You’re a thief and a liar (by Graham Jones)

SkypeRead: Movie read-through for language learners

TESS: Do you know what your problem is?

DANNY: I only have one?

Ocean’s Eleven (Warner Bros., 2001)

The scene in Ocean’s Eleven where Danny confronts Tess, his ex-wife, in the restaurant of the Bellagio hotel and casino is a wonderful bit of cinema.

The emotions of the characters are highly complex. Danny — who has just been released from prison — still loves Tess and wants her back. Tess, on the other hand, hates Danny. But, deep down, she still loves him too. She’s also terrified, because her new husband — Terry Benedict, the ruthless owner of the Bellagio — is about to arrive at any moment. Things are complicated for Danny as well. He’s secretly planning to steal a hundred and fifty million dollars from Benedict.

The scene works well for a number of reasons. Danny is played by George Clooney, one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. Tess is played by the incredibly talented Julia Roberts. And the dialogue is razor-sharp.

 DANNY: I’m not joking, Tess.

TESS: I’m not laughing, Danny.

Now instead of George Clooney and Julia Roberts, imagine that this scene was played by a pair of non-native English-speakers from Italy and Japan. Imagine the Italian, a female, played Danny. Imagine the Japanese, a male, played Tess. Imagine they were not face-to-face, but were part of a Skype group call. Imagine they had only met each other thirty minutes before, at the beginning of the call. Imagine that their English levels were different. Separated by six thousand miles and eight time zones, could they possibly make this scene work?


This was one of the questions I set out to answer with a project called SkypeRead. The idea was to do online read-throughs of movie scripts with small groups of English-language students from all over the world.

A ‘read-through’ is one of the key stages in the process of producing a movie, TV programme or play. It’s where the actors meet each other for the first time, sit down around a big table, and simply read through the script. Most actors agree that read-throughs are lots of fun, but also a bit daunting. Everyone begins to learn about their characters and the way they communicate with each other, but it’s not a perfect process. People fumble their lines, get things wrong and make mistakes.

I loved this whole concept of meeting new people; of excitement and pressure; of learning through reading, speaking and listening; of people making mistakes, and that being part of the learning process. I thought: how cool would it be if we could recreate this experience for language students?

The idea was supported by some science. In fact, the idea was inspired by three powerful ideas from neuroELT, an emerging field that combines English-language teaching with neuroscience.

  •  Emotion drives learning. Emotion is a fundamental part of how the brain works. To put it simply, what excites the brain is what gets processed.
  •  We can choose a top-down or bottom-up approach. We tend to assume that top-down learning is better: quicker, more effective, more elegant. But this assumption is not always correct. After all, our brains evolved in a bottom-up world: nature does not provide classrooms on how to survive in the jungle.
  •  Good learners are risk-taking explorers. We should encourage mistakes! If we don’t make mistakes, we can’t learn from them — and the brain is very good at learning from mistakes.

SkypeRead seemed like a promising method for applying these neuroELT ideas, and so I set up a pilot programme. I put together small groups of four or five students from different countries. Each student would play a number of characters in the movie. I would be the moderator: I’d read the parts of the script that weren’t spoken dialogue, and I’d generally help to keep things running smoothly.

I chose two movies for the pilot study. One was “Toy Story”, on the grounds that it’s a well-known movie with universal appeal. It’s also a relatively short movie: the aim was to read through the entire script in two one-hour sessions. The other movie was “Ocean’s Eleven”, which has a narrower appeal and a more challenging script. It’s also a longer movie: our aim here was to do a partial read-though in a single one-hour session.

So how did our Italian Danny and Japanese Tess do? Could they make the restaurant scene work? Yes. It was awesome! The dialogue zipped and zinged between eastern Asia and southern Europe.

 TESS: You’re a thief and a liar.

DANNY: I only lied about being a thief.

