Teaching vocabulary for non-English major freshmen through English subtitled videos at Van Lang University

VO THI XUAN ANH - PHAM THI HOAI (Faculty of Foreign Languages, Van Lang University)


It is undeniable that vocabulary is the core of language. Without adequate vocabulary repertoire, communication cannot occur successfully. However, Vietnamese learners are confronting with the lack of real-life contexts to understand how new English words are used.  Employing subtitled videos to enhance learners’ vocabulary was taken into consideration in effort to find out a solution of the problem. This study aimed to investigate the impact of subtitled clips on English vocabulary learning. The findings revealed that learners showed positive attitudes towards learning English vocabulary with the support of subtitled videos and also agreed that English subtitled videos were useful in learning the use and pronunciation of new words.

Keywords: Subtitled videos, vocabulary, non-English major learners.

1. Introduction

Without doubt, English has become increasingly important nowadays as the Lingua Franca- a common language among many countries in many fields including education, technology, medicine, and especially business. Companies which go global look for workers and officers who are proficient in English. As a result, the large number of English learners worldwide tries to be proficient in English for communication and integration into multinational working condition.

In learning English, learners need to master 3 areas of language including vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. It is believed that vocabulary is of central importance as “lexis is the core of language” (Lewis, 1993) so the lack of vocabulary can lead to learners’ failure in the understanding others and expressing themselves.  Considering the current teaching for first year students at Van Lang University, what researchers discovered is that students are not successful in their vocabulary learning despite the fact that they are delivered with enough input. Besides, students are not able to apply the vocabulary learnt in their communication when being asked. This puts a pressure on researchers to look for a new method of teaching English vocabulary to help students. After a long journey to search for a solution, researchers realized that the applications of videos or visual-audio materials in the field of language education seem increasingly popular in the era of the information and technology. Danan (2004) views audio-visual materials as “very powerful educational tools” because they increase “language comprehension and lead to additional cognitive benefits, such as greater depth of processing" (p. 67).   The current research was conducted to investigate the impact of subtitled clips on English vocabulary learning in the context of Van Lang University. In other words, the study tried to find the answer for the question: How do English subtitled videos impact on non-English major students’ vocabulary learning at Van Lang University?

2. Literature

2.1. The importance of Vocabulary

It is obvious that vocabulary is essential for the improvement of four skills. Wilkins (1972) stated that “without vocabulary, nothing is conveyed”. This means that learners’ knowledge of vocabulary decides their comprehension abilities. Without sufficient vocabulary, a learner probably cannot speak, understand, read or write that foreign language (Rubin &Thompson, 1994). In communication, it is easily observed that learners who lack knowledge of grammar still manage his communication but the lack of vocabulary easily leads to the breakdown in information exchange. In learning a language, learners should acquire all skills and areas of that language.  Though we cannot restrict language learning to vocabulary learning, it is obvious that vocabulary is the core of a language, the basis for the development of language proficiency.  Thorbury (2002) believed that if learners spend most of their time learning grammar, their English does not improve very much. On the contrary, learning more words and expressions brings more improvement in language learning. However, learning vocabulary is a burden to language learners.

2.2. How video clips support language teaching process

Many researchers have been successful in proving the effectiveness of videos in language teaching and learning. Ruusunen (2011) discovered the powerful use of video clips for five different areas of language teaching such as oral communication, writing, vocabulary, grammar, and cultural aspects. For instance, videos “invoke feelings, opinions and create discussion” (Ruusunen, 2011). That is, videos create a good situation and reasonable topics for natural interaction and communication. By using videos, teachers could help students improve their writing ability (Nurcahyasari and Irawati, 2012). As for writing lesson, video with beautiful images and authentic sounds will be a good prompt for students’ imagination to create an interesting story. George (2002, p 12), indeed, confirmed that learners’ imagination increases much more when they watch a video with colourful images than when they read a journal.  In grammar lesson, teachers play videos, freeze frame the picture, and ask students some questions to elicit the grammar point of the lesson. Besides, teachers can benefit from “authentic language input” and “real-like learning” which videos provide (Katchen, 2002). With reference to vocabulary, the research of Lin (2011) pointed out that videos can create the development of incidental acquisition. For teaching vocabulary, teachers can ask students to record their own sounds, and then use them as their repertoire for teaching grammar and writing. Furthermore, video materials were considered to be more useful than audio-materials in the context of vocabulary learning (Bal-Gezegin, 2014).

