How to get 10 grammar teaching activities from one video clip

UPDATE (December, 2014): I’m delighted to say that this post has been voted the ‘Most Influential Blog Post of 2014‘ in this year’s Edublog Awards. I owe a massive thank you to all those who voted for it; I hope those of you reading this for the first time today find it as useful as others have!


Today I’m going to show you how to use a video clip to uncover a variety of different language points in class. While the examples I give are somewhat specific to this clip, many if not all can be used with other clips without a great deal of adaptation required. Basically, today’s post is a template of ideas for using video clips that have no dialogue.

Before we begin, though, let me give you a little bit of background on this clip, which is one of my favourite on the whole of YouTube. What we see in this incredible video are scenes shot from a streetcar traveling down Market Street in San Francisco in 1905. This footage was captured just before the earthquake and fire of 1906 which completely destroyed the area. This is truly remarkable footage giving us insight into the lifestyles of a bygone California age.

Ok, before we get down to business, I’d like you all to watch the video yourselves, just to get a feel of it…

That really is something, isn’t it? At this point I should mention that the footage is available in royalty free format from

Now, let’s think of all the ways we can use this clip to uncover grammar points in the classroom. You might want to use it for any one of these points, or combine several to make for one lesson themed around early 20th Century San Francisco: the choice is yours.

Talking about the past

Let’s deal with the obvious; this video shows history. It makes for a great opportunity to discuss all kinds of verb tenses. Here are just a few questions you could pose your learners:

1. Simple past

  • What did people wear in those days?
  • How did people dress?

A description of clothes would be a simple way to do this, while a discussion on the formality of clothing styles would also work well

  • What was transport like in early 20th Century San Francisco?
  • How did people move around?

Draw comparison with the present time, or ask for thoughts on transport and the amount of traffic visible.

2. Past continuous

  • While watching this video, make not of five things that people were doing.
  • Where do you think people were going? Where were people coming from?

3. Present perfect

  • How have styles of dress changed in the years since then?
  • How has transport developed since early 20th Century San Francisco?

Almost everyone is formally dressed in the clip; is the same true nowadays? What remains and what has disappeared?

Real time action

Treat the scene as if it were happening in the here and now.

4. Present continuous

  • Where are people going?
  • What are people doing?

Consider the reasons for these actions to promote creative thinking.

Reflecting on the past

Things have changed greatly in the world since then. How did people live? What is better or worse in the modern world? What thoughts does this video put in our minds?

5. Unreal conditional

  • If you could travel back to the time and place this video was made, what 2/3 things would you like to do? Why?

6. Past habits

  • Based on what you saw in this video, what kind of habits did people have in early 20th Century San Francisco?
  • What did people use to do on a regular basis?

This again makes for an interesting comparison with modern day habits.

7. Focus on articles

This would lend itself to a nice little paragraph about how we use articles. Here are the first few sentences for you:

This video shows ___ San Francisco (no article with city names) in 1905. It was filmed on ___ Main Street (no article with street names). One year later, ___ earthquake (indefinite article with the first mention of a general, non-specific noun) destroyed ___ city (definite article because we know which city, i.e. it has already been mentioned). ___ earthquake (definite article with the second mention of a general, non-specific noun) killed many thousands of people and destroyed many of ___ (test time: why the definite article here?) buildings in this clip.

Activities that develop creative thought

8. Focus on one character in the video

Look at the man in this image. Write about his life:

Tell me about this man's life.
Tell me about this man’s life.
  • Who was he?
  • Where was he going on this day?
  • Why was he in a rush?
  • Did he get onto the tram?
  • Where had he come from?
  • What was he holding in his hand?

9. Modal verbs to describe the ‘laws of the road’

Write down a list of rules for appropriate transport / pedestrian behaviour on Main Street San Francisco in 1905. Make them funny by contrasting them with what we can do today.

  • People should run in front of the tram.
  • Horses and cars must drive across the tram line at all times.
  • No one needs to be careful of traffic in any way.

10. Compare life then and now

Give 3/4/5 examples to complete each of these sentences:

  • Life is better/worse now because…
  • Life was better/worse then because…

Your turn…

Now that I’ve given you ten ideas on how to exploit this video, I want you to give me more ideas. I think most of the ideas I’ve suggested here could be used with any clip that doesn’t have dialogue. Furthermore, I think you could combine several of these ideas to make a really good lesson. I still want more, though… Any good ideas mentioned in the comments will be added to this post, so don’t be shy!

Get certified to teach English worldwide with an internationally recognized TESOL certificate.

Please follow and like us:

28 thoughts on “How to get 10 grammar teaching activities from one video clip”

  1. Hello Shelly, amazing post! I loved it.
    I think that we could also ask our students to think about the future and to try to imagine the same situations (street life) in the future. What do they think will happen? How will transport change? What will people wear? What traffic rules there will be? What sounds will be heard? etc.

    Another idea that came to my mind is (going back to the idea of the time machine) that students can imagine having a conversation with a person from the video, or interviewing a person from the video about his/her life. Then, they could just read the interview/dialogue in pairs, or practise Reported Speech by retelling what the person from the past told them.

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us.


    1. Hi Alejandra.

      I’m really glad you liked it (I’m not Shelly, by the way). I also think your şdea is great and will be adding it to the post later, so thanks!

  2. Awesome post Adam, I love the video you have chosen I’ll be using it soon, and hope to be able to add more ideas to the task.

    Thanks for sharing,

  3. Thank you for sharing this video and your ideas with us. I’m sure my students will be fascinated when they watch it.

  4. Thank you Adam, I’ll definitely use the tips for future video lessons. Alejandra, you also have a good
    idea to bring in future tenses.
    I’d probably add the ‘used to’ structure for a historical clip and maybe use a slightly shorter one so the students could watch the clip a few times.
    Great job!

  5. HI: I really loved your video and activities. I like all the suggestions about different types of activities.
    Another idea could be to asign students to interview eiher their grandpa / grandma or somene older enough to make them compare their life in the past and nowadays, and ask them which one they prefer and why?then students should agree or disagree with the answers given and justify their own answers.This would lead them to critical thinking.

  6. This is a wonderful idea for any age and learning level. I love how simple the lesson is, as it draws out the grammatical knowledge that already resides within our students. I would use this activity to give my students concrete examples of language usage that they can then associate with their academic language. Overall, I believe this will be a useful activity in boosting my freshman ELA students comprehension of grammar. Thank you so much for the great idea! I think it could even be used in a future writing exercise by having my students imagine that they are students who live 100 years in the future. They could then write the same activity only from the perspective of a future student watching a video of present day teens. They would then be describing their own lives, from an outside perspective. Once again, excellent post!

  7. Adam,

    This is a very creative and inspirational blog! On the most basic level, this blog is very structured and thorough, allowing for a multitude of thoughts in a particular succession. The video you provided is very simple, and I was surprised to see just how useful it could be in creating several grammar lessons. I think this is an excellent way to engage children for their grammar classes as it incorporates proper grammar and encourages creativity. Children often want to be heard and have their “mark” left on their work so that they can be recognized as an individual rather than one of twenty. I absolutely love the time machine idea as it allows children to analyze the entire setting and use every detail to support their story. The multitude of activities you have suggested are very unique and will truly allow children to delve into grammar. I would love to know how effective and successful any of these have been in their execution. This seems like an excellent way for children to grasp the past tense in the continuous, conditional, and habit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *