Using Movies to Raise Cultural Awareness

Joe_McVeigh_author_photoJoe McVeigh

Using movies or films in class is a great way to help student both learn more about language and also about culture and cultural differences.  These days there are tons of films available that deal with interesting intercultural issues. Here are some thoughts on how to use film for language and cultural study.

When studying a movie in depth, it can be very helpful to have a copy of the screenplay. In this way, the dialog of the movie becomes the “text” on which the lessons are based. Teachers can find screenplays for many movies in books and online. But be careful! What is published as a screenplay may be the dialog in a final draft of the script submitted by the writer.  The screenplay as written often changes significantly by the time the film appears in theaters. If you can find the “shooting script” for the film or a transcript, you should get the word-by-word dialog. Once you have this, you can review the text for vocabulary words, idiomatic expressions, and cultural observations to include in your lessons.

Steps to using films in class:

  1. Select a movie that you believe appropriate for your students that is readily available. See the list at the end of this article for suggestions.
  2. If possible, obtain a transcript for the dialog in the movie. Review the transcript to be sure that it is accurate. Note any potentially challenging vocabulary and expressions and be prepared to explain them to students.
  3. Prepare students for the film by explaining the background. You may wish to prepare students for any plot complexities if you can do so without giving away important plot points.
  4. Make a handout using the seven questions below.  Go over the directions and the questions with the class.
  5. View the movie with students. You may wish to break it up into digestible sections so that you can pause for explanation and discussion.
  6. After students watch the film, have them answer the questions on your handout. Students can work alone or in small groups.
  7. To finish this activity, discuss the answers with the class.

Teaching notes:

  • Make sure to preview the movie for content that might be inappropriate for your students such as language, violence, or sexual situations.
  • Alternative: If you don’t have enough class time to watch the entire film, choose specific scenes that focus on cultural elements and pertain to the questions on the handout.


  • Study the questions before you watch the movie.
  • After the movie, write the answers to the questions.
  • Form pairs or small groups. Share your answers. Be prepared to present the final answers to the class.
  1. Write a short description of the story. Include what happened in the beginning, middle, and end of the movie.
  2. Who were the major characters in the film? Name each one and give a description.
  3. What were the key elements of the plot or story of the film? Was there conflict at any point?
  4. Where there any parts of the movie that you didn’t understand? Describe.
  5. What new language did you learn from this movie?
  6. What do you know about the local culture in the movie that you didn’t know before?
  7. Did you enjoy the movie? What made you like it or dislike it?


Recommended movies by genre and cultural topics

Family relationships

  • Dead Poets Society
  • The Graduate
  • A River Runs Through It

Race relations

  • Boyz ‘N the Hood
  • The Color Purple
  • Trading Places
  • Gran Torino
  • Crash

Feminist films and the role of women

  • 9 to 5
  • Thelma and Louise
  • Tootsie


  • Gandhi
  • Malcolm X
  • Witness

Short story adaptations

  • The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin
  • A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner
  • A White Heron by Sara Orne Jewett
  • An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

American History

  • An American Tail
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • The Last of the Mohicans

Cultural Conflict

  • The Gods Must Be Crazy
  • Gung Ho!
  • E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial

Novel Adaptations

  • Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
  • The Client, The Firm, The Pelican Brief all by John Grisham
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck


  • Bugsy
  • The Cotton Club
  • JFK

This activity is excerpted from Tip for Teaching Culture: Practical Approaches to Intercultural Communication by Ann Wintergerst and Joe McVeigh. Copyright Pearson Education Inc. 2011.

Permission granted to copy for classroom use.