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Passwords: A functional approach to teaching language by television

Grahame Ramsay
Nepean College of Advanced Education

Helping students to improve their writing was the aim of a series of ten television programs called Passwords. In this paper, the producer/director of the series examines the development and production of the series. The programs were originally designed as a resource for students for whom English was a second language, but the need for "academic English" for students of all backgrounds led to its expansion. The paper will consider how the different styles of television were adapted to suit the educational aims of the programs. Each program included a quiz, advertisements, a naturalist, promotions, a documentary and an open ended drama. The paper will examine how the various language patterns of generalising, comparison and contrast, hypothesising and cause and effect were translated into the television medium. It will consider the nature of written support material for the series and the advantages and limitations of television for this kind of learning.

The ABC educational television series Passwords was originally conceived as a series of programs aimed at students for whom English was a second language (ESL). But the programs impetus changed to encourage teachers and students in all subjects to consider ways to improve writing skills.

As "efficiency" and "effectiveness" are now the catchcries of education then under achievement by students who have problems with the "academic" language of many textbooks and even their teachers is a problem that has to be addressed. A series of television programs and the accompanying written material is only one part of the resources needed to deal with writing problems in schools.

The Passwords series does, however, provide evidence of the need for resources to deal with problems across the curriculum rather than materials that are always subject specific. Such an approach obviously presents great challenges in the design and development phase of the project.

The inherent messages to be propagated by the across the curriculum approach were that all teachers should be language teachers and that students should be aware of the language patterns of all subjects and not just English.

Many teachers of subjects other than ESL or English don't believe it's their responsibility to teach language when there is so much content to get through. So the series had to demonstrate ways in which language skills were relevant to subjects like social science, economics, science etc. So the series focussed on the use and purpose of language (ie. Functions) rather than the grammatical model of language learning.

This paper will consider the evolution of the Passwords series as a case study of the development of general rather than subject specific educational resources. The series raises a number of issues. These include the choice of the target audience and the level of the series; the choice of topics and subject matter when covering many Syllabus areas; the most appropriate production style and mechanisms to encourage active viewing and student involvement; production constraints and ways of achieving a quality look with low budget educational production; the nature of written resource materials developed to support an across the curriculum series.

Origins of the series

The Passwords series was planned late in 1985 as the "ESL" series. Program ideas at that time came from individual producers as well as priorities from the various state Education Departments. ESL was both a priority and also seen by education producers in NSW as vitally important. Consultation between Education Departments and the ABC operated formally at a senior level and more informally between producers and consultants.

Formally, each State had an advisory committee or consultative committee chaired by the Director General of Education or equivalent and representatives including teachers, non government schools, parents, and in some states TAFE. Also, each State Education Department maintained a liaison officer(s) who worked within the ABC to ensure communication between the ABC Education Department and the State Education Department. Consultation did not mean that the State Education Departments told the ABC what series to make or how to make them. Editorial judgements and production values were determined by ABC producers. The way producers responded to the perceived needs, as advised by the Departments, was also up to the ABC.

Passwords working title was the ESL series and it began with that specific focus. Several factors contributed to the change to a more general target audience. A prime consideration was that ESL advisers indicated there was an increasing trend towards integrated classrooms rather than specialised ESL teaching. If the needs of ESL students were no longer being met by specialised ESL teachers then the resource had to appeal to teachers who had ESL and Australian born children in their class.

If the series was aimed at so called "second phase learners" then it would cover many of the areas of difficulty that other students have with formal language.

Second phase learners are those Non English speaking background who have passed the beginners phase but still have trouble with written English (Transit, 1983 p48). If we consider criteria for second phase learners the second phase learner and the less academically inclined native speaker have several things in common. They both have difficulty with formal language especially written language, they can't easily adjust their register to the needs of different written work, yet they don't feel they have a problem with English so the language patterns have to be spelt out for these students.

The model of programs such as those that teach French or German was considered too basic for the needs of so called "second phase learners".

Language teaching by television has frequently been aimed at teaching a foreign language using the social survival skills of language learning. Programs like Buongiorno Italia which concentrate on colloquial language spoken by Italians in everyday situations or Deutsch Direkt which includes many standard situations encountered by visitors to Germany.

For English as a second language (ESL) students and adults SBS produced Hello Australia which again showed social situations such as how to refuse an offer of a food or drink, how to apologise etc.

