Several years ago, Dr. Alan Melby developed the Electronic Film Review (or EFR), which is software designed to provide wraparound material to make feature films more comprehensible to language learners. The language learner views a store-bought DVD using the software on a personal computer at his or her own pace. The EFR’s distinguishing features are 1) scenes which are segmented down to small clips to make replaying trouble spots easier and 2) a window that displays vocabulary and culture notes to aid vocabulary acquisition and listening comprehension. A small pilot study indicated that the EFR was successful in helping adult ESL students acquire vocabulary. The aim of my project was to determine whether these features of the EFR would aid English language learners in secondary schools as well.
For this experiment, I wrote an EFR for the movie “The Sandlot.” I chose this film because it is entertaining, appropriate for all ages and widely distributed. It has relatively little slang, and the actors speak standard American English. To test the effectiveness of this EFR, I tested two classes of ESL students – one at Lakeridge Junior High School and one at Timpview High School. Vocabulary and listening comprehension tests were administered before and after the students used the EFR to gage their improvement. Each student viewed about 20 minutes of the movie each class period over the course of 3-4 days. I instructed them to utilize the vocabulary help window and to replay the clips that they found difficult to understand.
We found that there were noticeable gains in vocabulary and listening comprehension for both classrooms. The following graphs show the gains in each category for both schools.
As you can see, the baseline vocabulary knowledge and the vocabulary gain are roughly the same at both schools (3% – 5% gain). The listening comprehension scores are notably different. The Lakeridge students’ average pretest score was 43%, but the Timpview pretest scores averaged only 25%. This can discrepancy can be explained by the difference in student populations and the nature of the comprehension test. The listening comprehension test asked multiple choice questions about the events in the movie and facts about baseball which were addressed in the movie. A little over half of the Lakeridge students had viewed “The Sandlot” prior to watching the EFR, but none of the Timpview students had. Almost all of the Lakeridge students had played baseball before, but only about two thirds of the Timpview students had. Thus, the Timpview students’ pretest scores were lower, but the comprehension gain was higher than the Lakeridge students’ (50% vs. 10%).
A few incidental trends emerged which require further research to confirm. For instance, the more advanced students had higher gains in vocabulary and comprehension, as did those who had viewed the movie previous to the EFR experiment.
We encountered several unforeseen problems during the research. The biggest impediment to the project was the students’ unwillingness to use the vocabulary window. This was partly due to the students being more interested in watching the film than acquiring vocabulary, and partly due to the fact that the window was not very user-friendly. During the experiment, the students received grades for participation only, and thus had little external motivation to use the vocabulary window. Also, the pictures weren’t scaled to fit the vocabulary window, making it necessary to use the scroll bar to view them. These problems could be easily solved by attaching a grade to the posttest, and by reprogramming a few things in the software itself.
We also found that the test we administered was too long for the junior high students. We talked to their teacher afterwards, and discovered that their tests were usually only 20 minutes long. Many of them were discouraged and exhausted by a 40-minute test, especially the vocabulary portion. The vocabulary portion was 100 fill-in-the-blank questions, whereas the comprehension test was 35 multiple choice questions. I believe that a shorter vocabulary test would produce more accurate results and show higher gains. In further research with junior high school students, we should administer the test in two parts or shorten the test.
This pilot study showed both the effectiveness and the weaknesses of the EFR software as an educational tool. It is clear from the data that using the software results in measurable vocabulary and listening comprehension gains for secondary school ESL students. Additional research should be done to see if these gains can be increased by enhancements such as longer time with the EFR or supplementary film-specific activities in class. Based on my experiences, I suggest several alterations be made to the design of further research, the first of which would be reprogramming the EFR interface. I believe making vocabulary definitions appear on a click instead of on rollover, the window appear adjacent to the main DVD window, and the pictures sized to fit in the window would make the EFR more user-friendly, and result in higher gains in vocabulary. I would also suggest using shorter tests for younger students, and creating external motivation (probably in the form of a graded posttest) for students to use the vocabulary window.
I have just graduated and currently work for a company that sells ESL software. This research experience has been very helpful in helping me see the different facets of applying education tools in the classroom.