Reading film: Using cinema to support literacy

James Ashmore

James Ashmore is the coauthor of The New Middle Leader’s Handbook. He has spent 11 of the last 13 years teaching Secondary English and has held a number of middle leadership roles, including leading two successful English departments. In 2012, he became a specialist leader of education. At the end of 2014, he left full-time teaching to become a full-time dad, and now works as an educational consultant. He lives in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, with his wife, Louise, and their three beautiful children.

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The standards of a pupil’s literacy should, in my opinion, be not only measured by how adept they are at reading written texts, but also their ability to read media texts, too, especially in this case film. However, when the 2016 Programmes of Study for English were published, all mention of film, indeed of most media texts, had vanished and instead we were handed a throwback curriculum full of, well, dead white dudes.

Hey, don’t get me wrong! I love those dead white dudes. I absolutely adore teaching Shakespeare (my God, isn’t The Merchant of Venice just perfection? And Macbeth – surely the greatest central character in any play anywhere ever), HG Wells, Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Priestley…on and on it goes. But I also passionately believe in the value of teaching Alfred Hitchcock, Kathryn Bigelow, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Danny Boyle.

What follows are a few of the movies I’ve taught to students, and maybe, if you think creatively about your curriculum and write a unit of work that can still fulfil all the requirements of the National Curriculum, you could teach one of them, too.

1. Rabbit Proof Fence (2002, Dir: Phillip Noyce)

Set in Australia in 1931, this powerful and uplifting little film works a treat with Year 7 students as an introduction to the study of film as well as a doorway to a potential whole half-term on Aboriginal culture and customs. Following the true story of three Aboriginal girls, cruelly taken from their families by AO Neville (Kenneth Branagh), Western Australia’s ‘Chief Protector of Aborigines’ (a bitterly ironic title), it charts their brave, against-the-odds journey home by following the eponymous rabbit proof fence.

Beautifully shot against the harsh, almost lunar landscape of the Outback, there are bags of opportunities to teach pupils about the use of the camera to tell a story, in particular by looking at the effect and impact of the different camera shots. The haunting soundtrack by Peter Gabriel could inspire you to link up with your Music department for some impromptu didgeridoo lessons (educational value questionable, but what a laugh!) while the serious issues raised in the movie will definitely lead to some high-quality spoken language opportunities – individual presentations, debates, whole-class discussion. Highly recommended.

2. Blade Runner (1982, Dir: Ridley Scott)

Suitable for older pupils, particularly those studying GCSE Media Studies (if this excellent subject has survived your school’s inevitable drive towards Ebacc for all), the opening scene of Scott’s masterpiece is perfect for teaching students about the use of sound, both diegetic (on-screen) and non-diegetic (off-screen). The film opens on a depressing city scape, Los Angeles in 2019, and the camera floats above the pyramids and smoke stacks that shoot flames into the night sky while cars fly by (those flying cars are only three years away, folks!).

Intercut with the film’s titles, we are also treated to Vangelis’ music for the movie. My tip here is to play the movie three times, first with just the picture and no sound, then with just the sound and no images and finally with both picture and sound. Ask pupils as they watch to determine what sounds they could be hearing, then to try to remember which images go with the sounds they actually hear, and finally to compare their notes with the real thing. This activity could sit comfortably in a unit on dystopias, especially if you’re studying Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World.

3. Rear Window (1954, Dir: Alfred Hitchcock)

Ostensibly, anything (suitable for children) by Hitchcock works here, but Rear Window, in which a housebound James Stewart turns nighttime voyeur, spying on his neighbours through a telephoto lens only to stumble, maybe, on a murder, is absolutely perfect for teaching suspense. The climactic scene where his fiancée, played by Grace Kelly, sneaks into the suspect’s apartment to look for clues is unbearably tense and will have your pupils on the edge of their seats.

As a stimulus for creative writing with Year 9, the film works a treat, but so does raiding the plot summaries for many of Hitchcock’s other great works: a small, coastal town is besieged by homicidal birds for no discernible reason; a man is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit; or a family on holiday have their child kidnapped. Teach them the traits and recurring motifs of Hitchcock’s films and they could even go so far as to write their own Hitchcockian screenplay complete with MacGuffin, the name given to the ultimately inconsequential plot device that sets most of his films in motion.


Three films then that can produce the goods in the classroom. To teach them, and to teach them well, you will need skills and knowledge. If you believe you lack the confidence to do that, then there are lots of great resources and training opportunities around. Try the BFI for their excellent range of education resources or The English and Media Centre for CPD. Or contact me and we’ll come up with some imaginative approaches together. Finally, let me know which movies you’ve taught or which you’d love to teach in the future, and what approach you’d take, too, and I’ll share them on Twitter.

Do you use cinema to teach? Let us know below!

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