Of course, they got one or two small things slightly wrong. But they got all of the big things magnificently right. They were clear, confident and compelling. In some places they were incredibly funny and had the whole group laughing. In other places they were intensely serious — and they achieved all this despite the Italian confessing afterwards that Ocean’s Eleven wasn’t really her kind of movie. The Japanese student reported that he could “feel fluency” and had developed “real English” speaking skills. He also wrote that taking part in the read-through had inspired him to “study English hard!!”

What did I learn from the SkypeRead pilot programme? I learned that emotion really does work as a learning tool, whether it comes from the fun and excitement of working with people on the other side of the globe, or from the humour and drama of a well-written movie script. I learned that a bottom-up approach can deliver amazing results: the participants in this project achieved everything themselves in a very natural way, by watching the movie, by reading the script, and by speaking and listening to each other. Finally, I learned that when language learners get out of their comfort zone, take risks and make mistakes, the outcomes can be breathtaking.

Note: This article by Graham Jones originally appeared as a guest post on Teaching Village and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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14 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    This is great, Graham! It reminds me a bit of reader’s theater, but brought into the 21st century in a way that improves the activity by making it possible for students in different countries to collaborate on the same activity!

    This is a very promising project, and I look forward to seeing it grow and evolve. Very exciting!

    Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

  2. Graham Jones says:

    Barbara, thank you so much for inviting me to write this piece! 🙂

    You’re absolutely right, it’s the cross-border collaboration that makes this project so enjoyable and rewarding for everyone.

  3. Dave says:

    What a great idea! I’ll have to visit your site on a regular basis to get more inspiration.

  4. Debbie Tebovich says:

    Hi Graham,
    Loved your post, the project idea looks great and lots of fun for participants as well as a good way to create a “memorable learning moment”, and I like how you support your project with neuroscience theory. Your reflections are powerful, I agree with Barbara, SkypeRead looks promising.
    Good luck, I’ll check your blog.
    Barbara thanks for “Teaching Village”
    Note.I did not enjoy Ocean Eleven either.

  5. Graham Jones says:

    Dave and Debbie, thank you so much for your encouraging comments!

    (Debbie, you didn’t like “Ocean’s Eleven” either? It certainly does seem to have a much narrower appeal than “Toy Story”! 🙂 )

    • Debbie Tebovich says:

      Hi Graham,
      I was thinking that it might have to do with gender. What do you think? We could try a survey …
      I love Toy Story! 🙂

      • Graham Jones says:

        That’s an interesting thought, Debbie! (Actually, it is notable that – apart from Julia Roberts – more or less the entire cast of “Ocean’s Eleven” is male.)

  6. Noreen says:

    I’ve never thought of using a movie script for readers’ theater. What an interesting project! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Graham Jones says:

    Thank you, Noreen!

    Incidentally, Barbara & Debbie, Julia Roberts says Steven Soderbergh (the director) persuaded her to do the movie by saying: “You’re the only girl, you’ll like it.”

  8. Being an English teacher myself, I greatly enjoyed taking part in Toy Story, one of Graham’s SkypeRead programs. Not only did I have a great time, but also learned some very interesting uses of language. Saying the language in context made me feel both my character and other characters at the time language was being used.

    Congrats Graham on your amazing project!

    Hugs from hot Brazil,


  9. Tauseef Farooq says:

    I appreciate the innovative approach in language teaching. Interesting ways in learning and teaching make it more meaningful and motivating. Coming out of the comfort zone is another important point which is part of this learning. There is competition in this kind of learning which motivates learners to put in efforts to excel.

  10. I don’t think it would make any difference to the entire thing even if that scene was played by some non-native English-speakers instead of our famous Hollywood faces. Such an experiment would have hardly affected the idea, concept or thinking behind the movie or that particular scene. What I mean to say is that if you decently fluent in English, you are always going to make sense to the other person even if you are from a non-English-speaking nation. I have heard Italians and Japanese speak English as elegantly as native English people.