Based on the positive effects of video clips mentioned above, it was believed that using videos was a good way in the improvement of teaching and learning English. In their own research in which a survey has done on staffs at one British University, Barford & Weston (1997) also came to a conclusion that video puts an undeniable pedagogical role because it was seen as a good teaching resource at that university despite its drawbacks regarding its practical use. Being innovative and different from previous research, this study was carried out at a school in Vietnam where there was a lack of real-life context for students to communicate in English because English was viewed as a foreign language there. In addition, almost all of learners were accustomed to memorizing the meanings of the words for doing school English tests instead of learning how to use them in the real-life conversation. Additionally, the study was distinguished from other researchers thanks to its qualitative approach which focused on looking into students’ thoughts and opinions towards phenomenon. In the previous research on the same topic by Hashemi & Pourgharib (2015), Yuksel and Tanriverdi (2009), and Mousavi and Gholami (2014), testing was the only instrument employed to measure the effectiveness of the videos in vocabulary learning. This meant that the findings of the previous research were not persuasive because they simply reflected one aspect of the phenomenon.

3. Methodology

3.1. The context of the study

The study was undertaken at Van Lang University located in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam where teaching and learning condition was rather good with well-equipped learning and teaching materials and modern school facilities and there was a large quantity of opportunities for students to access and practice English. It should be also noted that students there must get high marks in a competitive entrance examination; hence, considering their academic study, almost all of them were supposed to be good or quite good. Moreover, they were also strongly aware of the importance of English for their future life.

With respect to their school English program, there were 3 periods of English every week. Each period lasts 45 minutes.  The course book was Jet Stream- Elementary which provided learners with lessons on four skills and language focus.  As for vocabulary, new words were presented and taught in every lesson although there was no respective vocabulary lesson. Furthermore, the tasks for vocabulary were just simply lexis completion or multiple choices. Besides, there were no visual materials along with the text book, so teachers rarely used videos to teach vocabulary. Instead, games, songs, pictures, or even grammar translation were employed to teach new words. Therefore, the researchers came up with the idea of using videos to better learners’ vocabulary.

3.2. How the study was introduced

With the hope that students’ vocabulary learning was enhanced, the researchers made use of English subtitled videos in teaching vocabulary. The participants of the study were 30 first year students aged from 18 to 19 at Van Lang University.

As planned, the study was carried out over 8 successive weeks. The videos used in the research were the series of English Today videos which were downloaded from YouTube. Along with videos, the importance of subtitles in the videos was also highlighted. Yuksel and Tanriverdi (2009) stress that students learn vocabulary more effectively with subtitled clips as opposed to non-subtitled ones. Besides, these videos were checked thoroughly based on the quality of the image, the sound, and the content before being utilized in the vocabulary lessons. Especially, only the dialogues in the videos were intended to be shown in class for students to learn the new words. The other parts were ignored because they focused on grammar explanation. Each of vocabulary lessons consisted of three stages. Usually, it started with the introduction of the lesson. Accordingly, the list of the new words was presented. Next, the teacher asked students to pay attention to the use of the words in the video clip and make a guess on their meanings before watching an English subtitled video. When the clip came to an end, the teacher elicited the meanings, the uses, and the pronunciation of the words from the students. The following stage was production in which some vocabulary tasks were given to students to review the new words. Finally, the production stage with a role play task was offered as a chance for students to apply the words to communicate in their own conversation.

