How to do a Play with ESL Students

Producing a play in class can be an amazing learning experience. Drama is more than just a way to cover a book or a fun treat! Plays are a powerful too for teaching speaking skills, particularly natural, authentic English conversation. And producing a play is a great group project, a fantastic example of project-based learning. However, doing a play can be a challenge. So our author, Alice Savage has provided her extensive and valuable experience in how to do a play with ESL students!

She produced her own original play, Rising Water, with her community college students. You may need to find plays of different levels and topics to take into account your students’ age and level. But the basic process of producing a play in class is the same! And the payoffs are just as rich!

Why do a play in the ESL classroom?

Thunder claps, lightning strikes, and rain begins to fall as two high school students approach the bus stop. Magnus is a model child with good grades, Ajax is a bit of a misfit But as an ordinary autumn rain turns into a natural disaster, the issue what kind of people we’ll really need in the future is called into question in a new way.

In the production of this exciting play, the audience responds viscerally to the action and the performances of the students. When a play goes well, something miraculous happens. The actors’ classmates, teachers and friends are following the plot. They understand the pronunciation, and they empathize with the characters. These ESL actors have brought a story to life, and they have done it in English. Plays are not only powerful stories and speaking practice: they are great group work opportunities.

To being the group together, however, they had to do some work. In this elective, an integrated skills through theater class, students took on the ultimate group project, a play. In this post, we will share Alice’s process and her advice for how to do a play with ESL students. It’s not as difficult as you might think!

In theater, it is essential to create a safe space for practicing different voices, gestures and emotions, so we spent the first part of each class playing theater games. These role-playing, improvisation and guessing games helped students find different registers in English and physically locate the voice of someone who is worried, distracted, upset, happy, or sarcastic.

Producing a Play in Class for Group Work

I felt incredibly lucky to be given the opportunity to teach a course titled English through Theater because it meant that students knew they were going to experience drama—pun intended! The course was open to students intermediate and above. It quickly filled up despite the fact that it was scheduled for Fridays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m! The 20 students enrolled were from various countries including Vietnam, El Salvador, Haiti, Japan, Congo, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Mexico, India, and Thailand.

Although I was happy that the course was popular, I immediately faced my first challenge. Rising Water is a seven-character play. What was I going to do with the extra students? I considered having a different cast do another play in the Integrated Skills through Drama series, but eventually I decided that it would be more practical to create three casts for one play. That meant that three groups of students would be working simultaneously on the same script with a couple of actors performing in both. This ability to work with the whole group on one play turned out to be a good decision for the following reasons:

  • We used an audio recording of the play to do listening activities.
  • We had discussions based on articles related to the themes of the play.
  • Focused pragmatics instruction emerged from scenes and relationships in the play.
  • Pronunciation points came from the dialogue: reading a scene in a play is very different from reading a paragraph!
  • Students could fill in for each other when someone did not attend.

Group work and community

Playing theater games to build a sense of community is a huge part of producing a play in ESL class.
Theatre games practice language and build a sense of community

A key part of producing a play in class is creating community. This is because group work is essential to the theater. You need to create a safe space for practicing different voices, gestures and emotions, so we spent the first part of each class playing theater games.

Theater games also help students learn to communicate as different people. Role-playing, improvisation and guessing games let them find different registers in English and practice expressing emotions and attitudes such as being worried, tired, distracted, upset, happy, or sarcastic. Students practiced and performed these emotional messages in pragmatics-based role plays. (e.g., you are trying to arrange a date with two of your friends but there is a problem. They don’t like each other.) This is all part of prosody and pragmatics, whihc are key to being an effective communicator. We’ve written about prosody here and pragmatics all over, most notably here!

To check in with students’ feelings and perceptions, I used one-minute papers at the end of each class to learn what they liked and didn’t like. The feedback was largely positive as students reported that they felt they were developing useful interpersonal skills as well as getting to know their classmates and having fun.

Another community builder was a rotating snacks list in which two students were responsible for bring treats each week. I’ve always found that there’s nothing like food for creating friendships. Small details like this helped them bond, and because often the food was from different countries, students could start discussions and try something new.

