Using Drama to Teach English – Some Tips and Resources
Many teachers are well aware of techniques like dialogues or roleplaying as standard parts of many textbooks for teaching ESL/EFL conversation, for example. However, they may not be aware of the many other options available for incorporating drama into their classes at all levels and in a number of more meaningful ways. I will offer a few of these options (along with a few suggestions to make them more meaningful for your students) below.
Reader’s Theater for K-12:
In a nutshell, all of the things that turn instructors and students off from providing drama in their classes are removed when you use Reader’s Theater. As Aaron Shepard (1996, 2004) has stated on his website(1):
Reader’s theater is minimal theater in support of literature and reading. There are many styles of reader’s theater, but nearly all share these features:
- Narration serves as the framework of dramatic presentation.
- No full stage sets. If used at all, sets are simple and suggestive.
- No full costumes. If used at all, costumes are partial and suggestive, or neutral and uniform.
- No full memorization. Scripts are used openly in performances.
Both Aaron Shepard and Lois Walker (2) have both free and paid Readers Theater materials for elementary and secondary levels if you are interested.
Dialogues and Role plays: some suggestions:
* Be ready and willing to adapt the dialogue to your students by changing the time, place, name(es) or other details to be more age and level appropriate.
* Use the textbook material as a starting point for students to create and perform their own dialogues.
This website offers some great ideas for taking your dialogues to the next level
ii) Role Playing:
- Students work in groups to “assume and act out roles so as to resolve conflicts, practice appropriate behavior for various situations, etc.”
- These give students the ability to write out their own dialogue(s) based on a common or uncommon situation, prepare and present their role plays or – with higher levels – they get a situation prompt and a few minutes to prepare and then do them for the class(3).
- These are one way to introduce theater games/improvisation to your students as explained below.
See ESL Base for a good set of instructions for using role plays more effectively or Teaching English for more background on role plays and some specific suggestions for using them in a variety of ways.
Improvisation and Theater Games:
According to the Cambridge dictionary, Improvisation is “a performance that is not practiced and that is invented by the performers” or “Improvisation is also the activity of making or doing something you have not planned, using whatever you find.” (4)
For actors, the process of improvising involves learning to deal with the unexpected – a necessary skill on stage during live performances- and it helps with developing creativity and flexibility. Unlike a scripted play, there is no knowing or predicting what will happen next in an improvisation or theater game of this nature. That is part of the fun, but is also likely to fail if your students do not trust you or are not at least at an intermediate level in terms of their English ability. The biggest and most well-known name in this area is Viola Spolin, who wrote a number of great resource books for actors, directors and classroom teachers (5).
My other top choices for books/resources to create a drama class for your students are:
As an amateur actor myself, I have a library of resources for this, but here are a few of the books/resources I use most often other than what I have already mentioned above:
1) A Practical Handbook for the Actor(for High school/University)
This simple and essential book about the craft of acting describes a technique developed and refined by the authors, all of them young actors, in their work with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, actor W. H. Macy, and director Gregory Mosher.
A Practical Handbook for the Actor is written for any actor who has ever experienced the frustrations of acting classes that lacked clarity and objectivity, and that failed to provide a dependable set of tools. An actor’s job, the authors state, is to “find a way to live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of the play.” The ways in which an actor can attain that truth form the substance of this eloquent book.
2) Introduction to Theatre Arts Student Handbook
At last! A student-friendly, as well as teacher-friendly workbook with study units for a full year of classroom drama activities. The entire spectrum of theatre is covered in ten sections: 1. Getting Started, 2. Evaluation, 3. Scene Work, 4. Acting, 5. Characterization, 6. Publicity and Other Production Business, 7. Play Production, 8. Theatre History, 9. Games and Improvisation, 10. Planning for the Future.
All units are complete with detailed instructions, examples, working forms, and photo illustrations. Students will learn all the basics of theatre history, play production, performing, and finding a career in theatre. This instructional program is classroom-tested and designed to fit the budgetary considerations of schools.
3) Crash Course Theater and Drama
We’re back! This year Mike Rugnetta is teaching you about theater and drama. Are you in a drama club? Want to know about the history of theater? Maybe learn some theater history? Have a lot of fun? This is the series for you! Over the next year, we’re going to learn about the history and workings of the dramatic arts, together. It’s going to be a great time, very low drama. Except it’s all drama. Embrace the paradox, folks.
*= You can find questions with answer keys created by teachers like you for these courses at the Teachers Pay Teachers website.
4) Respect for Acting
The first part, “The Actor,” deals with techniques that set an actor in motion physically, verbally, and emotionally. It deals with the actor’s concept of himself and with the art of acting, as well as with the ethics that have made the theater what it is today and what it could be tomorrow.
Part Two, “The Object Exercises,” offers specific and detailed work for the actor, covering a broad range of his problems. Part Three, “The Play and the Role,” concerns itself with the definition of the play and identification with the character the actor will undertake. It also covers practical problems, the rehearsal, “style,” and communication.
Respect for Acting is a book for people who respect (or wish they could) the theater on both sides of the footlights, for actors and audiences who favor truth in a creative process. The constructive stages of work delve into performance as well as into the issues surrounding a necessary change in the theater. It is all quite authentic, since Uta Hagen has never hesitated to throw herself into a good fight for a better offering in the theater in “the time of her life.”
5) David Mamet’s books:
The purpose of theater, like magic, like religion . . . is to inspire cleansing awe. What makes good drama? And why does drama matter in an age that is awash in information and entertainment?
David Mamet, one of our greatest living playwrights, tackles these questions with bracing directness and aphoristic authority. He believes the tendency to dramatize is essential to human nature, that we create drama out of everything from today’s weather to next year’s elections. But the highest expression of this drive remains at the theater.
With a cultural range that encompasses Shakespeare, Brecht, and Ibsen, Death of a Salesman and Bad Day at Black Rock, Mamet shows us how to distinguish true drama from its false variants. He considers the impossibly difficult progression between one act and the next and the mysterious function of the soliloquy. The result, in Three Uses of the Knife, is an electrifying treatise on the playwright’s art that is also a strikingly original work of moral and aesthetic philosophy.
One of our most brilliantly iconoclastic playwrights takes on the art of profession of acting with these words: invent nothing, deny nothing, speak up, stand up, stay out of school. Acting schools, “interpretation,” “sense memory,” “The Method”—David Mamet takes a jackhammer to the idols of contemporary acting, while revealing the true heroism and nobility of the craft.
He shows actors how to undertake auditions and rehearsals, deal with agents and directors, engage audiences, and stay faithful to the script, while rejecting the temptations that seduce so many of their colleagues. Bracing in its clarity, exhilarating in its common sense, True and False is as shocking as it is practical, as witty as it is instructive, and as irreverent as it is inspiring.
Obviously, drama is not for everyone but, in my experience, it can empower students and build their confidence in using English as a second/foreign language in ways that more traditional techniques cannot. No matter what level you teach, drama can offer some unique opportunities for you and your students.