How Do You Solve a Problem Like…

So I’m currently teaching to the tune of The Sound of Music in my ESL class. It’s a little reward for my students—though I suppose my use of that word depends on whether you like the musical or not—after having followed strict grammar lessons for more than a year. It took us that long to get through the whole series of Michel Thomas’ Apprendre Anglais. Which was a great experience. But it’s one thing to practice drills, quite another to listen to a movie in a foreign language and be able to follow along.

I knew my students were itching to try out their new Anglophile ears, so I took a look through my DVD library. The Sound of Music was an easy choice. The language is fairly slow, simple, easy to understand; it’s semi-religious which is a big hit around here; it can hardly be considered inappropriate, at least as some of our other movies might; and the catchy songs are bound to stick in your head. (For months on end… trust me.) What better way to rehearse vocabulary and word combinations over and over again than with a song stuck inside your head??

We started back in January, listening to the movie and following along with the script I had carefully typewritten, but with strategically placed blanks that needed to be filled in. I had done something similar in one of my French classes, but there we had started with a blank page. Great practice for the ears, but a super-hard exercise. A neighbor friend here suggested I give them the bulk of the text with blanks here and there. A great idea. They still practice their ears, as well as parts of speech and usage. This blank requires a verb, that one an adjective. But it’s slow going. We listen to each and every line of the movie, multiple times. I help them analyze the translation so everyone is sure to understand all the vocabulary. They ask questions. We practice repeating the line, focusing on pronunciation, and changing the usage a little bit.

But right away my assumption that this was an inoffensive movie was challenged. (I had been slightly worried about the opulence on display in the Von Trapp household, but that wasn’t it.) Early in the movie we learn that Maria is a bit of a fireball. She’s always late, she goes places she’s not supposed to go, she talks back to authority. One of my more, shall we say, judgmental students (he runs his own church in his spare time) was having a really hard time watching her. He was rather disgusted by her, in fact, which was about to ruin his and everyone else’s learning experience. So, after a few weeks and a few pages of my fill-in-the-blank exercises, I decided we needed to take a step back and get a big-picture view of this movie in order to for them to trust that I wasn’t about to lead them down some perilously evil path. Luckily there’s a French track on the DVD, so we took three or four class periods to watch it from start to finish in French.

At first, Maria was not viewed any more sympathetically by certain of my students. The tension builds up to the scene where the Captain returns home from Vienna with his girlfriend, the Baroness, to find Maria and the children playing and splashing about.

Captain: Do you mean to tell me that my children have been roaming about Salzburg dressed up in nothing but some old drapes?

Maria: Mm-hmm, and having a marvelous time!

Captain: They have uniforms.

Maria: Straitjackets, if you’ll forgive me.

Captain: I will not forgive you for that.

Maria: Children cannot do all the things they’re supposed to do if they have to worry about spoiling their precious clothes—

Captain: I don’t wish you to discuss my children in this manner.

Maria: I know you don’t, but you’ve got to hear it! Now, take Liesl, she’s not a child anymore—

Captain: I don’t care to hear anything further from you about my children.

Maria: I am not finished yet, Captain!

My preacher student was on the verge of a conniption right about here. The nerve of this woman, to speak back to The Captain like that! Thank goodness we had time left in class to continue to the next scene, where the children impress the Baroness with a song Maria taught them. The Captain softens and begins singing along, surprising the children who hadn’t heard him sing since their mother died. The scene turns gushy and teary and the Captain apologizes to Maria, asking her to stay and help him.

“Et voila!” my preacher student announces, voicing his approval of Maria as if he had known all along she was the heroine. By the time we finished the movie, everyone was in love with Maria and they were completely on board.

The following week we started over with the English version, and this time everyone could giggle instead of bicker when we went over the lines “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”


watching The Sound of Music, in French


  1. I’m sure you already know this about me, Jen, but The Sound of Music is my all-time favorite musical movie. I absolutely love that you are using this to teach your students. A daughter after my own heart – I knew you were always brilliant! It’s no wonder you have so many students attending your class….you make it fun for them, even the stodgy preachers.


    1. It’s one of those movies I have to watch at least once a year, along with the Wizard of Oz! But I wonder if after studying it this closely, I will be sick of it for awhile. We’re on Do-Re-Mi at the moment, it is on constant repeat inside my head! But worth it to watch the students smile and try to sing along… 🙂


  2. Seems like a win-win! They got to watch a great musical, use their increasing English language skills, and discover that even a flibbertigibbit, a will-o-the-wisp, or a clown isn’t a demon…but a lamb!

    Nicely done.


    1. Too funny that you picked these words! Do you know how hard it was to explain (or translate) flibbertigibbet and will-o-the-wisp?? Even clown was difficult; no one here had ever seen one. Maybe that’s a good thing. Along with stories like Little Red Riding Hood, clowns can be rather terrorizing…


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