Using Video to Teach Natural Conversation

Video is a powerful resource to teach natural conversation to students. Students can benefit from listening to conversations between fluent speakers. In particular, natural, fluent speech provides models of pronunciation and intonation, and how we use our voices to express emotion and emphasize important words. Rhetorical markers such as “uh” can be pronounced a variety of ways depending on whether we are pausing to think, indicating we disagree, interrupting someone else, or showing disapproval. So audio can do a lot of things a written script can’t.

Nonverbal Communication in Natural Conversation

A pie chart showing that according to Albert Mehrabian, personal communication is 7% words, 38% voice and tone, and 55% body language. This may not be accurate but highlights that nonverbal communication is indeed a key factor.

However, videos of conversations provide all the benefits of audio and more. In real life, when we are talking to someone, we are also reading their facial expressions, body language, and gesture. These non-verbal cues are a vital part of communication, showing how we feel and what we think about what we are saying. If you are speaking to someone who is shifting their weight from foot to foot, it might be a clue that they are annoyed or don’t have time to talk to you right now. When we want to sound authoritative or powerful, we stand straighter and we may cross our arms on our chests or put our hands on our hips.

You may have heard of Professor Albert Mehrabian’s 7-8-35 rule of personal communication, which highlighted that body language plays a key role in communicating effectively. This “rule” has been misinterpreted to mean that our message comes only 7% from our words, 38% from our intonation, and 55% from our body language. In fact, Mehrabian was pointing to the fact that when our body language is out of sync with our words and/or intonation, people tend to believe the body language more. That’s why it is so vital to help students learn how to read and also use body language, particularly as body language is often culturally determined.

What is more, in an authentic conversation, we sometimes respond non-verbally. We may shake our heads no, or nod yes. We may silently roll our eyes to indicate someone has said something silly. If we are discussing a rumor, we may raise our eyebrows and nod slightly to say, “That’s unbelievable.” In fact, when someone is speaking to us, we are constantly reacting to them and they are watching our reactions and tailoring their speech to those reactions. Videos are a powerful way to show students this and give them models to practice.

Context Matters

Finally, in real-life we know where we are and we can see the people we are talking to. And in videos we can see the people and their settings. However, audio passages or written scripts may include awkward and unnatural dialogue to establish things that the listener cannot see, such as, “Welcome to my pizza restaurant!” In real life, we point. We say, “What’s that?” We hand people at stores a credit card without saying, “Here is my credit card. I am giving it to you because I want to pay for these items now.” We give directions by saying, “The library? It’s right over there. You can see the roof from here. If you go that way, you’ll see the entrance.”

Acting! Brilliant!

Now, some people draw a line between authentic conversations and scripted dialogues that are acted out. How can acting be natural and authentic? I certainly agree that there is a lot of benefit of listening to real, unscripted conversations. I think videotaping yourself speaking with another teacher or fluent English speaker can be an amazing resource of everything mentioned above. But, we shouldn’t forget that it is literally an actor’s job to study and employ body language, gesture, and movement (as well as voice and intonation) in order to communicate effectively. If actors feel inauthentic sometimes, it is because they are perhaps exaggerating these communication tools. And yet, that makes it all the easier to draw students’ attention to those very tools.

Here’s a great example of a conversation from Fortune that would have a completely different meaning if students couldn’t see the participants. In this clip, private investigator Jimmy Fortune is taking his client Daniel to a safe house. Jenny is Daniel’s wife, who has been kidnapped.

Here’s the script:

Daniel: Where are we?
Jimmy: Somewhere that I know you’ll be safe.
Daniel: How long do you expect me to stay here?
Jimmy: Until I find Jenny.
Daniel: I can help you.
Jimmy: The best way for you to help is to stay out of sight….Take a shower….Stay out of trouble.

From the words alone, you can gather that Daniel doesn’t want to go into hiding. However, when you watch the clip (or have students watch it) notice the body language. Both men are stiff. Jimmy barely makes eye contact with Daniel. It’s clear that Jimmy doesn’t particularly like Daniel. His comments about staying out of sight, and staying out of trouble have a new resonance. We suspect Daniel has a tendency to make trouble and is not as helpful as he may think he is.

