Disaster movies – a lesson plan (or two!)

This year I’m teaching a Proficiency group, with free choice of the materials I use and topics we cover. In the first lesson, we brainstormed a list of key words that could act as possible topics and each time I exhaust a topic I ask the students to choose the next thing they’d do from the list. This seemed like a really good idea at the time 😉 Then they chose…


I was completely stuck for inspiration, as the only thing in my head was Brexit and having only met them a couple of lessons before, this wasn’t a route I wanted to go down yet. Instead, I headed to the TD Lab Staffroom facebook group and asked them to help me out. If you’ve never come across the group before, Shaun Sweeney set it up as a way for teachers to ask for audio recordings on particular topics. And it was Shaun who rescued me, with a one-minute recording talking about what he thinks of disaster movies which he has agreed to me sharing here. That was the spark I needed, and it prompted two complete 90-minute lessons 🙂 Here they are…

Lesson 1: Intensive listening and spoken grammar

I started by displaying the collage of disaster movie posters from this website. Students discussed the following questions:

  • Do you like films like this?
  • Are there any you’ve seen? What did you think of them?
  • Are there any you’d like to watch? Why?

Next, I showed them a picture of Shaun. They had to predict whether he likes disaster movies or not, then listen and check. Here’s the recording (confusingly with a picture of me!):

Those were the easy stages!

The next part was the real challenge: listen what Shaun said and transcribe it word for word. Before the lesson I’d uploaded the recording to our Edmodo group, which all of the students had joined during our first lesson. Now they divided into groups based on how many people could easily access the recording via their smartphones, with one phone per group. They had as long as they needed to transcribe it, and could go back and forth as much as they wanted. To transcribe one minute of audio it took them around 30-40 minutes. If they didn’t know what something said, I encouraged them to play it repeatedly and make a guess. When one group finished, I skimmed what they had written and underlined sections for them to listen to again.

Once all of the groups had something, I switched on the projector and took dictation, replaying the audio section by section as we went along. Anything that they didn’t have exactly as it was in the recording was underlined in my transcript, and we went back and listened again. It took us 10-15 minutes to get the full transcript onto the board, and all of the students present were engaged throughout. As we did it, I explained possible reasons why they may have misheard things, for example words that sound similar, connected speech linking words together, or weak forms which almost disappeared. I made sure that every sound was transcribed, not just ‘grammatically correct’ utterances. The only thing that nobody in the class could hear was the ‘ll in Now I’ll generally… right at the start, which prompted a discussion of the difference between present simple and will to describe habits. Here’s the transcript we ended up with, including underlining to show areas which my students had trouble picking out:

Shaun’s disaster film transcript

In pairs, students had to identify all of the features of the text which are part of spoken grammar, not written grammar. They discussed it in pairs, then went to the board and circled everything they could find. We have a whiteboard and projector set-up, which makes activities like this much easier! Here’s the same transcript with all of the features of spoken grammar I could identify highlighted in yellow:

Shaun’s disaster film transcript with features of spoken grammar

We only had a few minutes of the lesson left, so we quickly listed these features, including:

  • repetition (it’s…it’s…; going to die, going to die, going to sit)
  • ‘simple’ linking words (and, but, or)
  • emphasis (you’re just going to sit…)
  • fillers (um…yeah…like)
  • unfinished utterances (one of the worst films)
  • approximation (probably around Christmastime)
  • lack of concrete ideas/listing information (something like Towering Inferno or something with a volcano, or people are stuck in a tunnel)
  • opinion phrases (I have to say; well I can’t get into it at all)
  • time phrases to structure speech (when I was a kid; more recently)

I’m sure that’s not exhaustive, and I know for a fact those aren’t the technical terms, but they’ll do! I emphasised that it’s not vital for students to speak like this, but that they still sometimes sound like they’re reciting from a piece of paper instead of speaking naturally, and that it’s OK to include any of these features in their speech 🙂

For homework, I asked them to read Mike Russell’s Make Your Own Disaster Movie cartoon and look up any of the vocabulary they didn’t know.

Lesson 2: How to create your own disaster movie (reading and speaking)

A slightly different combination of students in this lesson meant we started off by recapping what had happened in the previous lesson and giving everybody time to re-read the cartoon. We probably spent about 20-30 minutes clarifying various items of vocabulary with students trying to help each other to understand words, or me showing them how to find the information they needed in the OALD using the projector (they’re still pretty new to using monolingual dictionaries consistently, despite their level!) These are the words we decided to record on our word cards:

  • bicker
  • estranged family
  • wild conjecture
  • nature’s wrath/the wrath of God
  • lump things together, like it or lump it!
  • mankind’s hubris
  • a dormant volcano
  • mayhem
  • cat-burglar (this was their favourite, and has come up in pretty much every lesson since!)

