Self-study Tasks for Mixed CEFR-levels

Hubertus Weyer, M.A.
Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences, Germany


In my lessons of Technical or Business English I regularly encounter groups of mixed abilities, ranging from B1 to C1, and one of the challenges is: how to even this out? This is where the necessity of self-study tasks comes in. Since BA programs of all faculties include a certain number of contact lessons as well as self-study time at a ratio of 2:1 or even 2:3, the question arises: What do students actually do “at home” – in terms of self-study for their English lessons? Is it good old-fashioned homework, revising and practicing lesson contents? Do I ask them to prepare material to facilitate the upcoming session? Which methods do I employ? Which didactic aims do I follow? How do I account for the range of CEFR-levels in the self-study time? I would like to share with you some experience in setting self-study tasks for my students.


In the context of the development of a self-study program at the language center at Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences, different strategies to motivate learners of English to study independently are currently under investigation. The results of recent placement tests have shown that at Ostfalia typically 20 percent of the enrolled students do not receive a B1 rating according to the CEFR or that students’ abilities in for example writing as a separate skill are clearly below B1. Therefore, practical and innovative approaches for self-study tasks for students of heterogeneous skill levels are currently explored at the language center of Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences.

Similar to the tremendous rise of the serial novel in 19th century Britain and the subsequent spread of literacy among the working class, recent English language TV series as for instance Mad Men, House of Cards (both in the BBC and the Netflix adaptation), Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Big Bang Theory and many others have become so popular that the question arises whether selected scenes from TV series can be used effectively to teach English as a foreign language and to motivate and enable learners to expand their language skills on their own.

In this paper I would like to suggest exploiting the popularity of TV series in order to create new approaches to language teaching, language learning and self-learning strategies. Of course, the effectiveness of watching TV in English to improve language skills is not new if one thinks of the impact movies in the English original have had in countries like the Netherlands, Sweden or Finland. But, the notion of deliberately exposing EFL students to methodically selected scenes of current, popular TV series has only become possible through the recent rise of predominantly American TV series.

In the following I am going to showcase how two selected scenes from the first episode of the TV series Mad Men by Matthew Weiner, which was first released on July 19, 2007 on the cable network AMC, can be used as independent didactic units for self-study tasks. At the 2017 Bremen Fremdsprachensymposion, Alexander Grimm from the language center at the Europa Universität Viadrina Frankfurt Oder strongly argued in favor of using independent didactic units in his presentation “udE + GeR = Perspektive²: Kein Mathe, sondern Sprachunterricht.” In contrast to a recurring topic that is spread out over several chapters of a textbook, Alexander Grimm (2017) defined an independent didactic unit as a comprehensive unit consisting of for instance a text as well as related exercises that can be used independently. I would like to take Alexander Grimm’s notion of the independent didactic unit a step further and combine it with the notion of situated learning as described in the article “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning” by John Seely Brown (Brown, Collins & Duguid 1989). Ideally, a self-study task should encompass a combination of linguistic and subject related aspects and, simultaneously, the task should be situated in a cultural context that is significant to the learner. From this perspective, selected scenes from a TV series are an ideal starting point to create independent didactic units in a situated self-learning context.

Mad Men – 2 selected scenes turned into independent didactic units for different CEFR levels

Scene one (transcript provided below, season 1, episode 1, minute 18:42 to 19:28, DVD release) shows the first meeting between creative director Don Draper of the advertisement agency Sterling Cooper in New York and department store owner Rachel Mencken. As Don expects the customer to be a man, he mistakes one of his own employees for the customer which at first comes across as humorous but on second thought the scene illustrates how women are not taken seriously in the business world.

Stronger EFL students can be pointed to books like Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg (2013) or the debate about the gender pay gap while less advanced EFL students whose skill level is rather in the A2-B1 range can focus on proper small talk conventions when people meet the first time. Another topic of paramount importance in this scene is the evolution of retailing from classic department stores in the 1960s to online retailing today. Thus, this scene provides the ideal combination of both linguistic and subject related aspects that make up an effective basis for a self-study task. Of course, an instructor needs to introduce individual students or small groups of similar skill levels to the self-study task, but after that students can start working independently.

Scene two (transcript provided below, season 1, episode 1, minute 21:58 to 23:55, DVD release) shows the presentation of the marketing concept that Don Draper has developed for Mencken’s department store. During the presentation it becomes clear that he and Roger Sterling favor coupons as a marketing instrument because, as Roger says, “housewives love coupons.” Evidently, Roger’s view is worth debating for students, but the sentence “housewives love coupons” is also a case in point for the usage for the present simple in English. At this point the instructor can provide further exercises that students can review by themselves and subsequently they can go back to the selected scenes and find examples of how the present tense is used in the simple and the progressive aspect. Especially for less advanced students this approach to grammar is likely to be more motivating than just opening a textbook and learning out of context. Furthermore, if students buy into the series and start watching the entire episode or even the entire series, the instructor can guide those students through self-study tasks that can deal with any linguistic topic, be it grammatical or lexical, as well as any related topic that pertains to business studies.

