Should I show the subtitles while watching El Internado in class?

understandFirst of all: I never show English subtitles. Kids who are watching at home are surely watching with English subtitles; ask them comprehension questions to make sure they are processing in Spanish in class.

The real question is should I show Spanish subtitles in class or let students “practice” listening skills? I have done it both ways. Before Netflix I championed the “go so slow that they do not need subtitles” approach. But keep in mind that, according the language acquisition theory that I am familiar with, students cannot acquire language if they do not connect the sounds with meaning. Most people find it extremely frustrating to be told to just listen closer in order to “practice” their listening skills. Before being able to hear at native speed, students need a lot of practice learning to process those sounds, first very slowly while they connect meaning to the sounds and then gradually faster and faster until they can process the hearing and meaning at the same speed as a native speaker. That is why we limit vocabulary– to give students enough repetitions to become fast processors. By the end of first semester my Spanish 1 students are fast-processing the sweet 16 verbs in a variety of tenses so I can explain a lot, but if we had not prepared beforehand then I could not imagine watching and discussing El Internado with them. Remember that the show does not limit vocabulary and does not provide CI: the teacher does that part. Since I have seen the series so many times I can now anticipate most scenes and act it out before they even see it. Even something simple like saying, Carolina va a decir “busca”, pero es cubana entonces habla con acento cubano. Escuchen, ella dice “buca”… (play video)… ¿lo oyeron ustedes? ella dijo buca en vez de busca.

Nowadays, however, I have been thoroughly converted to the “play with subtitles” camp. Part of what sold me on subtitles is reviewing the research on the massive role that reading plays in language acquisition. The research of Beniko Mason, a specialist in vocabulary acquisition, suggests that unconsciously acquired vocabulary through pleasure reading is acquired twice as fast as that acquired through traditional, conscious strategies. I am betting that the reading from subtitles of El Internado qualifies as pleasure reading for many of my students (as witnessed by the perfectly timed gasps when Marcos declares his love for Carolina, for example). Part of the reason I developed these study guides, in addition to keeping kids from getting lost, is to provide even more “pleasure reading”. I might be wrong, but I am now thinking that all of the reading associated with El Internado has a bigger impact on language acquisition than the listening, even when the listening is made comprehensible.

I have had many different approaches to how to integrate the novela into a class routine. Recently the way I have been doing this is by watching a scene or two in the last 20 minutes of class 3-4 times per week. The latest guide is really good at doing one scene at a time. Right before we transition to El Internado I glance at the guide to see which scene is next. Then we watch, with my stopping and explaining while we watch. Then we open the guide, read it together and I will ask additional questions, super simple ones that can be answered easily. Sometimes whole class responds, sometimes I choose victims. Put the guide away and then, together, we write a scene summary on the board: kids suggest sentences and I correct them/lengthen them by adding transition words as we go. I encourage speculation and description so that it is not just a repeat of the study guide. At the end of the week I may have a quick Internado assessment which includes questions, fill in the blanks, and short answer questions.

In one class period I might watch 1-3 scenes, depending upon how many of the extra activities we are doing & how much of the class time I am dedicating to El Internado. Even if the whole class is all Internado I do not do more than 3, I am more likely to identify a target structure and PQA, connecting the plot with students lives. An example of PQA with a level 1 class might go along something like this (assuming I had a good relationship with my student Travis): Carolina en El Internado quiere dos novios. ¿Por qué no? Travis, tienes tú una novia, ¿verdad? ¿Quieres dos? No te preocupes, aquí en la clase somos una familia, no vamos a decirle nada a tu novia… ¿cuántas novias quieres?) In my level 3 class I might ask them something like ¿por qué creen ustedes que es malo que Carolina tenga dos novios? En mi opinión es muy bueno que ella tenga dos novios. Hay muchas ventajas…

If students are complaining that it is going too fast (whether speaking or subtitles), then that is a good indicator that you have to press pause more often despite the cries of the others who are perfectly happy speeding along. Those whiners are the responsible ones who are telling you when the Spanish has become an incomprehensible blur!


  1. Mike, I think if your goal is acquisition, then use anything that aids in that. Reading is a great supplement to oral input, so use the sub-titles. If your goal is to practice listening comprehension, then no subtitles.

    • “If your goal is to practice listening comprehension, then no subtitles”… so, are you saying that it is good practice to expose students to incomprehensible input so that they develop listening comprehension skills? Someone came up with the phrase “linguistic waterboarding” to describe that kind of immersion, and I have come to agree that incomprehensible noise does not aid in acquisition. This is especially important for teachers using authentic resources like El Internado… regardless of what the teacher´s goal is, students have to understand the TL for the activity to be a useful class activity.

  2. Hi Mike, Just to clarify because I think I understood… you mean using subtitles in Spanish, the language of the show and the language you teach, correct?

    I ask because I have often talked with Chinese teachers about using a movie that for whatever reason has no English subtitles. When they think about showing subtitles, they usually mean English subtitles. Chinese films always have Chinese subtitles (I think it’s part of government literacy goals). But many Chinese teachers do not know what to do without English subtitles. I continue to write about and share about using MovieTalk instead of English subtitles. As you say, the teacher makes it comprehensible, not the original soundtrack.

    I wait to do MovieTalk with a full film until level 3 so they have the overall language to understand most situations, if simply described. I sometimes use the Chinese subtitles as we discuss the movie. It’s worked very nicely!

    • Correct: if subtitles are going to be used, I use the target language (L2), not L1. But of course MovieTalk (as I understand it) does not really have to even tell the full story portrayed in the actual movie… it is just a compelling excuse to recycle high-frequency structures in an unconscious, less-targeted situation. I am using full films with level 1, but I am largely sticking to those limited high-frequency verbs & cognates. When we use the subtitles, it is after discussion and often paused so that they have processing time.

      Wow, that is really cool that Chinese films come by default with Chinese subtitles!!

  3. This is so timely! I just started watching portions of El Laberinto del Fauno with my students. Unfortunately, the DVD drive broke on my computer, so I borrowed an external drive which also did not work, so I signed out the school TV, WHICH ALSO DID NOT WORK! I was finally so frustrated that I took my tech guy’s advice and purchased the digital version of the movie from Amazon. To my great dismay Amazon does not have much in the way of subtitling options, so with great despair in my heart we watched the first 15 minutes or so with the English subtitles on. Technology can be so frustrating! I guess I have two questions. 1: Do you have any suggestions for digital purchase sites where subtitles can be turned off or on in different languages? 2: If I have committed to this movie and movie talk and I can’t problem solve the tech piece at least for this class, should I just get through the movie and move on to the next thing or is there any way to make the best of subtitles that are forcibly on in English?

    Thanks again for this great post!

    • Oh that is unfortunate because the Spanish language subtitles on that film are great!

      Well, I guess it depends on the amount of class time you want to dedicate to this film. Committing to movie talking the entire film is a substantial amount of time… but so rewarding if the students find the movie compelling. In fact movie talk, as it was originally created by Dr. Ashley Hastings, was designed to view entire films with complete novices. Hastings would plan an interruption every 2 minutes or so. That is the way I would do it; as long as the content is compelling I find ways to talk about it in super simple Spanish using our basic vocabulary. Too bad that there are English subtitles, but I would keep on circling in Spanish to make sure that their comprehension of the movie in Spanish is 100%.

      However, if you are in a department that expects lesson plans moving between units every two or three weeks, perhaps with some sort of thematic focus, well, maybe a free form unit that takes however long it takes would not be acceptable.

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