The development of the Passwords series was based on different assumptions. It was assumed that students would have sufficient command of English to deal with social situations but were less confident in written language. The focus would not be on oral language-as in foreign language programs-but on written language. This presents obvious challenges for the television medium. How do you show appropriate language patterns and reinforce written language on television rather than oral language. The short answer was that we dealt with both written and oral language.

The decision on each issue that presented itself was akin to a journalist researching material for an article. It was a matter of sifting through written sources looking at information from each State Education Department, and also considering the advice from ESL teachers and consultants..

Certain working assumptions were developed by this process. They were that:

all teachers it was decided that social science, home economics, science and ESL teachers and students should be the target audience. Programs each had a social science theme and included content material directly relevant to each group.

All viewers (whether ESL or not) would be encouraged to develop their communication skills-to expand their vocabulary and ability to organise written work.

The programs should have an in-service function to encourage teachers to consider teaching language processing skills as part of their responsibility as subject teachers. In line with the overall philosophy of ABC Education the series was intended to provide a springboard from which the teacher could work rather than replacement of the teacher.

Choice of topics

The choice of topics for the ten programs was difficult because there are needs in so many different areas. A transit resource book lists forty two functional categories. (1983 p91).

If the series was to work across the curriculum then it was necessary to choose functions that had some commonality across the curriculum. Although some functions (eg. hypothesising) lent themselves more to some subject areas than others. It was also necessary to build into each program that dealt with a particular function any differences between subjects. What is technically called the differences in language register from one subject to another (Morris, 1984;23).

The series was not trying to simplify the language register of different subjects but rather encourage students to expand what they already knew to include alternate forms of expression. It also encouraged students to be more aware of the words they used in written answers where words and phrases link ideas.

In some functions these linking words or language signals are obvious. The use of the words "this goes with/this belongs with" are some common signals that things are being classified.

This approach is well known to ESL teachers but not to many teachers of other subjects. Syllabus specific television programs can usually assume that the teacher is familiar with both the content and the teaching methods. Passwords challenged both assumptions by demonstrating an approach to language teaching to subject teachers (science, social science) who may have not thought of their subject in that way.

At the heart of the series was the philosophy that students may be performing poorly but because they didn't have the ability to analyse what a question required and then write in a way that demonstrated they could make appropriate connections.

Many of the functions presented difficulty for students who were used to rote learning but were now being called on to generalise, see implications, infer and develop an argument.

In developing the programs it was decided to increase the number of functions that could be included by having some programs deal with two functions. To go beyond two would have provided a program that was too complex for the audience. Better also to take a function and demonstrate the different approaches of different subject areas within the one program.

The list of possible functions was long but the task of choosing what to include and leave out of the ten programs was made easier by a fair degree of consensus among advisers. Much of the written material designed for ESL school use contains similar functions.

This was a critical point in making a series that was not specific to one subject. It became necessary to limit functions to those that were most relevant to the science and social science teacher. At first it seemed appropriate to stick to those functions which could be demonstrated with language signals. Functions like Comparison and Contrast have clear signals that could be incorporated into the script of one program. Words and phrases such as "both, similar to, resembles, in the same way that, just as, in common, whereas, unlike, in contrast, to differs from and although", signal that a comparison or contrast is taking place. But there were other functions that do not have such clear signals. These included making value judgements, inferring and argument. However, these were the very functions that were listed as being problem areas especially for students from south east Asia where the emphasis was on rote learning. (Transit, 1983:78)

Production style

There is no fixed style of production for ABC educational programs, but programs are intended to stimulate, to entertain and use the full range of production techniques. The budget limitations for this series were especially stringent. It was produced at a time of enormous upheaval within the ABC Education Department (Ramsay, 1987) and a budget of half the normal allowed for a similar education program was allocated.

To make the most of limited resources the series departed from many of the traditional practices of production within ABC Education.

Film had been the preferred method of production in ABC Education for exterior shooting. But Passwords was to be an all electronic production using video equipment that had only recently become available. In series like For the Juniors and Australian Studies single programs were made to be slotted into the series. The budget for Passwords meant that one off episodes were not feasible.

In terms of production style other program models weren't necessarily appropriate. Video English had been made for a different audience with different objectives (Allan, 1987). The SBS project Hello Australia was in production at the same time as Passwords. We kept in close contact but again this series was aimed more at beginners rather than Password's second-phase learners. Hello Australia was also pitched towards social survival and not tied to school curriculum areas.