3.3. Data collection methods

The researchers designed the study according to qualitative approach with an effort to explore students’ thoughts and opinions towards the use of English subtitled videos in vocabulary teaching. Admittedly, the researchers kept in mind that the data collected from qualitative methods seemed quite subjective while quantitative approach provided higher generalization; however, based on the small scale of the current study with only 30 participants, the qualitative approach was believed to be better. In addition, in a qualitative research, participants were not limited in their answers and could share their opinions freely (Dahlberg & McCaig, 2010). Thus, obviously the desired data were more profound. 

Focusing on students’ thoughts, attitudes, and ideas towards the use of English subtitled videos in teaching vocabulary, there were three qualitative methods including individual semi-structured interviews, diaries, and audio recordings employed in the study. The aim of building the triangulation of these methods was to strengthen the reliability, validity and trustworthiness of the collected data because it was believed that the mixing of data types deepens a topic (Olsen, 2004). Hinchey (2008, p.76), in agreement of Wendy’s view, highlighted that the triangulation “increases the likelihood that findings are not idiosyncratic or unreliable”.

Another instrument employed in the research was in-depth interview. The advantage of an interview was that it “can reach the parts which other methods cannot reach” (Wellington, 2000, p.30). By hearing, seeing, feeling, the researcher could get profound understanding about a phenomenon. That’s why the interview (Appendix 1) was conducted in the current project. There were 15 participants randomly chosen for the interview. Each interview lasted from 30 to 45 minutes. The researchers took turn to be responsible for the interviews. When controlling the interviews, they made sure that the interviews took place in the most comfortable and friendly atmosphere. In addition, the interviews were well-organized with sound-proof rooms in order that the interviewees could be kept away from the noise and disturbance made by other students outside. Importantly, the audio-recordings were carried while the interviews were occurring. With the reference to types of the interviews, it should be stated that all of the interviews in the study were individual semi-structured because of two reasons. The first reason is that the responses of the participants, as Smith & Bowers-Brown (2010) emphasized, were a deepening and widening in response due to the follow-up or opened-ended questions. The second reason was the flexibility of interviewees (Esterberg, 2002) because they could share the ideas freely instead of being limited in the structured questions in a survey. Concerning the research question, it was obvious that they were built to get, at first, the general ideas regarding English vocabulary learning and then went deeper into students’ thoughts and perspectives related to the use of English subtitled videos in teaching vocabulary.

The second instrument applied in the study was diary because it was believed that it was the most appropriate method to explore how the phenomenon changed over a period of time (Nicholl, 2010). Moreover, it was also evident that participants’ thoughts and ideas were captured successfully on the spot as the phenomenon took place thanks to their diaries (Burns and Grove, 1999).  Moving back to the current project, the diary guide sheet (Appendix 2) was distributed to each of students when the lesson ended to make the collected data more systematic and reliable. Before they left the class, the participants were encouraged to write their answers in five minutes and submit the sheets to their teachers. The data collected from students’ diaries supplement some ideas and thoughts missed in the interviews which were conducted at the last week of the research. Of course, the participants could leave the class if they felt uncomfortable to express their opinions at that time.

Another data type of the research was originated from audios (Appendix 3) which the researchers recorded while learners were presenting their role-play task. With this method, underlying aspects of vocabulary and English subtitled videos which learners could not be aware of were disclosed. Moreover, it is obvious that the data were more contextual because they captured the moments when students were performing their roles.

3.4. Data analysis

There were 3 stages in which the collected data were first treated. They included transcription, organization, and back-up. Accordingly, the categorization of the data proceeded according to inductive approach which was called ‘bottom-up’ approach and involved a degree of uncertainty (Trochim, 2006). Eventually, the categories were filtered and their connections were found and synthesized. For the audio recorded data from the interviews and the students’ role-play performances, the verbatim transcription in which every word spoken by the speakers were noted down exactly (Smith & Davies, 2010) was utilized effectively. It took the researchers a lot of time to complete this process. It should be noted that the transcripts of the interviews were classified according to the similarities and differences of the participants’ responses; unlike, those from learners’ role-play performances were treated by digging deep into the progress of the learners in conjunction with language use. The researchers analyzed the number of learners’ mistakes in their performances. With respect to the learners’ diaries, the data were sorted out by looking into the common ideas which students wrote in the diary guide paper.

