Later, emails and texts are added as textual forms. A blogging project in class 9 encourages the writing of interesting contributions on various subjects and offers the opportunity to discuss respect, privacy and the dangers of bullying. 

The UNICEF site “Voices of Youth” invites young people from all over the world to tell about their lives. There are helpful tips as to what to look out for when blogging. The EU also supports an Internet portal, eTwinning, which offers a protected space in which European school classes can communicate with one another in different languages. The more communication paths the young people learn about, the greater freedom they subsequently have to make a choice.

In class 11 or 12 the world of journalism and news offers opportunities to explore language and culture. The front pages of foreign language newspapers can be analysed, sections can be compared and we can speculate about who might read them. Discussion about the online sites of various newspapers as well as Twitter and Instagram can be used to tackle the subject of a free press. Writing own articles and laying out the pages of a newspaper then pose not just linguistic challenges but also call for critical research, the proper citing of sources and the design of text and images. Here every group will find its own style and proceed at its own linguistic pace. Excursions into the world of advertising and manipulation offer many opportunities for discussion. 

The language of moving images

The medium of film, in which images, language, body language, sound and lighting effects flow together, today particularly stands out. Furthermore, films are an effective way to learn a language. However, since I prefer to use the lesson time for live discussions, I encourage the young people to watch films in another language at home and thus to take responsibility themselves for learning the language. Informal learning through books, films or YouTube videos represents an important addition to language lessons in upper school. 

In dealing with regional studies in upper school, films can offer helpful illustrative material. There are impressive documentary materials and video recordings of twentieth century events which touch us through their authenticity and encourage the young people to talk. 

A worthwhile subject in class 11 or 12 is the “language of film”. The analysis of short film clips reveals that camera work, filming and editing techniques, lighting, sound and music have to be planned and executed precisely so that they express correctly what the film wants to say and that every scene achieves the desired effect with the viewer. 

The young people note with surprise that there is a clear repertoire of stylistic resources also in film. When they themselves then turn a poem or a short story into a storyboard for a film, they become aware of the many decisions that are required to coordinate all the elements and make the story suitable for a film. A feeling of respect remains for all the work which goes into a documentary or film clip. 

Media literacy

Learning a language requires and supports flexibility. The use and transformation of various media help the pupils to experience language and move between languages. Dealing creatively with the various forms means that over several years they acquire the skills to judge which medium works in which way, how it can be created and for which purpose it can best be used – an important step towards media literacy. Further details on the subject can be found in the online course “Media usage and media literacy in FLL” at

About the author: Ulrike Sievers teaches English and biology at the Christian Morgenstern School in Hamburg and works in teacher training.