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10 Ways to Teach English with Plays

Why teach English with plays?

Plays are a natural resource for the English language classroom. They offer opportunities visit and revisit language in action, particularly if the play was written in natural dialogue. Furthermore, when students read an informational text, or even a short story, they aren’t always thinking about communication beyond the words. However plays are written to be spoken. That means playwrights must consider how their lines will sound out loud. That’s why plays reveal insights into the way speakers use fixed expressions, intonation, and gesture to convey feelings or wants, and to navigate relationships.  And they do so more effectively than other texts.

What’s more, producing a play, even in readers’ theater format, helps students loosen up and feel more confident “playing” with English and its many possible meanings. When students know what they are supposed to say, they can focus more on how to say it. In fact, when students have a script, they can practice different ways of saying the same line and explore how the meaning changes. Finally, producing a play can bring a motivating and much-needed sense of fun to the classroom.

Alice Savage, author of the Integrated Skills for Drama series, has written 10 ideas for extending the content or language of a script into a lesson. And we’ve turned them into images that you can download, print out, and add to your teacher room or classroom wall.

The activities can be used in any order and can suit a variety of goals. Some help students overcome insecurities about speaking and performing. Others foster critical thinking and writing skills, and some help ground pronunciation or grammar work in a relevant context. Pick and choose, adapt, and modify.

10 Ways to Teach English with Plays 10 Ways to Teach English with Plays 10 Ways to Teach English with Plays 10 Ways to Teach English with Plays


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Four Conditions for Creating Community in Your Classroom

Most teachers I talk to agree that we need to create strong communities in our classroom. Now a few teachers do claim that relationships in the classroom don’t matter much, and that we should focus on the content of the class. However, even they concede that creating community helps with classroom management and that creating a sense of belonging is not a bad thing. However, we also know that helping students get to know each other is a slippery thing. While some students love a good icebreaker where they share a fact about themselves, others are reticent. Being forced to share too much personal information may drive them away from the group in fact. I know a teacher who started classes with a hula-hoop activity. A lot of students loved the chance to play and be silly in class. Others felt that the activity was a sign the teacher wasn’t serious about academics. So how do you bring your students together and make them feel like a community? Having put out a book of icebreakers and getting to know you activities, I get a lot of feedback about conditions for an activity to break the ice in class and build rapport. And my big a-ha moment came when I realized I didn’t want to just break the ice. I didn’t want kids to just talk to each other. And I didn’t want to just have students feel kind of good about coming to my class because I’m a nice guy and the other students are pretty nice, or at least polite with each other. I wanted to create community.

Creating Community

So what’s the difference between a classroom where everyone follows the rules and the teacher is a good guy, and a classroom with a sense of community? It may sound like a cop-out to say that you know a community when you see it. However, it’s really my way of saying that there is no one definitive set of criteria. Here are some of the things I’ve seen in classrooms where the students feel there is a strong sense of community and rapport.

  • students asking each other for help
  • open and meaningful discussions between teachers and students
  • students enforcing the rules themselves
  • students listening and agreeing or disagreeing respectfully
  • tasks done with a sense of interest, not resignation
  • students trying, and sometimes failing, to use new language items

You can see that the signs of a community can also be illustrations of the benefits. In a strong community, you see students taking risks with language, which is a benefit to creating community.

Conditions for Creating Community

So what are the four conditions for creating community in your classroom?

  1. A clear and meaningful task
  2. Freedom to make decisions about how to accomplish that task
  3. The need to work together as a team
  4. The risk of failure

A clear and meaningful task

Students have to want to work on the task for the task to truly bring them together as a team. The task cannot be busy work. Make sure your students understand why you are having them do the activity. Is it to learn a new skill? Or practice a set of vocabulary? Or to become familiar with a particular tool or technique? Ensure that the goal is desirable to the students, that the activities align with the goal, and that they understand how the task meets that goal. For students to be able to work together on a task, the task also needs be clear. hey need to know exactly what the task is. All parameters, expectations, and objectives should be clearly spelled out. They can’t throw themselves into work if they feel that there’s some information they don’t have or they aren’t totally sure whether they are on task or not.