It is helpful for students to be able to read this kind of body language. When is someone being polite with them and when is someone displaying unfriendliness? Perhaps they have overstepped a line without realizing it and the person is trying to subtly show them that. Or perhaps the students want to signal that they do not want to be friendly with a fellow student or work colleague. This video is a good place to start in teaching how to be standoffish (although I don’t think we’d want students to copy Jimmy’s gestures exactly).

If you’re looking for more ways to use videos to teach natural conversation, check out the rest of the Fortune series. It’s very well-thought out course, 30 classroom hours, built around a 6-episode video drama about Jimmy Fortune’s search for Jenny. Students enjoy it and it helps them understand similar TV dramas they may be watching at home anyway. You can check out a free sample by signing up for our mailing list below. You’ll also get free teaching tips like this post sent straight to your email, along with product updates, discounts, and sales.

Want to learn more? Check out all our video learning resources.

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.


Ways to Make Me Laugh

Humor can be a powerful tool in the classroom. As I’ve written elsewhere before,  Humor plays a large role in my teaching. I use jokes to lighten the mood and make learning fun. I use self-deprecating humor so that students feel comfortable challenging me and so that they understand that mistakes aren’t the end of the world. I use humorous stories to establish rapport. And I make silly skits and demonstrations of words or grammar points so that students will remember them.

But humor is also different from culture to culture and from person to person. And while they say if you have to explain a joke, it isn’t funny anymore, people love talking about what makes them laugh. And some humor does seem to transcend cultural and national boundaries. Look at the universal appeal of Jackie Chain, Mr. Bean or Jim Carrey’s early movies, for example.

A sample page from 60 Positive Activities for Every Classroom by Teresa X. Nguyen and Nathaniel Cayanan.

All that is to say, that a great warmer or filler activity, is to ask students to share something that makes them laugh. It gets students talking and using the language. But it does more than that. As Teresa X. Nguyen writes in the introduction to 60 Positive Activities for Every Classroom, activities that encourage students to focus on the positive can increase student motivation, help them focus on tasks, and even build resilience in the face of academic challenges. And we certainly know that stress and negative emotions can hinder learning.

Fun and happiness are obviously not the only factor that a classroom needs, but positivity is a powerful tool that can support better learning outcomes. And it’s something every student will have something to say about. And after letting your students talk about humor and ways to make them laugh in the classroom, they’ll be ready to tackle more difficult or less interesting tasks.



Intonation Sensation: An Activity to Teach Sentence Stress

English speakers use intonation to express meaning, which other languages don’t necessarily do. In some languages, intonation is applied at the sentence level. Intonation may be linked to the meaning of the word. But English speakers use intonation to indicate their attitude and emphasize what’s important and what isn’t. One feature of English that is far from universal is the way we emphasize words in a sentence, so it’s important to teach sentence stress whenever we do pronunciation work.

What is sentence stress?

Don’t be fooled by the name. Sentence stress is how we emphasize vocally particular words in our sentences. We can do this by saying the stressed word louder than other words, pausing before and after the stressed word, using our facial expressions when we say the word, or holding the word for longer, or even changing our tone. We use it to indicate which word or words are the most important, which word we want the listener to pay attention to. For a more detailed explanation and example sentences, check out this post by ESL Library.

Students who speak languages that don’t use sentence stress have to learn to listen for it, and also hopefully employ it. As I’ve said many times, these kinds of prosodic features are far more important to comprehension than accent! Misunderstanding or misusing sentence stress can have serious impacts on communication, as the activity below demonstrates.

The quick and easy activity below comes from the drama textbook Rising Water by Alice Savage, which includes a short play for students. To teach sentence stress, it’s helpful to draw awareness to it first!  Students can listen to the audio recording of the play to hear where those actors chose to put their word emphasis, and decide why the actor made those choices. But any video of proficient English speakers speaking fluently and freely will work. Have students listen for the words that stand out and then think about why the speaker emphasized those particular words.

