You may view drama only as entertainment, but dramatic exercises can be valuable teaching and language-learning tools. My intention with such activities is not to create an actors’ studio; it’s to get students up, moving around, and interacting with each other in more meaningful ways. Where words and their meaning can seem abstract in a textbook or vocabulary list, dialogues and scripts contextualize language. Drama brings expression and emotional depth to language and makes it far easier to remember than rote memorization. Countless studies and research have shown that bringing dramatic exercises into the classroom can give students the confidence to move outside of the learning box to use their language skills. Finally, theatrical play promotes class bonding and trust among its members.
Mull these figures around in your head for a few moments…
UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian broke down human communication in conditional studies as follows: 55% of communication is through body language, 38% is tone of voice, and a mere 7% relies on the meaning of the actual words themselves! To wit, much of our communication is nonverbal! In the classroom, vocabulary lists don’t come with facial expressions and textbook explanations don’t have hand gestures and body language; essential elements of how we communicate with one another. These aspects of language have to be experienced and then experimented with as part of language learning.
I’m going to lay out some easy theatrical activities and exercises you can use when teaching. I’ll start with younger students and gradually move into exercises for more advanced language learners. Finally, I’ll offer some suggestions if you’re looking to bring full-on dramatic play into your classes.
But first, let’s start with the central performer in the classroom – you, the teacher. Good teachers learn how to pace their presentations, move with deliberation, and can write a complete sentence on the blackboard while eyeballing their students. You prepare props, modulate your delivery to keep your audience focused, and take bold action when making an impression is necessary. You can radiate warmth like a spotlight and your stare can make a roomful of students deadly silent. Guess what? You’re an actor! Kudos for all you do and the effort it takes to build trust with your students!
Children are naturals when it comes to pretending and will often indulge themselves if given the opportunity. All you really need is a bit of imagination and a willingness to make-believe. With your youngest students, playacting can begin with the songs, flashcards, and other activities you’re likely already using. Some of my earliest Q&A drills lay the foundation for future dialogues — the stuff scenes and short skits are made of. Anticipate that the vocabulary you’re teaching today is fodder for future scripts.
Flashcards – Instead of just flipping through vocabulary decks, bring out your verb or animal cards for some charades-like fun. Give students or teams points for guessing the word being acted out. There are lots of other ways of bringing your flashcard routines to life. Click here for 50+ Flash Card Activities.
Chants – If you perform chants, always include actions and props when possible! Chants have legs and they dance about in children’s heads right out of the classroom.
Songs – Like chants, choose songs that can be easily introduced with flash cards and simple actions. Whether you teach kids classics or contemporary originals, they should impart meaning to a young language learner. Teaching your kids full musical medleys with multiple verses of unintelligible syllables, only to impress parents, is a waste of valuable class time.
Dance – Dance doesn’t have to be a series of complicated steps. Think of Ring-Around-the Rosie, or Hokey-Pokey. Even simple choreography gets the blood flowing and makes your kids mentally in sync and physically working together.
Q&A – I start my kids early with simple greetings and Q&A activities with each other – no sing-song group drills! Early drills include greetings, asking their names, age, school, grade, etc. Varying the exercises with directives like whispering, yelling across the room, or singing in an operatic voice make routines less repetitive, more dynamic, and just fun! Try placing a sight barrier between you and the kids or have them do a drill with their backs to each other. Give toy telephones a try! It’s hilarious and kids have a great time! Experiment with funny voices and try familiar drills as a robot, gorilla, or a dopey superhero. My classroom had a broken intercom phone that I regularly used to call famous actors, presidents, and astronauts in space… to ask about their favorite color or animal.
Surveys – Though not dramatic, easy, picture-oriented surveys get students up and asking each other questions in and outside of class. The key is getting kids to engage. Give your kids a surveyor’s clipboard and send them out to interview friends, teachers, policemen, etc. Here are four easy surveys you can download for free that may give you ideas for creating your own. Click on the image below to download.
Puppets – I’ll be honest. I don’t do puppets. On the other hand, I have watched puppets being used quite effectively by very talented teachers. If you are so inclined, hand puppets are a great way to quickly move children into an entertaining make-believe space. Perform Q&A drills with googly-eyed sock puppets behind a whiteboard or desk. This also works well for demonstrating a dialogue when you have no one to help you!
