The benefits of drama in the English classroom are surprising. Students learn and practice a variety of acting skills, using their bodies and voices to make meaning. When they put on a play, what to say is given to them so they can focus on how to say it. Speaking with emotion and attitude are skills we don’t always find in our coursebooks. And when students act a role, it’s a sort of safe space where they can make mistakes. Plays are also usually written in natural language so they are a wealth of idioms and conversational expressions. They are also a wonderful resource for pragmatics, showing how we use different rhetorical strategies in different situations. In fact, acting in a play can be a sort of rehearsal for real-life interactions, as students test out various strategies and gauge the reactions. And of course, they do so within the target culture, which can be different from their own. For example in every country, A direct criticism is received differently in different situations. Students need that kind of cultural knowledge.
And putting on a play in English class is the ultimate group project as students work together to organize rehearsals and give feedback to each other, decide on blocking and staging, or even collect props and costumes. Some students even report using the organizational skills they learned putting on a play to do other class projects.
But it isn’t easy putting on a play, so I wanted to share some advice from Alice Savage, author of the Short Plays for English Learners series and the Integrated Skills Through Drama series. The information here is adapted from the Production Notes that accompany every play in the Short Plays for English Learners series.
How to Put on a Play
- Read the play first. Make sure students understand the vocabulary as well as the story, relationships, and why the characters do what they do.
- Do table work. As a class, discuss the play. What themes arise in the play? How does it end and why? Which characters change and how do they change? How do the characters feel in the different scenes talking to each other? Discuss the pragmatics of the scene and the play.
- Think about logistics. Will you need to divide the class into multiple casts? Or will each group do a different play?
- Feel free to adapt. Do your students want to adapt the play at all to reflect some of their cultural values (for example, Saudi students sometimes rewrite plays slightly to ensure that the genders do not mix inappropriately for them). Or maybe students want to write a prequel or sequel!
- Assign roles. Consider the talents and personalities of your students.
- Make notes. Make sure students note their lines on the scripts and even jot in the margin ideas about how their character is feeling, ways they want to move, or other important information to help them act effectively.
- Schedule lots of rehearsal: Students should have lots of time to memorize their lines and also to get comfortable with each other. Students should be practicing both in class and on their own, alone and with other students. Be sure that you are giving feedback and that students are giving feedback to each other as well. Include not only feedback about errors, but also ways they could portray the scene more effectively: Is your character very angry here or just annoyed? When you raise your voice, you sound pretty angry!
- Mark thought groups, word and sentence stress, and intonation
- Practice speaking fluently so that it sounds like the actors are responding naturally
- Decide how you will perform the play: reader’s theater, a full performance, a scripts-in-hand performance, a video, or something else.
Looking for more drama in language learning resources, or other help to put on a play in class? Check out the pages for our Short Plays for English Learners series and Integrated Skills Through Drama series which are full of free resources as well as scripts.