Using digital video recording with ESOL students

This is an action research project I carried out for the Subject Learning Coach Training programme, on the use of video recording in the ESOL classroom. I’ve been starting to learn Framemaker and have created a PDF that you can download here: VideoActionResearch.

Aims and Objectives:

I planned to investigate the value of digital video cameras in ESOL classes. I will evaluate the success of different ways that cameras can be used by students at different levels.


I planned to work with students studying on summer courses running through July and August 2009. I had first been introduced to the idea by a fellow participant on the Subject Learning Coach Training course[1]. I intended to trial different activities using Busbi[2] video cameras. I hoped that students would be able to use the cameras themselves to view the films in class. After discussing this with a colleague who was also following the SLC professional training programme, we both thought that this could be useful. My colleague had also tried using Busbi cameras in class and so we thought that we could use a coaching method to question my ideas for defining the project. We decided that while the study would not be able to isolate any improvement in language use brought about exclusively by the cameras, we would be able to identify whether staff and students felt that it was an enjoyable activity and whether they felt that it was beneficial for their language development. If both these factors were true, then we could conclude that this was a technique that helped to motivate students. While other members of staff were teaching these courses I would teach the sessions where video recording was to be used. The course tutors for these groups could then give feedback on how useful these sessions were. Feedback would also be sought from students through evaluation forms. We explored the idea of access to the video recordings and decided that the footage should be shared with students through the college’s VLE – Moodle. This would allow all students to access their own recordings, but also restrict other students from seeing them, unless students wanted to share their work.

Activities to be trialled were as follows:

  • With an L1 class, students work in triads to record role-plays on a subject covered recently. Students are then able to review their work, identify areas to work on and then record an improved version. These will then be shared through the VLE with students. This would then be repeated after a few weeks to allow emerging issues to be explored.
  • With an E1 class, students practice language recently presented in class, this can then act as a check on learning, which would allow both the teacher and the students to have a clear record of what they can do in English. This would then be repeated after a few weeks to allow emerging issues to be explored.

I planned to see whether students and staff felt that the activities trialled helped language development and also whether they enjoyed the activities. I believed that learners would feel that these are a valuable resource that would allow them to develop their language skills and that this would be enjoyable and motivating.

Evidence of Practice:


8th July: Working with the Level 1 ESOL Summer School class at the College, I intended to get the students to be able to use video cameras to identify any areas that they could improve on in their spoken English. The class had been discussing the topic of lifestyle and diet in the lessons preceding the session that I took. I intended that the students work in triads, acting out a roleplay where one partner described a lifestyle or health issue (real or imaginary) that they wanted advice about. The intention was that the students would first identify an area of their language use that they wanted to improve. They would then record their roleplay, watch it back assessing how successful they were in using that particular area of language use and then repeat the roleplay, trying to improve on the first attempt. The intention was that the students would then watch their second roleplay, hopefully identifying their improvement through the exercise.

The main problem that I faced in the session was that there were only four students present, which prevented me from being able to have separate groups of three students. I ran the activity as a group of four, with the students not participating in the roleplay filming and observing with a view to ask questions to the different participants at the end of the activity. This increased the pressure of time on the activity which meant that I was unable to get the students to repeat the roleplay. Nevertheless, the students were able to watch their recordings and could identify their areas of strength and areas that they wanted to work on. The videos were then shared with the students individually through the e-ILP module of the college’s VLE. There were initially some issues due to the size and format of the files. The cameras created AVI files between 60 and 80MB in size, these were too large to be uploaded to the VLE and so they had to be converted to smaller FLV files. The students and the class teacher were then surveyed as to their opinion of the activity. The feedback was generally positive. The students all felt that the activity was useful for their language development and all felt that the cameras were easy to use. Most students found the activity to be enjoyable, but there was one student who said that they did not like to be in front of the camera. Students commented that they liked to be able to see their mistakes. The course’s tutor felt that the exercise was valuable and that it would help to encourage student reflection and self-correction, she suggested that the length of each could be reduced. She also felt that it could be a useful activity to break the routine of classes, rather than a routine part of teaching in itself.