Easy Dialogues – Here are three easy dialogues I use with my kindergarten and first-grade students. Because my classes are only 50 minutes once a week, I start building these dialogues using drills early on. As a teacher, you can easily discern the modular building blocks underlying each dialogue. Begin with a short exchange and over time, slowly add to it to include emotions, likes and dislikes, birthdays, pets, etc. Where students can exchange real information, it makes for more meaningful interactions. When performing these scenes, all you need is an imaginary door, a table, a couple of chairs, a few props, and voila! Theater!
Fairy Tales – Turning children’s stories into skits is a great way to get kids performing in English. Many fairy tales can be adapted with super simple dialogues that will accommodate your students’ levels. They also provide a variety of characters that will work with larger classes. Although such stories are the material that yearly recitals are built on, a skit doesn’t have to be complicated or stressful – nor does it have to be a dog and pony show just for parents. A script, children’s imaginations, and a few handy props are all you need. Click here or the image below to download three well-known children’s stories broken down into easy scripts. They’re free and you are free to use them.
Easy kids’ dialogues can also be built on repetitive language and a simple comedic scenario. Shelly Ann Vernon’s website offers (paid) scripts and game ideas for fun dramatic play. Be sure to check out the short video scene at the top of her page about a bus driver and scroll down for another skit called, “Doctor! Doctor!” The Czech kids in the videos do a GREAT job and are obviously having so much fun! Ms. Vernon also offers a sample script from her product lineup called, Ready, Steady, Go! These examples might spark some ideas for your own classes where you can build mini-plays aligned with the language you’re teaching in class.
With reading skills under their belts, older kids and teenagers can tackle dialogues and scripts with more varied language, such as telephone conversations, or an easy scene from a script. Taking a dramatic paragraph from a familiar story and asking students to bring it to life is a fun and easy exercise. Don’t be afraid to include the elements that make drama so enjoyable: murder, deceit, love, kings, witches, and croaking frogs!
Speaking of croaking, ask your students who can die with the most melodrama! Believe me, some just can’t let it go without a good measure of moaning, sliding down furniture, and death rattles. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given up the ghost in class. Be willing to be the first to release your mortal coil and bask in the appreciative applause of your students.
To quote from my previous post, Drills, Dialogues, & Roleplays, dialogues work well to simulate real conversations and get kids interacting. Here are some tips when performing any kind of dialogue, tragic or not.
- Before presenting the dialogue, introduce the topic of the dialogue by fielding students’ interest or knowledge of the subject. Providing students with pictures that may accompany or are similar to the dialogue, can warm students up with relevant vocabulary or grammatical structures.
- Have students listen to the dialogue and explore specifics about what they heard. If you have no recordings, set up two students to read while the rest of the class listens.
- Give students only one side of the dialogue and have students participate in reading and listening.
- Have students reorder a dialogue that’s been cut up into its individual lines.
- Try out your acting skills and use the dialogue as a telephone conversation where students only hear one side of the exchange. Who was on the other end of the conversation? Mother, teacher, or friend? What questions did they ask?
- Perform the dialogue in fictional circumstances. How does the same dialogue change in a library as opposed to a crowded cafeteria, or on a cold day in the park as opposed to a sunny beach?
You may be pleasantly surprised at the willingness of students to play and the creativity they will exhibit. Look for dialogues where students can exchange and interchange information for more meaningful interactions.
Dialogues For Young Speakers provides guided dialogues and surveys that were created with easy and natural language for beginning students. Check out these sample pages and they may spark ideas for your own original dialogues! They’re free. Enjoy.
More Advanced Activities
Roleplays fall into an improvisational category where an outline or circumstance is established and an outcome is sometimes predetermined. The purpose is to move performers through a mock experience. For ESL students, roleplays can be for simple life skills that include telephone conversations, interviews, or business-related matters. Like any improvisation, students have to be on their toes and bring all their language ability to the fore.
Download these free sample business roleplays from Trends, a compilation of readings and exercises for intermediate and advanced learners. Try them out in class or use them as a guide in developing your own roleplays!
Scene Studies allow you to bring your favorite film or play scripts into the classroom! Don’t forget to include stand-up comedy or commercials! Movie scenes are also readily available on YouTube and other video sites so you can show students how scenes play out. You’re only limited by your students’ English levels, their willingness to play, and the constraints of your classroom.
