The 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 communicational skills. 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:
- Children's natural proclivity for drama and some of the reasons
- Why teachers are nevertheless hesitant to use this method of teaching
- The role drama can play in language learning
- The problem of motivating children to learn and how drama can help
- Choosing suitable plays
- Some tips for preparation & performance
Drama 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.
Axing the arguments against
Despite its 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 cooperative learning."
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!
Drama and language
But instead 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 communication.
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.
As teachers 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.
The 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 motivating.
In addition, 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.
Finding suitable plays
Choose plays 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 performance
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 and actions.
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 final rehearsals.
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 this way.
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 fun 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 Resources
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 content.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=10175
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 from www.creativityinstitute.com/index.asp?PageAction=Custom&ID=53
Lumsden, L.S. (1994). Student motivation to learn. EricDigest 92. Retrieved 2 April 2008 from