My Students' DVD Audio and Subtitle Preferences for Aural English Study: An Action Research Project

by Chris Elvin


In this article, I first define what action research is, and show by example how to conduct it.
My action research project investigated students’ preferred audio and subtitle options and sequences for studying aural English using DVD when a repeated viewing strategy is employed.
By listening to the students’ collective voice, reviewing the literature, and personal critical reflection, I conclude that their choices are generally very rational. I explain why I support their choices, and conclude that DVD for aural comprehension, in my classes, should always be played in English, with a balance of three basic subtitle sequences to reflect the majority of their preferred learning styles.

What is Action Research?

Richards, Platt & Platt (1992) define action research as teacher-initiated classroom research, which seeks to increase the teacher's understanding of classroom teaching and learning and to bring about improvements in classroom practices. According to Nunan (1992), it is a form of self-reflective inquiry carried out by practitioners, aimed at solving problems, improving practice, or enhancing understanding. Brown (1994) says it is any action undertaken by teachers to collect data and evaluate their own teaching. It differs from formal research, therefore, in that it is usually conducted by the teacher as a researcher, in a specific classroom situation, with the aim being to improve the situation or teacher rather than to spawn generalizeable knowledge. Action research usually entails observing, reflecting, planning and acting. In its simplest sense, it is a cycle of action and critical reflection, hence the name, action research.

An Action Research Project

There are many ways in which the teacher can exploit DVDs in class. I have used them for speaking and listening practice, by having students pre-read or post-read the transcript in pairs, for example, as a cloze activity for aural comprehension, or for pronunciation practice with ideal role models such as Harry Potter. I have also used DVDs to help students learn how to express themselves orally in English in a real and appropriate context, and had quizzes and short discussions.
If DVD viewing is done in conjunction with some strategy training, such as goal setting, prediction, ambiguity tolerance or note taking, then it can be a very valuable tool. Perhaps the most widely practiced strategy, however, is simply repeated viewing.
DVDs, unlike videos, have an array of subtitling and audio options that allow teachers the freedom and scope to plan and make well-informed sequencing decisions. Although supporting arguments for various subtitling and audio combinations and, to some extent, their sequencing exist in the literature, a general lack of agreement among my students over these options and sequencing lead me to investigate the matter as an action research project.
In the first survey, I collected data about my students’ DVD subtitling and audio options if they were using DVD for aural English study. In the second survey, I asked them about how they would sequence their choices.

The First Survey

Thirty-nine female senior high school grade three students participated in the survey, which was all of my students who were present on the day it was administered. This took no more than ten minutes of their valuable study time.
I presented my students with twelve DVD audio and subtitling options and asked them to check any ones that they thought were appropriate to them if their goal was to master aural English. I also gave them time and space for a comment either in English or Japanese after they had checked their options.
These twelve options are; listening in English with either English, Japanese or no subtitles, listening in Japanese with either English, Japanese or no subtitles, silent viewing with either English, Japanese or no subtitles, and no picture with either English, Japanese or no audio. I included the no picture and no audio option simply to present students with all possible permutations. Also, if some students checked this option, it might indicate that they were not taking the survey seriously.

Results and Discussion

Table 1 represents the thirty-nine students’ collective preferences.
Checked items mean that at least one student selected this option. Crossed items mean that the option was rejected unanimously.

Table 1 – Students’ Collective Preferences for DVD Audio and Subtitles

Listen in English with… Listen in Japanese with… Silent viewing with… No picture with…
English subtitles YES English subtitles YES English subtitles NO English audio NO
Japanese subtitles YES Japanese subtitles NO Japanese subtitles NO Japanese audio NO
no subtitles YES no subtitles YES no subtitles NO no audio NO

The Students’ Unanimous Rejections

Students selected five and rejected seven of the twelve options available to them.
Firstly, no student selected viewing in Japanese with Japanese subtitles, with one student commenting that she didn’t need subtitles to listen to Japanese, which is a fair point.
Students also unanimously rejected silent viewing, with or without subtitles. Of course, silent viewing does have its place in the EFL classroom, particularly if it is to stimulate oral production, such as doing an interior monologue (see Stempleski and Tomalin,1990).
Yet, silent viewing to help foster students’ aural comprehension still prevails in some quarters. At the 2003 JALT International Conference, I attended a leading publisher’s double-session presentation about classroom video use and experienced silent viewing for listening schemata activation. The clip we saw was of a young Japanese reporter interviewing Irish and German soccer supporters in the street during the 2002 soccer world cup. Others were waving flags, shouting and beating drums. The question by the presenter was “What do you think they were saying?”
Well, I can’t deny that to an extent this kind of activity encourages schema activation. We are all cogent beings, after all. I can also agree with him that I did notice things in the background that I otherwise wouldn’t have, but for what purpose?
I have never done silent viewing in class, which may possibly explain why no student selected it. However, their unanimity, and intelligent comments lead me to conclude that I needn’t consider this option any more. Silent viewing for aural comprehension, at best, is probably only marginally better than no viewing at all, which is why it is patently inefficient.
Students also rejected the English and Japanese audio options for no picture. Japanese audio is perhaps not so helpful for learning aural English, although some students could have found it useful as an alternative to L1 reading for getting to grips with the basic plot.
The English audio option, however, perhaps needs more reflection. Sometimes I have played a scene with the monitor off to help the students focus on listening comprehension. It may also be necessary during a cloze activity to avoid losing one’s place in the exercise. It can also be argued that listening without the distraction of a monitor is just as valid as listening to a tape or CD, which it probably is. But why had I been denying my students the stimulating and rich context and purpose for communication that these visual images provided? After careful consideration, I decided that I could no longer justify doing so.
Finally, no student selected the no picture, no audio option. On reflection, the amusement and hilarity it generated in class was perhaps just what was needed to ensure that the students participated earnestly, so mea culpa necessary!

