Don Merritt, an English language coordinator and performing arts teacher in Boston, Massachusetts, and former British Council teacher, has adapted improvisational theatre techniques for the English language classroom.
Why use drama activities to develop language skills?
Drama activities allow teachers to put language in a meaningful context. For example, if you are teaching narrative tenses, you can set a scene where the learner is a character who must tell a story to another character.
Here are a few of my tried-and-tested drama activities. They're adaptable, to meet your learners' needs.
Activity 1: Start the lesson with the ABCs
ABCs is a warm-up game that beginners, fluent speakers and everyone in between can enjoy.
It is a great first-lesson activity to practise introductions and learn names through movement. You can also introduce the activity at any point in your lesson.
Aim: build rapport and community while developing speaking skills for introductions
Time: three-to-ten minutes
Interaction: whole class
Script and procedure:
Ask the learners to stand in a circle. Then explain the rules.
The teacher will choose one person to begin by saying the letter A. Then anyone can say B, another person C, until someone arrives at Z.
Explain that the goal is to go from A to Z without speaking over each other. If two or more people say the letter B at the same time, the class must start again at A.
Each time the class re-starts the game, each person will silently make eye-contact with someone in the room, approach them, introduce ourselves, and take their place in the circle. Model this with one learner while you're explaining the activity.
- Who starts the game? (The teacher starts the game.)
- What is our goal? (To go from A to Z without speaking over each other.)
- What happens if we speak over each other? (Start again at A.)
- Do we keep our same place in the circle at the start of each game? (No.)
- How do we change places? (Make eye-contact and introduce ourselves.)
Change the ABCs to a language category that you want to practise. For example, countries; Angola, Brazil, Czechia. Or, jobs; accountant, barber, chef.
If it's the first day of term and you want to learn names, ask each learner to say their name before or after they’ve said a letter. For example, Jameela, A; Stephen, B; Brahim, C.
If you do not have the space in your classroom to form a circle, have learners stand at the start of the activity and then sit after their turn.
Activity 2: Do you love your neighbour?
You can change the name of this activity to 'Do you know your neighbour' if you feel it’s more appropriate for your class environment.
This activity is rooted in improvisational theatre; a style of theatre that is mostly unscripted. In this game, there is a start to the script, but B’s response must be on-the-spot and the other actors must respond accordingly.
It works well in the language classroom because it requires everyone to listen. Teachers can also use the game to assess which learners struggle with listening comprehension, or have limited vocabulary.
In its original form, learners sit in a circle and run to change places. I've modified it so that it remains kinesthetic, but is easier to use in a classroom with desks and chairs. You can play this game with learners from CEF (Common European Framework) language levels A1 to C1. You can also extend the language to be more complex, depending on your learners' needs.
Aim: Practise question and answer forms of the auxiliary verbs do and don’t
Time: five-to-ten minutes
Interactions: whole class
Preparation: write this drama script on the board:
A: Do you love your neighbours?
B: Yes, I do love my neighbours.
B: No, I don’t love my neighbours, but I do love everyone who...____________ (e.g. watches Game of Thrones, reads Vogue Italia, plays tennis)
Script and procedure:
Ask the learners to stay seated, but to push their chairs away from their desks so that they can easily stand.
Then, explain that you are going to practise question and answer forms of do and don’t.
Person A will ask someone in the class, ‘Do you love your neighbours?’ That person, B, has two possible responses; 'Yes, I do love my neighbours' or, 'No I don’t love my neighbours.'
If person B says, 'Yes, I do love my neighbours', the two people sitting closest to B must stand. The person who was last to stand loses and becomes A, the person who asks someone else in the class if they love their neighbour.
If B responds by saying, 'No, I don’t love my neighbours', they must say who they love. For example:
No, I don’t love my neighbours, but I do love everyone who reads Vogue Italia.
Everyone in the class who reads Vogue Italia must stand. The last person to stand loses and becomes A. Then A asks someone in the room if they love their neighbours.
- What is the question that person A must ask? (Do you love your neighbours?)
- What is B’s positive response? (Yes, I do love my neighbours.)
- What is B’s negative response? (No, I don't love my neighbours, but I do love everyone who…)
- When should you stand up? (When a person next to you says they love their neighbour, or you match the description of the people they love.)
Take the class outside, or to a space without tables. Using language in a new location allows the brain to make connection with another environment where English can be used.
Change the script to meet your language aims:
A: Do you love people who love apples?
B: Yes, I do. (Everyone who loves apples stands up).
B: No, I don’t, but I do love people who love grapes. (Everyone who loves grapes stands up).
Adapt the script for more advanced learners to practise the present perfect (continuous).
A: Have you ever eaten couscous?
B: Yes, I have eaten couscous. (People closest to B must stand. Slowest person loses and becomes A).
B No, I haven’t, but I have eaten sushi. (Everyone who has eaten sushi stands. Slowest person loses and becomes A).
B: No, I haven’t, but I have been skydiving.
A: Do you have to wear a suit to work?
B: Yes, I do have to wear a suite to work. (People closest to B must stand. Slowest person loses and becomes A).
B: No, I don’t, but I do love everyone who has to generate reports for their boss.
Activity 3: Yes, And…
Drama is all about saying YES! Yes, to the environment, yes, to the given circumstances, yes, to the conflict, yes, yes, yes.
It sounds easy, but drama teachers spend most of their time teaching actors how to accept offers from each other, which makes their performance more believable.
Think about an actor who played an unlikable character – Charlize Theron as Elle in Monster, or Lena Hedley as Cersei in Game of Thrones. It is vital for the actor to say yes to the ugly and beautiful truth about their character, so that we can believe that the character is real.
This activity helps actors to do that. I've adapted it for the English Language classroom, to help CEF (Common European Framework) A2 to C2 learners to brainstorm in English, use target grammar systems and vocabulary, and communicate authentically.
Aim: use modal verbs to make a plan
Time: five minutes
Preparation: write 'Yes, and…' on the board
Script and procedure:
Ask learners to work in pairs or groups of three. A begins with their intent for the day, e.g.
Today we will bake a cake!
B must respond by saying:
Yes, and... plus an add on, e.g. Yes, and we will need eggs!
A must respond by saying;
Yes, and… plus an add on, e.g. Yes, and we might want gluten-free flour!
The learners continue until the teacher says that the round is over. Two minutes is a good length for round one. Then, the learners switch roles. B states their intent for the day, and A must accept the situation.
Take this opportunity to have learners practise their note-taking skills by making a list of what they need or what they need to do.
Change the language focus to going to when they report future plans or intentions to other groups:
Today we are going to bake a cake! Yes, and we’re going to buy gluten free flour!
Change the language focus to narrative tenses to practise story telling:
Last year we went to Istanbul! Yes, and we ate baklava!
Make it a whole-class activity. Each person adds on to the list or story.