In M.C. Yang (Ed.), Papers from the eighth conference on English language teaching and learning in the Republic of China (pp. 531-540).  Taipei:  Crane Publishing Co., Ltd., 1992 (conference held in 1991).

Using the Video Camera to Improve Speaking and Performance Skills

Johanna E. Katchen


Due to long cultural tradition, East Asian students are often particularly reticent when it comes to speaking activities.  Consequently, when required to speak English, and especially when making a presentation, some students freeze: their nervousness combines with their nonfluency to produce disasterous results.  These students' main concern is surviving the ordeal, not improving their speaking skills.  Yet for those students who must speak English in their careers, this escape is not permissible.  What can be done to encourage better presentations?

Today in Taiwan we have the latest technology.  In our homes we have TVs, VCRs, CD players.  Young people not only listen to radios and tape recorders; they use the television screen to watch rented movies and play video games.  Outside along the streets, there are movie theaters and MTV parlors.  Video is all around us.

Schools, too, are often eager to buy new equipment, and yet when even when we can afford them, these new devices and materials sometimes just sit in storage because no one knows how to use them or how to put them to use in the classroom.  Witness the craze for language labs in the United States thirty years ago; after they were installed as an expensive cure-all for foreign language learning problems, many were soon abandoned just to gather dust.  Fortunately, more and more video materials are being produced for language teaching. The best come with teachers' guides; several books on how to use video in the classroom are also widely available (see especially Allan, 1985; Lonergan, 1984; Tomalin & Stempleski, 1990).

Video cameras, too, have become smaller, lighter, cheaper, and easier to use.  They make it possible for us to make our own educational videos and, perhaps more importantly, to record and view student performances in English.  In short, students can see what they look like and sound like to other people when they speak English by watching themselves on TV.  We teachers can use video to help students become better speakers in English.

This paper introduces the use of the video camera in the English language classroom.  It suggests a few activities that can be videotaped and offers helpful hints for using the camera.  Teachers who may feel a little reluctant should realize that a video camera is just a machine.  Once you learn to operate one model, then others are basically the same.  If you can operate an audio cassette recorder, then you can operate a video camera and playback.  After you use it the first time in your class and see the results, both on tape and on the students' faces, you yourself will think of more ways to put the video camera to use to improve your students' speaking skills.

A Few Hints--For Starters

What kinds of school activities can be videotaped?  We may first think of more formal performances.  We will want to record the class play in order to remember it, to watch it and enjoy it.  Student actors will probably want copies.  You can also record other student performances in English and even contests (poetry reading contests, mini-play contests, speech contests).

Students can also use the camera for rehearsal.  They record and then watch to see how they can improve the performance.  At Tsing Hua, the seniors have the use of a video camera when they are preparing their senior class play.  They can critique their acting as well as their English.

This critiquing value is the one that concerns us in the classroom.  We record students; speaking so that we can view and listen together, talk about what can be improved and the ways to improve it.  When we record again, we can see if indeed there was improvement.  Here we suggest role plays an oral presentations (speeches) as ideal activities to be recorded and watched critically.

Role Plays

These days, almost all conversation classes, from beginning to advanced, incorporate roles plays in some form. In beginning classes, students may just be standing up and reciting the dialogue given in the textbook.  Later, guided situations may be given; here students either have practiced a similar dialogue or have been given specific words or phrases to use.  Students have the most freedom, and hence must have greater language ability, when they are given a situation in only a sentence or two and asked to create the rest of the scene in any way they wish.  A colleague of mine gives students maximum freedom by asking groups of students to create their own TV commercials.  No matter what level you are teaching, the results can be enjoyable as well as enlightening.

Whatever you do, donot videotape an activity the first time you do it.  Do not record the first role plays the students ever do for you.  Give students a chance to get used to you, the teacher, their classmates, and the type of activity before you introduce that intrusive camera.  Some students may not know what is expected of them the first time around, but they will learn from their classmates.

I also find it useful to tell students when they will be recorded.  I tell them to prepare an extra good performance because they will be on TV and they don't want other people to see them do a bad job.  That advice seems to work.  From our first role plays, I encourage them to act, to use the classroom furniture as props and even to bring simple props (e.g., a coat, a pair of sunglasses, a doll or wrapped up cloth for a baby).  Students can be extremely creative and may put in a lot of effort in creating their role plays.  The first reward comes form an appreciative audience, their fellow students.  The second reward comes from watching themselves on TV.

For role plays, it is probably best to watch right after students perform, while the students are still full of excitement.  This means you will need a room that has a TV.  Your video camera can play back your tape, but you have to connect it properly to a TV, usually through a VCR that is already connected to a TV.  If, through time or room constraints, you will watch you tape during the next class, and if your camera uses the small Video 8 size cassettes, you may even in the meantime copy it onto VHS so that when you play it back, you won't need to carry the camera around.

Of what use is videotaping role plays?  First of all, the students enjoy themselves.  Role plays are often funny, and we all enjoy laughing, even occasionally at ourselves.  Students like seeing themselves on TV, even if they think they look a little strange.  The first time I recorded role plays in freshman conversation class, the next day a sophomore asked me with a rather disappointed look on her face why I didn't record role plays with their class when they were freshmen.  You can catch students' interest by using a leisure device in the classroom.

