I can't count the times I've walked into my high school English language class to hear students ask, "Can we watch a movie today?" I laugh and move on to the lesson planned, the same as when they ask, "Can we just sleep today?" To me, it's the same question.

It's not that I think movies are a bad resource for language teaching. On the contrary, movies serve to model natural interactive dialogue for English language learners in a context representative of real-life.

Each conversation gives students the chance to observe the body language of the characters, to listen their intonation and to the flow of speech. Yet without proper teacher guidance, this wealth of opportunities is easily missed by the average student.

Most students enjoy watching movies, so films make an excellent motivator. The easiest way to use movies is as a reward after working hard. In this situation, the students and teacher alike get time to relax — some may even sleep without it being a problem. Sometimes students are allowed to bring in popcorn, pillows and blankets to completely break out of their routine and make the occasion even more special.

On the other hand, movie watching in the language classroom can be leveraged to make it the cornerstone of a lesson (or several), not just the reward for doing other work. In this case, it's important to understand how to squeeze the most value from the experience.

Therefore, a great deal of preparation by the teacher is necessary — this is why I laugh when my students want me to let them watch a movie on demand.

The first challenge is selecting a movie. When the movie isn't being shown for relaxation, I usually bring in the movie version of a book we have just finished reading for example, "The Great Gatsby" or "A Brave New World." On one occasion, I used a movie a student recommended that opened up ethical themes I wanted to explore with my group.

If you don't have a movie in mind and want to explore options, Raymond Weschler has created an outstanding resource site with detailed film guides of more than 200 popular classic and contemporary movies. Each guide features a synopsis with a glossary of vocabulary and expressions students hear in the film.

You need to ask yourself what you want your learners to get from the experience and identify what type of viewing is most likely to make that happen.

Remember that you don't have to show the film straight through. Watching the movie in more than one sitting and repeating important scenes may be the best way to achieve your teaching aims. It's even viable to show a few key scenes that illustrate your teaching point instead of the whole movie.

Preparing students prior to viewing will give them a clear idea of what they need to watch for so they take away the appropriate lessons.

For example, if the focus is on certain elements of authentic conversation, they can be given examples of phrases ahead of time either as notes or in a worksheet. While watching, they can be instructed to check off the phrases they hear. Afterward, you can discuss their context and underlying meaning.

It's also important to have realistic expectations for what they can get out of a single viewing. I learned this with a group of ninth-graders who watched a movie version of "Animal Farm" after reading the book.

I had studied the film and developed a comprehensive worksheet for them to answer while watching the film. In retrospect, I saw that I had erroneously considered reading the book enough preparation for watching the movie, and I'd tried to accomplish too much with the worksheet.

Even though the group had already read the book and knew the basic plot, the speed of the dialogue threw many for a loop, and listening for content questions proved difficult for all but the most high-level students. However, most were able to identify key differences between the book and movie.

Given this experience and the fact that our English program already had considerable listening-for-accuracy exercises built in, I elected to go with a critical thinking slant when I showed the film the following year. We focused on comparing the movie to the book and exploring contrasting motivational factors driving the film director and the author.

The complexity of the ideas they wanted to express pushed students to raise their level of speaking during discussions.

To conclude, films can illustrate practically any English language lesson — grammar and all four language skill areas can be tied to movie viewing. Movies make an intriguing hook to open debates and discussions, or even a new theme or unit. They also can effectively tie up a theme and reinforce key learning areas.

Films open a door for teachers to express their creativity and invent new lessons that are highly attractive to students.