Lights, camera, action! It's time to write a movie

Lights, camera, action! It's time to write a movie. Eight students sit on stools before a large television. The room darkens and the gripping opening scenes of the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Spielberg, 1989), fill the screen. A student describes the scenes. His voice rises and falls with the crescendo of the film's actions. This student and his classmates are Writing a Movie. They are showcasing their talents in reading and writing as they perform for their parents and members of their school community.

Writing a Movie is a variation of Readers Theatre. The Literacy Dictionary defines Readers Theatre as "A performance of literature, as a story, play, poetry, etc. read aloud expressively by one or more persons, rather than acted" (Harris & Hodges, 1995, p. 206). To use Readers Theatre, a teacher and students select a script to read and dramatize. The students choose parts and practice reading their lines. The rereading done in rehearsals leads to fluency.
The performer's goal in Readers Theatre is to read a script so expressively that the audience can visualize the action (Martinez, Roser, & Strecker, 1999). Writing a Movie works in reverse because the visual input is already present. To write a movie, students view a short film segment (5 to 10 minutes) and write a script in which they describe the scene. The exciting music of the film's soundtrack can play in the background as the students read their script expressively.

Action works best

Film segments that have a great deal of action and little or no dialogue work best for this project. I found particular success using this technique when I was asked to work with a group of eight students, ages 10 to 12, with learning disabilities. Their instructional reading levels ranged from grade 2 to grade 4. These students had not found success in typical school settings, and they approached literacy instruction with great resistance. Their teacher informed me that they preferred group projects because they enjoyed the support offered by their classmates and felt less pressure when they worked as part of a team. I used the Writing a Movie technique to grab the attention of these students and build motivation for writing and reading.
I searched for an action-packed, highly visual adventure film for my group of eight students. The 10-minute opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Spielberg, 1989) matched the interests and needs of this group. In the opening scene of the movie, Indiana Jones is depicted as a teenager on a Boy Scout camping trip. During the trip, Indiana Jones sees robbers stealing a gold cross from a cave, and he faces several perilous situations as he tries to recover the treasure from the robbers. The young adventurer jumps onto a moving circus train, falls into a snake pit, battles a hungry lion, races across the tops of moving train cars, and escapes from robbers on horseback. Those 10 minutes of film provide tremendous action for students to describe in their writing and in their oral reading presentation.
My students decided to write the Indiana Jones script as a group effort. We planned to use a Language Experience Approach to record sentences dictated by the students. We placed the television and videocassette recorder (VCR) next to the chalkboard and began. I played a brief portion of the film and asked the students to describe what was happening in that scene. A student raised his hand and gave the opening sentence, "Indiana Jones and another Boy Scout saw robbers steal gold cross from the cave." I wrote that sentence or the chalkboard. We continued to watch chunks of the film. After showing each portion, I stopped the videotape and asked the students to describe the segment they had just seen. At times the student offered sentences that clearly described the scene. When a student's description was vague or confusing, I asked probing questions to help the student clarify his or her ideas. We rewound the film, looked at the scene again, and asked the entire group to help us describe the scene clearly. Because our script was a group project, we worked for consensus.

The students sharpened their writing skills as we wrote the script together. We had to constantly stop and start the videotape to clarify points and look for details in the film. The students wanted to be certain that they described the film accurately. When the script was written, we played the 10-minute segment again in its entirety. This time I read the script as the students watched the film. They then made revisions in sections where they felt that their script did not match the film.

As the students made revisions to the script, their conversation showed that they had begun to think of their audience. They made comments such as, "The audience won't get it. You've got to explain that better." The first sentences dictated by the students were often dry retellings with few descriptive words or phrases. In later revisions, the students added colorful words to bring excitement to their script.

Practice makes perfect

When the script was finished, we were ready to assign parts and begin rehearsals. At that point I was able to step back and appoint a director for our project. As I worked with the students I noticed one boy, Kyle (all children's names are pseudonyms), who seemed to have the respect of his classmates. The students followed Kyle's lead, whether it was positive or negative. I decided to use Kyle' s influence upon his classmates to heighten their interest in reading and writing.
Kyle guided the class in dividing the script into eight parts, one for each student. The students were given a few moments to read their parts silently, and then we played the videotape. Kyle kept a steady eye on the film and signaled each student when it was his or her turn to read. During the first reading, the students' attention was focused upon word recognition and there was little expression in their reading. As the boys and girls worked, they realized that they needed a great deal of practice in order to pace their words with the film. We scheduled time for the students to practice reading their script with the videotape. The section of the film we chose already contained dramatic background music. We felt that it added excitement to the performance, so we let the original audio portion of the film play in the background as the students read the parts they had written.

There were many rehearsals in which the students practiced reading their script with the video-tape. At the start of each rehearsal, Kyle took charge and arranged the students in a semicircle near the television and VCR. As practice continued, the students became increasingly supportive of one another. They made positive suggestions on phrasing and the addition of descriptive words and phrases.