The budget for Hello Australia was enormous compared to the money allocated to Passwords. For example the budget spent on a pilot test of one support booklet for Hello Australia was equivalent to the entire budget for Passwords. This is a comment on the priority accorded to ESL by the ABC rather than SBS budgets. Various strategies were adopted to try and make the ABC budget stretch further. The small production team of Producer/Director and an Executive Producer researched and wrote most of the material. Neither of us were ESL specialists so we relied on advice from ESL advisers. Despite Passwords aim to cover a range of subjects there was always the need to keep its focus on school/academic writing needs clear.

There was also input from subject specialists in Science and Social Science for subject specific material that was to be included in the programs.

The structure of each program was developed to the following specifications:

  1. The programs would move from concrete examples to more subtle use of patterns.
  2. They should encourage active viewing so that some segments would allow students to work along and develop listening and comprehension skills.
  3. Words and phrases should be shown in a wide range of contexts that would be familiar to the audience.
  4. Some of the common problems that students have (over generalisations, difficulty working out cause/effect relationships..) would be brought out and solutions offered.
  5. They should be non-sexist and multicultural.

The scripting

The quiz show format was chosen as a major structuring device that would go through all programs. The words and phrases were presented explicitly. There would be two contestants who would follow a scripted friendly competition. This allowed a sharing of information as they (and the viewers) reacted to questions and answers. The two member panel also linked and commented on other segments of the program. Commercial breaks with "send up commercials" were designed to provide examples of the language patterns in action and also allow teachers to pause or divide the program up.

It's worth following through one program in detail to indicate the strategy.

The program (number 3 of 10) was called THIS GOES WITH THIS and dealt with the theme of CLASSIFYING/DEFINING.

Round one introduced the two contestants and female host. The contestants had to classify foods according to stated categories ripe/unripe, salad and cooked. The contestants provide categories including fruit and vegetables. The language patterns that appear on the board are "this goes with this, this belongs with this, these don't belong to, they all have".

An advertisement divides Round one from two. It deals with the classifications involved in a Private Health insurance fund.

Round Two considers the special form of classification called definitions. In Round Two in each of the programs pictures appear on one side of a rotating panel of wood with the language patterns on the other.. The photographs were actually black and white (colour would have gone above budget, but they were then touched up to produce a colour effect.)

The language patterns for definitions include may be defined as.. is known as.

A commercial break follows Round Two with a salesman promoting the newspaper "classifieds" and using the appropriate language signals. There is also a conversation between "two kids". There were male and female versions of this segment which tried to reproduce ordinary conversations that were examples of the program theme. In this case it dealt with some different types of dogs-hence ways of classification.

Round Three was a problem solving section. The issue of how to show someone using language "inappropriately" was dealt with in this section. The character Mandy from Maroubra presented the panel with a problem in each program. In doing so, she frequently made mistakes which the panel comment on. In this program she is having trouble finding information in a library. The panel guide her through ways of using the classification system to solve her problem.

The Mandy character presented some problems because the actress Wendy Salamon, tended to ad lib and extend the sequence. We had to constantly balance the spontaneity and humour of ad libbing with the need to stick to the script where it was crucial. Because two people (E.P. and Pdr/Director) followed through the research, scripting, production and post production there was a consistent view of the ESL requirements.

The Dear Doris section was followed by scientist explaining classification of vertebrates.. There was diversity to indicate that the skills and language in each program were part of both the students school work and everyday life. There was a conscious effort to put in syllabus related material for social science, commerce, science and home science to encourage students' and teachers to see language skills as applicable to all subjects. There was also the pragmatic reason to help the various subject teachers see the relevance of the programs, there should be some familiar course-related material. So even though the programs were not promoted as subject specific there was a need for teachers and students to relate "language" to their subjects.

It was recognised that there could be some resistance to programs that had a relatively small amount of directly relevant syllabus related content. The following explanation was offered in the program notes aimed at teachers.

