In this article a teacher reflects on his experiences of creating plays and using them to help motivate students to develop their English.
- How to start
- Writing the play
- I want to be Cinderella
- Practice, practice, practice
- The big night
- Reasons for doing a play
- A few final thoughts
Studying German at school was a thoroughly depressing experience for me. Grammar translation, authoritarian teachers and constant tests. I can remember very little of what was 'taught' but something that I have never forgotten was thanks to a German native-speaker teacher who came to our school for one term and encouraged the class to take part in a play. I can still, 18 years later, remember almost all of my lines now and even the lines of my classmates.
Recalling this experience led me to try out a play with a group of Italian 12 year-olds a few years ago and it has now become a regular feature of my teaching. At first I had doubts, I thought it would take up a lot of class time, I didn't know if the students would be interested and I had no experience of writing plays. I am now firmly of the opinion that the pros far outweigh the cons.
How to start
The first thing you need to start with is a deadline to get everything done by. Maybe it could be a public performance for parents, the rest of the school or a class exchange. If you have a particularly timid group you could restrict it to a few members of staff coming to watch. The deadline will motivate both you and your students and the knowledge that they will be performing will ensure that they spend time learning their lines.
Writing the play
I like to base the play upon a topic we have covered on the course or something that is of current interest to the students. How much input the students have will depend on their imagination and level of English. In the past I have started with some pictures of people and asked them in pairs to invent profiles.
- I stick the pictures on the board and write up everything they tell me about the characters. We then discuss together the relationships between the characters and a basic plot.
- Students can then write the basic outline of the play. With lower level students you can skip this stage. It is then a case of taking in their ideas and creating a play from them.
- In the past I have combined their best ideas and produced a play from this. Students find it very motivating to perform their own creations.
- If you don't have time or don't feel comfortable writing a play, you can adapt a familiar story that everyone knows.
I want to be Cinderella
Now comes the crucial decision of choosing roles. In the past I have found the stronger students usually want the main parts but have tried not to be too influenced by their English ability.
- Start by asking for volunteers and give the students a chance to 'test' or 'audition' for different roles, it will soon become apparent who fits which role.
- Always ensure that everyone in the class has a role or something to do though.
Practice, practice, practice
After deciding on the roles, it is important to make sure that everyone learns their lines. I have found the most effective way is to practise every lesson for ten minutes at the beginning and end.
- Start by getting them just to read through aloud, then test them by reading through yourself and making factual errors (the students have to shout and tell you when you make a mistake).
- As lessons pass, give them the play with gaps to read through and finally get them to perform a number of times without a script.
- Set homework time for them to learn and do at least two performances in front of another teacher, student or member of staff.
The big night
In the past, my students have performed for other classes, for visitors and for their parents. This meant they had a real incentive to produce the language accurately and the parents always appreciate being able to see their children speaking in English. If your students feel comfortable with it you could even video it or take photographs to use again in class afterwards.
Reasons for doing a play
- Like my experience with German, plays are very memorable. You will find that by the end, the students have learned not only their parts, but will be able to say everyone else's part too.
- Students will learn whole chunks of language in a clear context.
- It's extremely satisfying for students and parents to see just how much language they can produce.
- It gives students the opportunity to demonstrate other skills in the language classroom. It is not always the strongest students who make the best performers.
- Although it can be a little nerve-wracking, I have always found it to be a great bonding experience for classes.
A few final thoughts
- Overall, the whole process from writing, practising and performing doesn't actually take up that much time and the rewards make it very worthwhile.
- Some students will not want a speaking part, so ensure that you have extra roles so they have some input. Don't worry about them not getting as much from the experience, you will find that they learn the lines as well. You can even ask them to be prompters.
- If you want to extend the whole experience you can even spend time making props and costumes.
- With higher level students the planning process can also be done in English.
My experiences with using plays have always been very positive and I would encourage any teacher to try. I was amazed in Italy by the transformation of one particular 12 year-old. He went from being very passive and disinterested in the lessons to relishing being the centre of attention in the lead role. He demonstrated a natural flair for performing and afterwards, he developed a real enthusiasm for learning English. So you never know where it might lead, you may even find a Polish Pacino or a Turkish De Niro hiding in your class.
Austin, JL, 1962. How To Do Things With Words Harvard University Press
Maley, A and Duff, A, 1982 (2nd Edition). Drama Techniques in Language Learning CUP
McRae, J, 1985. Using Drama in the Classroom. Pergamon Press
Phillips, S. Drama With Children Oxford University Press
Soyinka, W, 1984. Six Plays: (inc) The Trails of Brother Jero, Methuen
White, R.V. 1988, The ELT Curriculum: Design, Innovation and Management. Oxford: Blackwell
Wessels, Charlyn, 1987. Drama (Resource Books for Teachers) Oxford University Press.
Richard Frost, British Council, Turkey
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