Ten Tools for Reading Film


The Ten Tools were designed to provide teachers with a ‘route’ into the exploration of film and moving image in the classroom. They were assembled especially with inexperienced or beginner teachers in mind, and there is a deliberate attempt to avoid technical jargon wherever possible. They are not prescriptive, but rather should be used selectively and in combinations to suit the teacher and the learners. Each of the Ten Tools is accompanied by a list of potential discussion questions and typical activities. With practice, the teacher should come to know which of them will work best with any particular film text.

1 Making Predictions

One of the things we do as readers of any kind of text, is that we immediately start making predictions about the content, the message, the audience, the writer’s aims and so on, and we do this by making inferences from the evidence in front of us. If you are reading a poem, short story or a novel, you might talk about the title, the cover, the blurb and the illustrations if there are any. Learners discuss the sort of text they are about to read.

You can use the same kinds of activities before viewing a film, and at various points in the text. This can be done using the cover of the DVD, or a trailer, or the opening of the film. At key points in the text the Freeze Frame, Shots-in-Sequence or Sound & Image tools can be used to discuss what might happen next, or how it might end. As readers improve their skills, and become more aware of the conventions of genre and narrative, they become more confident in weighing up likely and unlikely outcomes, and in identifying the textual evidence for their predictions


Typical Questions

What do you think this might be about? (what makes you think so?)

What kind of film do you think this might be? (what makes you think so?) – this relates to an increasing awareness of the features of genre

What do you think (character) will do next? (what makes you think so?)

How do you think this will end? (what makes you think so?)

What do you think might happen in the sequel? (what makes you think so?)

2 Sound and Image

Sound is a fundamental element of moving image texts, and one whose significance is often overlooked (it is even ignored in the term ‘moving image text’!). Sound – particularly music – can set the mood of a text, it can signify genre, and it can often be more powerful than the visual images. In addition to its emotive force, the soundtrack often carries a huge amount of narrative information, absorbed subliminally by the viewer/listener. Sound can affect not only the way viewers interpret the images and how they feel about story events, but also what they think they actually see.


v  A soundtrack can have one or more of four elements – music, sound effects, voice and silence.

v  Sound effects are of two types – atmosphere (continuous sound) or ‘spot effects’ (short sounds).

v  Silence can be used to create tension or to slow the pace.

A number of techniques can be used to develop an understanding of the relationship between sound and image in moving image texts. Cover or blank out the screen and ask learners to listen carefully (for a few minutes only) to the soundtrack of a moving image text, writing down exactly what they hear. You can then discuss what ‘type’ of text it might be before watching:

Where is the film set? (indoors/outdoors? rural/urban? which country/continent?)

When is it set? (day/night? past/present/future?)

Who’s in it? (gender? age?

What’s happening?

What are they doing?

What is the mood/tone? (comedy/tragedy?)

How will it end? (happily/sadly?)

This exercise can also work effectively in reverse by playing a sequence without the sound, and asking learners to suggest, or create, a suitable soundtrack.

Typical Questions/Activities

How would you describe this music? How would the sequence be affected if it was a different kind of music?

What can you tell about the speakers from their voices? accent? tone?

Do the sound transitions in this sequence match the shot transitions? (In drama they may anticipate them, heightening the suspense)

Choose a short silent text and create an appropriate soundtrack (there are numerous silent films on the Scotland on Screen website)

3 Freeze Frame

Using the pause button on the media player allows the learner to focus on particular shots in the text (and also to appreciate that each shot is made up of a series of still images). By examining such things as the angle, distance and movement of the camera, and the use of lighting and colour, the reader can learn how every element of a visual image can carry meaning, and how visual images can be ‘read’ like any other text.

Typical Questions

What or who can you see in this shot? What difference would it make if it were composed differently?

Where is the camera in this shot? Does it move or is it fixed? What impression does that create?

What can you tell about the time and setting from the colour in this shot?

What can you tell about the characters from the background or setting?

What can you tell about the relationship between the characters from the camera angles in this sequence?




4 Shots in Sequence

This tool is used along with Freeze Frame to focus on a particular sequence of shots in a moving image text. Readers may be asked to estimate the number of shots after viewing a short sequence, or to note each change in shot, location or sound.

Readers come to appreciate that the number, sequence and duration of shots in a moving image text are created in the editing process, and that screen time and story time are usually different.

This tool can also be used to examine shot transitions (e.g. cut, dissolve, fade) and how the type of transition affects the meaning. The types of transitions used and the length of shots help determine pace, and contribute to the meaning. Sound transitions do not always coincide with shot transitions: in dramatic texts they often anticipate them to create suspense or alter the mood.


Typical Questions/Activities

Estimate the number of shots in a moving image sequence before analysing it in detail.

On the storyboard template, and using the pause on the media player, record a short sequence of a film (6-20 shots) by drawing each shot, copying each one off the screen one by one, and annotating afterwards with notes on sound and action

Use this to discuss the sequence.

