Unmistakeable Benefits of
using Drama with Children Learning English
It is unlikely that anyone would disagree that the most effective way
to teach ESL children is to provide them with opportunities to learn
English in the context of everyday situations with the emphasis on
By the end of
this article I am sure that you will agree that drama is the ideal
technique to use to achieve this.
Some of the
aspects we will be looking at include:
natural proclivity for drama and some of the reasons
- Why teachers
nevertheless hesitant to use this method of teaching
- The role
drama can play in language
- The problem
of motivating children to learn and how drama can help
- Some tips for
preparation & performance
and children – a winning combination
Anyone who has worked with young children knows that they learn chiefly
by exploring their world using their imagination and engaging in
pretend play. The link between imaginative, or pretend play, and
language is particularly strong. Communicational and conversational
skills develop as children develop scenarios ("this is our house, and
this is the baby, she is just born and she has to sleep now"); assign
roles and direct the action ("I'll be the mommy and I'm going shopping.
You're the daddy; you have to go to work!") and slip "in and out of
multiple roles" ("now its my turn to be the teacher ").
This imaginary play gives the child an understanding of the power of
language and, by including others in his games, he learns that words
make it possible for him to tell a story or organize a game. Church, in
The importance of pretend play, points out that this process plays an
important part in helping the child "make the connection between spoken
and written language" Acknowledging the importance of this aspect of a
child's development, most preschool and kindergarten classrooms include
a dramatic play area where children can act out their fantasies.
The combination of imagination and learning, however, need not be
confined to pre-school children. For older children drama provides
practical experience in communicating, both written and oral, gives
them the opportunity to learn to work together, to develop tolerance
and empathy as they begin to see the world from different perspectives,
and promotes active learning, enriching and reinforcing their more
traditional school experiences. So, when it comes to teaching English
as a second language, no matter the age of the student, drama and
children are still a winning combination.
the arguments against
obvious advantages many teachers are wary of trying to introduce drama
in the classroom. This is particularly so among the more traditional of
us who feel that teaching cannot take place without a textbook in hand.
These teachers, and many parents, see drama as 'play' and, as we all
know, learning English is hard work! Yet one of the findings of a
three-year study Teaching Literacy through Art showed that including
arts education increases fundamental literacy skills in elementary
school students. Students involved in these programmes also "scored
higher on … expression, risk-taking, creativity, imagination and
Another common fear, particularly among younger and less experienced
teachers is that of losing control of the class and many confuse the
'busy buzz' of involved children with rowdiness.
A further argument which I have frequently encountered is lack of time.
"The curriculum is too full, there is not enough time to fit everything
in, I couldn't possibly add drama as well." This argument is easily
overcome when teachers realize that drama is not an addition, but a
method of teaching. Finally there are those retiring souls who exclaim,
"I couldn't possibly use drama, I can't act!" Colleagues, it is the
children who are going to act, and they are experts!
of lingering over the 'why-not' of drama, let's look at the 'why', and,
in particular, why we should use drama for teaching English. First of
all, it's authentic. Using drama enables children to use English
appropriately in real conversations, expressing emotions and ideas and
listening to the feelings and ideas of their peers. In other words,
English is taught in the context in which it will be used, which is far
removed from lists of vocabulary and work-sheets and which makes
students aware of the language first and foremost as a means of
This conversational use of language promotes fluency. While learning a
play, children are encouraged to listen to, potentially read and then
repeat their lines over a period of time. By repeating the words and
phrases they become familiar with them and are able to say them with
increasing fluency. In addition, drama also teaches them to enunciate
their words properly and to project their voices when they speak,
helping them to become clear and confident speakers. Using drama to
teach English also helps to improve the understanding and retention of
a word. By the time a child has read, rehearsed and acted out a scene
focusing on the word 'frustrated', for example, there is little
likelihood of ever forgetting it. The same would not hold true if the
word had been memorised by rote for a vocabulary test.
Obviously, then, the active participation required in a drama lesson
involves not only the intellect but also children's imagination and
emotions. By encouraging self-expression, drama motivates children to
use language confidently and creatively.