It is recommendable that students first read the transcript and then watch the selected scene. For less advanced students reading a short transcript is an excellent vocabulary exercise while more advanced students benefit from the opportunity to practice their reading and speaking skills in a role play. This is particularly true if students know the selected TV series from watching it privately at home. This learning scenario is very close to Holec’s notion of learner autonomy (Holec 1981). Moreover, students will inevitably start comparing the English version of a selected scene with their native language which enhances the learning process in general and heightens students’ awareness of their native language.

Below I provide the transcripts of the two scenes that I discussed. Naturally, reading the transcripts is not the same experience as watching them and hence I recommend watching the scenes as well.

Scene 1: First meeting of Don Draper and Rachel Mencken

(season 1, episode 1, minute 18:42 to 19:28, DVD release)

Well, here are our miracle workers now. You already know Pete Campbell, of course, your Account Executive, if you choose to do business with us. And this handsome guy is Don Draper, the best Creative Director in New York.

Or at least the building.

You must be Mr. Mencken.

Oh, I’m sorry about that.

I’m Rachel Mencken.

I apologize. I was expecting, um–

You were expecting me to be a man?
My father was, too.

And you are?

Why Don, you remember David Cohen from the Art Department.

Oh, of course. David, one of the rising stars here at Sterling Cooper.

So why don’t we all get comfortable and Miss Mencken, you tell us what you have in mind.

Scene 2: Don Draper’s presentation of the marketing concept for Mencken’s

(season 1, episode 1, minute 21:58 to 23:55, DVD release)

So what Don’s saying is that through a variety of media, including a spot during “The Danny Thomas Show” if you can afford it, we can really boost awareness.

Then, a ten-percent off coupon in select ladies’ magazines will help increase your first time visitors. After we’ve got them in the store, it’s kind of up to you.

Mr. Draper, our store is sixty years old. We share a wall with Tiffany’s. Honestly, a coupon?

Miss Mencken, coupons work. I think your father would agree with the strategy.

He might. But he’s not here because we just had our lowest sales year. Ever. So, I suppose what I think matters most right now. […]

Miss Mencken, it’s not just research. Housewives love coupons.

I’m not interested in housewives.

So, what kind of people do you want?

I want your kind of people, Mr. Draper. People who don’t care about coupons, whether they can afford it or not. People who are coming to the store because it is expensive.

We obviously have very different ideas.

Yes, like “the customer is always right?” Gentlemen, I really thought you could do better than this. Sterling Cooper has a reputation for being innovative.

You are way out of line, Miss.

Don, please. Let’s not get emotional, here. There’s no reason we can’t talk this out.

Talk out what? Some silly idea that people will go to some store they’ve never been to because it’s more expensive.

It works for “Chanel”.

“Mencken’s” is not “Chanel”.

That’s a vote of confidence.[…]

I’m not going to let a woman talk to me like this. This meeting is over. Good luck, Miss Mencken.


As various tablet and smartphone apps as for instance “english with mooveez” ( and others have recently  taken up the idea of learning languages through movies on mobile platforms and as related research projects, e.g. the “routes into Languages” program (, a collaboration between different universities, among them the University of Cambridge and the University of Brighton, have been exploring the possibility of learning foreign languages by watching movies, it is undoubtedly clear that the rise of TV series will leave its mark on teaching and learning English.

In addition to the selected scenes from Mad Men that pertain to Business English as a variant of English for Special Purposes and business studies in a broader sense, it is important to highlight that other series can easily be employed for other variants of English for Special Purposes. Grey’s Anatomy is an obvious choice for English in the health care sector and the BBC series Silk is an option for legal English. Likewise, The Big Bang Theory is worth considering for technical English.

The notion of using selected scenes from TV series for self-study tasks does not contradict Stephen Krashen’s argument that reading is the most powerful way of acquiring a second language (Krashen 1989). Independent didactic units in a situated learning context as self-study tasks rather provide a pathway into the wealth that comes with learning a foreign language because the motivation of the students is effectively harnessed. From this point of view, using selected scenes from TV series is reminiscent of what Horace postulated in Ars Poetica: prodesse et delectare or to teach and delight.


Brown, J., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. 1989. Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42. Available at
Grimm, A. 2017. Unpublished presentation at Bremen Fremdsprachensymposion, February 24, 2017, Bremen University titled: “udE + GeR = Perspektive²: Kein Mathe, sondern Sprachunterricht“. See
Holec, H. 1981. Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.
Krashen, S. 1989. We Acquire Vocabulary and Spelling by Reading: Additional Evidence for the Input Hypothesis. The Modern Language Journal, 73(4), 440-464. Available at
Sandberg, S. 2013. Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.