For several years, drama activities have formed part of the language teacher’s toolkit and have been incorporated into classroom materials. Many teachers today have a general understanding of what drama is and the many benefits it brings to language learners so it is my intention in this series of blog posts to pinpoint what it actually entails and then remind ourselves to what extent it can be applied to language teaching in a thorough and systematic way. This first blog post is to provide an introduction and overview of the basic principles and rationales of using drama in language teaching. Future subsequent posts will cover individual areas in turn. These will include physical warm-ups and relaxation exercises; creating better group dynamics and building trust; voice and pronunciation; fluency, improvisation and characterisation.
What is Drama?
The word drama comes from the Greek ‘to do’ or ‘to act’ and in theatre, film and TV, actors attempt to portray and reflect the human condition. Their main objective is to create a semblance of reality in their portrayal of characters in order for the audience to relate to them and become engaged in the story. Similarly, in pedagogical terms, it is widely believed that to make language learning more meaningful and memorable, we should be providing our students with a multi-sensorial experience, engaging them physically and emotionally. Drama as a tool in communicative language teaching not only deals with spoken utterances but also examines the wider aspects of communication and is a whole-person approach: it encompasses and develops the kinesic features of communication (gestures, movement and facial expression), self-expressiveness, creativity and imagination, spontaneity, social and cultural awareness as well as prosodic features (pronunciation, intonation, pitch, pace, volume and tone of voice).
It’s important to remember that drama is a vast umbrella term that encompasses a great number of approaches and activities, not all of which include a ‘performance’ in front of an ‘audience’. Many drama activities do not necessarily need to lead to a demonstration of your work e.g trust and voice exercises. Many do though e.g dramatising text and role plays.
Why use Drama in the Language Classroom
At its heart, drama provides learners with a realistic need for communicating and attempts to bridge the gap between the kind of carefully controlled language work that is often done in the classroom (grammar, vocabulary and skills work) and the complexity of unpredictable language and behaviour we are confronted with outside of the classroom. Here is a summary of additional benefits:
- most teachers accept nowadays that in order to make the learning process more meaningful and memorable, we not only need to engage our learners cognitively, but we should also attempt to engage them physically and emotionally
- drama emphasises the importance of cohesive groupwork and therefore builds trust between learners, thereby reducing stress and building confidence. It also encourages students to take pride in any kind of performance work as learners have to rely on each other to produce something of value and quality. As a result their self-esteem and motivation are increased through their achievements
- drama sensitises us to other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour because it often requires us to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes and see the world from their perspective ie. it develops empathy
- drama is fun, unconventional and an oft-needed physical release. It frequently generates laughter and a relaxed atmosphere, promoting an ideal learning climate
- drama provides opportunities to engage in authentic language use in a given situation so learners are not practising lexical and grammatical items in isolation but are rather putting them in an active context
- drama caters well for mixed-ability groups as less challenging roles and responsibilities can be given to less able learners and more able learners can be used to demonstrate an activity or take leadership responsibility within a small group. In fact, giving this kind of responsibility to less-motivated and boisterous students can also be effective
How should I approach using Drama in the Language Classroom?
- always allow time for a short warm-up and focus: this could be a physical/trust exercise or simply a discussion of the context and learners’ possible previous experiences of it
- allow students time to consider in detail the scene and characters they are to play in a role play or improvisation. Give them time to rehearse. This is crucial
- if students are going to tell a story or dramatise a text or a scene, emphasise the importance of experimenting with volume, pace, pitch, tone, gesture and facial expression to develop their character
- exploit learners’ previous life experiences whenever appropriate to inform their work
The next blog post will deal with the importance of creating an appropriate and conducive classroom climate in order to maximise the benefits of using drama in language teaching. I will also offer some practical suggestions to achieve this. See you then!
Teaching English With Drama (2005), M Almond, Pavilion Publishing Ltd
School of Language Studies and Applied Linguistics
Christ Church University