Finally, drama is an appropriate
method for teaching children with different learning styles and at
different levels of understanding. No one learns in exactly the same
way, we all have different methods of processing information. By
actively involving him in his own learning process, dramatisation
allows each child to absorb the language in his own way. Similarly,
children whose language skills are still very limited are given the
opportunity to communicate using nonverbal cues such as body movements
and facial expressions.
Grab a free play here: Ready Steady Go!
we all know that trying to teach an unmotivated child is like hitting
one's head against a brick wall. With very young children we seldom
come across this problem as most kindergarten and preschool children
are motivated by curiosity and love to explore new ideas. Sadly, as a
child grows older, learning is often seen as a chore.
Let's look at some of the reasons children become de-motivated and see
whether the use of drama could be a factor in overcoming them. The
child's experience of success or failure has a significant effect on
his motivation to learn. If children repeatedly fail, even when they
have put a great deal of effort into their learning, they are inclined
to approach future tasks with a negative attitude. Using drama as a
teaching method and with the appropriate choice of play and roles,
there is no reason why all children cannot experience success.
secret here is to make the task challenging, but achievable for each
child. Plays are ideal for this purpose, of handling mixed abilities,
as you can give bigger parts to better students, thus keeping them
motivated and challenged while making it significantly easier for the
slower students by giving them fewer lines. In the meantime all
students will be benefiting from being present and hearing the English
spoken over and over again.
The teacher's own enthusiasm also goes a long way towards motivating a
child. Anyone who has taught a classroom of children knows how quickly
they pick up and reflect your moods. If you think your English grammar
lesson is boring, so will they! By using drama as a teaching method and
allowing children to experience language in the simulated reality of a
play they will derive far more fun from the lesson and fun is always
chances are they will be considerably more
motivated to use the language in similar situations in real life.
Obviously then, drama techniques motivate children to learn by breaking
the monotony of the English class and lifting the tempo as children
discuss and act out their roles, learn what they are going to say and
decide how they are going to say it.
Which leads to the third major factor concerning a lack of motivation,
which is the child's need to belong. Watch an apathetic child in the
classroom come alive on the playing fields and play his heart out for
his team. That is where he feels he fits in, his talents are respected
and he is part of the team. Lumsden, in Student motivation to learn,
points out that "if students experience the classroom as a caring,
supportive place where there is a sense of belonging and everyone is
valued and respected, they will tend to participate more fully in the
process of learning"
In a drama lesson all children are equally and actively involved, each
role is essential for the successful performance of the play. A sense
of belonging can be achieved here that is difficult to attain in the
more traditional classroom setting. In a way, drama lessons are the
playing fields of the classroom.
Another important motivational factor, related to success, is
self-confidence. As children become familiar with their lines in a
play, they become more confident in their use of language. Even timid
children, who generally withdraw from group activities and are shy
about talking English in front of their friends, will often come out of
their shells when given a role which they are capable of handling. The
shepherd's role in the annual nativity play became synonymous with our
shyest children at school. Here they could hide behind robes, headdress
and crooks. But the shepherds knew how important they were and, without
fail, year after year, proudly led their sheep onto the stage.
Role-playing comes naturally to children, especially the younger ones
and when playing a role they easily shed their shyness and inhibitions.
As they discover that they can be anything, just by pretending,
children grow in self-esteem In fact the power of the persona is such
that children who might otherwise be hesitant about speaking in public
are often able to do so unselfconsciously when playing a part.
written especially for ESL classrooms. These are short and repetitive
and designed to involve the whole group, no matter how big or how
small. They combine fun and movement with language usage carefully
planned to provide optimal speaking practice in real life contexts.
Roles should be assigned according to your students' language ability
levels. Children who are more capable and more confident can be given
parts with more lines, while shyer children or those with a more
limited vocabulary can have fewer lines to say, repeat lines said by
other children or speak as part of a group.
