Dramatising your coursebook
‘What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?’ asked Alfred Hitchcock. A small dose of imagination can help bring your coursebook to life and provide the setting for some useful language extension work, as Harriet Thompson illustrates.
Incorporating drama into English class is, for many teachers, a challenge at best. It is often made even more difficult by cramped classrooms, numerous students and colleagues who believe that the silent approach to learning is preferable. Unfortunately, I have heard these complaints from many teachers who have thus been dissuaded from trying it out. However, drama activities can be moulded into many shapes and sizes and are not necessarily noisy or chaotic. Furthermore, the long term linguistic benefits far outweigh the inconveniences.
The basic principal of drama is that by creating a more natural environment in which to practise language, learners are more inclined to do so. In other words, it provides an authentic setting for real communication. Even shyer or less enthusiastic members of the group can find drama an easier medium for communication.
Managing the class
Nevertheless, setting up a drama activity is not about a teacher’s theatrical expertise, rather their classroom management skills. A teacher who uses drama will not be afraid to:
• break from routine
• let students take the lead
• encourage autonomy whilst providing clear guidelines and strict time limits
• find alternative ways of evaluating students based on their communicative merits
From a linguistic viewpoint, a drama teacher will:
• aim to make the class as communicative as possible
• enable students to explore new language
• encourage pupils to become observant and listen to their peers
• disguise grammar through drama games
Let’s look at some practical examples using a text from a coursebook and some different ways to exploit it.
Mime in pairs
• Divide them into pairs and give each pair a vocabulary item from the text. Examples from the story Expensive Washing might include: lottery, blind, ticket, washing machine, wet, suspicious, investigation. Choose words that students are forced to act out rather than items they can simply point to (ie trousers), but avoid new vocabulary.
• Allow the students two or three minutes to decide how they are going to perform their mime and insist they practise it first.
• Pairs then walk around the room until the teacher says ‘Stop!’ They show their mime to another pair and try to guess the word.
• The exercise is repeated several times until each pair has met several others. When it finishes, encourage students to return to their seats and write down as many words as they can remember.
• Then, display the list of words on the board and students compare with yours. Have them try to guess what the story could be about.
Before students read the text or story, whet their appetites with a vocabulary exercise.
Once the students have read the text, there are plenty of post-reading activities which can also involve drama.
This activity is a fun way to check comprehension and remember events from the story.
• Prepare some sentences from the story on strips of paper (make two sets). You may want to shorten the sentence or simplify the language. Examples from Expensive Washing could be:
• Write the sentences on the board eliciting words and tell them they have three minutes to memorise them! If you have an interactive whiteboard, you could simply project the page and highlight the sentences.
• Divide the class into two groups: Team A and B. Each group sits in a horseshoe formation with a volunteer standing in front. Show each volunteer a slip of paper with a sentence from the story. They have to mime the sentence in front of their group.
• The group member who guesses the sentence puts their hand up, says the sentence out loud to the teacher and is shown a new slip to mime. The winning group is the one who guesses all the sentences first. Allow the other group to finish.
• Finally, give back the strips and get each group to work together by ordering the story correctly.
• If moving students around is a problem, the activity could be done seated in pairs, with Students A and B each given a different list of sentences to mime to their partner.
A different set of arms
• Students divide into pairs.
• Student A stands with their arms behind their back in front of Student B. Student B stands behind and threads his/her arms through. Student A can then provide the ‘voice’ whilst Student B provides the ‘arm gestures’. You’ll need to exemplify this with a student the first time you do the activity.
• Give each pair one of the sentence strips from the story. Tell them they have to memorise the sentence and invent another detail.
• They may come up with examples like:
• Give the students five minutes to practise the dialogue and invent the gestures. Student A does the speaking while Student B provides the hand movements.
• Finally, all the pairs stand in a circle, in order of the story and act it out in this very comical way.
Interview the characters
Any text or story contains a large number of characters whether or not they are actually mentioned by name. In the story Expensive Washing, we are introduced to Miguel, the bar owner, the blind lottery vendor, the lottery organisers, the investigators, the court. There are also other ‘background characters’ such as Miguel’s friends and family, local people in the bar and witnesses in court.
• Get students to look back and the story and make a list of people /characters associated with the events in the story.
• Ask for volunteers to play some of the characters and organise them into different areas of the classroom.
• Write the characters names on the board and get the remaining students to invent questions. Tell them they are journalists and that they are going to prepare questions to interview the story characters as part of a special press conference. They must work quietly in pairs.
• Meanwhile, go round the classroom and prepare the other students for their interview. Ask them their names, their occupations, how they were involved in the story, etc.
• Reorganise the students back into an ‘interviewees’ and ‘interviewers’ panel by sitting them in front of the class as if they were in a press conference and let the interview process begin. You can act as moderator, facilitating language and encouraging students to communicate their ideas.
Drama activities involve building trust between teacher and student as well as cooperation between peers. Students will also see their confidence increase when it comes to speaking and their listening skills finely tuned as concentration and paying attention are a vital part of drama. As you start to integrate drama you will notice that it plays an active role in developing key competences not only linguistically but in addressing the challenges for lifelong learning.
Harriet Thompson is a teacher, teacher trainer, writer and director of the theatre groups ABC and ACTion English. She also writes and performs storytelling workshops.