How to motivate and engage students with authentic video

Motivate and engage students with video

Sue Kay has been an ELT materials writer for over 25 years. She is the co-author of Pearson’s Focus Second Edition and is one of the co-founders of ELT Publishing Professionals. In this article, Sue takes us through her experience of using video in the classroom and shows us how to motivate and engage students with authentic video.

Watch Sue’s Spring Days Webinar on how to bring the outside world into the classroom with video. 

Videos are no longer a novelty 

When I started teaching in the early 80s, video was a novelty in the classroom. We only had one video player for the whole school and had to book it a week in advance. There was very little published material available, but thanks to the rarity factor, the students lapped it up. 

There was no problem with getting them motivated, even if the lessons accompanying the videos were not particularly exciting and consisted mainly of comprehension questions. Lucky for me, our school had a very dynamic Director of Studies who gave great teacher training sessions and I was very taken with a presentation he did on active viewing tasks. 

I was, and still am, a big fan of the Communicative Approach and I embraced the more interactive video tasks enthusiastically: freeze frame and predict, watch with the sound down and guess what people are saying, listen with the screen hidden to guess the action etc. 

When I’m preparing a video lesson I still try to include at least one of these activities because the information-gap provides an ideal motivation for students to watch the video and check their ideas. 

Is video a good motivational tool to use in the classroom today?

In the old days, video could motivate and engage a class because it was something relatively new, but what about nowadays when video has gradually moved from a ‘nice-to-have’ element of new courses, to a ‘must-have’? 

We teachers have unlimited access to videos, either those that accompany our course, or on the internet. But has this affected motivation? Has video also become harder to use as a motivating factor in the classroom?

Yes and no. 

Teenagers have grown up with a smartphone in their hand. They live their lives through video – filming themselves or one another, uploading and sharing video content on TikTok or other similar platforms, accessing YouTube on a variety of devices, and even aspiring to be like the YouTubers they spend hours and hours watching. 

The importance of this to the way we teach is summed up by this quote from The Age of the Image “We can’t learn or teach what we can’t communicate – and increasingly that communication is being done through visual media.” 

Video is the ideal medium for teaching 21st century skills and visual literacy. None of my students bat an eyelid when I ask them to make a video for homework, film themselves telling an anecdote, watch a grammar explanation online, or do some online research.

But in terms of what we watch in class, our videos need to work harder than before. In my experience, students won’t tolerate boring or unnatural videos, just because they’re in English. Because they watch so many online films, documentaries and series, students are used to high production values, strong narratives and authentic material. 

What makes a motivating and engaging video?

When we were writing the second edition of Focus, we were lucky enough to have access to the BBC archives. However, just because something has appeared on the BBC it doesn’t mean it is suitable for our students. In my experience, there are certain criteria that needs to be fulfilled in order to motivate and engage students with video. 

The Wow factor

First of all, it helps if a video has a visual wow factor. This may be an unusual setting, or a location with breathtaking scenery. If there’s no visual interest, you may as well do an audio lesson. However, stunning places and incredible landscapes won’t hold the students’ interest for very long.


There also has to be something in the video that the student can relate to their own lives. For instance, one of the clips we chose for Focus second edition is set in an amazing place in Turkey, popular with tourists who visit in hot air balloons. The students are unlikely to have visited this place, but to make it relatable and interesting for students, we chose an extract that focuses on the caves that older generations still inhabit, while the younger generation have moved to the nearby cities. The topic of young people leaving the countryside for the big city is a topic that will be familiar anywhere in the world. 

An inspiring story

A generation that have access to endless TV series and films on demand expect a good story. While this can be an episode from a drama – it doesn’t have to be fiction. It can be an inspiring story of human achievement, or any kind of human interest story that follows a journey and has a story arc.

Social relevance

The so-called generation Z, aged between 5 and 25, tend to be very socially engaged and open-minded; they want to change the world. So videos that air social issues are ideal as stimulus for discussion. For example, in Focus Second Edition we’ve included a video clip about  a project that’s underway in Holland, where students can have low-priced accommodation in a Care Home in return for some help with the elderly residents. In class, we’ve used this video clip as a springboard for discussing relationships across generations. 

Why are these types of video more motivating?

Videos that fulfil these criteria raise motivation in class because they facilitate more interesting lessons. If the video is visually engaging, it’s easier to write the active viewing tasks I mentioned earlier. If the topic is relatable on some level, the lesson can include  personalization and discussion, which wouldn’t work if the content was so far removed from the students’ reality that they have nothing to say about it. 

I’m particularly keen on videos that are engaging enough to facilitate follow-up tasks that might spark the students’ imagination and help to put them in other people’s shoes. For example, in Focus second Edition, we’ve included a video about window cleaners on the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. 

As you can imagine, the film shots are breathtaking, and have not only the wow factor, but the ‘agh factor’ too for people who are afraid of heights. The presenter, Dallas, joins the experienced window cleaners and you can’t help holding your breath as he climbs out onto the side of the building with a sheer drop of 800 meters below him. No wonder he has a dry mouth! 

The short clip is so engaging that the lesson practically writes itself. Here are a couple of examples of follow-up tasks which are only possible because the video holds the students’ attention and ignites their imagination:

Motivate and engage students with authentic video

All this increased volume and choice of video is great, and video certainly still has the power to motivate our students, but I believe we teachers and materials providers need to focus more on the quality of the videos we use in class than the quantity. 

Learn more about motivating and engaging students with video. 

Find out more about Focus Second Edition

motivate with video Focus Second Edition

In Focus Second Edition you can motivate and engage students with authentic video content from the BBC. Throughout the course learners will not only practice and improve their language skills, but also develop important life skills that will prepare them for the future.

Download a sample now! 


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