In this article, I try to define what I mean by language learning through drama/theatre texts, outline some of the benefits it can bring to the language learning classroom and some of the differing methods and approaches that can be utilised to fully exploit the potential of drama and theatre texts.
- Why use drama / theatre texts in the language classroom?
- The "a" type analytical approach to drama / theatre texts
- The "b" type experiential approach to drama / theatre texts
- Learning activities using drama / theatre texts
- Classroom method
Why use drama / theatre texts in the language classroom?
Collie and Slater (1987) focused on the positive contributions language learning through literature could make in that literary texts constituted valuable authentic material as it exposes the learner to different registers, types of language use.
Writers such as Maley and Duff, (1978) and Wessels, (1987) have pointed to the values and uses of drama:
'Drama can help the teacher to achieve 'reality' in several ways. It can overcome the students' resistance to learning the new language:
- by making the learning of the new language an enjoyable experience
- by setting realistic targets for the students to aim for
- by creative 'slowing down' of real experience
- by linking the language-learning experience with the student's own experience of life
And drama can create in students a need to learn the language:
- by the use of 'creative tension' (situations requiring urgent solutions);
- by putting more responsibility on the learner, as opposed to the teacher.' (Wessel: 53-54)
Drama provides cultural and language enrichment by revealing insights into the target culture and presenting language contexts that make items memorable by placing them in a realistic social and physical context.
By allowing reading and the adding of some characterisation to a drama / theatre text, learners became personally and fully involved in the learning process, in a context in which it is possible for learners to feel less self-conscious and more empowered to express themselves through the multiple voices (Vygotsky, 1987; Bakhtin, 1981, 1986) of the differing characters.
One of the drawbacks in the use of literary texts such as novels and poems is that many of them contain language forms that learners of a language find difficult to understand. This could be overcome by simplifying them, often leading to a loss of 'literariness' - leading to criticism that the texts became pale imitations of the original writing. The lack of suitable texts in the traditional body of literature, in my view opens the door for the inclusion of drama in language learning curricula as it tends to use much more naturalistic language than in poems and novels. Drama texts help to address the need for sufficient texts for worthwhile reading in which suitable materials can be accessed.
The "a" type analytical approach to drama / theatre texts
As I have suggested, the analysis of language in a text is just one aspect of its use. In the type "a" approach, language is separated into its phonological, lexical components etc and disseminating strategies then adopted. Using this analytical approach, a teacher or course designer would think of a series of structures, language items that were to be 'taught'. A literary text exemplifying these structures was then selected and used in order to practise or raise the learner's consciousness of it.
The "b" type experiential approach to drama / theatre texts
White (1988) identified a second (the type "b") approach. Here, language was not seen as object but as a tool. Much more emphasis was placed upon, for example, the inductive method of learning through 'experiencing' and applying the learner's experience to the text through encouraging comment, responses and expression based on the text or its theme/topic. The theme/topic-based syllabus is often seen as more relevant to language learning. Gower (1996) commented how he felt more focus on form meant students understood less of what was going on.
Learning activities using drama / theatre texts
From a task point of view the learner is faced with several levels of achievement / ability that the teacher can use as a basis for designing multi-level activities for students:
- Identifying the story, characters, plot (achievable at beginner level)
- Identifying the author's / characters' viewpoint, attitude or opinion
- Understanding the work in relation to its socio-cultural and historical-political context
- Giving a personal / creative response (e.g. enacting the text)
- Answering the question: "does it work as literature?" (Extended critical analysis of text)
Below, I outline the stages of a type "b" approach to introducing a drama/theatre text to a class of EFL learners. The process involves linking standard approaches in drama/theatre to approaches suitable for the classroom.
Classroom practice, then, may follow a (1) (physical) warm up - (2) text reading/listening - (3) extension activities format.
Standard methods in the type "b" approach involve warmer activities to get the learner to anticipate what they're going to meet in the language in the text using guessing, pre-discussion, pictures.
It involves little or no stylistic analysis.
Its aims are to stimulate oral communication, reading for pleasure and to enrich thinking and expression for this reason, drama techniques focussing on waking the imagination, and the body including the vocal chords in preparation for reading or even enacting the text could easily precede this stage.
Use of text can be one of the more in-depth and sophisticated drama activities.
Warmers, drama games, role-plays, individual and group improvisation can all be used to support higher-level drama activities such as performing the text in the classroom.
The idea is that the pre-reading/listening stage will sensitise the learner to the language and concepts to be encountered and engage prior knowledge and experience. Pictures, the book cover, prompt questions, learners' own memorabilia etc are used.
The second stage may involve two task types:
1. The while listening/reading task involves the learner having a task to fulfil based on his/her reading, such as finding out a piece of information from the text.
2. Tasks inserted into the text such as one where learners complete the task using their own ideas.
The third stage could incorporate...
1. Comprehension questions such as: Who? When? What? Etc.
2. Multiple-choice questions are useful for evoking possible alternative answers.
3. Text attack questions require the learner to realise certain meanings in the text and the way they are achieved in the language use.
4. Interpretation and response tasks /questions: What's the message from the author? What general meanings can we infer from the antagonists' statements / actions? What conclusions can we draw about the character and motivations of the antagonists? How is that expressed through the language? How do you feel about the character? How did you feel as the character? Response calls for the learner to express an opinion or feeling and to often say why they feel this or have this opinion.
Of the main approaches I have outlined a) Developing literary competence to understand and appreciate and b) experiencing literature, I, like Rod Ellis (2000), believe there is no absolute dichotomy between them. Differing approaches need to be incorporated in language teaching/learning for their relative merits.
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Henry Robinson, MA Applied Linguistics and ELT, LCTL DIP TESOL
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