Research shows that, for low-level learners, oral and visual approaches to introducing a new language are the most effective method, because learners get the sounds and meaning of the words before they get bogged down by text. There are many ways to do this, but one of the most effective ways is to incorporate drama into your lessons to add a fun dimension of physicality that will engage students while learning English.
You might have just stopped in your tracks and thought, “fun?” You might think there’s no way acting in front of others would be comfortable, let alone fun!
But before you dismiss the idea, consider—why drama?
You’ll likely find that, in an ESL classroom—where everyone has the same vulnerabilities—it can be a fun way for you and your students to let go of inhibitions to practice and experiment with the language in a non-judgmental environment. As a result, you will build a stronger classroom community, increasing students’ learning potential as well as their confidence when speaking outside the classroom.
And teacher participation is extremely powerful in ensuring a safe environment for students. When teachers join in, it shows that they care about the students’ education. It also shows that they want to know what it feels like to participate in the activities students are being asked to.
Language acquisition research has shown that using drama makes learning more memorable and retrievable because it draws on those higher order skills of creativity, critical thinking, and social and emotional learning.
You might be wondering what is meant by drama in the classroom. Are we talking Hamlet?
Don’t worry, this isn’t Shakespeare. Below, you can find several ideas, activities, and resources, compiled by ProLiteracy New Readers Press ESL experts Roberta Power and Jennifer Martin, to infuse your class with some theatrics that will get your students talking.
The set up is very important to the success of using drama activities.
If you don’t have another teacher nearby, perform with a strong student, but prepare ahead!
Within New Readers Press’ supplemental ESL collection, there are a wide variety of dialogues and scenarios that you can use for these activities.
Miming a scene can get your class to ask questions:
- What is happening in this scene?
- Who are the characters?
- Where are they?
Set up: Ask someone to hold a sheet or curtain up as a door.
Activity: Mime trying on dresses (or some other article of clothing).
Teacher 1 knocks. Gestures “how’s it going?” Remember: there’s no speaking while miming.
Teacher 2 gestures that the first dress is not right.
Teacher 1 gets a second dress.
Teacher 2 gestures that the second dress is not right, either.
Teacher 1 gets a third dress.
Teacher 2 indicates this dress is the one!
Perform a Dialogue
Perform a dialogue to practice the kinds of language used in response to various questions. Do you think your students could answer these questions?
Activity: This dialogue is based on Lesson 7 from That’s Life: Day-to-Day Stories and Language Activities, low beginning, by Ann Gianola.
Teacher 1: How’s it going? How do you like the blue dress?
Teacher 2: I like it. But it’s the wrong size.
T1: What do you think of the red one?
T2: I haven’t tried it yet. Let me see.
T1: Well, what do you think?
T2: It’s nice, but it’s too short for a wedding.
T1: How about the yellow one?
T2: It’s beautiful, but it’s too expensive!
T1: You know, I think I know just the dress. Hold on a minute, and I’ll get it.
T1: Here you go. What do you think?
T2: (modeling it) It’s perfect! I’ll take it!
Use charades to elicit meaning from students or to demonstrate meaning of common activities.
Activity: Act out a variety of everyday situations.
- Perform sets of related actions, like getting dressed (zipping up a zipper, buttoning a shirt, tying your shoes, putting on a sweater, putting on socks, etc.)
- Use the New Readers Press books Health Stories or Conversations for Work to demonstrate illness, injuries, or symptoms or to complete job-related tasks.
- Use work tools or equipment: mow the lawn, vacuum, hammer nails, paint, mop
- Prepare a meal: fill a pot with water, chop onions, sprinkle salt, set the table
- Complete housework: wash the dishes, sweep the floor, dust a shelf, clean the bathtub
Watch some other charade activities on YouTube:
What Are You Doing? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8LVftcJ6f8
Imaginary Ball https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Z_np5xhCeA
I Am a Tree https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_j4SuhlG88
Chants are all about rhythm, so the language gets stuck in learners’ heads by building muscle memory. They also build pronunciation and fluency.
