Teaching English through Drama
To the average EFL teacher putting on a play with children in a foreign language may seem ambitious, especially when pupils are struggling with the basics. However many pupils leave primary school with no English at all other than “My name is Fred” despite having worked through several textbooks and sat in class for years. It may be time to try a different approach such as working with plays and skits. Drama can help you achieve better results, have more fun, and motivate pupils. In this article we will look at children’s natural inclination for make-believe, the problem of motivating children, and how drama can help. We will show how teaching English through drama can enliven your classroom. We will also give practical tips for teachers introducing drama techniques, preparing for a skit, and the actual performance.
Children are naturals at make-believe
Anyone who has played with young children knows that they love to role-play with their toys and make up imaginary worlds. Since this is something children love to do naturally it seems sensible to exploit the process in English class alongside the textbook. Instead of sitting passively looking at the book, students participate and learn actively. The results are much better in terms of language retention, confidence and motivation. In addition pupils learn to work together as a team and many become more confident not only using spoken English, but with speaking as a whole. Using fun skits is one way to create this active learning environment, which is also more rewarding for the teacher.
“Nice…but I don’t have time for it. My English lessons are serious and I have to teach the curriculum.”
You may be thinking right now that you barely have time to get through the curriculum as it is. At least if you get through every page of the text book you know you have done your job. The problem with this attitude is that it may not lead to optimum learning. In fact a teacher using skits is likely to achieve better test results than the one who refuses any form of “play”. In addition, a teacher using plays and skits gives far more to the pupils than vocabulary and grammar. Drama in the classroom can teach life skills such as cooperating with others, speaking publicly, being creative and imaginative, and becoming more confident. This type of English teaching enriches the child far more than ensuring he or she can write out “I have two sisters and a cat”. When pupils are motivated and enjoying lessons they will try harder and be more likely to succeed, not to mention that they will like their teacher better too!
Five Top Reasons to teach English with plays
Now that we have hailed this teaching method let’s look at the nitty-gritty and show how and why it’s relevant:
- Language in role-plays and skits is authentic. Using plays enables children to use English in real conversations, expressing feelings and listening to the ideas of others. Acting out skits brings meaning and understanding to English. By the time a pupil has repeatedly rehearsed a skit he or she knows and remembers it.
- Preparing a play promotes fluency because children learn and repeat their lines frequently, gaining in skill and confidence progressively.
- As confidence grows children can become clear and confident speakers, a great asset for life. Even shy students are coaxed out of their shell since they can hide behind a role or props. The power of the persona is such that children who might otherwise be hesitant about speaking in public are often able to do so unselfconsciously when playing a part.
- Importantly, using plays is also beneficial for all those pupils who prefer a mix of learning styles, especially those who are tactile learners. The varied and active nature of preparing a play allows visual, auditory and tactile learners to each find their own way of integrating the language.
- Children enjoy learning in this way and are motivated by it.
How plays motivate students, and motivation is king
Let’s develop how using plays and skits can motivate pupils:
- Children can easily loose motivation in learning a subject if they find it difficult. Failure and fear of failure are surefire ways for pupils to become withdrawn and dejected as far as learning English goes. Bad behavior can be a mask to hide behind to disguise the fact the child finds the subject overwhelming. With plays and skits all children can meet with some success, which is encouraging for everyone.
- Plays are ideal for managing a mixed ability class since roles may be adapted accordingly. Star students take on more, and this is vital because if you ignore your best students they may become demotivated and even start messing around in class due to boredom. Slower students have fewer lines, or lines in unison with others. Children who suffer from real learning difficulties may be included using nonverbal cues such as body movements and facial expression. In this way, their confidence can be nurtured without bringing the whole class down to their level. In the meantime all students will be benefiting from being present and hearing the English spoken over and over again.
- Children pick up your mood. If you find trudging through the grammar boring, so will they. Using plays will stimulate everyone.
- Plays allow all children to belong to the group. In a drama lesson all children are actively involved, each role, however small, is essential for the successful performance of the play. A sense of belonging can be achieved here that is difficult to attain in the more traditional classroom setting.
Tips for teachers
If you are beginning to warm to the idea of using plays in class the next question is how to go about it.