What does each shot tell you? What doesn’t it tell you? What questions does it make you ask, what does it make you want to know? (What is she looking at? Why did he pick that up? Where are they going?. Can you see any kind of progression or pattern in the sequence?

Do we stay in the same place through the sequence or do we go somewhere else? (Do we return to the original location?)

Do we follow continuous time through the sequence? Or do we miss bits out, and shorten the timescale? Or do we stretch it even?

How does the length of the shots change throughout the sequence? What effect does this have?

What differences in camera angle, camera distance from subject, camera movement are there between one shot and the next?

Was there more than one way of moving from one shot to another? What are these transitions usually called and what do they usually signal?

Do the sound transitions coincide with the shot transitions or are they different? What effect does this have?

How long is this sequence/extract/text? How much ‘story time’ does it cover? How is that achieved?

5 Asking Questions

This may seem like an obvious strategy, since as teachers we do it all the time, but we are talking here about student-generated questions! The key idea is that we develop an understanding in the learner that asking questions is probably more important than answering them. This is a core strategy in the development of critical thinkers, and we need to guide learners towards the hierarchy of questions they should be asking as they read a text (see Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy). Questions generally fall into one of 3 categories – LITERAL, INFERENTIAL or EVALUATIVE – and we need to ensure that student questioning develops beyond the literal stage.

One simple but effective way of developing these critical skills is to use the ‘Tell Me’ grids (see Appendix) during the viewing of a moving image text. These allow readers to focus on specific aspects of the text and record the questions which naturally occur to them (these grids were developed by the writer Aidan Chambers in his book ‘Tell Me: Students Reading and Talking’ OUP 1993).



Typical Questions

How many characters are there in this story? (Literal)

Where and when do you think the story is set? (Inferential)

Why does (character) act in this way at this particular time? ((Inferential)

What do you think is going through (character’s) mind here? (Inferential)

How well do you think the author has generated the feeling of happiness here?(Evaluative)

6 Making Comparisons

When we read a text we are constantly (and sub-consciously) making associations between what we are reading and other experiences: other things we have read/seen/heard/watched, and our own real-life experiences. Or, to put that another way, we are drawing on our prior learning.

In order to develop that in young readers we can encourage them to make those links explicit and explore those aspects of the text which are most likely to elicit the comparisons. It is also important to explore the notion that, while viewing the text will often be a shared experience, our reactions to it may be quite different, depending on the associations we make.


Typical Questions

Does this remind me of anything I have read/seen/heard/watched before? How are they similar? How are they different?

Does this remind me of anything in my own life? How did I/would I behave/react in similar circumstances?

7 Looking for Patterns

By comparing and contrasting texts they have read, the sophisticated reader begins to show a deeper understanding of genre, or of the work of a particular writer, director, culture or historical period. Identifying recurring motifs within a text can help illuminate the text as a whole, and you can look for them in the soundtrack, the images, and in story events.

Patterns can be found in elements of the plot, or the repeated use of a certain colour or symbol, of types of lighting, of camera angles, shots or movements, of shot sequences or transitions. They can also be found in the soundtrack of course, in particular musical motifs or instruments, or sound effects – Sound and Image is an extremely effective tool for identifying these.

Using Freeze Frame or Shots in Sequence can also make learners more aware of patterns, by separating the shots in a sequence and looking in detail at narration.


Typical Questions

Can you see anything in the text which appears more than once?

Do you hear anything which appears more than once?

Do you notice any patterns among the images, or in the way they are filmed? (e.g. camera angle, distance, movement.)

Do you notice any patterns among the sounds? Are particular characters or actions associated with particular sounds?

Are there any recurring actions?

Are there any recurring ideas/themes/messages in the film?

Did the length of the shots get shorter or longer at any point in the sequence? Is there a pattern here? If so, what effect does it have on the viewer?

What kind of story is this? How do we know? (Introduce concept of ‘genre’ when appropriate) What would you expect to happen in this kind of story?

8 Generic Translation

Visualisation, or the interpretation of a printed text into internal images, is a natural process for trained readers, but the link needs to be made explicit for a developing reader. Asking learners to draw a character or a scene from a printed text allows them to present their unique interpretation of the text. Using graphic organisers such as Mind-Maps can be a very effective way of making sense of a text, summarising key elements, committing to memory or sharing with others, while storyboards or comic-book software make the creation of narrative easier and more fun.

In the same way, learners can often develop a better understanding of moving image texts by ‘translating’ them into a print genre such as a poem, short story, diary entry or newspaper item, or by adapting and ‘audio-visualising’ a short written text into a storyboard.


Typical Activities

Take a short written text (story openings can be good) and ‘audio-visualise’ it on a storyboard. (Note: 1/attempt ONLY after learners have become familiar with storyboards through copying off the screen (see Shots in Sequence); 2/keep the written passage VERY short – a few well-chosen lines or a couple of paragraphs can generate pages of storyboard.)