Casting: Pronunciation takes precedence

One challenge when you do a play with ESL students, or any other classroom is casting. My advice is to let pronunciation take precedence. I needed to give the lead roles to more comprehensible speakers and leave the minor roles for those who needed more work. To identify and sort them, it was necessary to take pronunciation more seriously than I had in previous oral communication classes. This is also why I decided not to let them choose their own roles.

I took notes during activities and roleplays . However I finally settled on the idea of doing audition monologues. I wrote a set of ten short monologues, of about a paragraph each in length, to reflect the voices of different peoples’ experiences during Hurricane Harvey (on which Rising Water was based). Then I assigned the monologues to students and put them in practice groups to prepare as a team.

Pronunciation lessons: More than the syllable level

To support them, I added pronunciation lessons. Students identified the focus words that needed to be stressed, and they marked thought groups. The instruction was for them to practice saying the nouns, verbs, adjectives and emphasizers (really, so, not) more slowly and carefully than the grammar words, and to allow for pauses between the thought groups. They were also directed to think about how they felt and to communicate the emotion of the speaker.

Students performed in a team line up with each speaker taking a turn. Performing with others reduced anxiety, and I was able to focus on individuals’ strengths and weaknesses. This gave me the confidence to assign roles. Because we had more females than males, I changed the genders of the leads for two casts, and those students chose new names.

Plays create language work….

Rehearsal is a key part of doing a play in the ESL classroom
Rehearsal is key

You might think that when you do a play in class, you are giving up other kinds of classwork. However, this is not the case. Play scripts bring up themes, whether it be socio-economic issues or personal questions of living life. So while the students were preparing for their monologues, they also did language work in other areas. During the first few sessions, we read background articles and discussed the themes of the play of which there were several.

Climate change and its effect on oceans was one conversation. Another was the teenage brain and the potential value as well as danger of impulsive risk-taking. These articles allowed for grammar and vocabulary work as well as speaking, reading, and writing. But they also prepared them to act in the play. Knowing the themes and your attitude in relation to them helps you decide how to deliver your lines and target your performance.

…and language work feeds into the play

My students shared stories and worked on the message. Eventually they decided they could use the story to get people thinking about how society needs to prepare for an uncertain future, A subtheme was that courage and empathy are at least as valuable as intelligence.

Because we had a four-hour block, I organized the class into a rhythm. First we warmed up with theater games and then we moved on to language skills. We variously worked on pragmatics in role-plays, pronunciation drills and activities, and reading and group tasks. During the second half of the class, we had rehearsals. Students broke into groups and read through the play, making notes about their character’s feelings and objectives. As actors they had to look for clues about their characters and reflect on how these clues set up later behavior. For example, Ajax’s father is just like Ajax, but he doesn’t see it and he gets himself into trouble. This leads to the use of critical reading skills and can easily turn into an essay. For more examples, check out our post on 10 ways to use a play in class.

Giving notes

I rotated among the groups, listening and taking notes. At the end of the day I invited them to write and then share feedback on the experience. Then I gave notes on pronunciation and other elements that emerged from the rehearsal.

At first, the students just read through their scripts and then drifted onto their phones if I wasn’t with them. However, this did not last once I set a date for the performance. At that point they realized they’d be acting for an audience. I also gave them additional assignments such as creating a backstory for their character. Other students designed a program and a poster, and planned costumes. Around this time, leaders began to emerge. These students were able to play a vital role in keeping people on task, even generating new ideas and suggestions.

The poster advertised three showings, each with a different cast, one at 10 a.m., one at 11 a.m., and one at noon. Planning and designing this poster and the program made the production real as they had to work out the timing of each 30-minute performance with planning for the curtain call and then a break for the next group to set up.

Helping ESL Students Learn to Act

During rehearsals, I experimented with different approaches. On some days, I had people playing the same character get together and talk. Or I had actors with the same scene watch each other. Most days they did a run through within their group. This variety helped keep the rehearsals dynamic, but it was a bit of an uphill climb getting them to memorize their lines. They also did not like critiquing each other, so I made a mental note to do more training for peer feedback next time.

Some students also expressed performance anxiety. They suggested we make a film rather than do a live show, but that was one suggestion I did not accept. One of the benefits of producing a play in class is the magic between actors and a real audience. I had faith that my students would achieve it.

