Alma animated short

Teaching World Language? Practice Storytelling with Animated Shorts!

I loved learning languages in school. I loved memorizing conjugation charts, long lists of topic-centered vocabulary, and—most especially—grammar rules explained to the point of unnecessary detail. I was your dream student. But I was definitely in the minority.

Realistically, your language learning class is made up of about 2% of students like me. The majority of students are more concerned about actually using the language. Students want to be fluent and, just like the way many of us learn our native tongue, often the best way to gain fluency is through telling stories.

A story is the perfect vessel to introduce our students to language because we can tailor stories to suit their level. Beginning students will need to hear or read a simpler structure with less vocabulary, whereas more advanced students can work with more complex structures, multiple points of view, and more vocabulary and detail. When verb tenses are taught via conjugation charts, or isolated in thematic units, students struggle to communicate authentically.

Regardless of their level, stories allow students to hear multiple verb tenses at the same time in a meaningful way. Listening to stories in other languages gives students the chance to internalize how vocabulary and grammar are used in a realistic way. For example, present tense can be introduced alongside past tense from the start, and preterite tense can be used with imperfect tense in actual sentences, rather than presenting the concept in abstract.

So, what stories should you use?

We can, of course, revisit familiar tales such as “The Three Little Pigs” or “Beauty and the Beast,” but what stories do we utilize when we exhaust our lists of tried and true stories? How do we mix it up? One way to to bring a fresh perspective on storytelling into the classroom is by using ready-made short film, or “shorts.” These videos are often beautifully animated, and are a great tool for engaging students with new material.

Why use shorts? Think about it:
  • Short films are often dialogue-free. Shorts can be used in all language learning classrooms, for all levels.
  • They can be beautiful, hilarious, eerie, or heartfelt… or all of the above! Hello, instant buy-in!
  • The storyline is quick, which makes them perfect for a variety of activities and assessments.
  • They are often extendable; you can ask your students to address questions like “what would happen next?” or “what happened before?”

How to use animated shorts in the classroom:

  1. Have your students clear their desks except for a piece of notebook paper and a writing utensil.
  2. Before you show the film, inform your students that they’ll be describing, retelling, or discussing (depending on the their level) what they see. Remind students that, as they watch the film, they need to write down words or phrases that they already know. This is key—students too often get caught up in what they want to say rather than use the vocabulary and grammar structures that they actually know. Remind them of circumlocution.
  3. After viewing the short, model your expectation for their output by doing it together, as a class. “Hmmm, I want to describe the setting… what words do I already know?” Start making a list on the board. Then, from that list, start putting a sentence together.
  4. Depending on your class and the activity (written or oral), have them work alone or in pairs. Pro tip: once you’ve done this activity a few times, think about using it as an assessment. You can still keep the assignment the same while switching out the video.

What videos should I use? 

Looking for a few short films to get you started? Check out my classroom-tested favorites below:


Alma – an eerie short in which a little girl comes across a toy store and finds a doll that looks exactly like her.

Classroom interaction:

  • “What’s time of year is it and how do you know?”
  • “What does she see in the shop?
  • “How do you think she feels when she sees the doll?”
  • Introduce the word “eerie” or “creepy” and discuss things that are either with your students.

Oktapodi – two lovestruck octopi must travel through the streets of a Mediterranean village to escape an evil butcher.

Classroom interaction:

  • “Describe the characters – how they look, how they act, and their emotions.”
  • “How do you think they got there?”
  • “What do they want? Where do they want to go?”
  • “What do you think will happen next?”

Lava – a lonely Hawaiian volcano sings for years, yearning for a companion.

Classroom interaction:

  • “What kind of vocabulary do we need to talk about this video?”
  • “Write a poem about what love is, and read it aloud to the class in the target language. Prizes will be awarded for the cheesiest, the best rhymes, the most heartfelt, and Best in Show.”
  • “Each student will be assigned a verse to translate into the target language. Then, volunteers will compose and sing (live or recorded) the class’ translation.”

Piper – a baby Sandpiper bird must learn the ropes about life on the beach.

Classroom interaction:

  • “The beach is a sandpiper’s home—write a letter to the public in the targeted language making a case to keep beaches clean for wildlife.”
  • “There is a clear moral; what is it? Write your own story that teaches a similar lesson.”
  • “This movie has no words; write the script for the movie in the target language.”
Piper pixar
This 2016 short is still under copyright and will be available soon!

Have another animated short in mind? Let us know at! Looking for an innovative way to map and share your world languages curriculum? Rubicon Atlas lets you share your work with other teachers, embed videos, and analyze your alignment to standards. Check out an Atlas test drive today!   

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