When the students finally felt that the performance was ready, they decided to share it with other classes in the school. The excitement generated by the film and the powerful oral reading made the presentation a success. That performance served as a model for other classes, two of which were motivated to duplicate the project. One class wrote a script for the opening scene of the film E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982). The other class wrote a script in which they described the beautiful introductory scenes of the Disney film, The Lion King (Allers & Minkoff, 1994).

Benefits of Writing a Movie

Writing a Movie offered several benefits for the students. After writing the script, there was an authentic reason for the students to engage in repeated readings. They had to practice for their performance. Studies have shown (Dowhower, 1987; Samuels, 1979) that repeated readings can lead to improved word recognition, comprehension, and fluency. Writing a Movie encouraged repeated readings in an age-appropriate, purposeful manner.

As they practiced and revised their script, my students added new words to their reading vocabulary. They needed to use precise words to convey meaning to their audience. The boys and girls discovered that vocabulary, timing, and expression were very important considerations when reading for an audience.

In working with these students, I found that comprehension as well as fluency improved as we wrote the script and matched our reading to the film. Twelve-year-old Maria had strong word-recognition skills but difficulty with comprehension. She had trouble stating the main idea of a text she read or a film she saw. The Writing a Movie technique provided visual cues that helped focus her attention. As the children practiced their parts, I saw Maria's gaze shift from the script to the film.

When each part was read, Maria looked at the film. As the class wrote and revised the script, Maria made suggestions that showed she understood the story. She made the connection between the written word and the action on the screen. When it was her turn to read, she waited for just the right moment. Her timing and expression showed that she understood the main idea of the film. After participating in this activity, Maria was able to read the script fluently and discuss the scenes with her classmates.

To write a movie, the students had to summarize the action on the screen. As I worked with Kyle and his classmates, I helped them identify the most important actions in each scene. Superfluous details were eliminated because the script had to be relatively short to fit the time constraints of the film segment. Consequently, our script became a summary of each scene.
Fluency develops when students engage in meaningful repeated readings. In some classrooms, repeated reading becomes a dry, expressionless activity because the students do not have a purpose or an audience for their rereading. During Writing a Movie rehearsals and performances, students reread for a purpose and receive valuable feedback from teachers, classmates, and members of the community.

Writing a Movie uses films to develop fluency and helps students understand the reading and writing connection. Students learn to summarize a scene from a film, write a script, and read with expression and flair. Writing a Movie brings drama to the classroom and inspires students to read and write for an audience.

Source: The Reading Teacher


Allers, R., & Minkoff, R. (Directors). (1994). The Lion King [Motion picture]. United States: Disney Studios.
Dowhower, S.L. (1987). Effects of repeated reading on second-grade transitional readers' fluency and comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 22, 389-407.
Fleming, V. (Director). (1939). The Wizard of Oz [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Studios.
Harris, T.L., & Hodges, R.E. (1995). The literacy dictionary: The vocabulary of reading and writing. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Houston, J. (Director). (1982). Annie [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Tri-Star.
Martinez, M., Roser, N., & Strecker, S. (1999). "I never thought I could be a star": A Readers Theatre ticket to fluency. The Reading Teacher, 52, 326-334.
Samuels, S.J. (1979). The method of repeated readings. The Reading Teacher, 32, 403-408.
Spielberg, S. (Director). (1982). E.T.: The extra-terrestrial [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Studios.
Spielberg, S. (Director). (1989). Indiana Jones and the last crusade [Motion picture]. United States: Paramount Studio.
Annie (Spielberg, 1982)
It's a hard knock life for Annie and her fellow orphans. Students can describe the opening scene in which Annie and the other orphans are forced to clean the orphanage from top to bottom.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982)
As the film opens, a spaceship lands and E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, steps out to explore the earth. Suddenly, the spaceship leaves the earth and E.T. is left behind. In their script, students could describe the terror and abandonment felt by E.T. in those opening moments of the film.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Spielberg, 1989)
The first 10 minutes of this film are titled with action. Students can describe young Indiana Jones's adventure.
The Lion King (Allers & Minkoff, 1994)
The opening "circle of life" scene in which members of the animal kingdom leap across the savannah, is a wonderful segment for students to describe. Students can expand their vocabulary by using proper terminology for the scenes. Words such as savannah herd, and stampede can be introduced. When reading their scripts, students will have to blend their words with the music. This will require extra attention to timing, but it is a valuable skill.
The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939)
There are many excellent scenes to describe in this classis film. Students could describe Dorothy's trip along the yellow brick road as she meets the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. The tornado scene in which Dorothy's house is whisked to Oz also offers a great deal of action to be described.
Hoffner teaches at Holy Family University (Grant and Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19114-2094, USA).

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