How to Teach Sentence Stress

  1. Find a sentence where the meaning can change depending on the word being stressed. Note that usually content words are stressed, but this isn’t always true! You can pull these sentences from a play or reading you are working on! Example sentences could be:
    • At least my life isn’t boring.
    • What are you doing here?
    • I thought you said you would help me do the cleaning.
    • What did the doctor say on the phone?
  2. Demonstrate how putting the emphasis on different words in a sentence changes the meaning. You can read the sentence below with the indicated emphasis and elicit the meaning, or explain as needed.
    • At least MY life isn’t boring. = Your life is boring.
    • At least my LIFE isn’t boring. = Something else, such as my work, is boring.
    • At least my life isn’t BORING. = My life may have problems in other areas.
  3. For more advanced students, you can have them imagine the scene in which this line is being said. What are the emotions? What is the larger idea the speaker is trying to convey? Here’s each line put into a context to give an idea what the speaker may be thinking.
    • You can criticize me for my risky choices all you want. At least MY life isn’t boring. I have fun. I have friends. You just go to work and go home and waste your day being boring!
    • At least my LIFE isn’t boring. I hate my job. I’m not close to my family. I have one thing going for me, this one habit which I enjoy, even though it may be a bit dangerous.
    • Ok, maybe my habits cause me some serious problems, but At least my life isn’t BORING. I have fun and that’s what’s really important to me.
  4. Hand out a list of sentences that can be emphasized in different places. You may want to take this from a text or script you are working with or see above for some suggestions. Students could also elicit examples.
  5. Put students in pairs. Partner A says the first sentence, picking a word to emphasize. Partner B says where they think the sentence stress fell and what they think it means.
  6. Students take turns reading and listening until they have done all the sentences. Then switch.
  7. To extend, students can discuss what situation they think the speaker is in and create longer scenes or role plays using the lines they practiced. If you’re doing a play, they can mark words they want to emphasize.

Let me know how this activity goes in the classroom. And share any ideas you may have to teach sentence stress in the classroom!

More resources to practice intonation and sentence stress

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.


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.


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.


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


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!

How to Do Reader’s Theater

Reader's Theater

What is Reader’s Theater?

In its simplest form, Reader’s Theater is an activity where students read a play aloud with the scripts in hand. They often do so without having memorized the script. They may not have props, act out the action of the play, or even move. There doesn’t need to be an audience besides the readers themselves.

Reader’s Theater can be used with scripts or stories or even poems. Sometimes the teacher or students rewrite stories in play form for the purpose of doing Reader’s Theater. This can be a great way to get students writing creatively.

Integrated Skills Through Drama Series from Alphabet Publishing

Why Reader’s Theater?

When using scripts written for the classroom like those in the Integrated Skills Through Drama series, the advantages of doing a script as Reader’s Theater are:

  • Learners experience both language and communication strategies in conversational contexts. They are able to feel the language from the inside and reflect on how expressions, words and phrases are used to attain conversational goals.
  • Pronunciation and intonation work is purpose-driven as actors work to communicate the emotional intention of their characters
  • The script is already prepared, giving students a language experience that can be practiced and then adapted to other contexts.
  • There’s no need for props, sets, costumes, or even a stage making it easier and quicker to produce.
  • A Reader’s Theater performance supports success by allowing actors to refer to a script. This saves time, which can be spent on ancillary skills work or even discussion of the themes of the play.


As written above, Reader’s Theater can be as simple as putting students in a circle, assigning parts, and having them read a script. However, it can be a lot more involved than that as well. Here are some considerations and decisions to make:

  • A play is a story that reflects human experience and can thus lend itself to rich discussion. Spend some time talking about the story. Have students listen to the play and/or read the script first and talk about the message. Share experiences and insights into the world of the play.
  • Also consider working on the characters motivations. After students are assigned roles, have them work out the back story of the character by answering Wh- questions. Who is the character? Where did they grow up? What are they good at? or where do they struggle in life? Importantly, what do they want? How are they trying to get what they want? This can help with the pronunciation/intonation work and how they use their voice.
  • Decide how much practice time to give. A good rule of thumb is students should be able to look up from the script half the time. Aaron Shepherd refers to this as “half-memorizing.” And to let students think about what intonation, rhythm, word stress, and volume they will use for each line, they’ll need time to read and mark up the script. For example, students may want to:
    • Add descriptions of action
    • Add lines
    • Practice motion
    • Note emotions and intonations
    • Highlight their part
  • Another helpful preparation activity is to use the characters and contexts to do role plays. Students can borrow language from the script and adapt it for new purposes.
  • As you prepare for a performance, you may want a narrator who can describe the scene and the setting. The narrator can even describe the action of the play if you do not want students to move or act out the action of the play. This may require writing in a narrator part or expanding an existing narrator’s lines.
  • Decide if the students will move while they read or remain stationary. If they will be stationary, will they sit or stand. And who will sit where? Often in Reader’s Theater, major characters are positioned in the middle while narrators sit on the ends.
  • If you want the students to move, decide how much they will move and how much of the action will they act out. This is called blocking. As noted above, if the readers are not going to be doing much acting with their bodies, the narrators will need to describe the action.
  • Because in Reader’s Theater, the students are on stage at all times, you need a way to show which actors are not acting in a particular scene. Students can turn their backs on the audience or look down, for example.
  • You may want students to have small props, particularly if the prop is important to the story. For example, a character who is always fiddling with their phone might hold an actual phone even if other props are omitted. If you aren’t using props at all, give students time to work out how they will mime using certain objects or doing certain actions.
  • Consider how students will hold the scripts if they are moving. Will they hold in one hand? How often will they need to look down and read? Are there any long speeches?
  • If there are scenes with specific settings, such as sitting in a car or speaking to someone who is up on a balcony, you might want to think about how to suggest that setting. For a scene in a car, students could pull two seats forward in front of two other seats. For a balcony scene, one student could stand on a chair or the other students could squat on the floor, for example.

Performing Reader’s Theater

Students can read for each other or for an audience from another class.

You can break the class into two halves, have them read to each other, and then discuss where they made different choices.

Because theatre is inherently dynamic, each cast will produce a unique production.

Extending Reader’s Theater

Reader’s Theater can be the culmination of the study of any piece of literature. After analyzing and reading the story, you can make a Reader’s Theater performance a kind of final celebration or showcase of the student’s understanding of the text.

Reader’s Theater can also be a prelude to a full performance. It can be a part of the rehearsal process in fact. Many performances of plays, TV shows, and films start with what’s called a table read where the actors read the script for the first time sitting around a table. They make notes of how they might read their parts as well as what parts of the script might need rewriting or adapting.

In fact, consider inviting actors to adapt scenes or add new scenes to reflect their changing understanding of the story. Perhaps they can improvise with situations that they want to explore. Ask what if questions, put the characters in new combinations, send them back in time or forward to see where decisions are likely to lead. In this way, Reader’s Theater offers a way to take language from the page and move it into the real world.

Teaching students to be honest: the pragmatics of brutal honesty

We’re not making this up. It’s National Honesty Day and we have some ideas for and ESL lesson about honesty using pragmatics, or the social and cultural rules that determine how we communicate effectively. People seem to appreciate honesty these days, but what are the pragmatics of brutal honesty? How do we act direct questions and say potentially hurtful things without hurting peoples’ feelings?

Brutal honesty can be broken down into how to ask direct questions and how to give give honest answers. And because those things are sensitive and the rules of how we handle them vary from culture to culture, context to context, even person to person, the pragmatics of honesty are complicated. But brutal truth can be a great topic for an ESL lesson precisely because it’s something students may need to do AND it’s important to do it in a way that follows social conventions. The conventions of English may be very different from students’ home environment!

Being “brutally honest” can be quite hurtful to the other person. So in English there’s a whole host of conversational strategies we use to mitigate that, depending on our relationship with the person we are talking to. We may use hedging language, or humor to soften the tone, criticize ourselves as well, give the other person an out, offer a pre-emptive apology, and/or surround the potential criticism with compliments. In other situations, we may revel in being brutally honest and talk about the benefits of getting honest, objective feedback. So how can we teach students to navigate these pragmatic challenges?

