Drama as a Resource for Giving Language More Meaning
by Sam Smith
Where does drama come in?
Why is drama a useful resource?
What is drama?
How to employ drama
In conclusion, a suggestion for employing drama
on my teaching experience, I have realised that an area of teaching I
have not paid enough attention to has been that of providing my students
with adequate opportunity to put what they have been studying into use.
Combining this with my recent experience with some groups studying at
the rather unusual times, during the afternoon, and in intensive classes
over the last couple of years, where the students are from quite different
walks of life, from teenagers to late middle aged business men, and therefore
find it difficult to find things of common interest to motivate them to
participate, I decided to turn to drama as a way of trying to get them
more interested in producing some language.
In this paper, I hope to show where drama can be applied, why it can be
a useful resource, looking at the benefits in terms of situation and motivation,
and say what it is, before going on to look at how to employ it.
does drama come in?
approach to language learning advocates presenting the language in some
way, whether it is a presentation through a context such as a story or
a picture, or through noticing or consciousness raising in a text for
example. This is followed by some form of controlled practice, through
written exercises and / or through spoken exercises and drills and then
more free practice or providing a chance for learners to produce the language
in a less controlled exercise where the language could naturally occur.
This approach has seen variations such as Test Teach Test or the Deep
End Strategy, where a task is done first to test and see what language
needs presenting, the Tennis Clinic Strategy, where the task is first
announced and then learners are given guidance and input before eventual
production. But in all modern approaches, the free practice or actually
doing the task stage is present.
Modern theories on language learning (Thornbury 2001) (Batstone 1994)
also place great importance on giving the learners the opportunity to
produce the language in a less controlled context.
Batstone advocates (re)noticing, (re)structuring and proceduralisation
as the 3 stages involved in learning a language. (Batstone 1994) Proceduralisation
is making language available to be used, i.e. ready to be activated from
its store in the mental lexicon on demand (Batstone 1994) and to be able
to do this, a student needs practice in real time in a context where the
language is likely to be used. This freer practice is where using drama
can be a vital resource.
drama a useful resource?
enrich the classroom in 2 ways: Firstly through the situations it allows
in the classroom and following from this, the opportunities it provides
to look at a fuller concept of communication, involving the nature of
speech and other paralinguistic clues to meaning; and secondly through
the way it can motivate students.
As the classroom is fairly fixed in its setting, it doesn't provide much
opportunity for learners to fully use their language. To give learners
the opportunity to use language we need to increase spatial, temporal,
hypothetical and social distance. (Thornbury 2001) Compare the request
'Book, please!' with 'I wonder if you could bring me the book that's on
the top shelf in the cabinet at home, please.' Clearly the second utterance
involves a lot more language practice than the first in terms of its increased
social and spatial distance. Using drama can provide the opportunity for
students to give more meaning to their utterances in different contexts
than the usual classroom environment allows. Maley and Duff (Maley &
Duff 1978) highlight this in four areas under the broad heading of situation:
Setting: the physical environment, e.g. a restaurant.
They point out that this may or may not affect the language, people talk
about other things than the food and atmosphere in a restaurant, but it
can affect the nature of the language.
Other things will also affect the language.
'At the dentist's it is certain that the patient's teeth will be mentioned,
but what is important is not just the hole in the tooth but the nature
of the person whose tooth it is. A nervous patient will need reassuring;
a mistrustful patient may need convincing; an impatient patient may have
to be pacified. The dentist's role, in such cases, extends far beyond
the limits of the waiting - room and the reclining chair.'
(Maley & Duff 1978, 10)
Role and status: Connected with the setting, we can see that our built
- in views of our ever changing roles, in relation with the roles and
status of those around us affect the way we communicate. A father would
speak differently to his son and his boss and using the dentist again
as an example, he would speak differently to the nurse and the patient:
'I want you to X-ray the lower left side', a request to the nurse, and
'Would you mind putting your head back a little further', a request to
' If we deliberately ignore the roles, we end up teaching language in
a vacuum. The very fact that we open our mouths to speak implies that
someone will be listening. The listener is a person. Why ignore him or
(Maley & Duff 1978, 11)
Mood, attitude and feeling: Our feelings and attitudes and those of
our interlocutors colour what we say and how we say it. Criticising the
text book approach of interpreting second hand feelings and not providing
enough input of set phrases such as 'What a pity!' and 'How nice!', Maley
and Duff advocate using drama to engage students' feelings and as a result
'making them aware of the need to be able to express them appropriately'.
