Drama as a teaching tool

The RobberyWhen I started teaching ESOL at Telford College of Arts and Technology, England, almost eight years ago, I conducted an ESOL conversation class where I carried out numerous drama activities, sometimes culminating in staged productions. ‘The Robbery,’ a one act play and ‘The Trap,’ an original dance drama were staged consecutively before a 500-plus strong audience on presentation day for the last two years. Other productions were staged in classroom settings, sometimes for other learners and teachers, or sometimes purely as a classroom activity.

To accomplish this much planning was required; I now wish to examine my extensive diary notes with regard to the production of these two plays,  ‘The Robbery’ and ‘The Trap’ and reflect on the role played by drama in improving English language skills.

1.1 Current trends for ‘Drama for ESOL’ in practice

Burke And O’Sullivan (2002) state that drama is a great way to involve the students wholeheartedly in learning a language in a manner that is fun and far from frivolous. Students find a real, authentic purpose to interpret language and discuss motives. Burke adds that students learn to use dialogue by improvising from their own active vocabulary and through the acting of scripted roles. They learn to experiment with pitch, intonation, stress, gestures and non-verbal body language. Confident of its merits, Burke and O’Sullivan (2002:8) add, ‘we feel that in drama and role play, students have the best chance to use the second language at length.’

Wessel (1987: 53-54) states that drama’s big contribution is that it helps the teacher achieve reality in many ways; a routine ESL class would find it cumbersome to obtain similar results. Drama does this by fostering language and social contexts together, and by getting students to express themselves within that particular context. Indeed, drama can help young learners to feel less awkward and consequently, more confident when they begin to use the language within the theatrical environment.

I use drama in the ESOL conversation class because I am convinced it is an all-embracing pedagogy that can transcend classroom limitations, language learning taboos and encourage creativity in learners. As an activist strategy, drama uses both a constructivist and humanist approach. Wessels (1987:10) adds that drama should be considered as an essential technique in Communicative Language Teaching. After working in an amateur theatre group for 15 years and going on to use drama in the classroom for a further 4 years, I consider it to be an essential language teaching tool for these reasons: –

• Students learn and internalise whole chunks of language in a clear context.

• Drama can help students maintain a real, authentic environment.

• Drama can create a need to learn the language.

• Students feel less self-conscious and more at ease to express themselves.

• Drama is an ideal method to introduce differentiation.

 • Drama helps improve speaking, listening, reading and writing skills.

• Drama helps in pronunciation.

• Through drama realistic goals are set for students.

1.2 Drama for ESOL takes centre stage

On 17th June 2008 my ESOL students successfully staged ‘The Robbery’ on presentation day before a 500–plus audience. In June 2009 we staged ‘The Trap,’ a dance drama. Except for one, all the actors had appeared in the previous production. (They said they did not want to let me down even though they had a few reservations about acting in a dance production!)

Initially rehearsals were held once or twice a week for roughly two hours. A fortnight before the play the frequency rose to four times a week for three hour stretches. The duration of the dance drama was 11 minutes and, like the previous year, it would be the first event of the evening.

1.3 Framework of the teaching diary keeping process

I took notes at all times: during, before and after rehearsals.  Detailed analysis usually occurred after practice hours at home. In session notes were hurried, sometimes scribbled on the script, and pertained mainly to diction, enunciation, stage delivery and stage presence. My in-depth notes dwelled upon deeper issues.

My diary studies relied on a process rather than product approach. Accurate, unbiased qualitative observations aimed at problem solving were essential to this kind of action research. The possibilities of including experimental observations were interesting but not advisable, due to time constraints. Diary entries referred to each student, as well as each section of the lesson.

The emphasis was on assembling data, not on style, grammar or organisation, tips suggested by Bailey and Allwright (1991). Their other instructions such as setting aside a time each day to make diary entries, and allotting the same amount of time in writing as spent in class could not always be implemented.

Howard-Richardson and Parkinson (1988) emphasise that diary research requires consideration to be given to variables such as journal layout, access, assignment administration and feedback. Occasionally we used a drama rubric to ascertain the progress made in class but these were implicitly, not explicitly linked to linguistic learning targets. In future sessions it would be advisable to prepare a rubric linked explicitly to speaking and listening learning targets.