4. Finding and discussions

4.1. Findings

  • Subtitled videos attract students’ attention to vocabulary learning

According to Nation and Webb (2011) there are five factors of vocabulary learning (p. 635-636). The first is motivation and engagement. In response to the interview question “Do you like continuing learning vocabulary with the support of videos with English subtitles? Why?”, students identified that it was enjoyable and entertaining because watching a video is a motivational activity in itself. Watching videos brought a different learning climate from ordinary lessons with listening to the teacher (Kvitnes, 2013).

 “It’s relaxing and fun when watching videos” (student’s answer)

“Some situations are fun. I was attracted and eager to wait for the flow of the conversation.” (student’s answer).

It is commonly known that people prefer doing what brings them pleasure and learning English is not an exception. All of the students interviewed revealed that they usually focused much on the meanings of the words in spite of the fact that their pronunciation was very bad and they did not know how to use the words in the sentences and they had to struggle a lot with vocabulary. If they continue to experience stressful learning process like that, they are very likely to stop making effort (Horwitz et al., 1986). Exploiting subtitle video engaged students a lot because they memorize new words much easier if they get comfortable environment from learning (Cho & Krashen, 1994). Learners confessed that learning vocabulary through subtitled videos is relaxing and motivating.

“I feel relaxed when watching videos and that make me remember words better”. (student’s answer).

“After watching the video, words are still in my mind with the face of the character”. (student’s answer).

“It’s motivating because when I hear some words and expressions, I imagine how I will use them with my friends”. (student’s answer).

Students also said that the lively images and the musical sounds of the videos made them motivated in learning English vocabulary. This was found through all of students’ diaries.

“I like the lesson because I love the music”. (student’s answer).

“The lively images in the videos attract me”. (student’s answer).

“The videos were attractive. I could learn words in the context of the conversation in real life”. (student’s answer).

  • Subtitled videos improve students’ vocabulary understanding and other skills.

The use of subtitle videos in classroom was effective to improve learners’ vocabulary. When being asked about if using subtitle videos enriched their vocabulary knowledge, 96% of the students admitted that subtitle video assisted them a lot in their comprehension of the English vocabulary whereas only four percent of the students were undecided. Moreover, it has enhanced the students’ ability to recognize and comprehend the target vocabulary better. Apart from that, it was obvious in the interviews and students’ diaries that learners could remember the words easily when acquiring how the words were used in the video clips. One more factor of vocabulary learning is multiple repetitions (Nation and Webb, 2011, p635.636). They allow students to notice new words, idioms and bring them together and listen to words over and over again. Then the students can naturally memorize words (Ellis, 2009).

“If a video is on a specific topic, then some words can be mentioned several times and it helps my learning a lot”. (student’s answer).

“I can learn and remember more vocabulary when videos are used”. (student’s answer).

Furthermore, one of important findings from the audio recordings of learners’ performance was that learners also adjusted their pronunciation through watching the subtitles and listening to the conversation in the clips. In the interviews, some of them agreed that not only vocabulary but also listening skill were enhanced a lot thanks to English subtitled videos.

All of the participants revealed when being interviewed that they had made progress after the treatment. They felt more confident when using the words they learned to communicate. The data from the student performance recordings also supported the fact that students improved their role-play performance and pronunciation day after day. In addition, through students’ diaries it was seen that there was a significant increase in the amount of the new words students could remember when leaving class. Moreover, the student performance recordings implied that their reaction was faster and faster day by day because the quantity and the length of the pause in the students deceased after 8 weeks. Generally, it had come to a conclusion that students made progress in their vocabulary learning thanks to English subtitled videos.

