More Drama Exercises

Language and Drama Workshops

Once again we are online, having spent February teaching English at the Anyang Technical College, near Seoul.

A recent trip to Prince George resulted in some new thoughts on using Speech and Drama activities in ESL situations. Thanks to the teachers of Ecole College Heights French Immersion Program, for the opportunity to work in their classes.
I find that Drama activities are so effective in Second Language teaching for two reasons.
First, a lot of  Drama exercises are designed to create a safe and welcoming atmosphere in the classroom, where students are not afraid to take risks. This is very important in ESL situations (and all other classrooms, of course).
Second, many Creative Drama activities are designed to boost creativity, and the ability to think ‘on your feet’. What you are doing when you are trying to create a character or a story is very similar to what you are doing when you are trying to communicate in a new language. It uses both right-brain and left-brain skills simultaneously, which is very good for brain development in general, and language development in particular.
I also find that standard classroom Speech activities work well in ESL. While many of you might find this great discovery rather a no-brainer, it is far from accepted in many education systems. In Korea, for example, the regular elementary schools do a lot of rote learning of grammar rules and vocabulary. The students have a great deal of language information in their heads, but (perhaps it’s the classes of 50 students) no skills for using this information. The well-to-do send their children to private after-school lessons and holiday “English Camps” to learn to speak.
You don’t need to do a whole lot of research into the human brain to realized that we were originally designed to use oral language. Compared to the length of time humans have been developing speech, the reading and writing part has only come in the last, tiniest, portion of our existence.
Of course, when I go to language lessons, I immediately pick up a pen and start writing things down. That’s how I was taught to learn, and I’ve been practising it for 40-odd years. However, when it comes right down to it, the only way to learn to speak is to speak. Put the pen down, and move the lips!
So, for ESL classes, as well as FSL classes, and any other language classes you like, here are a few Drama/Speech exercises which you might find useful.
This activity involves students sitting in pairs (on chairs, desks, or the floor) facing each other, knees almost touching. One student is designated A and the other B. If there is an odd number of students, a group of three can have a C student as well.
In all activities, the teacher gives the instructions, gives the signal to begin, and one person talks, while the other listens.  There is a separate objective for creating proper listening behaviour.
For the first exercise, start with a general topic that the students have been studying. For example, if they all know something about sled-dog racing, that could be the topic.
(One class in Prince George had been studying the human skeleton. They created a story about two toe bones that were in love, but could not meet because they were on opposite feet!)
Student A starts. Student A is now an expert on the subject of dog mushers: who they are, what they do, what they look, act and dress like, etc. A will spend 30 seconds telling B all about dog mushers.
When 30 seconds have elapsed, it is B’s turn. B is an expert on the reporters that cover dogsled races. He will spend 30 seconds telling A all about reporters: the type of publications they work for, how they get their information, how they dress, what equipment they use, etc.
When 30 seconds have elapsed, it is A’s turn. A is now the expert on lead dogs. He will spend 30 seconds telling B about lead dogs: what they look like, what their personalities are like, what they want most in life, what they hate, etc.
When 30 seconds have elapsed, it is B’s turn. B is an expert on the trails the teams race on. B will spend 30 seconds telling A about racing trails: what they look like, what parts are difficult, what the dangers are, etc..
After four half-minutes of expository “research”, the students are ready to start creating the story. They should be reminded of the difference between exposition and fiction, because now they are creating fiction. They could also be reminded that they have three characters and a setting for their story.
They take turns creating the story, each getting 30 seconds to take the story in his direction.
After the teacher feels the class has spent enough time on this part of the activity, they are given a warning of one half-minute each, and then the story must be finished.
At this point, the original objective has been accomplished. The students have practiced creative thinking and speaking, and also appropriate listening.
From this point, the teacher can move the exercise in many different directions.
– if cooperative behaviour is the objective, start shortening the amount of time each narrator gets, until they are speaking one sentence each. It is possible to tell a story with narrators having one word each.
