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Video and language comprehension lain MacWilliam

Although recent years have seen an increasing volume of literature about video and language teaching, there has realty been very little research into the suitability and effectiveness of the medium for this purpose. However, there have been studies in other fields, notably educational broadcasting research and communication studies, which, though set in the domain of first-language acquisition and comprehension, may have relevance for foreign-language teaching. This article identifies those research findings and observations which have a bearing on the comprehensibility of video when used for language input, and, in particular, the relationship between the aural and visual channels. The implications for future development are briefly discussed.

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There is currently a lot being written about video in the language classroom, but most of it seems anecdotal or takes the form of generalized observation. Doubtless the '1,001 Uses of Video' compendium will always need updating, but there can be very few practising (and journal-reading) teachers with access to video who still need to be told that 'video places language in context' or who are as yet unaware of the virtues of the freezeframe button. With one or two notable exceptions, no one appears to be considering one of the main questions arising from the widespread adoption of video as a language teaching aid, namely: how effective is the video
medium as a source of language input to the foreign-language learner?

The question 'how effective', of course, presupposes a qualitative measure of some sort, and one of the more obvious explanations of the omission noted here is that there has been practically no recorded research into language learning from video. It may be that the extensive use of off-air broadcasts has inhibited would-be investigators; copyright law makes no concession even to the most altruistic pirates. On the other hand, the ELT profession, and in particular its British branch, has tended to eschew empirical research into the effectiveness of approaches and methodologies, preferring instead to rely on the solipsism known as 'construct validity' for its measure of pedagogical approval. The absence of data, then, is hardly a novel phenomenon in English language teaching. Fortunately, the use of video for educational purposes has not been confined tothosc working in language teaching, and the purpose of this article is to consider some of the relevant research findings and observations from otherfields,notably educational broadcasting and communication studies. The fact that these largely derive from first-language contexts need not wholly detract from their importance to the domain of second-language learning. The principal concern is with the use of'authentic' video materialin the main, recorded televisionrather than with
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materials specially contrived for language-teaching purposes or with the use of video for the recording and monitoring of student and teacher performance. Central to any consideration of language input is the notion of cotnprehensibility. In the sense that Krashen and others have used the term, comprehensibility of input is usually seen to depend on various language-based criteria such as communicative complexity, discourse type, and so forth. The concept of 'relative difficulty' for the learner is usually described in linguistic terms, quite righdy if language is the goal of the learner. But the question arises: does video, particularly in its authentic form, introduce any additionalfactors which may, in some way, inhibit its usefulness as a language-teaching aid? There is some reason to believe that this indeed may be so. In a recent article, Eunice Fisher of the Open University called into question some of the assumptions made about television as a pedagogical aid to the (first) language development of young children. In particular, she focused on the relationship between the kinds of information presented simultaneously through the aural and visual channels, posing the following question: . . . let us imagine a small child who, for reasons which may be social, cognitive or a combination of both, is not a competent language user. If such a child watches a programme in which the speech is largely redundant . . . will this child (i) process the visual and linguistic information, achieve some sort of cognitive matching and strengthen any shortcomings in the linguistic mode by using visual information, or (ii) avoid the effort of processing linguistically . . . and concentrate on making sense of the visual information? (Fisher 1984:88) Fisher, who labels these 'complement' and 'conflict' processing models respectively, goes on to cite a number of audiorities who tend to support the view that younger children, i.e. less competent language users, do find conflict between information presented in linguistic and visual modes. Donaldson's view that 'it is the linguistic mode which is ignored where a choice must be made' (Donaldson 1976) is one that finds resonances in the work of others working in educational television research bodi in Britain and the USA (see Vemon 1953; Mielke and Chen in Howe 1983). The similarity implied here between adult second-language learning and first-language acquisition among young children is, of course, open to question, but the analogy is one frequendy invoked (or implied) by those working in other areas of linguistic analysis, notably interlanguage studies and second-language acquisition. However, the problem of competing aural and visual channels does not appear to be one confined to young children. In a series of experiments on comprehension across different media (Trenaman 1967), some evidence emerged that increased visual movement on television programmes had a detrimental effect on the comprehension scores of test subjects classed in the 'unskilled' job category (for which, perhaps, read 'restricted code user'?). More recently, in a series of experiments at North-East London Polytechnic (Gunter 1980), an attempt was made to measure the retention of information presented in three types of television news broadcast. 1 In these experiments, three different visual formats were compared: 132 IainMacWUliam