July 10th: Working with the Entry 1 ESOL Summer School class, I intended to get the students to use the video cameras as a way of recording their progress on a particular topic. The students had been working on language to describe where they lived. I intended to get the students to work in triads, asking each other questions on their houses. They would then watch their recordings and record whether they felt confident talking about this subject or whether they felt that they needed more practice. After a quick warmer and revision of typical questions about housing, students worked in groups of three and four to carry out and film their interviews. The students were able to successfully record their dialogues. Some of the recordings were too quiet for the students to listen to easily. Some students also found the controls for playing back the videos on the cameras to be complex, and inadvertently deleted some of them from the cameras. Despite this, the students who were able to watch their videos were able to say whether they wanted to do some more work on the topic or whether they felt confident that they could now do this. The majority of the students felt that they were able to talk about this topic comfortably. The videos were shared with the students individually through the e-ILP module on the college VLE. The students were then given a simple feedback sheet asking whether they liked the exercise and whether they liked using cameras in class. All six students responded that they liked the exercise. However, two students were less positive on whether they liked working with cameras. As I used a simplified feedback form, the information that I got from the students was somewhat crude. However the course tutor for this class was very positive on how the students had reacted to the task.

August 11th: I returned to carry out a similar task to that carried out before. The class had been discussing different aspects of culture, parenting issues and sport and leisure. I planned for the students to work in triads, one student filming while the other two discussed a question that I had prepared. As the class had also been working to develop their use of comparative and superlative structures, the students would review their use of these language areas as the watched their recordings. The students would then carry out further practice, ideally in pairs, discussing the questions provided with a new partner.

In this session there were six students, so there were no issues with the groups that students were working in. I reduced the timing of the recordings to three minutes to ensure that there was enough time to complete all the planned activities. The students were able to successfully discuss the questions presented and all students were able to film and be filmed. The most significant problem which I encountered on this occasion was that the cameras were not able to playback all the recordings made with sufficient volume for students to be able to listen to their recordings. This meant that some students could not reflect on their language use in this session. The issue was with the playback rather than the recording itself, as the clips could be played back through a PC with no volume problems. This was the solution that I adopted in this session. Students were able to comment on their language use, and were able to use this to inform their final discussion activity in pairs.

Again the videos were shared through the e-ILP module on the college’s VLE. As the length of the recordings had been restricted, the original AVI files could have been uploaded, however converting the files to FLV made them smaller, meaning that they would download much quicker and also meant that they integrated fully with Moodle.

The students were then surveyed for their opinions. All the students felt that this was a useful exercise for improving their language skills. Most students felt that the activity was enjoyable and that the cameras were easy to use. Students highlighted the fact that video recording allowed them to ‘see their mistakes’ that they may otherwise not have noticed, they also expressed disappointment in not being able to listen to their recordings on the cameras themselves. Here the course tutor felt that the timing was better on this occasion, she said that she could see that the activity had clear benefits. The obvious concern was over how easy it then was for students to be able to listen back to their recordings.

August 12th. I planned to repeat my previous exercise where the Entry 1 Summer School students used video cameras to record what their achievement. The students had been working on language to describe and ask about shops and shopping. I intended to get the students to work in triads to record each other and then watch their videos back and record whether they felt confident talking about this subject or whether they wanted further practice. As there were only four students present in this session I got the students to work in pairs, with the questioner also filming their subject. Bearing in mind the problems that I had found with playing back sound with the L1 class, I started the session with a quick “sound check” where the students briefly introduced themselves to camera and then watched the recording back to check that they could hear themselves. After a quick revision of shopping questions the students filmed each other asking and answering questions about shopping. The recordings were all done successfully and the students were all able to watch their recordings and note how well they judged their performance. The videos were then shared with the students through their e-ILPs. The students were then given feedback sheets to fill in and all felt that they liked the activity and that they enjoyed working with cameras. Again the course tutor for this group felt that this had been a positive experience for the students and would be beneficial.


  • The first outcome that should be considered is that staff and students considered the exercise to be useful and enjoyable. While this does not in itself prove that this exercise is beneficial to students’ language development, it should show that it is a motivating exercise. However it should be noted that there were a small number of students who did not like being in front of the camera, alternative provisions should be made for these students to be included in the session.
  • This project has shown how video recording can be used to allow students to reflect on their language use; while it is simple for students to reflect on and improve a piece of written work it is difficult to do the same with oral work without some kind of recording. This worked with students at both Entry 1 and Level 1.
  • That while £30-40 low cost video cameras are suitable for recording in class, care has to be taken to ensure that students speak loudly enough for the recording to be played back successfully on the cameras. Allowing students to record a “soundcheck” first to encourage them to speak louder is beneficial.
  • Splitting the class into groups or pairs allows for a more efficient use of time in the class, allowing each individual student to have more time practising their language use. Restricting the length of recordings allows more to be achieved in each session.
  • Digital video files can be shared easily through a Virtual Learning Environment. Watching the videos through this medium leads to clearer sound and visuals when compared to using the cameras. However, file size and format may be an issue and the use of conversion software can be beneficial. Flash Video (FLV) files worked better in Moodle and were roughly 15% of the size of the original AVI files produced by the Busbi cameras.