Don’t forget that you can also do Reader’s Theater where students read the script. No memorization means less pressure, without sacrificing the acting. Students can enunciate and gesture with script in hand. 

Gesture and Voice

As we got closer to showtime, students became more serious about the play. Rehearsal started taking up more class time. And we still needed to do blocking. Blocking is figuring out where students would make their entrances, stand, sit, and move so that they would not turn their back on the audience). We continued to work on pronunciation as well as projecting to the back of the room. We also discussed how body language and movements provided a layer to the story that could support the words.

One especially useful activity was having each cast move through the scenes without speaking. The actors made their entrances, gestured, and moved around as if they were speaking but they did it silently. Those watching could see the story unfold without hearing the words. I believe this gave them confidence that the story would have emotional resonance. I invited a few colleagues to come and watch now and then. This also gave the actors a preview of performing.

Finally we combined the words with the blocking and talked about how they could use the stage to emphasize and communicate important emotional messages. When the father asks his wife, “Are you and Ivy going to be alright?” it’s an important line because they won’t be. He has to say it clearly and with feeling. He has to make eye contact. She has to decide whether she wants to reassure him or show she’s worried. By stopping for a beat to look at each other before he leaves, the actors set up tension.

Will the Show Go On?

Then, as in all good theater stories, disaster struck. One student had a work conflict and had to drop out. Someone’s car broke down. Another had a visa problem and disappeared. The week before the performance, one of our most dynamic actors said he had to be at a family wedding.

“I wish I had known that when I was scheduling the performance!” I said, but there was nothing I could do. We had set the dates and invited the audience. Because we had three casts, however, other actors were there to play a part twice. One student ended up playing the role of the father in all three performances. Fortunately, he was excellent in the role and had learned all his lines.

Finding Work for Everyone

As we moved into the final days of preparation, I organized a schedule with supporting tasks for people who were not in a particular performance. One student was stationed at the lights. This person turned off the lights between each scene so actors could switch out and arrange the set. Another student did the sound effects, playing a track of thunder and lightning between scenes. A third was a stage manager who sat next to the stage with the script and gave lines when an actor forgot. With these elements in place, students were supported in presenting a 30-minute play with scene changes, props and sound effects.

My next to last instruction was, ““When you finish, you need to come onstage and do a curtain call. The audience will clap, and you should bow.” Some students had never been to the theater before, so they simply didn’t know. My very last instruction was, “Break a leg!” I had to explain that this is what well-wishers have been saying to actors for hundreds of years. As with athletes, stage performers are comforted by ritual, and it seemed to help.


It rained on the day of the show, which was perfect for the play. Students came in wearing rain coats and carrying costumes in plastic bags. I traveled the hallways and watched them sitting with their scripts, running lines, walking up and down, and gesturing to the air. It was like being backstage in a real production. They didn’t want my help because they were preparing themselves mentally, so I left them to it.

At 10 a.m. the first audience arrived and took their seats in the building’s most spacious classroom. There were about 20 friends, classmates, family members and teachers for each show. Despite the fact that there was a white board in the background and a minimal set, the student actors performed their play with passion. Perhaps there were a few scenes where an actor struggled to be understood. A few actors forgot a line here and there. There was a moment where the characters looped around a bit with the dialog before finding their place and moving on. But each time, they captured the audience’s attention. People watching murmured worriedly when the mother was trapped in the attic with her sick daughter! They laughed at the smug pride of the science nerd. When it was over, and the students bowed, people clapped enthusiastically and swarmed the cast for selfies.


All in all, the project of a play in class was a lot of fun. The students benefited from both the opportunity to work closely with a play as a text for oral communication skills, and from the group project aspect. They developed soft skills collaborating with each other on the production. And they loved it; one of my cast members came up to me afterwards and said, “This class really helped me. I want to take it again.”

Interested in more information? Check out Alice’s blog at You can also browse our free resources for doing drama in the classroom including how to do a play with ESL students at Scripts for Students. 

2 Responses

  1. I’ve always thought that short plays would work great in ESL. Thank you for the indepth explanation about the evolution of the course and the tweeking invilved. Loved the article.

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