Beyond Words – A Video Project for your Students by Shawn Severson

Beyond Words – A video project

Are you skeptical about using the New York Times with your students? Well, regardless of their level, here is a project they are sure to enjoy. It’s called “Beyond Words”. In it, students explore their acting, drawing, writing and speaking skills. For our purposes, we will modify the outcomes and the procedures slightly, but this is a project that could be done at any level, A2 level and above.

To quote the New York Times there is a magic equation, which we can apply to our learners of all ages: “Tenacity + a desire to edify + an enterprising nature – sloth = a beguiling result.”
In other words, if we, as teachers stick to it (tenacity), and encourage our students to build up their skills while having fun (a desire to edify) and they are creative (an enterprising nature) but not lazy (no sloth), then the outcome can be really beyond words (a beguiling result)!

So here is the challenge: make a 15-second video in which a word is clearly pronounced, the part of speech is given, the definition is read and then the word is used in examples or clearly exemplified through acting or pictures. The NY Times started publishing a Word of the Day in 2009, a practice on which this is based, and then in 2013 (by which time some 1,000 words had appeared) the NY Times Learning Network launched a Vocabulary Video Contest. At this point, the vocabulary list has 1,827 words and that number is growing every school day! When students are looking up the word, they can either use a paper dictionary or go to or Warning: advise Ss that they must not use the examples that appear in these dictionaries. Also, videos should really be no shorter than 10 and no longer than 20 seconds!

Students can take the lead in production: encourage Ss to work in pairs or groups of 3 although each student must submit their own video. Using their mobiles or a tablet, they have sufficient technological tools to make a good video. Then, as Ss are “digital natives”, as Marc Prensky started calling youth in 2001, they will use a video editing program to piece the different “takes” together, their definition and a screen with the definition written out. As you can see in the screenshot below, one student used VivaVideo, but I usually suggest Moviemaker and iMovie. What is important is to let students choose the software and be empowered to produce the final version. One student of mine, who had been absent for the class when we did the bulk of the project, recorded her definition, downloaded images from the internet because she didn’t want to star in the film and then did a voice over, editing it all on my iPad using iMovie.

So as a starting point for you as a teacher, take a look at what the New York Times gives as food for thought, just to get the creative juices flowing and to give your students some ideas:

“Use your imagination. You can act the word out, animate it, use puppets, draw, sing a song, create a dance, incorporate photographs, create a Claymation, or anything else that will help viewers understand and learn your word.”

To spur students and to give them good examples, one should also show several winning videos from 2018. The first 3 featured are good examples, as they show how acting, examples using the word and drawn images can bring a word to life.

My students touched on several different themes with these words: potion (n.), rave (v.), contraband (n.), anvil (n.), fugitive (n.), venom (n.), among others. Can you guess which word was illustrated in this screenshot from one student video? Talk to your colleagues, this project is easy and will be sure to get other classes also engaged.

For the original challenge, please go to