I had cut up an article from The Guardian along similar lines to the cartoon, called How to write the perfect disaster movie. I gave each section to one student. They read it and wrote 3-5 key words or phrases on the back. The perfect disaster movie article to put in order

With their summaries (without looking at the original text), they then mingled to find out all of the ingredients that Paul Owen believes make the perfect disaster movie. As a class, they decided what order all of the sections should be in by sticking them to the board (with me out of the way). They read it all to check whether they were correct.

With two ‘menus’ for disaster movies to help them out, the students now worked in small groups to create their own storylines. We had about 10 minutes for this, with time for them to present their stories to the rest of us at the end. In the true spirit of disaster movies, these made very little sense but were very entertaining, with one featuring a volcano that stopped air traffic and a monk who decided that a sacrifice to the ancient gods was required to stop it, and the other starring a cop who was a single dad being fired from his job, a meteor shower set to destroy Earth, a magnet on the moon to stop it and a female scientist to coordinate the rescue attempt, who inevitably fell in love with the cop 🙂

Thanks Shaun!

Overall these were two very enjoyable lessons which the students got a lot of vocabulary and intensive listening practice out of, both things which they have told me they want. And all inspired by just one minute of audio!

5 thoughts on “Disaster movies – a lesson plan (or two!)

  1. This is a fascinating window onto a classroom (and at this kind of level) and one that raises a whole host of issues – the value of low frequency vocabulary items (e.g. bicker, hubris, mayhem); the blurring of linguistic and cultural lines – Meredith Burgess in the cartoon for instance; native-speakerism as a model for analysis; the kind of language analysis that takes place – in an interesting way.

    Also, I hadn’t heard of TD Lab Staffroom before so that’s an added bonus for me.


    1. Thanks for the comment. When you say it raises a whole host of issues, I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing overall, but here are my quick thoughts on each of them:
      – The value of low frequency vocabulary items: as it’s a proficiency group, we’re focussing a lot on filling in gaps in their understanding of vocabulary in as wide a range of texts as possible. The focus is receptive, though if they can produce them too, then great!
      – The blurring of linguistic v. cultural lines – this is the second time I’ve seen Meredith Burgess mentioned in relation to this cartoon, but I don’t actually know who she is! We’re exploring pop culture areas the students have shown an interest in, but again, trying to cover as wide a range of genres as possible.
      – The native speakerism here was purely because that was who replied to my original post – if it had been a non-native we’d have used that model!
      – The language analysis – again, as it’s a Proficiency class, I don’t really see the point in ‘teaching’ ‘grammar’ as they know most of the theory. Instead, I’m trying to show them different examples of language in practice and getting them to understand more about how it works.

      Glad to bring TD Lab Staffroom to your attention too.
      Happy New Year!


      1. Hello again, Sandy, and thanks for the reply. The comment wasn’t meant as a criticism, though I can see how it might have come across that way – they are mainly issues that I feel confronted with all the time and which I haven’t yet resolved to my own satisfaction in my own teaching practice (please note, when I say “my own” I am not oblivious to the satisfaction of the students and am conscious that their idea of being satisfied with learning might be somewhat different from my own(!)).

        But as you know yourself, they are also issues more broadly under discussion in ELT – the questions raised by ELF / EIL in particular present challenges at C2 (if not before then). How do we know what makes for a Proficient speaker of a language without reference to something like a native-speaker model even if, say, the native-speaker model turns out to be Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) – the polyglot Polish novelist responsible for giving English literature and language some of its most enduring cultural images in e.g. Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim?

        It’s something that’s on my mind a lot at the minute as, for instance, I’m just now reading a student’s work – a review of a slapstick action movie – which includes the following sentence:

        “The hilarity will land you on the floor but again quickly bring you on your seat, as the action continues.”

        There’s a great deal of sophistication here so (apart from the position of ‘again’) should I mention that “hilarity”, “land you on the floor” and “bring you on your seat” are all quite novel and that – maybe – the sentence might be more appropriate as something like:

        “The high jinks will have you rolling in the aisles but the action will just as quickly have you back on the edge of your seat again.”

        Would that be a helpful correction/revision or not? Did it really need to be corrected/revised in the first place given the fact that (to me at least) the original is already quite clear?

        And by showing the replacements “high jinks” for “hilarity”, “have you rolling in the aisles” for “land you on the floor”, and “on the edge of your seat” for “bring you on your seat” am I not just perpetuating the superiority of British English native-speakerist phraseology – cliches really – over the creativity of a non-native language maker?

        Whose English is it anyway?

        It’s these kind of questions which teaching C1 and especially C2 level students in particular come up all the time – and hence why I really found this post really interesting.

        (As to your other points, thanks for those as well – I might respond to them more fully elsewhere, i.e. on my own blog).


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