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'talking head'newsreader only 'talking head' interspersed with still pictures 'talking head' introduction followed by motion pictures. In all formats the spoken commentary remained the same. The research finding was that there was a greater loss of information by test subjects from news stories accompanied by picture materials than from those presented by the newsreader alone. A similar conclusion, that the visible presence of a speaker enhanced aural comprehension, had also been reached by the psychologist M. D. Vemon in a series of experiments conducted in the early 1950s (Vernon 1953). The preoccupation of all of the researchers quoted here has been with the loss of information presented via the aural channel, i.e. spoken language, when accompanied by visual information of a non-linguistic nature. There is no suggestion that paralinguistic features, for example, or sub-titling2 are anything but supportive of speech comprehension. The general position taken here is the one taken by Severin in what he termed 'Cue Summation Theory', which states: Irrelevant cues in the audio or visual channels will cause a loss of learning from either channel, but additional cues in either channel will lead to greater overall learning. (Severin 1968) More or less the same conclusion was reached by those engaged in the Schools Television Research Project (reported on in Kemelfield 1969). What are the implications of such research for the use of video in foreignlanguage teaching? Certainly it will make one approach with caution some of the larger claims made on behalf of the medium, such as 'The video stimulus also greatly improves the level of retention of teaching items in the students' memories' (RSA 1980:41-2). More particularly, it might prompt a re-examination of the use of certain types of video, especially those deriving from off-air sources. For example, widespread use is made of documentary-style programmes in which voice-over commentary is often the major auditory input. Indeed, probably on account of their topicrelatedness and generally 'serious' content, it may well be that such programmes represent a high proportion of video stock in current use. It is true that this kind of material is often valued for its 'information' content rather than linguistic content, or as a stimulus to post-viewing discussion activities and the like, but very often it is presented as listening or 'viewing comprehension' input. For all but the more advanced learners this may result in a lot of viewing and little comprehensionat a linguistic level, at least. On the other hand, the more convergent audio and visual strands of something like the soap opera Coronation Street, though less obviously 'respectable' in terms of content, may prove more supportive to the English language learner.3 A problem related to that which has been described above concerns video text length. In a fairly recent survey of video use in EFL establishments (McKnight 1981), it was found that the average length of classroom viewing sessions was between thirty and forty minutes, and that hardly any were less than twenty minutes in length, even for elementary-level groups. Since broadcast television itself rarely works in units of less than half an hour, these figures are hardly surprising. More recently, there have been calls for shorter units for language-teaching exploitation (Potter 1982; Video and language comprehension 13 3

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Pilbeam 1984) and, increasingly, ELT-specific materials have reflected this need (see Macmillan's Video English, for example). The main reason for this appears to have been a desire for material which could be more intensively exploited. But there is another good reason for working with shorter video texts. In an early series of experiments on the retention of information from broadcast television (Vernon 1953), it was found that there was a steep decline in the amount of aural information retained during the course of a half-hour transmission, and, from this research, it was felt that between six and seven minutes was the optimal maximum for native-speaking viewers. One can only assume that, if the main aim in using a video text in the foreign-language classroom is language comprehension (and it may not be, of course), anything longer than this will be a relatively less efficient use of the resource by the learner. If the research and observations noted here do have relevance for foreignlanguage learning, then clearly the video resources presently available are far from adequate. The current choice of'authentic' television or simplified series leaves a very large gap, especially for the intermediate range of learners. In the same way that management-training interests have devised materials specifically to meet their training needsand have not, say, relied on scenes from Dallas to illustrate boardroom communication strategiesit should be possible for the language-teaching profession to create video which is both authentic, in the sense that the language is not artificially constrained, and, at the same time, amenable to exploitation for language-teaching purposes. Quite apart from the practical advantages to be won, it would go some way to dispelling the notion that anything appearing on a video screen must be 'good television'. However, if alternative criteria of design and use are to be adopted, they should be based on an understanding of the salient characteristics of the medium and of the learner's response to it, and little progress will be made towards either of these aims without a more rigorous, research-based approach to its use.
Received December 1984

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Not 1 It may be that television news presents a special problem for viewers. In a study by Nordstreng (quoted in Glasgow Media Group 1976), just under half of a sample of Finnish viewers questioned about the content of television news programmes immediately after they had been transmitted could not remember a single item of news, even when given helpful prompts by the questioners! 2 An interesting account of a study concerning one particular use of subtitles is to be found in Lambert ttal. (1981). 3 For some fascinating insight into the relationship between sound and vision in British soap operas, see Watt (1983). RmUnncm* Donaldson, M, 1976. Children's Minds. London: Fontana. 134 Iain MacWiUiam

Fisher, E. 1984. 'Television and language developmerit.' Journal ofEducational Television 10/2:85-90. Glasgow Media Group. 1976. Bad News. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Gunter, B. 1980. 'Remembering televised news: effects of visual format on information gain.' Journal of Educational Television 6:8-11. Howe, M. J. (ed.) 1983. Learningfrom Television: Psychological and Educational Research. London: Academic Press. Kemelfield, G. 1969. 'Progress report of the Schools Television Research Project.' Part II in Educational Television International 3/3. Lambert, W. E., I. Boehler, and N. Sidoti. 1981. 'Choosing the languages of subtides and spoken dialogues for media presentations: implications for second language education.' Applied Psycholinguistics 2:133-48. McKnight,F. 1981. 'Uses ofVideo in TEFL.' University of Wales: unpublished M.Ed, thesis.

Pilbeam, A. 1984. 'Time ripe for a new type of video.' Watt, J. 1983. 'British soap.' Teaching English 17/1: EFL Gazette, October 1984. 26-31. Potter, M. 1982. 'Video as a classroom resource.' EFL Gazette, September 1982. Royal Society of Arts. 1980. RSA Cert. TEFL Courses: 1980 Conference Report. London: The Royal Society of Thmmuthor Arts. Iain MacWilliam has taught EFL in Lebanon, Severin, W. 1968. Cut Summation in MultipU Channel Belgium, and the Netherlands, where he served as Communication. Madison: University of Wisconsin. British Council Director of Studies for three years. For Trenaman, J. M. 1967. Communication and Comprehen-the past four years, he has worked at the Institute for Applied Language Studies, University of Edinburgh, sion. London: Longman. Vernon, M. D. 1953. 'Perception and understanding where, among other things, he has been involved in the of instructional television'. British Journal of Psychol- development of home-produced video materials for language comprehension purposes. ogy XLIV: 116-26.

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Video and language comprehension

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