Write a short paragraph describing character x from a film you have seen, as if you were introducing them into a short story. Try to bring out their personality as well as their appearance.

Draw a mind-map showing the main elements of the text.

Storyboard the beginning of a sequel to the text.

Write the front page article for your local newspaper the day after the events portrayed in the film.

Make a PowerPoint presentation to convey as effectively as possible what you have learned from a moving image text.

Make a Podcast radio trailer for a film you have watched.




9 Summarising

The ability to summarise is an essential skill for the developing fluent-comprehending reader, but it is also a highly sophisticated skill which needs to be modelled repeatedly by the teacher. It is another of those aspects of reading which sophisticated readers take for granted: as we progress through a text we are sub-consciously assimilating and synthesising each new piece of information into a constantly updated summary of the whole.

There are a number of ways in which the ability to summarise effectively can be developed in learners. Writing or making a trailer for a film can be an effective way of making an accurate ‘summary’ of the whole text, whether it’s in the form of a ‘sound-only’ trailer for radio, a poster of the key elements, or a selected edit of shots from the original with appropriate voiceover (the films on Scotland on Screen website allow for download and edit through GLOW and are ideal for this purpose).




Typical Questions/Activities

Consider the title of the film (which is one form of summary). Can you provide a better one? Explain your choice.

Write a tagline for the film.

Write a ‘pitch’ for the film as you would present it to a potential investor in 25 words or less.

Write a synopsis (200-300 words) for the investor to accompany the pitch.

Write a script for a trailer for the film in no more than 100 words.

10 Evaluating

This tool will be used to a greater or lesser extent on every text, and it is one aspect of reading which rarely has to be encouraged. However, the process of evaluating or assessing the worth of a text is often the least considered or developed. Readers of any age will happily tell you what they think of a text, but will often struggle to explain why, beyond the stock responses of “it was boring” or “it was exciting”.

When engaged in this strategy, therefore, it is the quality of the discussion and the use of open questions which will determine the quality of the outcome. It is also important that in any evaluation, the criteria for success are shared and agreed, and these will usually be related to audience and purpose. An appropriate vocabulary needs to be developed over time.


Typical Questions/Activities

What was the author’s purpose here and to what extent did he/she achieve it?

What is the writer’s or filmmaker’s (as opposed to the character’s) point of view?

Was the ending credible? Satisfying? True to the rest of the story? Why?

Was this more or less successful than similar texts with the same purpose?

How could you have made the film better?





16 thoughts on “Ten Tools for Reading Film

  1. Pingback: Developing Media Literacy with Moving Image Education « ICT for Teaching & Learning in Falkirk Primary Schools

    • Hi Suzanne,
      Thank you for the feedback, and glad you found the Ten Tools useful. Come back and let me know how you are getting on in a few weeks’ time!
      Good luck,

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  3. I too am a student teacher (english/film and media) and I found the Ten Tools very useful. You give some wonderful suggestions on how to improve the reading of film. I particularly like that you have included typical questions and suggested activities and will be incorporating some of your ideas in to my work with three classes (2 films and a novel). There are so many things to remember when first starting out, so it is good to have a checklist of the most important information to be included. Thanks for improving my clarity – and sanity!

    • Hi Fiona,
      Thank you for your very generous comments. It’s good to know that the strategies are of real practical value to teachers, especially as you say when there are so many things to get to grips with at the same time! All the best with the three classes – please come back and let me know how you got on, or even better set up your own blog and send me the link.
      Best wishes,

  4. Hi Bill,
    I have a blog for one of my classes as I thought it would be a good way to support their learning. Access to GLOW seems to be intermittent in my placement school, and so I thought this would be easier for the students. It will certainly save on paperwork and allow for learning to go on outwith school (this was done before I found your blog so many not be as coherent as it could otherwise have been).

    More will be added as and when we do the work in class.
    Thanks again,


    • This looks great Fiona – I’ll have a proper look through it when I get the chance but in the meantime I’ve added it to my social bookmarks. Keep up the good work.

      • Thank you so much! Please, if you do get time, give me some feedback. I would like to know if you think it is over kill on the information. It’s tough at the bottom of a long learning curve. I just want to get them to think!

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  7. Bill, This is a great page. Just to let you know that CMI (with funds from Creative Scotland) will be launching miescotland.org next week at EIFF as a forum for those people interested in screen literacy, film education and moving image education. The aim is to push 21st Century Literacy and the relationship between narrative understanding and literacy back up the educational agenda. I hope you’ll be able to take part. Best wishes, David Griffith PS. The site is just a shell at the moment but you are more than welcome to sign up in advance of the topics being posted next week.

    • Hi David,
      Good to hear from you. I would very much like to take part in that kind of project, and glad to hear it’s getting off the ground. Look forward to helping drive it forward!


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