“It is useful because I can imitate the pronunciation of the words, and I know more words of the topic which I have known before.” (student’s answer).

“Sometimes, I could guess the meaning of the word through the context of the conversation in the video.” (student’s answer).

4.2. Discussions

Obviously, the findings of the research proved that applying English subtitled videos to teach vocabulary can effectively improve students’ vocabulary memorization and engagement. The main reason is that English subtitled videos make class interesting and enjoyable with their images and sounds. Besides, students find vocabulary from English subtitled videos understandable and usable. English subtitled videos can also help students improve aspects of vocabulary knowledge such as meaning, pronunciation, and listening. However, English subtitled videos do not work well to every learner because there are a part of them failing to adapt with the new way of learning. Moreover, vocabulary containing in English subtitled videos cannot cover all required vocabulary in syllabi. Thus, it is necessary to combine English subtitled videos with more methods appropriately to reach the desired goal of teaching and learning vocabulary.

On the other hand, another problem the researchers faced during the research time was that the researchers had to follow the given syllabus for students at school. The vocabulary items that they taught from English subtitled videos were not very related to those in the given textbook. To be honest, it was difficult to find English subtitled videos that contained all required words to teach students. This made students lose their interests in the experimental periods because of the burden of their English tests. Thus, it has come to their knowledge that English subtitled videos need to be combined with other applications to teach vocabulary. Pigada & Schmitt (2006) states that “no single approach can reach all skills” and satisfy all learners.

5. Limitations and recommendation

It was a pity that the study was not successful as expected although the best efforts were put into it. In truth, there were some limitations which interfered with the research. The first thing was that it was carried out on a small scale; thus, the generalization might be affected. Secondly, the pressure created by the job as a teacher more of less prevented the researchers from exploring the phenomenon fully. The suggestion is that other researchers undertake further study on a larger scale with longer research duration.

6. Conclusion

The study conclusively uncovered that learners showed positive attitudes towards learning English vocabulary with the support of subtitled videos and English subtitled videos were useful in improving the use and pronunciation of new words. Learners could remember more words after each vocabulary lesson.  However, it should be noted that employing subtitled videos successfully may be a challenging process for teachers. Firstly, teachers should make sure that the school facility is well-equipped with audio-visual equipment. Besides, teacher’s ability to select videos which are suitable for not only students’ level but also school curriculum is extremely important. Considering the limitations of the research, the researchers suggest that further study will be conducted with a wider range of sample and different target learners and contexts.


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Khoa Ngoại ngữ - Đại học Văn Lang


Trong bối cảnh hội nhập và toàn cầu hóa, tiếng Anh vốn được coi là ngôn ngữ toàn cầu đang ngày càng trở nên quan trọng hơn. Không thể phủ nhận rằng từ vựng là yếu tố cốt lõi của một ngôn ngữ. Nếu không nắm được lượng từ vựng đủ thì việc giao tiếp khó có thể diễn ra thành công. Tuy nhiên, người học ngoại ngữ tại Việt Nam đối mặt với việc thiếu ngữ cảnh thực tế để hiểu cách sử dụng các từ mới của tiếng Anh. Việc sử dụng các video có phụ đề để nâng cao vốn từ vựng của người học được xem xét là một giải pháp cho vấn đề này. Nghiên cứu này được thực hiện nhằm tìm hiểu tác động của các video có phụ đề đối với việc học từ vựng tiếng Anh. Kết quả nghiên cứu chỉ ra rằng người học thể hiện thái độ tích cực đối với việc học từ vựng tiếng Anh với sự hỗ trợ của các video có phụ đề và cho thấy các video có phụ đề tiếng Anh rất hữu ích trong việc học cách sử dụng và phát âm các từ mới.

Từ khoá: Video có phụ đề, từ vựng, học viên không thuộc chuyên ngành tiếng Anh.

[Tạp chí Công Thương - Các kết quả nghiên cứu khoa học và ứng dụng công nghệ, Số 29+30, tháng 12 năm 2020]