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Using plays in the language class
Here are some suggestions and guidance on how to get the best from your students.
Using plays with language learners can:
- improve their reading and speaking skills.
- encourage creativity.
- help them experiment with language – tone of voice, body language and their own lines if they are involved in writing the play.
- bring them out of themselves – some students like performing or find the script gives them confidence.
- involve the whole class – non-speaking parts can be given to learners who do not wish to speak or are less confident. Technical parts of a production can give others a role: sound effects, making scenery, being in charge of lights, props or prompting their classmates from the wings.
Plays suitable for language learners:
- Short narratives based on very brief scenes of two or three lines maximum.
- Plays with more than one narrator and plenty of humour through action.
- Plays that can be broken up with songs.
- Mini-plays with one or two scenes based on stories familiar to the class.
Making your own plays
Work from a photo, a cartoon or a video clip, or devise mini-plays based on recognisable characters from films the students like. For example:
- Take a ten-minute sequence of a film.
- Tell students the background story.
- Show the clip with the sound off.
- Focus on a couple of exchanges and ask students to imagine what the characters might be saying.
- Assign roles to pairs and act out. Then allow students to make up their own brief dialogues based on the roles.
- Bring together their suggestions and work on a class script.
Types of film that are good for this include Toy Story, Harry Potter, The Borrowers, Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but it mainly depends on student tastes.
Helping students learn their lines in plays
- Break the script into chunks of learning, scene by scene or each section of a story.
- Record rehearsals so students can hear themselves and, if you can, video a rehearsal to look at together.
- Make your own recording of it with English-speaking friends to use in preparing the play. It's great if students can have a copy of this for learning at home.
- Mark the stressed words in the script and check with a recording if you have it. Look at intonation as you deal with each chunk.
- Start learning without a script. If it tells a story work on getting the class familiar with the story. Support the storytelling with visuals if possible (see the posters available with Reader's Theatre scripts).
- Give students tasks to reorder the narrative and move on to reordering dialogue or giving half a scene and asking them to match the missing parts or tell you what might be missing.
Use Reader's Theatre
These are very exciting short plays with four to eight characters but many involve performance parts for everyone in the class. Students work from a script which they read at the front of the class. The script is a story told in parts by many narrators. The stories that are freely available are suitable for primary up to adult learners. The power of the performance is in the timed reading and contrasting voices. Many performances last no more than ten minutes and can in some cases be thought provoking, very funny or very sad. Some advantages are:
- There's no need for anything but the simplest props, as all characters wear just a hat or another item of clothing to represent their character.
- The narrative tells a story which is easier for language learners to follow and work on.
- Everyone in the class can be involved if different readings are attempted.
- Minimal teacher participation is required.
- No learning your lines as the performers read aloud from scripts.
Aaron Shepherd's Reader's Theater has lots of free resources, scripts with visuals and written versions of the narratives. The scripts are excellent for language learners:
Further reading on TeachingEnglish: