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.