Narrow Watching – the new way to learn English

I’ve written a lot (some would say I’m obsessed) about the major role input plays in language acquisition. Here’s one previous post outlining this precious focus / principle. But I’m not a fan of extensive reading. Yes, it works but I don’t think it is the input students really need. Let me explain.

As part of EnglishCentral, I’m a proponent of the new video realm in teaching English – Extensive Watching. It is a multi modal type of learning and aligned with the interests and motivations of more digitally minded learners. I think one day, we’ll be talking about the four skills of language as Speaking | Listening | Writing | Watching . Video and especially for language learners, videos with subtitles IS the new textbook and new way to learn English.

Reading is much like watching a foreign (non English) video with subtitles. But imagine watching an English video with English subtitles to support the context and meaning. It is much more powerful and you get phonemic awareness, reading, sound/listening and direct visual support/context.

But you can even make extensive watching more powerful. Krashen (the father of input, input, input) advocates “narrow reading”. Read more about it here but essentially it is reading one author, one genre and controlling a lot of the semantic nuance so learning is narrowed and focused. Context is bridged and learning becomes easier. Like if you read only the Hardy Boys novels to learn English. Very similar to Kieran Egan’s “Learning In Depth” or “deep” learning concept. But I think narrow reading falls short of what I’d advocate. I think “narrow watching” is the thing.

We all have heard of students learning so much English so quickly from watching TED videos or 7 seasons of Friends. They “narrow” the learning corridor and make great progress. That’s what our courses, our topical approach on EnglishCentral is – Narrow Watching. Students can watch commercials and learn English. Or they can follow VOA news reports to learn English. What about learning English with “How to” videos? Even just listen to Obama and learn English. Or what I think is stellar – learn English with videos about food and recipes! If they do – I can bet they’ll make Krashen’s narrow reading progress X 2.

So my advice to learners and teachers? Narrow in. Find out what your students like. Focus in on that, go deep, not wide. It will pay off big time.


  1. As always, great insights from you, David. So you would suggest that we discourage EC users from “playing around” and sampling this and that….? They should do all commercials or all cooking or all Obama for awhile — until they have some mastery (or get bored?)


  2. Hi,
    I’m sorry, but I fail to see the relevance of this article adds or enlightens to an already known and accepted way of teaching.

    As a golden rule, learning by using a vehicle that is entertaining and/or meaningful (rather personal or professionally) encourages the completion of the goal outcome. Visual learning has become the basis of education, especially for American children. Hence, Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, and even Go Diego Go are not going to fade any time soon.

    However, reliance upon “narrow watching” is rather lazy. Much like parents who rely on TV solely for their children’s education, the use of videos can hinder the student’s learning and understanding as the same limited vocabulary and verbal nuances will be copied by the student. Unfortunatly, once these habits are enacted, they can be difficult to change. As a professional and someone the student trusts their education to, the approval of these limitations dishonors the student. It can also harm others who learn from the student and, potentially, degrade the language further as it becomes more dilluted and reliant upon media.


    • Tina,

      Thanks for the comment and I agree, Watching nor any method should never be a sole method used. There is no panacea or magic pill and I should have noted that in my post. However, I don’t think watching when properly done is “lazy”. You need technology to interact with the language, control the language. Good language learners do this – they’ll look up words, ask questions, rewind, hide subtitles, repeat/mimic and lots more ….. However, technology like EnglishCentral gives much greater control over the input and keeps students active and engaged – so no, my point wasn’t just sit in front of a screen and watch and magically become better at English.

      I’m not sure about your point regarding “degrade the language”? Is this possible? I’m a descriptivist and believe students should study the language being used – not something prescribed. But we do have to recognize that media is becoming much more the “norm” (see Chris Anderson’s delightful TED talk about the role of video now and in the future). I’ll also argue that you got it wrong about media / video having less verbal nuances. Video nowadays is real language, real in how people are, speak, behave. The problem with text is that it isn’t at all. You read and learn to read an author, not specifically to know English in general.

      Brenda – not discouraging browsing! We all learn differently and suggesting that this is one more effective approach among many. I think it would be good of teachers to point students to watch more of what they REALLY are interested in though. There is some benefit to this narrow but deep focus. But sampling, browsing if done in the right spirit is one great way to find out what we really are interested in. We might even find that “homerun” video, that video that makes us into a lifetime learner through video.


  3. Carlos Alberto says:

    Awesome indeed!!! Extraordinary well thought! So please, explain more and more about it, or give us more examples to accomplish your advice… I mean, so few teachers say this that it is the first time I see this input explained in details. Now I will go to print this page and will follow to know if other teachers go ahead in this matter and how they will do it… Congratulations!


  4. ken cowan says:

    Oh, use the student’s interests and their access to/proficiency with interactive media! I like it! Now, in practical terms, will students keep logs of their time viewing material? Will they document their viewing in journals or notes? Are students encouraged to form study coops, share resources, work on projects? How does the instructor interact/interface with students and media??? How do the students get accurate feedback?


  5. Ken,

    Yep,. a teacher’s job is never ending, thankless and full of details! You ask a lot of the questions extensive reading programs have to deal with and also any program that promotes student self directed learning. We are providing some of this overlay here on EnglishCentral – a new time on task report is right around the corner and this is the usual quantitative way to measure input. But more qualitative assessments are warranted – comprehension checks / listening tasks (like our hidden challenge in the player) / speaking feedback etc…. Check out our Teacher Tools for the reports you get. But at the end of the day – it is worth figuring out what works for your school/class and addressing your questions to meet those needs.


    Thank you for the kind words! Yes, we need more curriculum developers and teachers talking about this new kind of input/learning paradigm.

    You can learn more about Extensive watching on this post I did awhile back. Also, this article expresses a lot of why video is on the ascendancy –


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