Has this ever happened to you: you decide to sit down and watch a TV show in English to help you learn. Yet once you’ve finished you find you haven’t really learned much at all? On top of that, you didn’t really understand it as well.

This has been a problem a lot of my students have complained about. It’s one that I noticed while I did the same thing learning Spanish as well. It seems like it should be such a great way to learn, yet many people have a hard time with it. What can we do about that?

Here’s the quick answer: Set goals for what you’ll learn. Don’t just watch for enjoyment. Instead, focus on learning. Watch it more than once, with and without subtitles, notebook in hand to write down what you learn.

1. Establish goals before watching

If you just sit down and start watching something without having an idea about what you want to learn, you probably won’t learn much. You need to set goals and understand your purpose.

Purpose

Are you watching TV in English to be entertained or to learn? You can do both, but which is your priority? If your purpose is to learn, you can’t just start watching. You need to prepare a list of goals first!

Goals

What do you want to learn from this show? That can be difficult to determine without knowing what the show’s about, but here are some ways to do it:

  • Read a brief summary of the episode or movie online. Websites like Wikipedia and IMDB can provide this information.
  • Align your goals with what you’re learning in your other English studies. If you’ve started learning the past tense, set a goal to listen for 10 past tense verbs while you watch.

Your goals will vary based on what you’re currently learning, what you’re watching and what your current English level is. For example, don’t set a goal to learn words about business while watching a comedy like Friends. Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

  • Listen for 5 uses of the present perfect.
  • Find 5 medical vocabulary words or phrases.
  • Identify 10 phrasal verbs.
  • Listen for 5 idioms.
  • Listen for 3 uses of conditionals and identify which type of conditionals they are.
  • Identify 5 phrases used at a restaurant.

If you set a clear goal before you start watching, you will notice yourself listening more carefully and trying to understand better. After the show, check how you did. If you didn’t achieve your goal, hopefully you at least achieved part of it and learned something. If not, think about why not and adjust your goals accordingly.

What goals do you use, or what would you recommend to our readers? Let us know in the comments!

2. Have your notebook and dictionary ready

Take notes while watching English videosOnce you’ve decided on a goal, write it down! If your goal is to find 10 phrasal verbs, be ready to write them down when you hear them. You can also write down words or phrases you didn’t understand so that you can look them up later and add them to your vocabulary list. Write down any other thoughts you have about English while you watch the video.

Studies show that we learn and remember things better when we write them down. I find that writing notes also helps me stay focused and pay attention.

Keeping a dictionary nearby is also useful for looking things up quickly as you hear them. I like to use the WordReference app on my phone to quickly look up words in Spanish when I watch Spanish shows. Keep your remote control ready as well so that you can pause the video and look up the word. Then you can rewind the video a bit in order to hear it in context again.

3. Watch and rewatch, with and without subtitles

There is always a debate about whether you should use subtitles or not while learning a language. While I was learning Spanish, I found that they can be both good and bad. Here’s why.

Learning to naturally understand what you hear is harder with subtitles. They make it easier to understand what you watch. But then if you go talk to a native speaker, you won’t have subtitles to help you. The problem with using subtitles is that we develop a habit of just reading the subtitles instead of learning to recognize the sounds we are hearing.

On the other hand, using subtitles allows us to see what the speaker really said, as opposed to what we thought they said. Subtitles allow us to determine how much we are really understanding and associate new sounds with words we know.

So should we use subtitles or not? Both! How? By watching videos more than once. Here’s my advice:

  1. Watch the video first without subtitles, trying to understand as much as you can and taking notes.
  2. Optionally, watch the video again without subtitles to see if you can understand more. The focus is on learning to understand through listening.
  3. Watch the video again, this time with subtitles. Take note of things you misunderstood or didn’t understand before. Write down any new words or phrases you learn.

An advantage to rewatching videos is that you can learn to recognize correct word sounds easier if you hear them more than once.

One final recommendation about subtitles – only use English subtitles. You’ll be tempted to use subtitles in your language, but you won’t learn nearly as much if you do.

A lot of services offer subtitles automatically, but I’ll teach you how to add them to videos that don’t have them in another post.

How do you feel about subtitles? Let us know in the comments!

4. Repeat words and phrases you want to learn

While you’re watching, if you hear a word or phrase you are learning or want to learn, pause Watch and rewatch in English without subtitles.the video. Write down that word and rewind the video to hear it again. I’d even recommend rewinding it again to practice pronouncing it with the speaker in context. This is a great advantage of using videos to learn!

If you’re watching on a TV, many services like NetFlix make it easy to press a single button to rewind by 10-30 seconds. If you’re watching on a computer or phone, consider using a video player that gives you the same features. VLC is my favorite video program to use. You can even slow down the video if you want to hear it better or speed it up if you want to challenge yourself!

5. Watch in shorter segments

Trying to watch a 2-hour movie in English can be tedious if you’re taking a lot of notes. It can also be demoralizing if you aren’t understanding much. I highly recommend watching shorter videos, like TV shows that tend to last 20-30 minutes. If you want to watch longer shows and movies, try watching them over more than one day, only watching a part of them each day.

We’ll post some of the more popular shows that students tend to like in another post, so stay tuned!

One final tip – don’t try to learn everything

You still want to enjoy what you’re watching. If you constantly stop the video for every new word, you might learn more from that video, but you won’t enjoy it much. That will leave you less motivated to watch more videos later. So my advice is to just aim for the goals you set and balance learning with enjoyment.

Do it!

Here’s your challenge: choose an episode from a TV show you like and apply the five tips listed here. After you finish, come back here and comment about your experience! Was it good or bad? What would you recommend?

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