The internet has many scene databases for actors to sharpen their skills or select audition material. Such sites offer downloadable film and stage scene scripts divided by gender, number of actors, and script types, e.g., comedy or drama. Here are three sample scenes downloaded from Actorama, an actor’s call-board website. Click here or the image below to download.
A Readers Theatre can be a very enjoyable activity and requires no sets, costumes, props, or memorized lines. Consider dramatic segments from your favorite children’s story or comic book for students to practice their oratory and character skills. Voice-over actors are paid handsomely for their reading talents; a skill any language learner can practice on their own!
Here are excerpts from three children’s fairy tales – a genre rich in melodrama. Who among your students can chew the scenery with the utmost angst?
Improvisation For many, full-on improvisation is difficult for the simple reason that, like life, there’s no script. Improvisation will challenge your acting and listening skills to their limits! For effective improvisational exercises, direct your actors to follow one simple rule: you can’t say ‘no.’ This means if I have a fancy lampshade on my head and tell you I’m the King of Spain, go with it… you wretched peon; otherwise you kill the scene! Improvisation is about as close as you get to spontaneous, real-world dialogue, getting students to thinking on their feet, listening, and stretching their language ability. Here are a few example ‘scenarios’ that are typical of improvisational setups. When divvying up scenes, write the scenarios on cards and allow students to choose in a blind drawing.
- Ex: Two people, who divorced a long time ago, happen to meet each other in a bar after many years. They strike up a conversation.
- Cops and Robbers: Two students pair up. One of them is a thief standing outside a bank at 3am. Another is a policewoman on her beat. How does the conversation go?
- Time Machine: In a group of people, one person realises they have been transported to a different century.
- Neighbors: A group of people are at a raucous party. It’s 2am. There is a knock at the door. It’s the neighbors.
Final Stage Notes
Stage Directions If you’re going for a full-blown theatrical experience with your students, you should have some trade lingo tucked in your bodice.
- Stage right and stage left indicate the point of view of the performer standing on the stage. House right and house left describe the same directions as if you are sitting in the audience, also known as ‘the house.’ So, if a director asks an actor to move house left, she moves stage right.
- To move upstage means to move toward the back wall of the stage and downstage is toward the audience. Traditionally, stages were raked so you were literally going up and down the stage. To upstage another actor means moving up the stage so that other actors must turn around and lose the audience when addressing him — consequently throwing focus on the ‘higher’ actor. This is a rude and manipulative no-no amongst performers. Actors must be keenly aware how they cheat and favor their actions on stage when playing to an audience.
- Blocking is the directed movement and placement of actors on the stage.
- Props, or properties, are the objects that actors handle during a performance.
- To go up in the middle of a scene means forgetting your lines, as in “He went up and the prompter had fallen asleep!“
- Finally, lest ye awaken the evil spirits, no whistling backstage and never wish an actor good luck. Say, “Break a leg!”
Trust – Drama classes and ensembles employ a variety of trust exercises to create a bond amongst their members so they feel comfortable taking creative risks with each other and work together as a group. These are usually simple, physical exercises that promote listening, interacting, and laying your trust in a partner or group. Here are a few examples.
- Trust Fall is an activity where one person, with a stiff body, has to fall backward while her partner has to catch her.
- Blind Walk is an activity where one person is blindfolded and walked through a simple obstacle course with his hand on a partner’s shoulder.
- Helium Stick involves a group standing in a line or a circle. All participants hold their hands out in front of them, parallel to the ground with index fingers pointing out. A stick (in a line) or a hoola-hoop (in a circle) is placed on top of their fingers. The object of the activity is, as a group, to lower the object to the ground or transfer it to a surface without losing contact with the object.
Listening is a powerful skill that can be nurtured and is imperative in any kind of performance. On a practical level, a performer must learn to throw focus on a speaker without upstaging. When directors talk about building character relationships, they are often talking about how well actors communicate which includes listening to each other. Actors who don’t listen well don’t create good character relationships. There’s a life lesson there…
Drama Queens I’ll be the first to admit, there’s nothing I enjoy more than being in front of an audience. My first calling was to the stage. A ham I am. Nonetheless, it’s best to remember that good theater is built on actors working together. There is nothing more tedious than a prima donna who expects everyone to recognize their star quality. Encourage your actors to work together as an ensemble and everyone will have a lot more fun.
With careful planning and a willingness to play, drama and dramatic exercises can enhance your English classroom curriculum.
Break a leg!
Kinney Brothers Publishing