- Using actions and expressions combined with learning vocabulary is a good starting point. For example, when you teach a new word have the class come up with an action for that word that illustrates it in some way. This engages children with movement, increases participation, helps vocabulary retention and appeals particularly to kinaesthetic learners.
- If you have very shy children Spolin’s ‘Improvisational Theatre Games’ are a good way to start. Although many of these do not use words they do help the students relax, feel more confident and use their imagination. However working specifically on acting skills as opposed to language skills is somewhat of a luxury, therefore including actions as part of a language learning activity as described above is more direct and immediately productive as far as learning English as a second language goes.
Choosing the Play
Choosing the right play is crucial. It has to be appropriate for the age and level of your pupils. For ease of use it should be repetitive and simple, and yet still contain a plot and preferably some humour. The topic should preferably be related to the curriculum. If the play is not repetitive, rehearsing and preparation will be tedious and time-consuming. The scripts in ‘Fun ESL Role-Plays and Skits for Children’ by Shelley Ann Vernon use few sentences that are repeated constantly. Everyone in class knows all the. Roles are therefore interchangeable and you don’t find yourself up a creek without a paddle at the performance because one of your characters is off sick.
Assign roles according to the abilities of your students. Adapt the script to suit your needs. In a situation where one or two children are far ahead of the rest modify lines to be more expressive and pad out the content. For example: “It’s morning, get up, it’s time to go to school”. This simple sentence could become: “Wake up sleepy, it’s morning. Come on, get out of bed right now, it’s time to get ready for school”. If you would like a free skit for young beginners please email the author to request it on [email protected] or visit the website in the about the author box below.
Now you have the script don’t make fifteen photocopies and read it together in class. That’s just a way of turning the script into a textbook. Pre-teach the vocabulary first as single words, after that teach sentences from the skit that include those words. Use language games, chant the words and act them out. If you are in need of inspiration as far as teaching with games goes please see ‘176 English Language Games for Children’.
Now that the children know all the vocabulary and key sentences by heart introduce the script. For all students, no matter what level, the emphasis should be on speaking, acting and movement, not on reading lines. If you give out the script students will read it in a stilted, unnatural fashion. So don’t give it out! Put the play together in chunks and build it over a few lessons. For example in the first lesson spend twenty minutes on the skit, going over it two or three times, or perhaps working only on the first chunk. Do a different activity for the rest of the lesson, working on spelling and writing of the same theme. In the next lesson go back over the skit, from memory as ever, and go a little further in it. Repeat this over five lessons, taking ten minutes of each lesson. Each time the children will be more fluent and more confident. It may only take one lesson to do the whole skit. It depends on the level and age of your pupils.
Once children know their lines well add in some props. Have the children suggest props and perhaps make them at home. This is motivating for them, gives them responsibility and allows the project to feel their own. A major tip regarding props is keep them simple and do not use any until the language is known. If you include props too soon children become so engrossed in the prop that there is no space left to learn the language! Keep the introduction of props up your sleeve for the end, adding an element of novelty to keep the skit fresh and stimulating.
Once the skit is ready please be sure to perform it. This is where the children eat the cake they have been making. Ideas to achieve this are: Invite parents for an end of term show; do the skit at the school assembly; show the class next door and video the skit to show your own class. More than likely the school will support your efforts since it makes it look good to parents. Parents also like to feel included and see what’s going on in school.
If you are doing a performance in front of the school or parents start with a group song or play some vocabulary games in front of the audience as a warm up. This will get the children used to speaking on stage in front of a crowd when the cat might get their tongue!
Hand-written invitations to the show, posters and a translation of the script may all be done by students as writing tasks. Each student writes out a translation to hand out to a member of the audience.
Take a video of the performance. It makes the children feel significant. It may be used for feedback and as a benchmark to see progress later in the year.
In this article we encourage you to move away from a fixed classroom set up where children follow the teacher, the board and book passively. Instead broaden the appeal of your lessons and motivate your pupils more by including movement, make-believe and creativity. Give children a means to succeed drilling language via games and reward the class with a finished product, a performance of their work. Very few resources are needed to include drama activities in your more traditional ESL lessons and these can add a new dimension to your teaching and bring your language classroom to life.