Freedom to make decisions

While the parameters of the task should be clear, there also needs to be room for students to think about how they will accomplish the task. If the students are doing routine tasks that require few decisions, or if there’s only one right way to do the task, there’s no need for the students to really work together. In a complex task with multiple paths to success, individual students will find a place where they shine, whether it be a talent for a particular aspect of the task or leadership and facilitation skills. They will rely on each other to complete the work and be forced to find ways to work together and get along. They will practice teamwork skills without realizing it because they are being forced to make decisions and support each other at every turn.

The need to work together as a team

This brings me to the next condition. For an activity to create community, it has to be one that students cannot do alone. If one or two students take over and dominate the process, there will be little chance of building a community. Instead, the task should be carefully designed so that every member of the group is needed. There are a number of ways to do this. You can design tasks that rely on students’ individual talents. You ensure each student has one part of the information required to complete the task. Jigsaw activities and information gaps are great ways to do that. Or make the task complex enough that they really need all hands on deck.

The risk of failure

Finally, there has to be a chance that the team will fail. If there’s no risk, there’s no sense of urgency to the task. Now, a risk of failure doesn’t necessarily mean that students will get a 0 if they don’t do a good job. Grades are one way to create a sense of risk, but so it a time-limit, or clear criteria for success. You can also design the task to create a sense of authentic failure. Role plays are a nice way to do this. In a role play, students have to convey information and often do a real-world task. If they cannot communicate effectively, they will fail. Why is failure important? Well, it’s a motivator because no one likes to fail. It also makes the task meaningful. Arguably, any task that students cannot fail to do is empty busy work. Finally, fear of failure creates a sense of urgency. Urgency is a kind of glue that keeps students working together.

What do you think? What conditions make for a good community building activity? How are you creating community in your classroom?

Hat tip to this great article that helped clarify a lot of my thoughts on this topic.

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Find us at TESOL 2018

Alphabet Publishing will be at the TESOL Convention in Chicago, 2018. Here’s where to find us:

  • Exhibition and Book Sale: Booth #226 with Wayzgoose Press.Come say hi, browse our books, and sign up for some cool raffles!
  • Self Publishing Networking Session: Wednesday 28 March, 4:00-4:45pm. Interested in putting your materials out there for sale and wondering what the options are? Or maybe you are self-publishing and want to meet others and compare notes? This is a great chance to learn about self-publishing and distribution channels like Teachers Pay Teachers, CreateSpace, Smashwords, your blog, or anything else you can think of. Come with questions or advice.
    Expo Hall, Networking Area
  • Teaching Team Work Skills for Successful Group Work: Thursday 29 March, 10:00-10:45am. Join Patrice Palmer, author of Successful Group Work: 13 Activities to Teach Teamwork Skills at TESOL 2018! Group work projects are frequently assigned by teachers. However, it is important to teach students how to work as part of a team before they start to ensure success. This session will demonstrate some classroom-tested team building activities that will help students succeed in group work assignments.
    Room E255
  • Four Conditions for Building Community: Friday 30 March, 1:00-1:45pm.We all want to build community in class. But it takes more than being nice and doing a few icebreakers. This session will talk about the 4 conditions necessary to build rapport in the classroom and demonstrate activities that create those very conditions, leading to a strong classroom community.
    Room E255
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Still Moving

We discovered some serious technical glitches with our blog last week. We’ve been working on it non-stop, even over the weekend as we defrosted from the snow. Unfortunately, the more problems we fixed, the more problems we found. It became clear we needed to start over. There were a few things we wanted to do with this site anyway-like add a shop and use a more modern looking theme!

We hope you like what you see. We’ll still be working to add back all the old posts and optimize a few things here and there. The books are up, but soon we’ll be adding ebooks that you can download straight from the site and some more free resources. So hopefully you’ll enjoy visiting as much as we’ve enjoyed tinkering!

