Kieran Donaghy is an award-winning writer, teacher
and trainer with a special interest in the use of film in
education. His website on the use of film in language
teaching Film English http://film-english.com/ has
won a British Council ELTons Award for Innovation in
Teacher Resources, the most prestigious European
media in education prize the MEDEA Award for User Generated
Media, and an English Speaking Union Award. He is the author of the methodology book on the use of film in language teaching Film in Action (DELTA Publishing). You can find out more about Kieran and his work at his website http://kierandonaghy.com/
(This interview was first published on the ELTA Serbia newsletter July-August 2016 issue )
Vicky: First of all, Kieran, I would like to say that it is a pleasure to have you with us.
Kieran Donaghy: Thank you very much for inviting me.
Vicky: Your last book, ‘Film in Action’ has been out for some time now and has truly
made an impact. This is the first one actually you are not co-authoring. What are the
challenges of writing a book on your own, without sharing the ‘load’ with someone
Kieran Donaghy: ‘Film in Action’ has been out for just over a year now, and it has a
lot of very positive reviews. My publisher, Delta Publishing, are very happy as sales
are very high for a methodology book. Writing a methodology book on my own was a
real challenge; I’d previously co-authored books and this has lots of advantages –
you share the workload, you can bounce ideas off each other, and you can help to
motivate each other when things get tough. When you write a book on your own it
can be a very solitary experience. However, I had the great fortune of having a truly
wonderful editor, Mike Burghal, who put his heart and soul into the project, and in
many ways it was as if I had a co-author in Mike as he helped guide me and motivate
me throughout the writing process. If the book is any good, at least half of the credit
has to go to Mike for the fantastic work he did on it.
Vicky: You are a fervent believer that films can play an important role in education.
What will this role be?
Kieran Donaghy: This is an excellent question which requires quite a detailed
answer. Firstly, we need to examine the role of film in society. Today, we acquire the
majority of our information through moving image media: the cinema, the television,
the internet, and the screens that surround us where we work, shop, travel, socialise,
and learn. Film is very much at the heart of these moving image media which are an
important and valuable part of our culture. Technological developments, such as the
advent of the internet and the digital revolution, the proliferation of mobile devices
which allow us to capture moving images easily, the introduction of cheap and
accessible video editing tools and the emergence of video-sharing sites such as
YouTube and Vimeo, have changed for ever the way moving images relate to
society. In his excellent book The Age of the Image, which I think is required reading
for any educator, Stephen Apkon argues: ‘What we are now seeing is the gradual
ascendance of the moving image as the primary mode of communication around the
world: one that transcends languages, cultures and borders. And what makes this
new era different from the dawn of television is that the means of production – once
in the hands of big-time broadcasting companies with their large budgets – is now
available to anyone with a camera, a computer and the will.’
The fact that children and young people now have access to technology which allows
them to become media producers in their own right has important consequences for
our society and educational system.
It would seem, therefore, to make sense for schools to focus on the moving image
and capitalise on students’ knowledge and enthusiasm. However, many teachers
believe that a focus on core issues in the curriculum does not allow time for films and
television. Furthermore, there is a tendency in society to assume that moving image
media are bad for children and could detract from ‘real’ education. On the whole, our
educational systems have been very slow to respond to the new visual technologies
and the ascendance of the moving image in our society.
In English Teaching and the Moving Image, Andrew Goodwyn comments on the
failure of our educational systems to embrace the moving image effectively: ‘Given
the prominence of the moving image in twentieth century culture, and the current
evidence that it seems to be even more dominant in the twenty-first, it may seem
more peculiar that its study is not at the heart of a postmodern education.’
To better understand this slow reaction of our educational systems to the new visual
technology and the dominance of the moving image, it is necessary to explore the
concept of literacy which is currently undergoing a radical change and its impact on
our educational systems.
Literacy has been traditionally linked to an alphabet or a language code – that is,
through reading and writing – and linked with print media. There has been a strong
dependence on linguistic theories to define literacy. Consequently, education has
been dominated for centuries by written language and by print in particular. For a
long period, the book was the dominant medium of communication. However, with
the challenge of a technologically evolving landscape and the ascendance of the
image, particularly the moving image, the screen has taken that place. The fact that
the book has now been superseded by the screen in the role of dominant medium of
communication means the definition of literacy as decoding print is now outdated and
deficient, we must combine language-based theory with semiotics (the study of signs
and symbols and how they are used) and other visual theories, to provide an
appropriate meaning to the term ‘literacy’ in the twenty-first century.
As literacy, in its broadest sense, now reflects a wider cultural competence, the
hugely important role of film in our culture and society should be sufficient
justification for ensuring their integration in our educational systems. The importance
of visual literacy in education is widely acknowledged. It is generally agreed that
education needs to develop students’ skills and ability to interpret image and to
communicate visually, and in schools there is a very gradual move away from a
reliance on print as the primary medium of dissemination and instruction towards
visual media and the screen. However, visual literacy and, more particularly, film
literacy are still absent from, or on the margins of, national and international policy
agendas. While the ‘traditional’ arts such as music, art and literature have long been
established as core elements of national curricula in many countries, film education
has typically been ignored. There is a lack of understanding by policy makers about
the importance of film in children’s lives and, as a consequence, in our educational
systems. There is also a lack of a structured, systematic opportunity for students to
watch, analyse, interpret and understand films, and even less opportunity for
students to make their own films as part of their overall preparation for adult life.