"Passwords doesn't teach the CONTENT of your subject, but it does help students with the SKILLS you want them to have. You provide the content, Passwords can help develop the skills to handle the content." (ABC Daytime, 1988, Feb-June p118)
The Scientist section was followed by our natural scientist, Furry Cutler. His provided another content related example to reassure teachers who might need a quite literal demonstration of how the functional approach was relevant to them. An Aboriginal actor was cast to play the part of "Furry". He observed that most of his previous roles had been delivering lines such as "They went that way boss". This is a common experience for Aboriginal actors, (see Filmnews articles from "Grunt roles to creative control" Filmnews Nov 1987, p7).

Following Furry Cutler and some send up "coming soon" segments came a documentary. This provided an exercise in comprehension and listening skills so that students could analyse a situation relevant to the theme of the programs. Most of the ten documentaries were specially shot for the series and original narration was scripted. As well as being at the appropriate level, the language patterns used in the narration reinforced the explicit words and phrases used in Rounds One and Two. The documentary in the program on Classifying/Defining focussed on the Sydney suburb of Marrickville. Marrickville was classified in a number of ways: a residential suburb, a suburb of battlers, multi-cultural and a Vietnamese suburb.

The documentaries presented certain production problems. The visuals were easy enough but there was a danger that the narration would become too stilted if we followed the language patterns slavishly. In the end we were able to weave the two together reasonable successfully. There was sometimes the tension between what you would write as a voice over narration for a news documentary and what you would write within the conventions of Passwords.

The problem being simply that the narration could sound a little self conscious and contrived. It's a perennial problem with educational programs that take existing genres and try to fit educational material into the conventions of other programs.

Following the documentary section of each program was a exercise - known as CLOZE in ESL circles - where the panel (and students viewing) complete sentences. These are based on comprehension of the documentary. For example one question was: The suburb MARRICKVILLE can be BLANK as a multicultural one (DESCRIBED). We gave this section the working title of BLANKETY-BLANKS.

The final segment in each program was a mini-drama. It was designed to be open ended. This was an attempt to provoke discussion after the program. The dramas were structured to present problems which could best be discussed using the language patterns appropriate to each function. The drama for Classifying/Defining dealt with the issue WHAT IS FAMILY? It was set in the backyard of a Greek family's house. In the drama the daughter of the family questions her father's view of family when she is told she will have to share her room with relatives whom she barely knows.

The discussion between the daughter and her parents is left unresolved so that students will discuss the issues and also classify/define what families are. Some trigger statements to discuss from the drama included the expressions, "Blood is thicker than water", "Friends are more important than family", "Families are a drag".

The dramas served the important role of providing discussion starters. They were also structured to include the language patterns detailed in the program. As well, the situations presented were aimed at encouraging discussion that would require students to use the language patterns from each program. It was felt that educational videos should be seen as part of the general learning experience. The "cliff- hanger" approach also provided evidence of real life situations where these apparently "academic" functions like "hypothesising" could be demonstrated in practice.

The open ended dramas in the programs were as follows:

In "Just Like this" (Comparison/contrast) two girls share a flat but they differ in their habits, attitudes, ways of dressing, likes and dislikes. The students are encouraged to compare the two girls when the problem is posed should the two girls separate and move out of the flat.

In "Which one first" (sequencing) the closing mini drama concerns a birthday party where a murder mystery has been committed. The students are asked to reconstruct the sequence of events when the murderer confesses at the end. How did she do it?

It's generally (generalisation/exemplification) has a drama where a mother and her children are arguing over curfew times and permission to go out. What generalisations can be made about age and gender? Arc there difference between cultures? The mini drama also includes nine unqualified generalisations which the students can discuss.

Program Five.. consequences (Cause and Effect) has a barbecue where everything goes wrong. The students are expected to identify how it happened by analysing a series of causal relationships.

Who said what (Reporting) presents three job applicants all going for the same job. The students are asked to suggest who might get the job and present reasons.

What if.. (predicting/hypothesising) the mini drama examines the lives of three people before a gunman burst into their house. Students are encouraged to predict what each character's reactions might be.

One man's meat (making value judgements). The drama shows breakdown in communication because of a difference in cultural mores, attitudes and beliefs that can occur between cultures.

Between the lines (Inferring) presents students with three contradictory accounts of an accident. The students can infer from the various statements made by three people involved in the accident what might have actually happened.

Low budget educational production

It's a feature of most educational production that resources and budgets are much lower than for equivalent documentary or drama productions. There's a dictum in television that as much of the money available should be visible "on screen".

