Teaching ELLs with Short Animated Videos

A MiddleWeb Blog

One of the best ways to help kids love reading and get enthusiastic about school is by making learning fun!

Make them want to be part of it. Make them laugh, cry, think deeply…engage them and evoke emotion, and suddenly you have kids who want to do the work of learning.

Short animated videos are excellent for supporting literacy skills while making the learning fun and engaging. They are especially effective for English learners because they are visual in nature. Think of the short animated video as a scaffold to a written form of the text.

Since often English learners are reading in English at levels that are lower than their cognitive level or their ability to read in their native language, the use of the video allows students to think critically and experience a story at a higher level than they can decode on their own.

Short animated videos offer a quick narrative. Their generally brief form allows for multiple views to go deep into the literary moves the author makes.

What is a short animated video? Technically it is a film not long enough to be considered a feature film or movie. For our purposes, we will consider videos such as short cartoon clips that tell a story. Let’s explore.

Characteristics of good short videos

Many short animated videos lack dialog which is a plus for teachers with English learners in class – we can use that with our students! We can ask them to create dialog that the characters might say. Students can take on the characters’ roles and practice speaking. For English learners, the opportunity to practice speaking in a low stress environment is always a bonus.

What makes short animated videos supportive for English learners? They

  • Are highly visual in nature
  • Have short narrative structures
  • Have engaging topics
  • Evoke emotion
  • Reduce the decoding load
  • Support all language domains (listening, speaking, reading, and writing)

These key instructional moves make lessons more accessible for English learners:

  • Multiple viewings
    • Over multiple days
  • Pause during viewings to discuss or clarify
    • At strategic points
  • Embed opportunities for structured partner conversation
    • model what is expected to set students up for success

There are many compelling and relevant short animated videos that middle schoolers love. You just have to find one that relates to your students and the skills or topic you are studying.

Here’s Jacob Frey’s wonderful short, “The Present,” his thesis film from the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Postproduction at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany (the small bits of dialogue are in English).

Video learning with middle schoolers

Here’s an example overview using an animated short film with middle school English learners in mind.

  1. First viewing is for the students to enjoy and get the gist of the narrative and perhaps make predictions.
  2. Second viewing is to watch for story elements and plot them together on a graphic organizer.
  3. Third viewing is to notice specific literary elements.

Teaching Suggestion:

With each viewing, tell students in advance why they are viewing it…the purpose. During and after each viewing, provide specific opportunities to speak with a partner or group and write. The three viewings work best if shown on different days rather than all at once.

Sample Daily Sequence:

Day 1: “Students, today we are going to watch a short film called ‘Dustin.’ It’s a story about two unlikely friends. Think for a moment about a time when you made a friend that wasn’t like you.” Give wait time. Write the sentence stem “I made an unlikely friend when…” for all students to see and say, “When you are ready to share with you partner, stand up and share with them using the sentence stem.”

After all students have shared with their partners, call on a couple of students randomly to share with the whole class. “Now let’s watch the video, and as we watch, let’s see how the characters become friends.” Play the 7 minute video. Following the video, ask students to share with their partners what surprised them most about the story.

Day 2: “Readers, today as we watch ‘Dustin’ again, I want you to look closely at the story elements. We will be filling in the story map together after the video. Be prepared to share ideas.” (Choose a favorite story elements graphic organizer and adapt for video if needed. Share ahead of time so students will know what to look for while viewing the video. If you are introducing new story elements, teach them here.)

View the video, pausing after the first story element is introduced to do a think aloud. “Oh, I see here that the story is taking place…” Or “I’m thinking that the characters are…”

After the video say “Readers, think about the way the author tells the story. How does the author use music to set the tone and mood? Turn and share with your partner.” Partner A shares first; then partner B can either agree or disagree, using “I think the author”…”I agree because”…”I disagree because.” After students finish collaborating, work as a class to complete the story elements graphic organizer.

Day 3: “Readers, today as we view ‘Dustin’ again, I want you to zoom into how the characters’ relationships change throughout the story and why. I want you to really look closely at when the shift happens. You can take notes if it will help you to remember. You can draw or sketch also. In addition, here are some discussion starters you and your partner can use when we stop to talk: In the beginning…but now…. At first they…but then…. A change happened when…. Their relationship changed from…to…. I noticed that….”

Students can chorally read the stems with you or echo read them. Play the video, stopping at critical moments for partner discussions.

Following the multiple viewings and discussions, students can write. Depending on the language proficiency of your students, you can either ask students to write independently or give students a paragraph frame to support their linguistic needs. The paragraph frame should be similar to what students were asked to discuss with their partners.

Try a Language Experience Approach

Another way to support students in writing is to do a Language Experience Approach (click here to listen to Carol Salva’s voicED podcast on the Language Experience Approach) with the animated short that the class viewed. Since the group experienced the same video, they can do a shared writing.

In this case, the LEA strategy offers maximum support for English learners who are at beginner or emerging levels of proficiency. The class works together to produce a summary of the story. For more on the language experience approach click here.

Pairing the short animated video with a read aloud or a text that the class is reading will provide students with a connection to text. Discuss the connection and compare the two narratives or pieces. Using the short animated video as a way to implement a gradual release model allows students a guided practice and a model of thinking the process aloud with you and with their peers before they go off and do it on their own.

Here’s one more to sample, Alike by Daniel Martínez Lara and Rafa Cano Méndez.

Where to look for more videos

Here are some additional resources where you can find more information about using short animated videos with your English learners to boost listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Larry Ferlazzo’s The Best Fun Videos for English Learners in 2018

The Seven Best Short Films for ELT Students by Kieran Donaghy


Name of Short Film Possible Classroom Application
La Luna theme, symbolism, family, traditions, individuality, symbolism
Octopodi theme
Glued theme
Lifted theme, characterization, humor, irony
For the Birds theme, irony, conflict, suspense, foreshadowing, characterization
Piper theme
Inner Working theme
The Present empathy, theme, plot, characterization
Alike Plot, theme
One Man Band theme, mood
Boundin theme
Up (opening scene) theme
The Little Match Girl theme
Alma theme
A Love Story theme
Partly Cloudy theme
Love Bites theme
Red’s Dream Point of View
Geri’s Game
(Academy Award)
characterization, plot twist, theme
Soar Visualization, prediction
Head Over Heels idiomatic expressions
Home Sweet Home foreshadowing, setting, mood
Forever Mime suspense, conflict
Dustin characterization, plot twist, theme


Valentina Gonzalez

Valentina Gonzalez (@ValentinaESL) is a former classroom teacher and currently serves as an Educational Consultant based out of Texas. Her 20 years as an educator include teaching in the classroom as well as serving as an ESL specialty teacher, district program facilitator, and as a professional development specialist for teachers of ELs. She enjoys advocating for ELLs by blogging, presenting at local and state conferences, and sharing resources with teachers.

6 Responses

  1. Hima says:

    Dear Valentina
    This is such an engaging resource. I teach English to Primary classes but I am sure you can use the plan to recap prediction and story elements.Thank you and would love to get access to more ideas to make my lessons far more engaging for my learners.

  2. Mary De Boer says:

    This is a great way to introduce students to the elements of a story. However, what are the implications for copyright and fair use issues with showing the film in class?

    • valentina gonzalez says:

      Hi Mary,
      As long as we follow the rules for showing copyrighted materials in the classroom, we will be fine. Those can be obtained from a campus librarian.

  3. Mary De Boer says:

    Thanks! I followed up with our librarian and we are good to go!

  4. Saima says:

    Dear valentina, could u plz share lesson plan by which a teacher can improve the speaking skill of the learners through such animated videos

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