Teaching with short films in ELA is a great way to strengthen reading skills and increase students’ literary analysis.
Why use short films with students?
Much in the same way that short stories can help reach reluctant readers, short films are excellent for demonstrating literary elements in ways that are approachable, memorable, and engaging. They’re also a fantastic choice for ELLs since many of them have little to no dialogue, and therefore rely on more universal means of communicating their message.
I’ll share some specific tips for the short films I’m shouting out, but here are some activities you can use with any short film:
Practice writing summaries. Since short films are just that (short), they’re easy to summarize in a paragraph. You can make it more fun and challenging by asking students to write a haiku summary. Here’s one I wrote, for example:
“Hobbit gets a ring
Simply walks into Mordor
Has hairy feet. Ew.”
Practice plot sequencing. Have students practice identifying key elements of the plot structure using a graph like this. Practicing this activity on a few short films is a great warm-up before asking students to diagram the plot of a longer work.
Practice some creative reading. Asking “what if’s” like “What books, movies, or television shows have you seen with this setting?” and “Imagine an alternate ending” are fun, low-risk ways to get students thinking. Learn more about how I use Creative Reading Task Cards in this blog post 🙂
I also have a new resource (2023) that has 15 lesson plans analyzing pop culture short texts, like short films, TV episodes, songs, and more! Check out the 15 Pop Culture Analysis Activities resource here.
Teaching with short films in ELA
Fear of Flying (HS/MS)
This charming short by Irish filmmaker Conor Finnegan is great for demonstrating irony and characterization.
The irony is present in many ways. The protagonist is a bird named Dougal who is afraid of flying. When the other birds go south for winter, Dougal is left alone. Dougal then takes a plane to the “sunny south,” and having finally conquered his fear of flying, he finds himself confronted with a new fear: swimming.
How does the film show Dougal’s (literal and figurative) journey to overcome his fear?
How many specific instances of irony did you notice?
What were Dougal’s motivations for overcoming his fear?
What does it mean that Dougal agreed to go swimming so quickly, when it took him months to work up the courage to fly?
Content warning: At 1:44 a minor character uses the pun “Let’s get the flock out of here.” If you wanted to avoid the questionable language, you could skip/mute that few seconds of dialogue without students missing anything important.
Soar by Alyce Tzue (Elementary/MS)
This whimsical and heartwarming tale is the perfect short film for students who are younger, or ELLs. In it we meet an aspiring aeronautical engineer who can’t seem to get her design off the ground (hah!) until she gets help from an unexpected new friend.
I suggest pausing this video at 1:45 and asking students to flex their prediction muscles. How do they think the story will end? What’s in the mysterious bag that our crash-lander is fiercely protecting, and where are she and her compatriots heading to? Then un-pause and let them watch the rest of the film. They won’t get all the answers right, but it will be fun to see what their imaginations come up with. After students finish watching the film, you can ask them what message(s) they derived. (Be kind to others, the importance of perseverance, and never being “too young” or “too small” to achieve their goals.)
Lock Up (8th grade + up)
This short film is very effective at demonstrating and teaching suspense. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but it’s only 3:34, so you can easily find out for yourself.
Here are some ideas of post-viewing discussion questions: What do we learn about the protagonist in the first 45 seconds, and how does that information help increase the suspense? What is the effect of cutting back and forth to the surveillance camera footage? What visual and audio effects did the filmmaker use to create suspense?
Content warning: This film doesn’t show any blood or weapons, but it is highly suspenseful and features some startling (but brief) jump cuts at the end. I think this film is okay for teaching suspense with short films for 8th grade and up, but you know your students best.
Hair Love (All ages)
This Oscar award-winning short film by Matthew Cherry is a heartwarming look at a father tackling his biggest challenge yet: his daughter’s hair.
This film has a powerful theme, a fun comic relief character, and a loving family that’s sure to brighten your day. I also love that it also has a training montage sequence with the hair as the chief antagonist.
Pixar shorts provide a wealth of great short films for teaching ELA, I’ll share a few of my favorites, and you can find even more Pixar shorts in this post by my teacher-friend Meredith from Bespoke ELA.
Piper (All ages)
This short follows a young sandpiper on her journey from a fledgling to a fearless shell-hunter. It’s ideal for discussing characterization and character development. How does Piper’s character change/grow over the course of the film, and what around her (setting, other characters, etc) influences her? It’s also good for discussing tone and mood. Although it shows Piper’s biggest fear, the tone remains lighthearted and whimsical overall. How did the filmmaker convey this mood? How does the character of Piper follow the Hero’s Journey archetype?
Boundin’ is one of the few Pixar shorts to feature dialogue, which in this case is delivered in rhyme by the Cowboy Poet-esque narrator. This film is perfect for discussing themes and metaphor.
After watching, ask students to reflect on these questions: What is the overall theme of this short? What is “boundin’” a metaphor for? How does the rhyming-style narration impact the film?
Purl (High School)
This short features an upbeat ball of yard named Purl who takes a job at the corporate office of “B.R.O. Capitol.” Purl struggles to fit in at first until she changes every aspect of her personality to conform with the office culture. Fortunately, this film has a happy ending in which Purl helps to create a more inclusive and positive workplace by being herself and helping others.
Since entire film is an extended not-so-subtle metaphor for discrimination against women in the workplace, it could be a great jumping off point for a classroom discussion about real-life gender discrimination.
After viewing, ask students to reflect on these questions: How does the setting impact the story, and what does the setting tell us about the other characters? What visual contrasts do the filmmakers use to show how Purl differs from her coworkers? How does Purl change herself to fit in, and what prompts her to change back? What is the dominant theme of this film, and do you think the filmmakers were effective at getting their message across?
I think this would also be perfect to accompany a novel study of The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. (Find more ideas for teaching The Outsiders here!)
Content warning: This short features a couple jokes with some potentially objectionable language (at 1:56 and 4:40), as well as the phrase “kiss our ass.” As always, you are the best judge of what’s appropriate for your classroom.
Final thoughts on teaching with short films:
Need some other media literacy ideas?
I hope this post gave you some fun ideas to shake up your lessons. What are your favorite of teaching short films for ELA? Comment below so we can all learn!