AP EdTech ELA Language Arts Movies in the classroom Writing

TWO THUMBS UP: how to use movie reviews to improve student writing


Seriously I do. When I was in high school my dream was to become a movie reviewer. I had visions of watching movies and getting paid to do it. I mean just watch this scene from the movie Pi.

At some point you forgot that you were watching a movie and you got lost in it right? 

My favorite movies, books, graphic novels “put me in a mood.” They actually cast a shadow or color over everything I think or say for the next day or even week. So I use movies or movie clips whenever I can in my classroom, because they enchant. They give students a touch stone of memory a rosetta stone to understanding a difficult concept. One of those difficult concepts is the difference between commentary and summary in their writing.

For over seventeen years I have taught Advanced Placement English (both Literature and Language and Composition). I teach students how to write and recognize a well-written AP essay. More often than not the BIGGEST difference between a well-written essay and a blah essay is that the blah essay is full of nothing buy summary. They follow the source essay along bit-by-bit and tell me what it said in their own words. They think this is “commentary” or analysis. (Side note: I will address the difference between commentary and analysis later in this post) I use the word commentary because I went to a Jane Shaffer week long AP training in northern California years ago and it was awesome. I know she is in the “hate” or “not-cool” list now, but let’s face it she found a way to game the essay part of the test and it peeved people off. Regardless of how you feel about her, she worked hard to make it easier for students to approach writing about literature and non-fiction. For me commentary is what comes from the student’s mind instead of just regurgitating what they have just read or seen.

So summary is a problem. Some students even do what I can “smart summary.” Smart summary is where they make little observations about the text without really telling us anything unique or analytical. This writing rarely rises about a score of 4-5 on an AP scale of 1=9.

Before students can start eliminating summary and start writing effective commentary/analysis they need to recognize it. I find it’s easier to talk about if we can look at someone else’s writing so we use movie reviews. Now everything goes better in class when students can perform a task that is related to what they like so I want them to find two movie reviews on a movie that they love. I send them to the website Rotten Tomatoes. At Rotten Tomatoes you can see a full listing of movie reviews. I ask them to find two reviews of a movie they like and print them out. For the sake of this exercise we are going to use the reviews from the movie Star Wars. Click on the link here to see what I’m talking about.

“Stay on target” seemed like good advice at the time. 


Show them a movie clip from a movie you love. Then show them a paragraph or two from a review of the movie on your overhead projector. Go over each sentence and decide if it’s commentary or summary. Don’t go into detail yet- save that for tomorrow. Then post the link to RottenTomatoes.com online and explain to them that you want them to print out two movie reviews about the same movie. Tell them to use two different colored highlighters: one for summary and one for commentary. If they want to do it inside a word processing program and highlight them using the text tool, that’s fine.

Here’s an example of an online movie review from Vincent Canby of the New York Times. I’ve highlighted it to show you what I’m talking about. (It’s a viewable Google Doc)

Here’s a link to the full Google Doc if you want to copy it or view it full size.

Here’s an example of an online movie review from the sadly departed Roger Ebert.

Here’s a link to the full Google Doc if you want to copy it or view it full size.


The next day have each student put both of their highlighted reviews on their desk. Make sure to make fun of anyone who didn’t do the assignment (just kidding I wanted to see if you’re paying attention) Then ask for volunteers or cold call: your choice. Ask first for the ones that had more summary. Use a Elmo projector or camera arm to project their movie review onto the big screen at the front of the room. If you don’t have a camera arm you could have the students:  email you their highlighted reviews, load them up to a class folder in Google drive/docs, or even take a cell phone picture and email that to you (I don’t know why you would want to do that last one, but I just wanted to point out that there is more than one way to keep the Nazis from crossing the bridge.

Have the student read the review line by line. On any sentence where you or the other students disagree with their assessment have someone point it out (nicely) and then start talking about why that sentence is summary or analysis. Talk about how you need some summary (or concrete detail) at times in order to make some commentary or analysis.

Then do the same with reviews that included more commentary than summary.

When you are done have a class discussion about which reviews were their favorite, or most effective. Students might note that the reviews that had more commentary or analysis were the more interesting reviews. You’ll notice that the Roger Ebert review was entirely commentary/analysis and included almost or completely zero summary sentences.

FINAL NOTE: once your students get this then you can do this with three levels

Summary: just rephrasing what they saw or read

Commentary: their personal thoughts about what they saw or read

Analysis: how did the author or film maker achieve their PURPOSE? How did they specifically reach their intended AUDIENCE? How did they address an OCCASION, EVENT or social condition? How did the author or film maker make a mark on the genre or school of art?

Good luck and I hope this helps-

I’m pretty relentless when it comes to helping others. 

PS- Here are three related posts that you might enjoy if you teach art, literature, or English.

How I Teach Students to Analyze Literature

How to Initially Approach a Piece of Literature or Art

SCOUTing a Piece of Art or Literature


  1. One of the best things about your method is that you are using something that the students are interested in. Engagement =effort for most kids. I found that the worst essays were about literature and the best were about personal experiences. It’s sad to say but with literature most students want to tell you what they think you want to hear or will only trust something that they have read online. I can actually remember being this way when I was in university a million years ago. I like your method of using their work as models and having a discussion about it because that is good teaching. However, I think there is a mental gap for many students when they actually write it in words. I am a big fan of templates for average students because although they are limiting, they also give the students the
    form that they need to make an essay logical and well-supported. A colleague of mine always says “Point, proof, significance”with the students’ essays and as simple as it is, it makes for well-structured essays. You could ask your students to identify those aspects in their or another piece of writing. There’s no room for summary if you follow it. Love your movie selections.

  2. First off I want to say awesome blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before
    writing. I’ve had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there. I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints? Many thanks!

  3. There’s only three ways I can write:
    1. I have a TON of free time- I get all my normal time wasting stuff done and I have NO excuses left.
    2. I’m awake late at night with some good music on the headphones and everyone is happily asleep.
    3. I’ve told everyone a blog post is coming soon and I’m freaked out I won’t keep my word. Brought up Catholic so guilt/shame works wonders.

  4. “They actually cast a shadow or color over everything I think or say for the next day or even week.” Couldn’t agree more. Thats why I love Vimeo so much, lots of imagination-inspiring short clips, etc. to get those creative juices flowing.

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