Alphabet Publishing

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Why Do Drama in the Classroom?

Two students acting out a role play. A tall student has his hand on the shoulder of a girl. He is reassuring her, but she looks skeptical.

Speaking lessons are my favorite lessons to teach. I love writing a really interesting role play and having students go at it. At their best, students get so absorbed in the role and the situation that they start speaking fluently. They don’t overthink their grammar or stress about their mistakes. And they are so motivated to get an idea across, they start talking over vocabulary gaps, using so much language. Then afterwards, they are so hungry to learn the real words! So drama in the classroom can be fun and motivating for students. And it teaches them fluency.

But drama can be so much more. Here’s a great blog post from Alice Savage, creator of the Integrated Skills for Drama series on Building a Better Role Play Through Drama. It’s worth reading to see how a good role play can help students learn and practice pragmatics. As Alice writes,

Pragmatics is the art of choosing the right language and delivery strategies to achieve your purpose. And this purpose is often far more interesting than a simple exchange of information. People, especially family members, may want to make you feel guilty, do something you do not want to do, influence your decisions, extract information or beg for permission. They may also want to express gratitude or praise, but even seemingly positive goals still entail responding with expressions and gestures that affect the future of the relationship.

In fact, the complexities of pragmatics may in part explain why so many people prefer texting. Texting simplifies communication whereas the pragmatics of a real-time, face-to-face conversation can be exhausting even in L1. At the very least, it takes experience, skill and cognitive energy to attend to all the layers and intentions.

The upshot is that to prepare students to converse successfully in a new language, teachers must move beyond grammar rules and vocabulary substitutions to include the hidden language of pragmatics. The benefit is that when it surfaces, as I witnessed between Irving and Idamis, the actors feel it. The language stops sounding artificial and the vocalizations, echoing (repeating back), backchannelling (uh huh, erm, yeah,) and “Yes, buts” sustain something that approximates the real world.

The Power of a Model

Alice also discusses the power of giving students a model role play and drama is a wonderful place to find models. When students read or listen to a play, they already have words and grammar they can follow, adapt, or use. They see structures that might only come out in certain situations. Do we ever say, “I don’t want you to take this wrong way, but . . .” unless we are criticizing someone we care about? Do we repeat words over and over the same way we repeat “Never, never, never” when we are admonishing a child or (maybe) a subordinate at work? It’s so rare that these situation-specific language features come out in the classroom. So a play is a great way to expose students to them—and if you have the audio or video, they’re also getting the delivery, intonation, emphasis, and body language.

Note that students don’t have to perform their role plays necessarily. They can even read a script, as a sort of reader’s theater, while still working on using their voices to convey meaning and emotion.

Free Lesson Plan

Sign up to our mailing list for a free lesson plan that uses the scene from Her Own Worst Enemy that Alice is blogging about. Audio and the script of the scene are included. We’ll be sending out more activities and resources like this one!


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Classroom Community Builders and Ice-Breakers

On this page, we’re collecting some great resources for icebreakers and rapport. This includes research on the importance of building rapport. But, we’ll also share quick classroom tips and tricks. We’ve even got some great icebreaker or warm up activities here. Keep coming back as we update this page regularly. Got a link you want to share? Send it in.