(Maley & Duff 1978, 11)
Grammar and especially intonation are inter-linked with our mood and feelings
'It doesn't matter' can be interpreted as 'never mind', don't bother',
'too bad' or 'don't worry about it' depending on the situation and the
speaker's intonation. (Maley & Duff 1978)
Shared knowledge: The last but important point made by Maley and Duff
concerning situation is that of shared knowledge, unspoken assumptions
and unconscious prejudices. Again criticising text books for their attention
to meaningless phrases such as 'Mr. Grey's house is big.', taken out of
context, or in a situation where it is clear to all participants in the
discourse that this is true and therefore carries no meaning or communicative
purpose, Maley and Duff advocate using drama to promote real language
and a reason to communicate even at the lowest levels. (Maley & Duff
point, that of shared knowledge, especially, ties in with recent theories
about language acquisition (Skehan 1994), (Batstone 1994), (Thornbury
2001) that when shared knowledge is high or there is no context gap, learners
can rely on their communication, or top down, strategies to process meaning
and rely on ungrammatical language or only lexis and gestures to produce
utterances, thus improving their communicative competence but at the expense
of linguistic competence and possibly leading to fossilisation. As Batstone
points out, there is no reason for students to stretch their existing
inter-language to practice the past tense if it is clear at the beginning
of the exercise that the whole situation takes place in the past, there
needs to be a gap to be filled by the language used. (Batstone 1994)
important aspect of putting language into a situation is that it provides
the opportunity to look at the language used as a whole, not as a series
of isolated utterances, but see the function of the utterances in relation
to the rest of the dialogue. Michael McCarthey points out that by looking
at the discourse as a whole we can better understand the function of each
utterance in an exchange, i.e. a greeting, or acknowledgement etc. We
can help learners become better listeners by looking at active listening
devices such as asking questions, showing interest and using paralinguistic
devices such as facial expressions and eye contact to encourage the speaker
to continue and provide more input. We can analyse techniques for turn
taking, topic holding and topic shift and even study the whole 'routine'
of the dialogue, such as 'on the telephone' or 'in the restaurant' to
enable learners to be able to manage situations better. (McCarthey 1991)
A related point is that by practising language in a situation we provide
practice in the specific features of spoken language in real time, such
as: shorter sentences; mistakes and rephrasing; repetition and clarification;
reciprocity conditions of adapting the message according to the interlocutor's
response. These features giving rise to the practice of facilitation skills,
such as less complex syntax, parataxis (or adding things linearly through
lexis such as 'and'), ellipses, fixed phrases and fillers to gain time
when speaking, and compensation skills such as reformulation of the message.
by using drama to enlarge the classroom and take in more of the real world,
we are expanding the learners' field of language use and providing more
opportunity to practice using a developing inter-language in a much broader
range of contexts, and providing a chance to look at the real features
of conversation and doing it in real time and therefore facilitating proceduralisation.
and Duff say, to sum up situation:
'A situation is a totality, and by extracting the verbal content to
study it in isolation we risk losing or deforming the meaning. Drama can
help us to restore this totality by reversing the learning process, that
is, by beginning with meaning and moving to language from there.'
(Maley & Duff 1978, 12)
have one reservation about this statement which I would like to come back
to later: If we go from meaning to language, i.e. mime to words, and the
meaning is clear before the words are added, what need do learners have
to use the language?
on to a definition of drama and how to employ it I would like to say a
few words about the second reason for employing it, that of motivation.
When a group
is made up of different people from different backgrounds with different
interests, there arises the problem of how to interest them all at the
same time. If the teacher is interacting with the group and controlling
the communication, the students not involved in the communication are
not participating. The solution proposed by Maley and Duff and by Susan
Holden is having students working in small groups on an idea to be practised
and performed and therefore allowing them to direct their own participation.
As Maley and Duff say:
'In a sense, motivation is not needed when working through drama, because
the enjoyment comes from imaginative personal involvement, not from the
sense of having successfully carried out someone else's instructions.'