The Students’ Preferences

Listen in English with English subtitles
This was the most popular choice among my students. L1 captions have had their beneficial use in second language learning contexts acknowledged since about the late eighties. Students using captioned materials show significant improvement in listening and reading comprehension, as well as word recognition and vocabulary acquisition (Goldman & Goldman, 1988).
In Japan, and more recently, Ogasawara (1994) discovered that fully closed caption videos were much more effective than partially captioned or non-captioned videos.
I have found that DVD original language subtitles are nearly always identical to fully closed captions, apart from the occasional absence of a few audio descriptions, and these subtitles are also nearly always almost identical to the dialogue, apart from the occasional paraphrasing during fast-talking scenes. Therefore, they should also be effective.
Kamei (1994) discovered that captions helped higher English proficiency learners process information, whereas it helped lower English proficiency learners obtain information from the movie.
Ideally, students will be able to develop both simultaneously, and this is what the literature suggests.
Kadoyama (1996) found that captioned videos were not only useful for improving students' listening comprehension, but also for reading and vocabulary development. Similarly, Kikuchi (1996) investigated the effects of English captioned movies on rapid reading and listening, and concluded that students made progress in both.

Listen in English with Japanese subtitles
This was the second most popular choice. This is how Japanese students normally view movies at the cinema and at home, so it is probably the most familiar to them. Japanese captions can help students to guess or recognize uncertain English words and phrases, but they can also be a hindrance if students rely on them too much. Whether they do actually help or hinder depends much on the proficiency of the student and difficulty of the listening materials (see Yoshino, Kano & Akahori, 2000).

Listen in English with no subtitles
This was the third most popular choice. Presumably, the goal of some if not many of my students is to understand English movies without L1 aural support, or L1 or L2 subtitles, so it is a natural choice.

Listen in Japanese with English subtitles
This was a very minor preference. Students choosing this option can benefit by getting a grasp of the storyline aurally in their L1 and also become familiar with some of the L2 vocabulary.

Listen in Japanese with no subtitles
This was also a very minor preference. The vast majority of my students echoed that listening in Japanese had little or no meaning.

The Second Survey

Feedback from my students clearly showed that repeated viewing of DVD materials is beneficial to their aural development, but to what extent are they really improving, if at all? Students receive information by reading and listening simultaneously. Does listening aid reading, reading aid listening, or do reading and listening have a synergistic effect on each other? In my classes, and perhaps for most Japanese EFL situations, I believe reading primarily helps listening. However, since it is not easy to design a simple experiment to unravel this dichotomy, I decided simply to ask my students about their subjective perception of their listening progress while studying using DVD. This, I felt, would help me to understand my students more than any black box experiment, even if well designed. I also felt that undertaking such research on my students might undermine our mutual trust, which, if met with resistance could dilute the significance of any data interpretation.
My query was, in a fixed setting such as a classroom, where some kind of compromise must be reached, how do I best sequence the audio and subtitling options so that among the students, there is the greatest happiness for the greatest number as far as aural English progress is concerned?
Of the five options that the students selected in the first survey, I asked them what their subtitle and audio preferences would be for first, second and third viewing. I also asked them to explain as best they could, in either English or Japanese, the reasons for their choices. Again, the time to administer the survey took no more than ten minutes of their valuable study time.

Results and Discussion

Seventy-four female senior high school grade three students participated in this survey, which was comprised of all thirty-seven of my students who were present on the day it was administered, and thirty-eight of my colleague’s (see table 2).

Table 2 – Students’ Aggregate First, Second & Third Listening Preferences

1st listening 2nd listening 3rd listening
Listen in English - No subtitles
Listen in English - English subtitles
Listen in English - Japanese subtitles
Listen in Japanese - English subtitles
Listen in Japanese - no subtitles

The data reveals that almost all of the students want to listen to English every time the DVD is played. Also, if students requested L1 input in order to access some of the L2 linguistic features, it is overwhelmingly via the reading channel, and not at the expense of a missed opportunity to listen in English. I decided that I could no longer justify playing a DVD audio language (?) in the students’ L1 in class.
Next, I investigated the students’ preferred learning sequences. With the order of difficulty in processing capacity of table 2 assumed to be progressively easier from top to bottom, the students would automatically fall into one of five basic sequences; up (progressively harder), down (progressively easier), valley (hard – easy – hard), level (no change) or peak (easy – hard – easy).

