18th February 2020

Using Drama in the ESL classroom: drama without the drama

By Ezekiel Chattell

Our students live in two worlds; the world inside classroom with its hard desks, rows of chairs and the backs of people’s heads, and the world outside; full of new things to see, touch, smell, taste and feel. Drama connects these two worlds and can breathe life into our English lessons. 

Developing students’ awareness of this and their English doesn’t require magic; you just need to give them a reason to start speaking. Among other things when students are emotionally engaged, their motivation to speak increases and so too their willingness to try.

Imagination allows us to be anywhere; when it’s a cold rainy day, I daydream back to a warm summer afternoon. I can smell the freshly cut grass and feel the warm sunshine on my face.

Memories link our experience and senses – we have an emotional connection to those moments. If I asked you to talk about your happiest memories, I’m sure your spoken and body language would be very expressive, compared to asking you to describe your office desk!

As you’re reading this, you too can go anywhere – where would you go, what would you see, hear, touch, or smell?

Drama in the EFL classroom doesn’t have to be complicated or stressful; in essence drama is about using three things: spoken language, body language, and imagination

There are more ways to use drama than just doing plays. Drama is a useful teaching tool for developing English. We can use drama to create immersive, exciting, and meaningful learning experiences filled with emotion and curiosity.

This is drama without the drama: there’s no need for scripts, stages, costumes, or lengthy rehearsals; the focus is on playing with the language through drama activities which allow the students to practice communicating in English whilst also developing their body language and other important soft skills such as: team-work, leadership, and creative thinking.

Let me introduce to you a drama activity called Scenescape – it allows you and your learners to enter a world where you can interact with your imagination and the learners can practice speaking English in an exciting and engaging way.

A scenescape

The activity is simple in design yet allows many opportunities for learners to engage with their imaginations and target language. The premise for the activity is for the learners to transform the classroom into a new location, and then interact together in that place.

For example, if the lesson is about ‘Free time’ or ‘Hobbies’ then the location for the scenescape could be a public park. Here are some simple steps to make the drama come to life.

1 – Where shall we go?

Choose a place for the drama to be. Open public places are often good places to start.

2 – Where is the river?

Ask the learners to map-out the room. This means working together to think about where some imaginary parts of the location are. For example, if there’s a river in the park maybe it runs through the centre of the room, the learners would then pretend that if they want to cross the river they need to swim, jump, or even build an imaginary bridge!

3 – What can you do there?

Ask the learners to think about what they would like to do at this place, and how would they show they are doing the activity with their body language? If they are going to fly a kite or have a picnic, what things would they need to bring?

4 – Who might also be there?

  Learners can think about different types of people and what they might be doing.

5 – let’s go!

Depending on the size of the group and the maturity of the learners, you can ask them to speak to someone in the drama and ask them what they’re doing. Or to start a conversation with a stranger.

Leading your learners into the world of Drama is as simple as asking “where would you like to go?” I hope in the short time you've been reading this, I’ve sparked your curiosity to learn more about Drama in the EFL classroom – for more resources and an expansion into more drama based activities, be on the lookout for more online drama workshops listed here.

All workshops are listed in Hong Kong time (GMT+8)*

Dr Chattell has lived in China for nearly 10 years. His research focuses on experimental teacher training programmes related to encouraging creativity within teaching practice. His projects have included collaboration with the Centre for Teacher Education Research at Beijing Normal University, a key research institute of the Chinese Ministry of Education. He is a member of the Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong and currently serves as Head of Academic Training and Support for Drama and the Performing Arts for China at Trinity College London.