(Maley & Duff 1978, 13)
Stevick points out 'Learners need to feel a sense of belonging and
security, and also to invest something of his own personality and so to
enjoy a certain 'self esteem'.'
is provided by drama, giving learners a chance to employ their own selves
and resources, and providing an opportunity for imagination, spontaneous
creation and chance discovery, depending on the students working together.
(Maley & Duff 1978)
the cause of grammar, It is now time to move on to what it is and what
to do with it.
'drama', 'role-play', 'simulation' and 'improvisation' have been interpreted
in different ways by different people in different environments, from
therapists to actors, to teachers. And they mean different things according
to the environment and its implications. I am only interested in the context
of teaching and learning English and a definition that Susan Holding proposes
suits my purposes well.
is applied to classroom activities where the focus is on the doing rather
than on the presentation. In other words, the students work on dramatic
themes, and it is this exploration of the ideas and characters of their
target language which is important, for it entails interacting in English
and making full use of the various features of oral communication. The
students have the opportunity to experiment with the language they have
learnt, and the teacher has a chance to see how each person operates in
a relatively unguided piece of interaction.'
From this definition 4 important points arise for my implementation of
· Drama is used to practice language, or give learners the opportunity
to proceduralise language from their developing inter-language to make
it more available for future production.
· The language comes from the learners, therefore their own internal
level of language and interests dictates what they will choose to practice.
· The language learners produce will be contextualised by the situation
and dependant on the whole text.
· There will be some spontaneity in the activity and the students
will be acting in real time.
As an example
of what activities can be used under the broad heading of drama, Maley
and Duff grade their activities, going from non-verbal to verbal and increasing
in complexity. For some examples from their book 'Drama Techniques in
Language Learning', see appendix 1.
They begin with simple confidence building activities, such as falling
and being caught to promote trust or simply following instructions, such
as relaxing and tensing certain muscles on the request of the teacher.
They then move on to observation tasks such as memorising the features
of a room and discussing success with a partner to promote discussion
(Observation of the room, Maley & Duff 1978, 87). After this comes
interpretation tasks such as co-operatively inventing a story from a set
of pictures and helping a different group to work it out. (Picture sets,
Maley & Duff 1978, 131) Next comes creation and invention such as
creating a sketch from a randomly chosen setting, for example 'on a picnic'
and theme, for example 'Nobody loves me' and performing it to another
group. (People, places, problems, Maley & Duff 1978, 158). They then
move on through problem solving tasks to even working with literary texts.
One important point to note, concerning all their activities is that they
involve more than just language, be it movement, acting, pictures, other
realia, sounds or whatever and therefore should give more meaning to the
suggests 4 stages to a drama exercise:
Presentation of exercise.
· Experiment (showing to rest of group).
(Holden 1982, 22)
can be done through pictures, sounds or words and should set the atmosphere,
the mood and relationships between the people and the setting, thus creating
the context and meaning of the language to be used. Gillian Porter Ladousse
also suggests role-cards for the characters in the scene, to further enable
the learners to envisualise their character's feelings, role and status.
(Porter Ladousse 1987) However done, the presentation or cueing should
go along way to creating the meaning of what the learners will be doing.
will allow the learners to plan what they will do or say in the activity.
Language can be put in by the teacher or not. It is up to the teacher
how obvious he wants to be in showing the learners that they are practising
a part of functional language or not. The discussion itself will also
supply the learners with good language practice, using persuasive language,
agreeing, disagreeing etc.
stage is where the learners try out their scene, maybe miming first, maybe
practising on their own or in pairs or small groups before showing their
performance to another group if required.
discussion provides an opportunity for analysis of how it went, again
providing further spoken practice of suggesting, criticising, praising
etc. The analysis should be based on both linguistic and paralinguistic
features and should bring the activity back to the learners real selves,
allowing them to put their own personal thoughts and feelings into their
analysis, comparing with themselves and hopefully making the activity
more personal and memorable.
a suggestion for employing drama
and briefly, I would like to look at Holden's drama activities, make a
connection between more modern theory and her ideas and go back to an
observation I made connected to situation.