There was enough money for professional actors, but their preparation time was more limited than in some other productions because they had no rehearsal time. Two dramas had to be shot per day. Likewise only one shooting day was available for each of the documentary sequences.

The whole program was done as an "Outside Broadcast" production with shooting in real locations. The only sets used were for a "Lift" drama and the Passwords Quiz show. Ironically this had to be set up and videoed in a technical college near the ABC because ABC studio facilities were not available.

The program sequences were all shot out of order in the most economical manner possible and edited off line before on-line editing. Even this stage provided some drama. No editing time was guaranteed so we had to be on standby for a cancellation so we could get some editing time late at night or at weekends.

Written support material

Three booklets Science, ESL and Home Economics were produced to accompany the series. These materials both supported and promoted the programs. They were written by workshops of teachers in consultation with the program producers. The NSW Department of Education paid for the printing and the booklets to go out with the Department's logo. The activities in these booklets can be used without referring to the Passwords programs, but it was recommended that the activities should be used with the series.

The books were available free to teachers by writing to the ABC.

These books were part of the answer to the subject specific needs of teachers. They provided the regulated exercises that convinced science teachers, for example, of how Passwords was relevant to them.


Follow up evaluations of programs were not built into the production budget so that there was no specific evaluation of Passwords impact in schools and acceptance/rejection by teachers. However, the telecast of the series coincided with a major national ABC survey of schools. This gives some quantitative information about the series. Previous surveys indicate that it takes a few years and repeats of a series for it to gain maximum exposure and this was true of Passwords too. The survey estimated a national audience of 18,200 students for Passwords (Black & Palmer 1987:18). Most interesting, in terms of the future of general programs like Passwords, was the result that some ABC programs have established a permanent standing which crosses state and subject boundaries (ibid, 21)

Passwords did prompt some changes in the production methods within ABC Education. It was recognised that greater pre-production research support should be provided for such series and researchers are now a more permanent part of programs, co-production has been used to support better resourced programs such as a series about the Powerhouse Museum. This support also included engaging professional editors to put together written support materials.

Passwords was an attempt to include both direct and indirect examples of the functional approach to language. As such it has both an in-service function for teachers as well as its objectives of helping students to write more effectively. It may seem paradoxical to use the television medium to deal with writing skills. Why, though, should video be seen as having a limited range of material it can deal with. There was some surprise a few years ago when the ABC produced a television series, a series designed to help "listening skills" using television. Sceptics thought that the visual medium of television didn't allow for "listening skills". Yet that series - Detective - now has an estimated audience of nearly 200,000 students across Australia (Black & Palmer 1987,18).

Passwords took the big step of widening responsibility for English language teaching to the Social Science and Science teacher.

With the proposed expansion of opportunities for educational programs in educational television stations and TV Ed there is a need to design programs that have appeal to new audiences and reach areas that have been neglected in the past. English as a second language and the needs of students to develop writing skills is certainly one such area. There are no doubt many more doors that programs like Passwords have yet to unlock.


Allan, M. (1987). The introduction of a new technology within one discipline. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 3(2), 173-179.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1985). ABC Corporate Plan, 1985-1988. Sydney: ABC.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1985). Achievement in the Implementation of Dix, 1983-1985. Sydney: ABC.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1985). Australia-wide School Broadcasts Survey. Sydney: ABC Audience Research.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1988). ABC Daytime: A Guide to Television and Radio Education Programs. Sydney: ABC.

Black, D. and Plamer, P. (1987). National Survey of Secondary Teachers use of ABC Schools Television Programs. Sydney: ABC.

Commonwealth Department of Education (1979). Origins: Aust. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Commonwealth Department of Youth Affairs (1983). Transit: An ESL Resource. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Gilmor, C. (chair) (1979). The Role of ABC Educational Broadcasting. Sydney: Federal Education Broadcasts Advisory Committee.

Morris, A. & Stewart-Dore, N. (1984). Learning to Learn from Text. Addison-Wesley.

Ramsay, G. (1987). ABC Education Television: An Endangered Species? Kingswood: School of Humanities Working Paper No. 2.

Author: Grahame Ramsay is a lecturer in Media at the Nepean College of Advanced Education. He produced many educational programs as a producer/director with the ABC and won an Asian Broadcasting Union Award for his work.

Please cite as: Ramsay, G. (1988). Passwords: A functional approach to teaching language by television. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (Eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 136-144. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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