Using drama to teach students to navigate any sensitive situation is a great strategy. First, acting out a scene adds some distance. Second, the play can be a kind of practice role-play to prepare students to be brutally honest in real life. Students can explore language choices and rhetorical strategies to see what works, while picking up natural conversation!

The Incredible Jessica James

Find a script with a scene where one character is telling another character a direct truth or asking a direct question. Choose a scene where the truth may be hurtful to the other person, where being honest may be difficult. For example, there’s a wonderful scene in the movie The Incredible Jessica James where two people agree to be honest on a blind date that neither of them are enjoying if you can find a transcript.

  1. Share the scene with students. If possible, show them a recording of the scene, then let them read a transcript themselves.
  2. Ask them to identify who is trying to be honest. What potential harm could the honest truth do? Could it hurt someone’s feelings, for example, or reveal a secret?
  3. Ask students to highlight the lines in the script that the character uses to introduce the truth in one color. What strategies does the speaker use to tell the other character he or she wants to be direct?
  4. Now ask the students to highlight the lines that try to mitigate the damage in another color. How does the speaker try to make the listener feel better or accept what they are saying?
  5. Finally, take a look at the result. Is the speaker successful at changing the listener’s mind? Why or why not?
  6. While students are analyzing the language be sure that they keep in mind the relationships and context. Dialogues between close friends use different language than dialogues between a boss and an employee.
  7. Now students can write and act out, or improvise, depending on their comfort level, their own scenes.  They can act out a similar scene but in a different context or the same scene but with different strategies and outcomes.

An ESL lesson about honesty from the play Her Own Worst Enemy by Alice Savage.

In this scene, two friends are discussing their futures. One of them, Aida, is a talented actress but she wants to pursue a career in science. The other, Vanessa, thinks she should consider acting. Here’s a short excerpt:

Aida: There’s no way I’m going to be an actor

Vanessa: (Surprised) Seriously? You really don’t want to?

Aida: Nah. It was fun. But I’ve got other plans. Anyway, how do they know if I have any talent? I’m their daughter. Of course they think I’m amazing.

Vanessa: Can I say something without you getting upset?

Aida: I don’t know. What is it?

Vanessa: I think you’re good, too.

Aida: Now don’t you start.

Vanessa: Yeah, yeah…I get it. You’ve got other plans. But I can’t help thinking. What if you get famous? Wouldn’t it be great to be in the movies?

Example of Teaching Students to be Honest

Vanessa warns Aida she is going to say something that Aida might not like. Because of their relationship as good friends, we can assume it will be something honest and something Vanessa thinks Aida needs to know.

What damage could Vanessa’s opinion do? Well, Aida might get angry.

Vanessa tries to mitigate this by 1) asking her not to get upset and 2) focusing on the positive-what if Aida becomes really famous?

It’s interesting to note that Aida is immediately defensive and she signals this by saying, “I don’t know.” She doesn’t say, for example, “of course you can tell me anything!” In thee same vein, at the end of the page, we see that Aida has not been totally convinced by Vanessa. She calls Vanessa’s speech crazy and is trying to persuade Vanessa that she won’t be a good actress.

Once students have analyzed this scene, they could imagine a similar scene where someone is trying to convince someone else they have talent or ability:

  • a teacher is trying to get a student to enter a science competition
  • a parent wants their child to play a sport
  • one student wants another to write for the school newspaper

They could also rewrite this scene so that:

  • Aida is persuaded by Vanessa
  • Aida gets angry and Vanessa has to calm her down
  • Vanessa tells Aida she’s not a good actress and Aida gets upset

So, if you weren’t planning to celebrate National Honesty Day in class, I hope I’ve changed your mind and given you an idea for an activity teaching students to be honest, and strategies to employ to tell a direct truth, then mitigate the damage. Leave a comment if you try this activity in class, or any other activity to teach the pragmatics of honesty!

Looking for more drama and pragmatics lessons?

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. Looking for other resources for doing plays in class? Look no further!

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! You can also visit our page on resources for doing plays with students.

Wearing Someone Down

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Here's your free lesson plan on the pragmatics of wearing someone down.

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The Alphabet Publishing Team