If students are to successfully meet the social, cultural, political and economic
demands of their futures, they need to be able to read and write in all forms of
communication. The film director George Lucas asks the pertinent question: ‘If
learners aren’t taught this new language of sound and images shouldn’t they be
considered as illiterate as if they left college without being able to read and write?’
Educating children and young people to be film literate is about democratic
entitlement and civic participation. The skills needed for the modern day workplace
are quite different from what they were even twenty years ago, yet our educational
systems seem to be caught in a time trap. In our schools, we urgently need the
introduction of structured, systematic opportunities for students to watch, analyse,
interpret and understand films, and opportunities for students to make their own films
as part of their overall preparation for life.
Educational programmes should make use of visual and digital media, and show
students how to make their own visual texts, which better prepare students for their
futures in a rapidly-changing world because, film-making develops many of the life
skills – such as communication, creativity, collaboration, innovation, conflict
management and decision making – that are increasingly valued in the modern-day
I’m sorry that my response has been so lengthy, but I hope it answers your question.
Vicky: Is there a visual language analogous to written language? How easy is it for
us teachers to teach our learners how to critically think about it?
Kieran Donaghy: Yes, there is undoubtedly a visual language which is analogous to
written language, but to comprehend this visual language we need to explore the
terms ‘text’, ‘to read’, and ‘to write’. Text has traditionally referred to a book or other
written or printed work. However, we can also use the terms ‘visual text’ to refer to
photos and paintings, and ‘moving image text’ to refer to feature films, clips, short
films and videos, as well as learner-generated content. They are texts, in the same
way that books are texts – in the sense that they can be read (analysed and
interpreted) and written (created). To read has been used for centuries to refer to the
action of decoding and understanding written or printed texts, and to write has
conventionally referred to the ability to communicate in writing or print.However, we
can also use the term ‘read the screen’ to mean to analyse and interpret moving
image texts, and the term ‘write the screen’ to mean to make moving image texts.
So it’s necessary not just to think of texts as only books, reports, books etc, but also
photos, paintings, videos, films, etc. When we understand that photos, painting,
videos and films are visual texts we see that we can analyse and interpret them.
Indeed print and moving image texts share many common textual strategies. Both
print and moving image texts:
• tell stories;
• differentiate between fact and fiction;
• present characters;
• convey a sense of place and context;
• include generic features that help us to recognise certain types of stories.
Research also shows there are many connections between the processes involved in
reading print texts and moving image texts. Children who are able to draw on these
connections and parallels between moving image texts and print texts are more likely
to become confident and critical readers across different media, including print.
The concept of narrative is fundamental in linking print and moving image media. By
exploring how a moving image text ‘tells a story’, children use the concrete examples
of the visual to develop their comprehension of the more abstract nature of written
Children’s understanding of narrative structure, and their ability to develop
understanding of characterisation and plot, are similar for both print and moving
image texts. Thus, print literacy and moving image literacy are not mutually
exclusive, but can be developed alongside each other to mutual benefit to enhance
learners’ understanding of all texts.
To answer the question about how easy is it for us teachers to teach our learners
how to critically think about it, I would say it can be very difficult as the vast majority
of teachers have received no specific training in visual literacy or media production. I
feel strongly that training in visual literacy and media production should become a
standard requirement for all teacher teaching training programmes so that teachers
can learn to teach communication in all its forms and build systematic opportunities
for their students to watch, analyse, interpret and understand moving images texts.
Sooner or later ELT has to deal with the issue of visual literacy, but seems very
reluctant to do so.
Vicky: Your very successful blog site, Film English, is now known and used by the
majority of ESL teachers worldwide. Updating such a blog regularly, like you have
been doing for years, with new lesson plans may, at some point, become a routine.
How do you keep your enthusiasm and motivation high with this project?
Kieran Donaghy: I’ve been writing lesson plans designed around short films for Film
English for the last 6 years. The site has been more successful than I ever imagined
even in my wildest dreams; there are about 35,000 subscribers and it gets about
10,000 page views a day. However, it’s very difficult to find the time to maintain it
regularly as I have full-time teaching schedule, do teacher training, speak at
conferences, write books and articles, as well as having a family. I used to add a new
lesson plan every week but that’s impossible now; I try to add new materials every 2
or 3 weeks now, but as I don’t charge anything for the materials and as I get more
requests to do writing projects which pay, and I need to pay my rent, it’s more difficult
to update the site regularly. Having said that, the positive feedback I get from
teachers around the world does help to maintain my enthusiasm and motivation. In
addition, Film English has always been a labour of love for me and I put a lot of
myself into the materials, so that also keeps me motivated.
Vicky: Where/how do you find the films you use in your lesson plans? How time consuming a process is it?
Kieran Donaghy: I find nearly all the short films I use on Film English on Vimeo
which is a video sharing site. What makes Vimeo different from YouTube is that it is
a relatively small community of film-makers who share their short films on the site;
you don’t get the overwhelming quantity of videos you get on YouTube, and the
quality of the short films is much higher; so it’s much easier to find high-quality,
artistic short films on Vimeo than it is on YouTube. On Vimeo I only watch films which
are on the Staff picks channel, which, as its name suggest, is a channel where the
people who work at Vimeo select what they think are the best short films. When I first
started writing materials for Film English it took me an incredible amount of time to
find the sort of short films which are effective in the language classroom. However,
now after having watched literally thousands of short films, I’ve got almost a sixth
sense for the type of film which will work well with language students, and it doesn’t
take me so long. Nonetheless, it’s still a very time-consuming process to find just the
Vicky: Kieran, thank you for your time!
Kieran Donaghy: An absolute pleasure, Vicky!