Doctor Who lip reading – a lesson plan

Learning a language is a little like gymnastics. Bear with me.

Both involve learning how to position certain parts of your body in often strange or seemingly unnatural ways (at least, first of all) in order to produce something graceful. Just as a gymnast trains his or her body in order to move in a graceful manner, a language learner trains his or her lips, tongue, larynx, vocal cords, etc. to produce sounds which we hope are graceful. Alright, I’m not saying everyone who learns a language, or is even a native speaker, sounds or indeed has to sound graceful; the point about retraining your body I really feel is valid.

As a teacher I’m not sure that lip-reading is something that is really focused upon in what I do. Yet it’s so easy to do. Simply play a video clip with the sound down and ask your students to read the actors’ lips. You don’t even really need a video – just mouth words yourself and you have a quick activity for the classroom; your students guess the word you’re mouthing.

I really feel that so much meaning can be seen if we just look at the person we are listening to, but it’s not something I see students doing. In order for a dialogue to truly work between two people, don’t we need to look at each other? Doing so we can see whether the person is smiling or frowning, happy or sad, to get the sense of what they are saying. We can also use these visual clues, along with the shapes formed by their lips, to pick up anything that we don’t ‘hear’.

As said above, it’s easy to do. However, I think just mouthing words or playing a video with no sound doesn’t completely do the trick. Which is why I was really happy to find this clip:

It comes from the first episode of the fourth season of the revamped BBC programme Doctor Who. Among the episode’s themes are corporate espionage and repatriation of an alien species, but the part I’m interested in comes 2:58 in this clip. The Doctor comes face-to-face with former companion Donna Noble, through a window and a glass pane in a door. As such, they cannot hear what each other is saying. The moment when the lip reading comes to the fore is diegetic to the story, and as such I like it a lot more than just turning the volume down. Hence the origin of this lesson plan: Doctor-Who-Lip-Reading.pdf. I also created a pdf of pictures to use with this plan: Doctor-Who-pics.pdf

Level: Intermediate and above
Age: Teens/young adults and upwards
Topics: lip reading, writing
Grammar focus: direct speech
Time: 1 to 1 and a half hrs

As ever, I’d be very interested to hear what you think.

For explanation if you’re not au fait with Doctor Who, take a look at the links below:

Also, you might like to look at the BBC’s Doctor Who website:

You can also sometimes watch Doctor Who on the BBC iPlayer website:

NB – If you’re interested in how sound and visual image combine to create meaning, you might like to look at these two plans from TEFLclips:

Lesson plan 38: An auditory illusion and Lesson plan 57: Noisy collocations

For a great explanation of a running dictation go here.

Doctor Who copyright is owned by the BBC. Copyright of individual characters is owned by the writers that created them. No copyright infringement is intended here.

9 thoughts on “Doctor Who lip reading – a lesson plan

  1. Great stuff, thanks – i am a big Dr Who fan.
    I have tried to use parts of Episode rose in class but nothing as imaginative as this.
    There seems to be an opportunity to add in a step to the lesson plan where students try to speak their dialogue in synch with the video?

    • That’s a fab idea, and you’re right – it seems missing from the plan I’ve written. Excellent, thanks for the suggestion! If and when I rewrite it I’ll definitely include an activity like that 🙂

  2. So far tried it (the lip reading) with my kids, some adult business students and some undergraduates.
    The younger ones are much better at it.
    Women better than men.

    • Excellent, Chris. Thanks for sharing that!

      Did you ask them (kids, business students and undergrads) to act out the words while the video played?

      Very interesting that women are better than men…

  3. Hello Mike,
    I play the silence game to settle down my kids. (and it really works:))I can’t compare the ages as I only teach very young ones but I must say, girls are better than boys. I think, it’s about concentration and girls concentrate better than boys do…

    • Hello Esra, nice to see you here!

      Thanks for the comment. It’s an activity I really like, and I think a little underused in ELT (well, I speak only for my teaching). I like teaching body language as well.


    • Hi Nightwalker,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you’re going to try the lesson out. I find lip reading an underpractised skill, and I think it carries a lot of meaning. Not only by focusing on the speaker are you more likely to recognise the word from the shape of their mouth, but but you also pick up all the other non-verbal communication going on as well.

      Do let us know how it goes =)

  4. Hi again, yes (see above) i did ask them to act it out live but dialogue is fast so they need to rehearse before, which i didn’t have time for.
    Here is another idea from Dr Who – though probably very difficult – writing the other half of this conversation and then acting it out.
    It’s taken from the (excellent) episode Blink.

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