Table 3 – The Students’ Preferred Learning Sequences

Number of Students
Up (progressively harder)
Down (progressively easier)
Valley (hard - easy - hard)
Level (no change)
Peak (easy - hard - easy)

The most popular choice was progressively harder, with thirty-two students choosing to view the DVD clip by gradually moving their attention from simple plot understanding in their L1, to L2 aural comprehension. This is probably the most orthodox approach. It is scaffolding from the known to unknown, with schema activation, perhaps. Students who chose this approach said that they wanted to grasp the meaning of the story first before tackling a higher level.
The second most popular choice, with twenty-seven students, was to do the reverse. Their reasoning, however, appeared just as logical. These students wanted to have ambiguous ideas first, before having their suspicions confirmed of denied. Students who chose this method often indicated that it helped their confidence when their guesses turned out to be correct. This, I think, is a very effective strategy. It’s testing, in a sense, but it clearly appeals to some learners.
The third most popular sequence was from hard to easy back to hard again. The surprising thing I noticed among these students, was how so many of them were among the most proficient, outscoring the others in their most recent end-of-term listening test by an average of sixteen points in a hundred.
In Microsoft Excel X for Mac, I ran a t-test of these fourteen students with fourteen randomly selected students taken from the others using scores from the test. The test was made personally using sound files from a Helgesen, Brown and Smith’s Active Listening series CD (1996), from units that had not been previously covered in class. The popularity of this series among teachers and widely held respect that the authors command, I reasoned, could partially vouch for the test’s validity. It also had a relatively high reliability of 0.94 using the Kuder-Richardson 21 formula.

Table 4 – The Difference Between Hard – Easy – Hard DVD Preference Students and a Random Sample of Others in a High School Listening Test


There was a significant difference between the two groups. Of course, extreme caution needs to be exercised in making any claims about the outcome of this test. The group sizes were small enough to cast doubt about their normal distributions or equal variances. If the n sizes are equal, however, the t-test is known to be “robust” to violations about the assumption of equal variance (Hatch & Lazaraton, 1991).
Since the result was not anticipated, it may also be a case of data mining, which is looking for trends or anomalies without knowledge of the meaning of the data. However, if I can make a reasonable attempt to explain why this group outperformed the others, it could help to allay such fears. Could it be that the hard – easy – hard group had a heightened sense of awareness of their zone of proximal development? (see Vygotsky, 1978). Their feedback indicated that they were first challenging themselves, then confirming their guesses, before challenging again, so these students appear to know where they are at, and where they want to go. Also, they were twice as likely to test themselves than students from other groups.
One simple interpretation could be that the strategy is linked to task difficulty, in which case students may be expected to change their strategy as they become more proficient. Another explanation is that this strategy is superior to others, in which case I should consider using it predominantly, although students’ known preferences, personalities and differing proficiencies may make this unwise or unfair.
I shall err on the side of caution and assume it is a type I error, but I will certainly continue to investigate with this year’s incoming students, which is the cyclical nature of action research.
The fourth most popular choice was just one student, who chose to view the movie in English with L1 subtitles all three occasions, commenting that she could understand. However, her test score was noticeably low, so she may need guidance and possibly some self-awareness training or confidence building.
Finally, no student chose to view the movie from easy to hard back to easy again. This is not easy to explain, but it could possibly feel psychologically regressive to the students.


This action research project has given me insight about my students’ genuine needs, helped me to appreciate the complexity of their learning styles and differing proficiencies, crystallized my thoughts about using DVD media as a tool for language learning, and enabled me to reflect and then act in class.
Students now listen to DVDs only in English, and never silently or in Japanese. The subtitle sequencing is a balance of the three predominant preferences, which is subject to further action research outcomes.
My students have also gained. By critically evaluating their own preferences, they are now generally more self-aware and also more autonomous. Many of my students tell me that they are now studying using DVD outside class, too – which is the perfect solution.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge and thank my students. Indeed, it should not be overlooked how fortunate I was in having such capable language learners, with high intrapersonal intelligences, whose judgment I could respect, and whose insightful comments greatly facilitated my eventual decisions.


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Vygotsky, L, S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Yoshino, S., N, Kano, and K. Akahori. (2000). The Effects of English and Japanese Captions on the Listening Comprehension of Japanese EFL Students Language Laboratory, 37, 111-130.

s Elvin has a Master’s degree in education from Temple University, Japan. He is the current programs chair of the JALT Materials Writers special interest group, and former editor of The School House , the JALT junior and senior high school SIG newsletter. He is the author of Now You’re Talking, an oral communication coursebook published by EFL Press, and the owner and webmaster of, an English language learning website dedicated to young learners. He currently teaches at Tokyo Women’s Medical University, Soka University, Caritas Gakuen and St. Dominic’s Institute. His research interests include materials writing, classroom language acquisition and learner autonomy.

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