This project has shown that the use of cameras, such as the Busbi can be used to enable students a greater opportunity to reflect on their spoken language development and that this is possible with learners working between Entry Level 1 and Level 1. It has shown that most students find these activities useful and enjoyable. As a result the ESOL department have decided that we should use this technology on a wider scale in our year-long courses. Video assignments can be set related to each thematic unit to allow students to practise their spoken language. These videos can then form part of students’ e-ILP, recording their progress and allowing areas for development to be identified.


The most significant problem encountered on this project was that there was difficulty playing back some recordings using the Busbi cameras. The problem is that the integral speaker on the camera is not powerful enough for learners to be able to hear their recordings. One method that can be used is to save the reflection process for when the video is accessible over the college’s VLE. This does remove much of the spontaneity from the exercise. Possible alternatives are ensuring that students are aware of the need to speak loudly and at not too great a distance from the camera, which was done in the final part of this project, by asking students to record and watch a brief sound check. An alternative is to have a laptop or tablet PC, which can amplify the recording to a greater degree on standby, should a particular recording not be suitable.

This project was carried out with students who were following a short six week course focussing on speaking and listening. These techniques, however, could easily be applied to longer courses. Video recording can help to form part of a speaking diagnostic, which can be recorded on the students’ e-ILP. Student and staff comments can easily be recorded and it can be a useful benchmark to show students how they have progressed through the course. Video recording can then be used through the course to enable students to demonstrate their language ability in contexts and functions relevant to the different topic areas covered on a typical ESOL course.

In order that the results of this study could be fully exploited I returned to explore my findings with the colleague with whom I had originally discussed the project. We returned to the coaching approach that I had taken with my colleague at the start of the project to identify ways that the information found in this study could be used to help embed this technique within the ESOL department. I considered that a sensible timeframe to get this well embedded into the department’s teaching would be an academic year. This would allow a significant number of the ESOL staff to become familiar with the technology and techniques involved. We decided that it would be best if I could give direct support to other members of staff in their first experiences with using the Busbi cameras, and also to give training on how to upload videos to the VLE. I should produce training materials to support this. I also need to work with the team administering the college’s VLEs in order to ensure that recent changes made to the e-ILP module do not hamper the project. With my support, my colleague has now been able to use the technology with her own ESOL class and has designed an online feedback activity, which she used to capture input from the students, allowing them to successfully reflect on their own language use. She has told me that she feels that most students enjoy the activity and that they are able to reflect on their language use. She feels that the key to the success of the activity is the means used to get students to reflect on their work. This is the next area which we intend to refine. The use of coaching techniques has been beneficial, both in defining the project, analysing the findings and in enabling my colleague to take my work forward. I envisage that regular coaching sessions will enable us both to find better ways to employ this technology and also to get the rest of our team involved.

Thanks to Nigel Davies for supervising this project.

[1] Tim Pickard, who has produced a case study for the LSIS Excellence Gateway

[2] I had previously carried out a preliminary study comparing the Busbi, Flip and Creative VADO digital video cameras. While the Flip camera recorded higher quality video, the audio playback on the Busbi camera was significantly louder, making it more suitable for use in ESOL classes, where it was important for students to be able to hear their own language use.


10 thoughts on “Using digital video recording with ESOL students

  1. What an interesting project! It certainly sounds like this was a well-thought-out piece of research.

    I personally really like using equipment like sound and video recorders in my classes. It’s something that is becoming easier and easier to do (due to the decreasing price and size) of such devices. I recently did an ESOL session and got students to record themselves talking about a city they know. It was useful in that I now have concrete evidence of their ability to speak and listen. However, I did notice that some of the students were more apprehensive about being recorded! (NB – this was just with a digital voice recorder)

    I do think we have to be sensitive (and I’m glad you mentioned it) about students who don’t feel comfortable being recorded or videoed. This kind of activity could have quite nasty connotations for some people.

    Good luck leading the way with this technology and these ideas!


  2. Thanks for a great post. I’ve done something similar but I used PSPs (playstation portables) with camera attachments – they were very easy to use and came out as .mov files which I could play straight away on an interactive whiteboard.

    The downside is that they are expensive and it was only through a Molenet project that we could afford to get them.

    here’s the blog link

  3. Thanks a lot for the detailed description and deep analysis of your project. All stuff is great, but the Evaluation part is absolutely wonderful.

    Best wishes,
    Galina Kravets,
    EFL teacher,

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