Seven Short Films to Promote Empathy in the Language Classroom

Kieran Donaghy, Director of the School for Training, writes about using short films to foster empathy among English language students.

Empathy, which has been beautifully defined by Roman Krznaric as “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions”, may be one of the qualities which distinguishes an average teacher from an excellent teacher in the eyes of the student. I think that empathy is increasingly important in language education as communication requires a sophisticated degree of empathy, in order to communicate effectively, language teachers, teacher trainers and learners needs to be able to understand the other person’s affective and cognitive states.

My interest in empathy was sparked by Jill Hadfield’s classic Classroom Dynamics and Earl Stevik’s 1980 masterpiece Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways in which Stevick argues for the importance of affective factors in language teaching and learning. A quote of Stevick’s I always go back to when reflecting on my teaching beliefs is:

‘Success in the language classroom depends less on materials, techniques or linguistic analysis, and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom…the most important aspect of “what goes on” is the presence or absence of harmony: it is the parts working with, or against, one another.’

One of the best ways of introducing the theme of empathy in the English language classroom is through the medium of short films. Here are seven of the films which have worked best at fostering empathy in my classes.


We’ve All Been There

We’ve All been There is a  a moving short film by Nicholas Clifford. Adapted from a short story called What Goes Around Comes Around , We’ve All Been There follows three people’s connection to a flat tyre in the Australian outback, and shows how we are very often connected to each other without knowing it. The film also illustrates that no good deed goes unrewarded. The film has a beautiful twist at the end.


You can watch the film below and read a lesson plan here.



Moments is a beautiful, silent short film called by Nuno Rocha which deals the theme of homelessness. It’s very difficult for students not to empathise with the characters in the film and many are moved to tears.


You can watch the film below and read a lesson plan here.


The Alphabet of Illiteracy

The Alphabet of Illiteracy is a short film commissioned by Project Literacy , a global campaign to promote literacy. This hard-hitting and powerful film shows how nearly every development challenge humanity faces is related in some way to illiteracy.

You can watch the film below.


The Reader

The Reader is a short film commissioned by Bells Whisky and directed by Greg Gray. It tells the beautiful and inspiring story of how an elderly man learns to read and write.


You can watch the film below and read a lesson plan here.



We’re the Superhumans

We’re the Superhumans is a wonderful a short video commissioned by Channel 4 to advertise the Paralympic Games in Rio. In the film we see disabled people singing, dancing, swimming, running, boxing, fencing and playing virtually any musical instrument you might care to think of. The film shows the fantastic things disabled people can do if given the chance. I think that disabled people are often ignored in mainstream ELT materials, and believe it’s important that students see positive images of disabled people.


You can watch the film below and read a lesson plan here.


Stand up

Stand Up is a short film directed by Annie Rodgers and Aoife Kelleher and commissioned by the Belong To Stand Up! anti-homophobic bullying campaign. The film tells the story of how a boy is bullied for being homosexual and how his schoolmates literally stand up to his bullies.


You can watch the film below.


Mankind is no Island

Mankind is no Island is a beautiful short film directed by Jason Van Genderen which deals with themes of homelessness and empathy. The film presents a poignant reminder of the continuing reality of homelessness in many cities. It was shot in New York and Sydney on a mobile phone, and uses street signs and footage of actual homeless people.


You can watch the film below.


I hope you find the short films useful for fostering empathy among your students. Have you used any other short films which deal with empathy? Let me know in the comments below!

If you’re interested in the use of film and video in language teaching, check out our Film and Video in Language Teaching course.

Check out the course


If you’re interested in the role of empathy in language teaching, check out our Empathy in Language Teaching course.

Check out the course


Seven books on empathy

Baron-Cohen, Simon, (2012) Zero Degrees of Empathy, Penguin.

Brown, H. Douglas, (2000) Principles of language learning and teaching, Longman.

Hadfield, Jill, (1992) Classroom Dynamics, Oxford University Press.

Krznaric, Roman, (2014) Empathy, Rider.

Rifkin, Jeremy, (2010) The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, Polity.

Rogers, Carl, (1980) A Way of Being, Mariner Books.

Stevick, Earl, (1980) Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways, Newbury House.


Seven websites related to empathy

Culture of Empathy –

Empathy Library –

Heart ELT –

Roots of Empathy  –

Start Empathy –

The Hands Up Project –

The No project –


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