Classroom Tips for Building Rapport

  • It’s Not Them, It’s You: Why Students Don’t Pay Attention And How To Keep Dead Time Out Of Your Classroom. A series of tips for keeping class moving so students don’t have time to get bored. Start these good habits for you and your students today!
  • The wonderful My Name My Identity Project has great resources for learning to pronounce foreign names among other things. Take the pledge to try to learn how to say your students’ names correct. I do say “try to learn” because much as we tell our students they may never lose their accent and that’s ok, we teachers will probably always have an accent in other languages, too.
  • How Can You Use Icebreakers? from Cornell University. What a great list of things to consider when selecting an icebreaker. There’s also some excellent general advice on how to facilitate an ice breaker.
  • Setting The Tone in the First Ten Minutes of Class. This is a great testament to the power of the Do-Now. I like how a good Do-Now can create a classroom space that is calm and work-focused but still friendly and safe. Believe it or not, some teachers dislike fun icebreakers because they feel it can get students ramped up at the beginning of class. This article is a good reminder that an icebreaker can be calming as well.
  • 50 Classroom Procedures is a comprehensive checklist of procedures you may need for class, such as how to start class off and what to do if students are confused. Note that this is just a list. It’s up to you to figure out how you will do those things. As well, it’s clearly targeted to school teachers as it includes procedures like hallway expectations and lining up. However, it’s a helpful list and it’s a nice reminder to have your procedures in place before a situation occurs.
  • On the Very First Day (Be the Best You Can Be) Often the best way to build rapport is to share a bit of ourselves and our interests with our students.

Articles on Icebreakers & Rapport Builders

  • Icebreakers Aren’t Just for the First Day of Class. Building rapport doesn’t just happen on day one. Students’ lives, interests, and needs change as the school year goes on. Here are some reasons why you need to do getting to know you activities year round. Plus, some examples of activities that work well for keeping up with our changing students!
  • Don’t Break the Ice. Build Community What’s the difference between an icebreaker and a community builder? Here’s how I discovered that icebreakers need to give way to community building events tailored specifically for students.
  • The Importance of Establishing Rapport with Your Students . This is a great article on the benefits of building rapport with your students. It breaks rapport-building-behaviors into concrete things you can do in your classroom today! We like the attempt to categorize what qualities a teacher should have to build rapport with students.
  • 5 Reasons to Use Ice-Breakers.  The five basic reasons to include ice-breakers in your classroom. Paradoxically, I definitely agree with the points about relaxing students and waking them up. However, the author forgets that icebreakers can also set the tone for the classroom or even establish rules (for examples, check out our book 50 Activities for the First Day of School). Still, this is a great survey of why every teacher needs a collection of ice-breakers in their teacher toolkit.
  • Warmers, fillers, what on earth? Although the author doesn’t mention icebreakers, her criticism of random fun fillers applies to icebreakers. Icebreakers can be empty fun or useful tools that take care of classroom business. We agree, which is why we carefully curated the activities in 50 Activities for the First Day of School to be productive and fun. Students won’t respect a teacher who does fun things all the time.

Ideas for First Day of School Activities

  • 3 Ways to Take Advantage of the Culture in Your Classroom My three favorite activities for getting students to share their greatest resource–their own culture.
  • 4 Activities to Get to Know Student Expectations   So, here are four of my favorite activities to learn my students’ expectations. These activities have the added benefit of being fun and working well as icebreakers or as class rapport.
  • 7 First Day of School Activities Students Love focuses on activities that get students thinking about the course and course requirements. We’re always fond of articles that stretch rapport builders to be about more than just getting to know you or having fun. Although, those things are important, too.
  • Using a Course Blog as a Class Ice-Breaker. Can a blog be an ice-breaker? This professor tried it out and found it worked pretty well!
  • Icebreakers for a Psychology Class Great introduction: “The best ice-breakers simply are important, relevant activities that have as an additional feature an opportunity for the group to get acquainted. In addition, we do not view ice-breakers as only necessary the first day or first week of courses, but rather we view ice-breakers as ways to continue building community and introducing new topics.” The authors also point out that ice-breakers should be adapted to the course. That’s why  50 Activities for the First Day of School has activities designed for the ESL / EFL classroom.
  • The Importance of Icebreakers In Online Classes by Jessica Mansbach. This post raises an interesting point. Building community in an online class can be much more difficult than in a face to face class. Some good ideas about doing team building activities through a computer.
  • 12 Reasons Why Teachers Should Use Warm-Up Activities is a good summary of why icebreakers and warmers are more than just fun ways to kill time.