– if performance is the objective, move the groups of two into groups of four, and have them start their stories again. Remind them that the new group will have different types of mushers, dogs, trails, and reporters, so the story may take interesting turns.  After a bit of practice in fours, groups can be offered the chance to perform ‘one-sentence-each’ stories in front of the class. ‘One-word-each’ stories work best with four narrators.
– if creativity is the objective, keep throwing new ideas at them. Tell them that the next narrator must put a carrot into the story. Or a radio, or a Martian.
– if expressive speech is the objective, have A speak while B uses his forearm and hand as a measuring gauge, to indicate how much enthusiasm A is showing in the story. Horizontal is dull and boring. Vertical is active and exciting.
– if speaking without stopping is the objective, have A be the speaker, and B the “tattletale”. If A stops, B is to put his hand up, only lowering it when A continues speaking.
This same pattern can be used for impromptu expository speeches. Divide the class into pairs, A and B. A will speak for 20 seconds without stopping on the topic of shoes. Then B will speak for 20 seconds without stopping on the topic of bedrooms. Then A will speak for 30 seconds on his favourite food. Then B will speak for 30 seconds on his favourite sport.
And so it goes, slowly increasing the length of time required as the students’ abilities increase. Use the enthusiasm meter and the tattletale partner to encourage continuous, enthusiastic, creativity.
As you may have noticed, all these exercises have a similar pattern. It involves getting the students started at a very low level of anxiety, then gradually making the task more difficult and more stressful as the students gain ability. They start in pairs, speaking to a friend for 20 seconds. They work up to one minute, then are expected to speak with enthusiasm and acting ability, then to a partner who is not a friend, then to a group of 4, then maybe to a group of 8, then, in the end, for 1 minute in front of the whole class, possibly for a mark.
If you really want to have some fun, have a “competition”, where two students stand in front of the class, each is given a topic, and they both speak at the same time. The students in the class point to the contestant they are listening to.  I do this with volunteers only.
For ESL classes where the children’s English level is low, they will find the fiction the hardest. They will find the expository difficult. An intermediate activity I have used is to sit the whole class in a circle, and place an object, such as an upside-down chair, in the centre. Then I invite students to say one sentence each about the chair. Once they have practised this on a voluntary basis, I start around the circle, and each student must say a sentence when his turn comes. This is a good way to practice specific vocabulary. I have met angry chairs, and sad chairs, and disappointed chairs, besides the usual black, brown, shiny, wood, and steel ones.
Once the students have practiced as a group, then you can move them to pairs, working on simple objects which their vocabulary level will handle. Which way you work the lesson will depend on the vocabulary of the students and their comfort level in speaking in front of the group.
I have also had good response when, as an intermediate activity between expository and narrative, I had students tell the story of something that really happened to them.
I’m sure many of you have played this game to help learn people’s names. Everyone sits in a circle, and you start a clapping rhythm: slap your knees, clap your hands, snap your fingers, clap your hands. slap, clap, snap, clap, one, two, three, four.
Once the pattern is set, the game starts. The first person must say his name as he slaps his knees. The next time he slaps his knees, he must say someone else’s name. The next time the knee-slap comes, the designated person must say his name. The next he says a new name.
Joe says: “Joe, (clap, snap, clap,) Mary, (clap, snap, clap,)”
Mary says:”Mary, (clap, snap, clap,) Peter,( clap, snap, clap),”
Peter says: “Peter,( clap, snap, clap,)Susan, (clap, snap, clap…)”
This goes around the circle until everyone knows everyone’s name. (Or until everyone is totally sick of the game.)
For vocabulary development, it goes like this: at the first knee-slap, I say a colour. At the second knee slap, I say someone’s name. At the next knee-slap, he must say a new colour. At the next knee-slap, he names the next person to play.
I say: “Blue,( clap, snap, clap,) Jane, (clap, snap, clap,)”
Jane says: “Green, (clap, snap, clap,) George, (clap, snap, clap,)”
And so on.  You can work this with names, colours, games, nouns, months, adjectives: whatever you like. If you want to get competitive, you can have people sit out of the game when they mess up, but I think the learning is better if they all stay in most of the time. I sometimes have them slide back once they have spoken, so that everyone gets a turn.
These Drama and Speech activities, which are good for encouraging creativity and expressive speaking in the regular English classroom, are especially effective, if adapted carefully, for Second Language teaching as well.