1.4 Problems in the learners’ skills development, solutions and strategies.

Problems in Pronunciation

Drama helps primarily in the ‘acquisition of correct pronunciation’ (Wessels, 1987: 9) and creates a need to learn the correct linguistic skills, thus increasing motivation in the learner. At rehearsals the most noticeable errors were with regard to pronunciation. The drama rehearsals were an opportunity to observe and isolate, first hand, prosodic problems faced by the learners. It was also possible to deal with them immediately and to reinforce learning through repetition. However, in some areas the level of difficulty was so great that a variety of strategies had to be adopted, with mixed results.

Immediate success was obtained with lexis such as lamb, plumber and pleased, where the learner was unaware of the silent /b/ rule or simply did not know the correct pronunciation.  It was more difficult to deal with errors resulting from Language 1 interference. My notes revealed that Polish students erred in the enunciation of certain vowel sounds; that is, they pronounced /i/ with an /a/ sound, schwa was usually pronounced /e/, which often changed word stress and all long vowels were made short. Hence, the Polish actors faced problems with bank, plan, library, thirty, return, and angry; similarly, the Chinese girl stumbled on the word ‘desperate’ and the Ghanaian learner tried hard to get ‘bored’ right.  Even after initial correction, the errors could not be completely eradicated due to strong Language 1 interference.

On establishing individual learning targets in this area, it was possible to devise differentiated chants and vocal exercises. It was necessary to use drill to teach the correct pronunciation, reinforced by peer correction. Vocal warm ups emphasising plosives such as  /p/ /t/  /k/ also helped generate interest in mastering the correct pronunciation. Chants, choral singing and a variety of role play exercises, such as using the same word in different contexts or simply pitching the same lexical term differently, all helped motivate and elevate pronunciation skills, making this a valuable component of Communicative Language Teaching.

Due to this humanist approach in dealing with pronunciation errors, all the actors were aware of their problem areas within a week and the scale of efforts required to correct them. During rehearsals for ‘The Trap’ they constantly referred to problematic phrases of the previous play, proving that they were able to retain these lexical terms for extended periods, unlike grammar rules dictated in a regular language class. However, I noticed that the actors still made errors in pronunciation and let past errors creep in; three weeks is still a relatively short period to correct pronunciation errors; my diary notes clearly showed that the frequency of errors committed by the learners went down very gradually but was liable to flare up again due to strong L1 influence, laziness or even because the learner had forgotten the rule. Ideally drama sessions should continue for a full year to reinforce learning.

Prosodic problems

Sentence stress, intonation, pitch and other prosodic problems were also easily isolated and carefully noted in these authentic exchanges. In spite of having a script the actors faced difficulties with stage delivery due to Language 1 interference: the Polish and the Ukrainian actors repeatedly produced lexical chunks such as ‘you don’t must move, it’s not the Facebook, do you have got any questions?’ while the Chinese actor kept lapsing into a singsong tone.

Mere drill exercises did not solve the problem; Maley (2000) has listed several vocal activities that approach the issue from a humanist angle.

• Use the ‘problem’ lexical chunk in different contexts, such as a hospital or bus stop.

• Use the lexical chunk cross hierarchy, such as a married couple or employer –employee.

• Produce a four-line skit from the same lexis.

• Use the same lexical chunk to portray different moods.

• Say the same phrase in five different ways.

These quick role plays helped the actors gain confidence in experimenting with their voice, enabling them to vary pitch and intonation to gain the right register. However, success in mastering the correct lexis depended on how much the learner was motivated and able to internalise the correct form. As active participants in authentic situations the actors were always highly motivated to improve their linguistic skills. The more experienced actors showed greater success in producing the lexical terms correctly. Beginners were hesitant, and progressed more slowly. Though the Chinese girl was highly motivated she found it very difficult to discard the singsong in her tone and kept lapsing back into a singsong. She performed well on presentation day but would profit further if she were to continue to participate in drama exercises for a longer period.

I felt less time constraints would prove beneficial not only for her but would have improved the diction of all the actors. It would have also given me the time and space to experiment with the voice training exercises described by Maley (2000:10-15) and to observe the results. Once again, more time was essential to assemble and disseminate the data entered in my diary to make definite long-term conclusions as to the efficacy of certain techniques.