Despite the fun, we can also pick out problems with English.  We can watch even more critically a second time and point out grammar or vocabulary errors or concentrate on pronunciation.  We teachers do not like to interrupt students when they are performing role plays to point out every little mistake; they would defeat the purpose.  Yet if we mention a few points after the role play, the students often forget what they really said.  Was it a slip of the tongue or a real error?  But if you watch the tape with the student, sometimes the students themselves notice their own mistakes.  Another colleague then has students practice and record their role plays a second time, correcting their errors and explaining or improving their acting.

Oral Presentations

The ability to speak in public is given high value by Chinese, as evidenced by the number of speech contests for both Mandarin and English.  English majors are required to take a course in oral presentation.  While our students ma not be called upon after graduation to give after dinner speeches, they may indeed have to use English in their future professions to detail a procedure, investigate the cause of a problem, or put forth a solution.  Ability to express and explain their ideas is a necessary skill for our students to acquire, a skill that can be enhanced by the use of a video camera.

In one way, recording speeches is easier than recording role plays because students are usually standing in one place, behind a able or lectern, while they speak, although they may write on the board and move among he audience.  Students may be using visuals, and videotaping is a good way for them to see how visuals work or don't work for a particular situation.  Was the writing on the chart or the picture too small?  Did I write on the blackboard and then stand in front of it?  Students can also see how their body language--gestures, facial expression, posture, eye contact--appears to their audience.  We are using video to critique the visual.

The most important lesson students learn from viewing their speeches concerns their fluency.  While some students may speak rather well, with the pauses in the right places, others can be so nonfluent as to impede communication.  It is a startling experience for students to see themselves for the first time on TV and find out how bad they sound.  That is why, the first time we videotape, I like to watch the student's speech along with her and ask for her reactions.  Almost every student says "I'm so terrible."  From that, I try to get from her what exactly is so terrible.  We try to pinpoint specific problems.  If it is fluency, then I suggest more practice before the speech or even practice with a tape recorder.  Other points students point out themselves, such as "My hair was in my eyes," "I look too stiff," or "My introduction was too short."

It is important to get students to become critical of their own content and presentation.  We can point such things out the first time to give them an idea of what to look for.  Your grading sheet can mention the areas you think are important, and you can give students a self-evaluation sheet for when they watch their tapes on their own later on.  (Your criteria may change from speech to speech.)  And, above all, remember to mention the good points of the speech.  No matter how bad a speech is, there must be something good about it.  The student is already devastated; you need to encourage her.  Give her something to build on and an area to work on improving for the next time.

Watching all the students' speeches in class is not a good idea, especially if your class is large and if the speeches are longer and more serious.  Both students and teacher will be bored watching the same twenty speeches again.  Students want to see their won and maybe that of their best friend.  Students sometimes come in small groups to watch their speeches with me; that way they can make suggestions to each other.  Small group meetings give teacher and students a chance to get to know each other better; students are more likely to voice their feelings about public speaking or anything else.

Do not just record once and forget it.  Record at least one more time with that group, perhaps near the end of the course, so the students can see of they have made progress, and tell them they have.  They will not all be perfect speakers, but if the student who shook out of fear at first no longer visibly shakes, that's progress.  Language skills improve slowly.  Tell them.  There are no miracle cures, just steady work.  The old saying goes: You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.  A little encouragement goes a long way.

If you have the facilities, you can record more often and have students view their speeches on their own, keeping their own record of their progress.  Students may also work in pairs, critiquing each other.  They seem to prepare more and better when they know they will be recorded.  Generally, students say that they like seeing their recorded speeches.  Students are interested, they can see their problems, and they can see their improvement; these are good reasons for using a video camera in the public speaking class.

Using the Camera--Helpful Hints

As with any tool, using it without proper preparation can cause no end of trouble.  However, a little practice with your video camera and attention to a few details will minimize your problems.  Below are some pointers that I have found useful.

1. Preparing Equipment

Get to know your video camera.  Have someone show you how to use it and practice with it on your own.  Set it up yourself and make a test recording, even if it's just of the furniture in an empty classroom.  You can play back your recording within the camera visually, without sound, to see that it worked.  Although you may later have a student work as cameraman (students like having an important job), the teacher should still be able to operate the camera.

Before you use it, check the camera to see that it is in working order, especially if it is used by other people.  If you will be using batteries, then make sure they are charged.  Find your blank tape or a tape you can record over.  Always take a spare battery and an extra tape; even brand new tapes can occasionally be defective.

2. Planning Logistics

Is your classroom appropriate for videotaping?  Where will the students sit?  Where will the students perform?  Where will you place the camera?  Is there enough light?  Is there a minimum of noise?  Can you get good shots of students (not too far, not too close) and can you pick up the sound?  Most cameras have built-in, self-adjusting microphones, but you can attach a separate microphone to place closer to students.

How long will the activity take?  Remember to consider the time between speeches or role plays.  Some students may need a few minutes to set up their props.  What will you do if the activity takes more time or less time than you planned?

