Language Play: Learning Communication with Silent Films

Silence is Golden

I have always loved silent movies. My dad was a Charlie Chaplin fan and we would often go into the city to see Chaplin’s full length movies on the big screen. When I was a student in graduate school, I worked with stroke groups, many of whom depended on understanding and using gestures to communicate. I heard that other clinicians were training better communication to this population by watching sit-coms with the volume off, but I immediately thought of silent movies and jumped at the chance of using them for therapy.

Later, with better access to films, I discovered silent movies from all over the world. I had always watched comedies, but I now located silent movies that were profound with serious content. The acting was subtle, but conveyed such humanity. They were filled with rich communication. After watching them exclusively for months, I watched a contemporary movie and felt disappointed with the stiff bodies and unending dialogue of the actors (blah, blah, blah). What a loss for the world when silent movies were scrapped for “talkies.”

Then I worked with another population that needed to learn to attend and use facial expressions and body language. Since facial expressions and body language are 55% of communication, my children on the autism spectrum needed to be able to read people’s faces and gestures in order to navigate their social worlds. I told them that people can say anything but their faces and bodies are more reliable information. Out came the silent movies…

I could teach them to observe and interpret the facial expressions and body gestures in these movies. Speech language pathologist have long known that kids and adults on the spectrum feel safer and more comfortable working with technology than being face to face with peers. So I used this interest as a learning tool. While jointly watching, I could stop the video, ask my questions, rewind to repeat segments, and teach social skills. I could ask inference (educated guess) questions, or prediction questions, or ask about the motive of the character; all the skills that are difficult for them.

For all kids who are creative, silent movies offer a great basis to experience the nature of film as communication. Parents can scaffold along the way by asking questions like “What is she thinking?” or “Why would he do that?” Children can share their favorite parts. I often have kids direct and/or star in their own productions after watching a bunch of silent shorts. They can analyze, reproduce their favorite routines (be sure they are safe and doable), and practice them. Then film them and watch to see if they “work.” If not, review and help them analyze which techniques the actors used that made it “work.” By the way, these short videos are priceless!

With tablets, I have used YouTube to find silent movies for these activities but I also especially like the app Film Study by Richard Joffray which allows me to access public domain silent films. To create movies, I use Silent Film Studio by CATEATER. Maybe you can reenact an event you’ve discovered here on Hilltown Families and attended with your family!  If you do, we’d love to see it!  Post it to Youtube and then link in the comment field below.


Kathy Puckett

Kathy is a private practice speech-language pathologist living in Shelburne, MA and the author of our monthly speech and language column, Time to Talk. Living in Western Massachusetts since 1970, she raised two children here and has two grandsons, ages 15 and 8 years old. She has worked as an SLP with people of all ages for the last 14 years. She runs social thinking skill groups and often works with teens. As a professional artist, she has a unique and creative approach to her practice. She loves technology, neurology, gardening, orchids, and photography. She uses an iPad for therapies. She grows 500 orchids and moderates her own forum for orchid growers (Crazy Orchid Lady). Kathy is dedicated to the families of her private practice, and offers practical, creative ideas to parents. She blogs about communication at

2 Comments on “Language Play: Learning Communication with Silent Films

  1. Yes, lots of people who knew about my love of silent movies, told me to see it! And I did enjoy it.

  2. I bet you loved The Artist! I haven’t seen it yet but now you’ve inspired me to make sure I do… and also show the kids some Charlie Chaplin.

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