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Middle School ESL Drama Activities

In honor of Alice Savage‘s post on Middleweb on exploiting scripts and using role plays in the classroom, I dug up this draft article we worked on together for something or other. There’s some overlap in the two articles so it’s worth checking out both. What I really love about both is the variety of activities to do with plays and scripts. Sure, we can approach plays as literary works and teach communication skills with them. But we can also do grammar and vocabulary work with them. And so much more. Check out the post below and don’t forget to click over to Alice’s post on Middleweb as well.


Ways to Teach English with Plays in Middle School

When we chose plays to do with our students, we often think about the literary merits of the work. I was recently reading a message board thread on plays to use with eight graders and the suggestions were mostly literary gems, many of which I love dearly and remember from my school days: Our Town, The Diary of Ann Frank, The Crucible, The Taming of the Shrew, The Cherry Orchard.

What we forget sometimes is that plays are more than literary works of art. Unlike other forms of writing, plays are meant to be read out loud. So they are the art form most likely to imitate natural language that is used in real life. And as in real life, a play script that is written in natural language presents characters speak to achieve goals and they chose certain words and strategies based on those goals and their relationships with the other characters. In other words, they speak like real people in real life. ]

And so plays are a wonderful opportunity to practice making meaning through intonation, body language, word choice, and rhetorical strategies. Plays can reveal insights into the way speakers use fixed expressions, intonation, and gesture to convey feelings or wants, and to navigate relationships. And, importantly, producing a play can bring a motivating and much-needed sense of fun to the classroom. Producing a play, even in readers’ theatre format (with script in hand) also helps students loosen up and feel more confident “playing” with English and its many possible meanings.

So here are four ways to use the language in a play you are reading in class to teach communicative strategies. These are meant to supplement any activities down about the content of the play, which is also a valuable goal. And of course, feel free to pick and choose, adapt, and modify. This list is just a starting point.

SPEAK BODY LANGUAGE

Write a list of gestures that can reflect feelings on the board, such as:

  • Folding your arms across your chest
  • Slumping your shoulders
  • Putting your hands on your hips
  • Raising your eyebrows
  • Filling your cheeks with air, then blowing the air out
  • Covering your face with your hands
  • Making your mouth into an O shape

You can also have students suggest gestures. Demonstrate these actions or have students demonstrate them.

Next, put pairs of students in small groups and have them take turns performing the gestures in poses. Then have the class discuss what emotion the pose communicates and where in the play you are working on they could use those gestures.

Extend the activity by having two students face each other and take turns gesturing and responding with a different gesture. For example, one student stands with hands on hips. The other slumps their shoulders. Or the first student shrugs and the second student raises their eyebrows. Students can improvise these gestures or base in on scenes from the play.
Have the rest of the class discuss what they think the students are communicating to each other with their gestures. This activity is a great way to make students become aware of body language.

As a final step, if you are planning to perform the play, discuss the poses and gestures that would be appropriate for characters in the play you are working on. Or set individual actors to assign gestures to their scenes.

GET STRESSED

Do a mini-lesson on sentence or word stress. For example, you can demonstrate how emphasizing different words in a sentence can change the meaning by reading the same sentence with different emphasis and discussing the change in meaning:

  1. HE didn’t need to do that = Someone else would have done it.
  2. He didn’t NEED to do that = It wasn’t something that was required.
  3. He didn’t need to do THAT = He could have done something else.

After the lesson, have students look through one scene in the play. Individually or in groups, ask them to mark the stress in their scripts, take roles, and practice reading. The rhythms of a play often feel more real than course book dialogs and can be practiced several times. As you work through the script, you can also activities that raise their awareness of other pronunciation choices such as intonation, linking, and reductions.

PLAY WITH INTONATION

Write a list of emotions such as happy, worried, frightened, and reluctant on the board. Make sure the words reflect distinct emotions and that your students understand the meanings. Then select a few lines from a script. Choose lines that reflect commonly used phrases and expressions and that can reflect different attitudes. Phrases such as, “I just want to say one last thing,” “I can’t help it,” or, “That’s hard to believe,” work well.

Write the lines on the board or give them a handout with the lines on it. Model the activity by reading a line with one of the emotions and having students guess the emotion from the list. Improvise additional lines as necessary, e.g., “I can’t help it, when I see her do that, I have to say something!” Model as many times as necessary for students to grasp which intonation patterns go with which emotions.

Then put students in groups. Have them take turns delivering a line with a specific emotion, without saying what the emotion is. The other group members then guess the emotion the speaker is trying to convey. Students can then discuss different ways to express emotions.

Extend the activity by having students read longer exchanges from the script with appropriate emotions. Or, as a fun variation, have them chose inappropriate emotions

FIND HIDDEN MEANINGS

Sometimes people cannot say what they want directly, so they use implicit communication. This is very common in plays. To help students investigate these hidden feelings and understand the strategies that people use to communicate, read a short scene or exchange from the play, preferably one with only 1 or 2 main characters and a very clear purpose for the dialogue.

After going over the scene, put students in small groups to talk about:

  • What the characters want
  • How they try to get it
  • Why they can’t they say what they want directly
  • Strategies they use to persuade or influence the other person

Follow up with a role play in which students try to influence each other. Some scenarios that work well include a student trying to find out what’s on the final exam from a teacher, a person trying to get out of an invitation to a boring party, or a coach trying to get a student who doesn’t like sports to join a football team.

There are countless ways to exploit plays in class and help your students learn new communication skills. The most important thing is to have fun and encourage students to play with language. After all, there’s a reason we call them plays!

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