It goes without saying that, when necessary, the play should be adapted
for your own situation. Keep the script simple, but develop it further
or modify it if your students' proficiency or lack of proficiency in
English requires it. Some of the lines in the play may be optional.
Edit these freely to suit your needs, based on the main idea.
Tips for preparation and
Once you have
decided on the play it is time to get down to the
nitty-gritty of rehearsals. While older and more capable students can
be given copies of the play to read this is generally not advisable for
younger and less capable children. For all students, no matter what
level they may be on, the emphasis should be on speaking, acting and
movement, not on reading lines.
Pre-learn the vocabulary first. Use it in songs, on flash-cards, in
games like Spolin's circle game and those in 161 English Language Games
for Children; chant the words, stamp out the syllables, act them out
individually – this is really fun when using words describing emotions
Once the children are familiar with the separate words let them start
practicing the lines in the play. This, too, can be done as a game. The
idea is not to have individual children word-perfect in their own roles
but to let the whole class experience using the vocabulary in context.
Only when all the children know the key words and lines of the play
should you put together all the elements – words, expression and
movement. Allow the children to use their own creativity in setting the
scene, deciding on props, costumes etc. Remember that, as far as the
last two are concerned, these should be kept very simple, using the
'less is more' principle, and they only need to be included in the
You will find
that if you give the children props too
soon they will become very absorbed in them and take a lot of time
arranging them and so forth instead of getting on with saying their
lines! Therefore give out the props when the play runs fluently. The
addition of props is then a novel element to keep the children's
interest right through to the final performance.
Once all your efforts have been rewarded and the children are able to
run through their lines fluently, confidently and with the appropriate
movements and expression, arrange at least one performance, even if it
is only for the class next door! This is absolutely vital. Usually it
is possible to invite parents to arrive earlier to collect children
from the last lesson of term if you give sufficient notice, or arrange
a special time. One can often perform the play at the school, during
assembly, or for a special performance. School heads are generally
proud to show off to parents so even if you are a visiting teacher
running after-school classes the head of school still sees this as a
plus that the school has to offer to prospective pupils and parents.
A tip regarding putting on the play: Don't start the show with the play
but instead have pupils sing a group song or two with actions, play
some vocabulary games in front of the audience by way of a warm up and
finish with the play. This helps the children get used to suddenly
being in front of an audience and will mean they are much, much less
likely to freeze up with nerves when it comes to saying their lines.
Preparation of posters, invitations etc. could form the basis of
another English lesson. If the prospective audience has limited English
skills perhaps a translation of the play could be made available to
them. I was once asked for subtitles by a parent, which surprised me as
the language in the play was so basic, but in fact afterwards I
realized that it is polite and helpful to acknowledge the audience in
Finally, if at all possible, take a video of the play. Not only will
the children love seeing themselves act, it will enable you to give
them feedback later and will provide you with a benchmark against which
further development can be determined.
Now all that
remains is to point you to some fantastic, funny, easy ESL skits and
plays that are ideal for use in class with beginners.
Suitable for children in small groups betweent the ages of 4 to 12.
Here are the
ESL plays for beginners
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Shelley Vernon has helped 1000s of teachers be an inspiration to their
pupils and achieve results 2x as fast. Teaching with ESL grammar games,
stories, songs and plays
can improve the effectiveness of a lesson by up to 80%. Receive free
children's games now! ESL
Early Childhood Learning Knowledge Centre. (2006). Let the
children play: Nature's answer to early
learning. Retrieved 1 April 2008 from
Church, E.B. (n/d) The importance of pretend play.
Scholastic. Retrieved 1 April 2008 from
Randy Korn & Associates (2006). Teaching literacy
through art. Final report. Solomon R Guggenheim
Museum. Retrieved 1 April 2008 from
McLachlan, M. (n/d) Drama – The most important subject?
Children and Drama. The Creativity Institute.
Retrieved 1 April 2008
Lumsden, L.S. (1994). Student motivation to
learn. EricDigest 92. Retrieved 2 April 2008 from
Church, E.B. (Ibid).