Gaps in fluency reading

On commencement of rehearsals for ‘The Robbery’ the learners displayed poor fluency in reading. Instead of treating the text as lexical chunks, the actors would labour over each word, breaking the rhythmic flow of the script and producing jerky sentence stress patterns and phrasing.

Blau (2009) has suggested some steps to improve fluency in reading: modelling, repeated readings, phrased reading, and reader’s theatre–all of which are integral to the drama process itself.

Of these I found modelling the script and conducting repeated readings to be the most beneficial. Reader’s theatre is an aspect of learning that I ought to explore further especially as it reaches out to learners who are not yet confident enough to ‘act’ on stage. Participants in reader’s theatre do not have to move out of their comfort zones but can remain seated in their chairs and deliver their lines.

Modelling the lines for the participants is useful but it should be used sparingly and mainly to help newcomers as it tends to inhibit creativity. Experienced participants are usually confident and motivated enough to work at fluency through repeated readings; they are the ones most likely to venture out of the ESOL classroom and pursue Access or full time Further Education courses.

 Interpretation difficulties

‘The Trap’ ended with the poem ‘Queda Prohibido’ by Pablo Neruda translated from the Spanish. The metaphorical language of the poem was so difficult to grasp that the participants asked other teachers to help them decipher its meaning even though we had gone over the poem repeatedly in drama class. This was a positive step towards increasing their vocabulary and comprehension skills as it indicated they had a genuine desire to know the meaning of words when they were in character.

It, however, also became necessary to ‘activate schema to help them associate the text with its meaning’ (Kelner & Flynn, 2006:22). Participants were encouraged to examine how their lives and learning experiences were similar to those described in the poem. Through drama exercises listed by Maley (2000: 31-49) they made links between the lexical terms in the text and their personal experiences and also between the text and other texts they might have read. These activities touched the affective domain of the learners; its humanist, non-linear approach geared the learners to indulge in risk taking, ultimately resulting in mastery of the subject.

Causal link between teaching diary and learning hurdles

Due to the ongoing underpinning research that focused on the learners’ problems, it was possible to delve deeper into the issue and study various approaches, empowering me to select, devise and adapt from a large number of drama strategies; this, in turn, helped remove hindrances to the learners’ progress and boosted their motivation.

Some positive and successful strategies were observed as a result of the diary studies, especially with regard to diction. There was a marked improvement in the students’ motivation to master pronunciation, sentence stress and intonation patterns as a result of the strategies. Consequently, students devoted similar enthusiasm to developing comprehension, speaking and listening skills. They learnt to respect turn taking, conveyed their opinions verbally and through nonverbal cues, and resorted to ludic use of language– a sign of growing fluency (Crystal, 1998).

Explicit, not implicit, learning objectives

Drama, ‘especially as it is used in classrooms for learning purposes, exists for the benefit of the participants,’ according to Kelner & Flynn (2006:8). While it was obvious that learning and motivation improved during the rehearsals, the case for the importance of diary studies would have been consolidated further had specific individual learning objectives been outlined and linked to the UK Adult ESOL Core Curriculum at the start, so as to enable explicit summative assessment. However, due to the paucity of time and overwhelming production deadlines very little attention could be given to charting individual objectives; a point already noted earlier by Hopkins (1985).

Kelner & Flynn (2006:24) state that a ‘high quality drama for language class includes:

• Clearly stated and explained objectives in both drama and reading


• An acting tool- and/or skill-building activity or warm-up that teaches or reinforces one or more drama objective

• A drama strategy that encompasses both sets of stated objectives

• Reflection on the effectiveness of the lesson based on the objectives

• Revision of the drama to allow students to implement understandings

gained during the reflection

• Assessment from both drama and reading comprehension perspectives.’

This wider, coherent strategy is possible if the diary studies are conducted over greater time duration. It would enable practitioners to revise their approach and observe long term the effectiveness of their methods.

Further actions

• Consider using rubrics linked to specific language learning targets during rehearsals.

• Pioneer a ‘Drama for EFL’ club.

• Enlist the help of other EFL tutors to observe rehearsals and solicit suggestions with regard to language learning taking place in the classroom.

• Obtain feedback from learners after every session, about every activity. Check if learners are aware of the purpose of each activity.

•Attend ‘Drama for EFL’ workshops and keep updating the teaching diary.

•Consider hosting a ‘Drama for EFL’ blog and join like-minded mailing lists.


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