3. Explaining Procedures

If there are any special rules or procedures, tell the class before you begin or during the previous class.  For example, when we record speeches, we close the door.  If a student should come late or be early for the next session (sometimes we record in shifts al in one afternoon to save time), she is to wait outside the classroom until she hears applause, indicating the speech is over, and then enter between speeches.  This way there is no unnecessary disruption.

4. Videotaping

Get to the classroom early to set up, and always have a contingency plan.  Will the activity be done even if you cannot videotape?  If not, what else will you do?  If the workmen decide to cut grass outside your window, can you move to a quieter classroom?  If the electricity goes out, even if you are using batteries, the classroom lighting will probably be insufficient.  Too much noise or not enough light can render your recording useless.

5. Checking and Copying the Tape

Watch the tape as soon as possible, checking it for any problems.  You can save time by watching (and even grading) while you copy it.  If your camera uses Video 8, you may want to copy on to VHS for convenience in viewing.  Never give students the original unless you have a knowledgeable student who will copy it for you.  Make sure you have a teacher copy so that you can grade at your own convenience.

6. Viewing the Tape

If you plan to watch the tape with the students right after you record it, as in the case of role plays, make sure you know how to connect the video camera to that particular TV.  It is usually as simple as connecting two wires from the camera to the TV's already connected VCR and changing one or two settings, but ach machine is a little different.  You do not want the students sitting around for ten minutes while you fuss with the dials and connections.

If you use a VHS copy, although the students do not get instant feedback, playback is simpler and more flexible since you do not need the camera.  Students may even take a copy and watch it on their own or, if you have an audio-visual center, you can put a copy there for the students to watch at their convenience.

7. Grading the Students

Grading videotaped oral performances can be more detailed because we can watch more than once.  You may want to make an evaluation form for yourself emphasizing the important areas you are grading.  You can give the students a copy so they can see how you graded them and why.  You can make self-evaluation sheets for students when they watch their own speeches; if you require students to turn in their self-evaluation sheets, then you have to check on whether they actually went to view their speeches, and you can see how critical they are of themselves.

8. Evaluating the Activity

Sometime before the end of the semester, get students' reactions to the activity and ask for their suggestions on how to improve it.  Sometimes students have some very good ideas.

Concluding Remarks

What can we gain from recording students speaking in English?  First, quite bluntly, students see how bad they are and have a basis for improvement.  Because they are preparing something tangible, producing a product they can see, most practice harder to pout on a good performance.  Students can learn to become more self-critical. They can see their problems and chart their improvement.  Some make copies of their speeches to show family members or to keep for their own records.

Second, we can also observe body language and the use of visuals.  Many of our graduates will work as teachers or bilingual secretaries and, even for most other professions, we often have to share our ideas by showing as well as telling.  Students have to think of the most feasible, creative ways of showing what they mean, particularly when explaining a process.

Teachers, too, can reap certain benefits from videotaping.  After using your video camera a few times, you will have a few videotapes on your shelf.  Of course, you can use the tapes again by recording over them.  But I suggest you make VHS copies for convenience and same them.  Why?  First of all, you may get some ideas for research projects, for studying a particular aspect of the English language behavior or nonverbal behavior of Chinese students.

However, even if you are not interested in research, you can use your tapes in teaching.  When you introduce an assignment to students, some may not quite know what you are asking of them.  This is especially true for oral presentations.  You may be able to teach rhetorical structure with an essay, but you cannot see the effectiveness of a speech by reading it.  Why not show some sample speeches on video?  When you teach process, for example, show two or three of the best process speeches from previous classes and point out the good points to students.  Give them something to aim for. 

Students like to see older students that they recognize (an I have promised only to show good speeches, never poor speeches).  Remember, too, while it is also useful to view a professional speech, especially for style, not even native speakers can ever hope to be so eloquent.  But this year's student can try to be as good or better than last year's best student.  Seeing what other students have done encourages students to try their best.  They may reason--if she could do it, I can do it.

The video camera is a relatively new tool for the classroom.  Once teachers' apprehensions and logistics problems are overcome, the possibilities for its uses are endless.  It takes only a teacher with a little imagination.  Furthermore, our students life in a world of music videos and VCRs.  Using these recreational toys in the classroom is novel for many of them.  Students are interested; they like seeing themselves on TV, even if the result is not so great.  By seeing their performance in English, students have a basis for improving it.  And that is, after all, our objective as English teachers.


Allan, M.  (1985). Teaching English with video.  Longman.

Katchen, J. E.  (1989).  A course outline for teaching English speech.  In S. M. Chang, D. S. D. Tseng, & B. C. Huang (Eds.), Papers from the sixth conference on English language teaching and learning in the Republic of China (pp. 287-300).  Taipei: Crane.

Katchen, J. E.  (1989).  The video camera: Key to improving speaking skills.  Paper presented at the Japan Association of Language Teaching Meeting (JALT), Okayama, Japan.

Lonergan, J.  (1984).  Video in language teaching. Cambridge UP.

Tomalin, B., & Stempleski, S.  (1990).  Video in action.  Prentice Hall.

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