She quotes David Abercrombie:
'We speak with our vocal organs, but we converse with our entire bodies;
conversation consists of more than a single interchange of spoken words.'
(David Abercrombie 1972)
a very valid statement and Holden has employed its essence throughout
her book, generally moving from an idea to a mime to adding words (either
by the same group or a different one). One very important result of this
approach is that the meaning, showed by mime, is made clear before the
words are added, thus perfectly contextualising the language and making
the whole discourse relevant, so providing practice of the skills of spoken
From modern acquisition theories, though, I would like to make one slight
criticism and tentatively suggest a small modification.
If the meaning is clear before the language is added, what value does
the language have. The language used should be vital in creating meaning.
(Batstone 1994) (Thornbury 2001)
If the words are added after the mime, i.e. worked out and scripted, then
real-time language practice is not achieved and might not, therefore,
lead towards proceduralisation. (Batstone 1994)
I suggest working in 3 groups to come up with 3 mimes, which are performed.
The groups then work on adding words to each other's mimes, inventing
the words for only one party in a 2 way dialogue. Then whilst one group
performs their mime, the other 2 groups perform the words for one of the
parties in real-time, having to adapt their original work to fit with
the 2nd parties lines. In this way, language is vital to meaning and the
language choices occur in real time.
and Alan Duff, Drama Techniques in Language Learning, Cambridge University
Susan Holden, Drama in Language Teaching, Longman, 1981.
Gillian Porter Ladousse, Role Play, Oxford University Press, 1987.
Peter Watcyn-Jones, Act English, Penguin, 1978.
John Dougill, Drama Activities for Language Learning, Macmillan, 1987.
Rob Batstone, Grammar, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Scott Thornbury, Uncovering Grammar, Heinemann, 2001.
Peter Skehan, Second Language Acquisition Strategies, Interlanguage Development
and Task-Based Learning, in Grammar and the Language Teacher, edited by
Martin Bygate, Alan Tonkyn and Eddie Williams, Prentice Hall, 1994.
Martin Bygate: Speaking, Oxford University Press, 1987
Michael McCarthy: Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, Cambridge
University Press, 1991
Rob Nolasco and Lois Arthur: Conversation, Oxford University Press, 1987
Zoltan Dornyei and Sarah Thurrell: Conversation and Dialogues in Action,
Prentice Hall, 1992
31, originally from Bradford in the UK, has been teaching for 5 years,
in Ukraine (2 years), Poland (1 year) and Spain (2 years) and also at
summer schools in Folkestone and London. He currently lives lives &
teaches in Madrid.
This lesson comes about 7 months into a general English extensive course.
The group meets twice a week for one and a half hours, so we have been
together for about 90 hours. The course book we are using is Cutting Edge
Upper Intermediate and we are now in unit 10. This lesson is aimed at
revising, or providing an opportunity to use some of the language we have
been looking at in unit 9, a review of modal verbs and especially their
uses in the past for many purposes. In this lesson, I hope to provide
practice of modals for criticism and deduction.
The lesson comes about 2 weeks after looking at these modals and therefore
should help students remember something they have learnt before and therefore
It will be followed by a written homework of 'what we did in the lesson'
for a student who is not present, and this should help students remember
the main theme of the lesson and also the value of linking linguistic
and paralinguistic features.
Over the last 7 months with this group we have worked on specific skills
of listening, speaking, reading and writing and looked at many linguistic
points. However, most of what we have done has involved the students in
only a passive way with the real world. We have had a lot of input from
real and stimulating sources, such as authentic listenings (self - made
or taken from video) and readings taken from the internet or other sources,
but the students' productive energies have been spent mainly in the form
of comparing related opinions or recounting related stories. While this
is perfectly valid practice in itself and does also carry over into real
world use, it is only a part of how these students will have to communicate
in the real world, this group having stated at the beginning of the course
that interacting with native speakers or foreign speakers in an English
speaking environment is what they are studying for.
The classroom does provide an opportunity for communication and we have
made full use of this, but the purpose of this lesson is to try and open
up the walls of the classroom and try and provoke some more real world
use of language related to something other than the here and now.
An example of this is how we recently looked at 'complaining', using very
valid spoken input and the students learned from this, but sadly, the
production was lacking in reality, with one student playing the part of
a sales assistant, another a customer, and while language was used well,
I feel its relationship to the real world was somehow missing.