Activity: Chants can be simple and made up in the moment. For example:
- Too hot, too cold, just right! Too long, too short, just right! Too tight, too loose, just right!
- Ready to order? Few more minutes. Ready to order? Few more minutes. Are you ready to order? Just a few more minutes. Are you ready to order? We need a few more minutes.
- You’re late! You’re late again! You’re late! You’re late again! It’s the third time! Third time this week! It’s the third time! Third time this week! Not again! Not again or you’re fired! Not again! Not again or you’re fired!
- Doing the dishes, making the bed. Doing the laundry, making tea. Doing the shopping, making a list. Doing too much, making mistakes!
Role playing is good for practicing language and improving fluency, pronunciation, and confidence. It also builds situational muscle memory.
Ask students about difficult communication situations and problems they have experienced in their daily lives or at work. Create a class role play to work on language and practice dealing with that situation in English.
Examples could include receiving an incorrect paycheck, handling late rent payments, telling a landlord about a problem, or being late to work.
Activity: Role play two versions of a job interview—a successful interview and a bad interview. You can find examples dialogues online, or you can use and adapt the short dialogue on p. 75 of the New Readers Press book Road to Work: Applying and Interviewing. Make sure students focus on body language.
Having your students make sock puppets from scratch gives them practice with reading and listening to a set of instructions. You can use these instructions to introduce new vocabulary for supplies or tools. It also teaches them sequencing words used in instructions like first, next, then, after, and finally.
Activity: Make the puppet.
- First, put your hand inside your sock.
- Stick on a pair of googly eyes.
- Next, cut out a tongue.
- Then use yarn or something else to create hair.
- After that, dress your puppet if you wish.
- Finally, put on a puppet show.
After students have made their puppets, learn about your students by asking questions about their jobs, families, or hobbies. Have students use the puppets to answer.
Some students may find that the language comes more naturally by manually moving the puppet’s mouth and that it’s easier to express themselves.
They may even want to dress their puppets up to represent a certain occupation, for example. Then they can use language to share not just what their job is, but some of their workplace responsibilities.
You can use mock trials to explain the basics of law and citizenship and introduce courtroom vocabulary as well as what a courtroom looks like. The Justice Education Society in British Columbia, Canada, has mock court trial scripts. You can watch and listen to a mock trial put on by an elementary school, which is available with other mock trials, on the website lawlessons.ca. You can also do a Google search and find mock trials with the American justice system and some that are very appropriate for ESL students.
Activity: Set up a mock civil trial based on the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty using the script from lawlessons.ca.
Humpty Dumpty is suing the king for negligence because the walls in the community are crumbling in disrepair. Spend a week or two with students just reading and studying the Humpty Dumpty script. Let students practice playing various roles while reading, and then ask them to start using gestures and appropriate emotion and intonation.
Next, have students decide which roles they would like to play. The shier students usually choose to work behind the scenes as the camera person or help to choose or create the props. They still all have to have some kind of speaking and acting role, but these behind-the-scenes roles can be productive in practicing other verbal language skills.
Once you have students in roles and are ready to act out the trial, listen for speech development:
- Is the speaker’s speech rate slow to normal with few hesitations?
- Do students hold and share the floor and resume speaking after interruption?
- Do they show developing awareness of eye contact, body language, and rate of speech?
- Are they using intonation so the listener can easily follow what they are saying?
- Is there clear evidence of connected discourse?
- Do grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation support communication?
Watch this video of Roberta Power’s class participating in the mock trial.
Roberta Power is a longtime ESL teacher for the government-funded Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program, and the Educational Consultant covering Canada for New Readers Press, ProLiteracy. Jennifer Martin is the New Readers Press Editorial Director for ESL and a longtime adult ESL teacher. Together, Roberta and Jennifer have compiled these activities and presented at conferences on using drama in an ESL classroom.