I’m excited to be exhibiting and presenting at the WATESOL Fall 2018 Conference in DC in a few days. I’ll be featuring some of our books about drama including Fortune and the Integrated Skills Through Drama series. I’ll be putting the whole presentation up along with handouts at some point but I’m proud of this activity idea from the Fortune series. When I talk about using a dramatic videos to teach pragmatics, I hear the same question from teachers a lot. Aren’t scripted dramas too artificial to teach authentic communication skills? After all, studying pragmatics is supposed to help students learn how to express meaning in actual situations, taking into account relationships and social context. A drama about a private investigator hardly involves realistic contexts or relationships, does it?
So how are scripted dramas useful teaching tools?
- An actor’s job is to use body language, gesture, intonation, and prosody to express emotion and meaning. Sure, the situations are more intense than in real life. But that exaggeration helps draw attention to the tools the actors are using, the same tools we want our students to use. In the scene below, notice how the actor expresses anger by speaking slowly, in a staccato rhythm. It’s easy for students to pick up on and imitate because it’s so exaggerated.
- A script writer’s job is to pick up on natural language and use it to write believable dialogue. They can’t do that unless the dialogue is based on natural speech.
- Scripted dramas can be artificial, but they are authentic texts. People do watch TV shows and movies about private detectives. Students definitely watch them. Why not teach them how to watch them and understand the conventions of a scripted drama?
- Comparing scripted dramas to more natural conversations is great way to draw students’ attention to pragmatics.
- Students will enjoy the dramatic narrative, so they’ll want to watch imitate the actors. Who doesn’t act out their favorite TV show?
How to use scripted dramas to teach pragmatics
Introduce this scene from Episode 5 of Fortune by telling students that Jimmy is a private investigator. He is investigating the kidnapping of Danny’s wife and he has just discovered that Danny has been meeting with a mysterious woman in red. The video featuring this scene is free to stream on Vimeo: Fortune Gold, Episode 5
The first time students watch, ask them to pay attention to the emotions.
- How is Jimmy feeling? How does he express that feeling? Pay attention to his voice, body language, and movement.
- How is Danny feeling? How does he express that? Pay attention to his voice, body language, and movement.
Students will notice different things, but draw attention to the way Jimmy speaks slowly and in a staccato rhythm, and how he draws himself up to his full height to intimidate, but then sits down and makes eye contact when he wants an answer. Danny shrinks down and avoids eye contact to show shame. Also notice his facial expression when he pleads with Jimmy.
After discussing that, students can practice expressing anger (Jimmy) and shame/embarrassment (Danny). Later in the lesson you can introduce other emotions and have students practice using their voices, body language, facial expressions, and movement to express that emotion.
Now, remind students that part of this scene is about Jimmy telling Danny things he doesn’t want to hear and vice versa. Ask students to watch the video again and this time pay attention to Jimmy and Danny’s rhetorical strategies. How does Jimmy try to achieve his goal of getting information from Daniel? How does Daniel attempt to resist Jimmy?
Answers will vary, but students will probably say something like, “Jimmy uses his anger to force Danny to talk to him. He acts very dominant, like an alpha male and implicitly threatens Danny with his anger to get him to talk. Danny tries to appear weak and non-threatening to appeal to Jimmy’s mercy. Students can then brainstorm other strategies to deliver bad news or things people don’t want to hear, such as:
- being calm and direct
- being impersonal
- adding in good news along with the bad news
- hinting or implying without saying it directly
- emphasizing how much you care about the person
- offering to help
Compare to a Natural Conversation
As I mentioned above, one way to help students analyze the way we use pragmatics in every day conversation is to compare scripted dramas to more natural conversation. I love how Fortune comes with scenario videos for students to do just that. Show students this short scene of someone getting bad news and ask them to tell what strategy the woman uses to console the man (Note that this scene is scripted too, but it feels less artificial) Elicit that she shows empathy.
Students can then brainstorm other ways to console someone, such as:
- offering to help with the situation
- offering comfort
- focusing on the positive side
- taking care of other needs
- offering to listen to them vent
Finally, students can practice using these strategies and expressing emotions by either reading a script of a similar situation or creating a role play. Give students several scenarios where someone gets bad news, or let them come up with the situations themselves. Depending on the level, you can ask students to write their scenes or improvise. You may want to make them quite long or a short conversation, depending on classroom logistics. Make sure students understand that some strategies or rhetorical devices may be inappropriate for some situations. After all, pragmatics means thinking about the context and relationships, as well!
Some common scenarios that work well might include:
- a teacher telling a student they failed
- a child telling a parent they wrecked the car
- a waiter telling a customer their credit card was declines
- a friend telling another friend they have to move far away
- a parent telling a child their pet ran away (or died)
Let us know if you use any of these activity ideas in the class. It’s always nice to know how people are using our materials!