By using pictures, mime and acting, I hope to redress this balance as
far as is possible in a classroom situation.
Through drama I also hope to help make clearer the relation ship between
linguistic and paralinguistic elements, using mime to make meaning clear.
I also hope that by putting words to another group's mime there will still
be a large enough context gap to make the language used itself carry enough
meaning for the students to be aware of its value. If the mime alone were
enough, the language would become superfluous and could make students
not see the need for using it to carry the intricacies of meaning.
Another important element is that the language work will be done before
any verbal communication takes place, so it students should see a need
for it at the right time.
Finally, as the dialogue will have to be altered to fit in with the messages
coming from a partner in real time, a chance to adapt language already
thought about should provide some spontaneous communication practice thus
leading towards proceduralisation.
Looking at the stages of the lesson, the first 2 activities are aimed
at providing spoken and listening practice while activating students'
schemata on the topic and feelings involved in the lesson.
The next quick 'role-play' is designed to set the scene before moving
on to consider the likely content and related gestures and movement of
the scene while planning the mime.
The mime itself allows students to try and guess the content of another
group's ideas as well as serving to decide on the 'best' mime to use.
In the next stage, as the students are planning part of the dialogue,
I hope we will be reactivating recently focused on language and also providing
a chance for the students to ask questions and investigate vocabulary
while the teacher provides needed input and direction for those who need
As the 'performance' will be done without one partner knowing the other's
dialogue, this is where the spontaneity and adaptation comes in, hopefully
making students use the structures they have been remembering in a 'new'
Finally we will see the original group's version to compare the verbal
content with a different or similar interpretation of their intended meaning,
before going on to discuss the language used, its success, the success
of interpreting meaning from actions and gestures and the relevance of
these in communication.
To revise and provide spoken and written practice of modal verbs in the
past for criticism.
To raise awareness of the importance of the connection between linguistic
and paralinguistic aspects of language.
To practice listening skills, listening to the fast speech of a native
To practice speaking in the forms of discussion and organisation.
To facilitate proceduralisation of target structures by responding and
adapting in real time to a partner's message.
The group is an open group in the general English school. Their level
is upper-intermediate, however as always there is a significant difference
in levels within the group, different students being better and worse
in the various skills and in language and learning ability.
Their reasons for, goals in and experience in learning are also diverse,
the group comprising of school and university students and working people,
either paying for themselves or their company paying.
Their reasons for learning range from work / self to living in an English
Their learning history is, of course, significantly diverse, however after
being together now for over 5 months we have a good, supportive environment
and students do want to learn.
One worrying point though is their tendency to miss classes, usually about
6 turn up. I understand that they are working and have other commitments
and they do generally tell me if they will be missing for a few lessons
due to a business trip or something predictable.
generally good all round, her spoken English is quite slow and deliberate
and her listening is a bit lacking however she has a good attitude to
learning, and will try her best. She still has some problems keeping up
with some activities in class and I sometimes have to explain to her what
she should be doing again.
Anna (1) was at first one of the weakest in the group in terms of her
overall level, but she methodically applies herself and has improved more
than everyone else, particularly her grammatical knowledge. She now, takes
part well in class in all activities.
Anna(2) has little problem in any skills work, her grammar and vocabulary
are weaker though. Unfortunately, due to work, she attended poorly in
December and January and fell behind a bit. Recently, however, she has
been to every lesson and is quickly catching up.
Valle struggles a little bit with grammar and her listening and speaking
skills are quite poor, however she copes well, making use of what she
knows. She missed a lot of classes in January and February due to an injury
but really surprised me when she came back, having kept up at home with
her English and using her time off work to really study.
Patricia is very strong and outspoken. She participates fully in all activities
and is happy to help other students in the class. Her English in general
is very good in all areas.
Maria did 2 intensive courses last summer, is also doing a conversation
course, and has increased her level very noticeably. She attends well
and works well in class and at home and has a very sound grounding in
English on which to build.
Carmen is the youngest in the group, still at school, but is very mature
and makes the classes more lively. Her English is good in all areas but
particularly in speaking and listening.
Carlos is Maria's brother and has followed the same route as her, however
while his sister has attended well, he has not and relies on his existing
knowledge to progress. His vocabulary is now slightly lacking but he employs
coping strategies well.
Maru is fine all round, though a little bit shy. She has shown herself
to be very good receptively and productively and is very serious about
her English. She has only been in the group since January but now seems
happily settled in.
Marina is the newest addition to the group, having been in the group now
for about 4 weeks (not including breaks for holidays), she is becoming
more and more part of the group and making friends with the older students.
She is very communicative in pair work and becoming less shy in open group
work. Although her level of language knowledge is slightly lacking, she
copes well with all skills work.
Students will be motivated by the lesson as the content will depend on
their own and their teacher's personal experience.
Students will be able to relate to the context of the lesson and therefore
language will be contextualised.
Students have met and practised the target structures in spoken and written
By miming the dialogue, meaning will have been made clear before the words
By working with a partner who has written a different dialogue, the meaning
and form of the target language will maintain a vital relationship in
both listening and speaking.
By performing the spoken part of the dialogue in real time, great attention
will have to be paid to the partner's message, and the following exchanges
will have to be adapted accordingly, thus aiding proceduralisation.
Anticipated Problems and Solutions:
· Students may have difficulty in recalling, or wanting to recall
an experience like the one described by the teacher. - Working in pairs
or in a 3 should help make the chance of a story more likely. The good
supportive atmosphere in the class should also make students feel, willing
or not to divulge, at ease.
· Students may have problems working out a mime. - The teacher
will be ready with lots of suggestions ways to help.
· Students may feel shy and not want to perform. - No one will
be forced to, but the good atmosphere should help students lose their
· Students may have difficulty remembering the mime to put words
to it. - The mime can be done again on request.
· Students may have difficulty activating the target language.
- The teacher will remind them.
· When the performance 'with words' takes place, different pairs
may speak and react at different rates. - We will just have to work together
as best we can, the teacher controlling the pace a bit. The students'
good humour could also help oil the wheels of classroom dynamics but if
allowed to go too far, could detract from the meaning of the dialogue.
- The teacher will have to be prepared for this.
Aids and Materials:
The students' knowledge and experience.
The teacher's experience.
A picture of 2 motorists arguing after a minor road accident.
- To introduce the topic and begin the lesson.
/ Pairs - 5 mins
tells the story of how he once crashed his car when driving to work, (a
minor accident where no one was hurt) and students listen to decide who
was to blame.
- To activate students' schemata and practice fluency.
spend a minute to think if they can remember anything similar and relate
this to their partner.
They then spend a minute to recall / imagine their partner's feelings
at the time and again compare.
the scene - To give the students something to start from.
in pairs are given a picture of 2 motorists arguing at the scene of a
minor road accident. They assume the positions of the 2 people and on
the command 'Go' begin a dialogue.
The teacher stops them before they do more than 2 or 3 exchanges.
out the mime - To plan & contextualise a future dialogue.
in pairs, work out a mime of the scene between the two motorists.
and watching - To contextualise paralinguistic features.
- 6 mins
perform their mimes for the other pairs and elect one of them to put words
- To use the context of the mime to activate language.
write the words for the chosen mime. The group whose mime it is, writing
both parts, but, the other students in 2 groups writing the words for
only 1 of the participants. The mimers can be asked to perform all or
part of the mime again. The teacher monitors and actively asks the students
to think carefully about the language they are using and provides any
performance - To provide speaking practice while having to adapt to
an unexpected message.
- 6 mins
mimers perform their mime again while the other students from the 2 groups
working in pairs perform the words of each participant, changing their
original scripts accordingly as they watch the mimers and listen to their
performance - To compare the different versions.
- 4 mins
mimers perform their mime with words while the others watch and listen
to compare the differences.
- To round off the lesson and focus on the language used.
whole class - 6 mins
pairs followed by plenary session students discuss what language they
used, the differences between the 3 versions and the importance of having
visual clues to clarify meaning.
for the discussion:
1. What language
structures did you and your partner use?
2. Did you use them well?
3. Why do you think your versions were different?
4. How did looking at the mime help?
5. Do movements and gestures and language go together?
6. Do you think English and Spanish people use the same gestures?
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