Let the Words Flow

Let the Words Flow

By: Dawn Kobayashi

I can remember when I first became interested in flow. I was experimenting using tableaux in a university English class in Japan. In tableaux students arrange themselves into a stationary pose that depicts a key scene from a story, like a snapshot of the action, then they are asked to either add dialogue or comment on the body language and power balance between the tableaux characters. This helps them to understand relationships between characters and generate dialogue ideas. We were creating a roleplay about a possible carjacking. It was the first time I had attempted such an activity with my students, and I was a little hesitant because the students were non-English majors, and their English proficiency was not so high. In groups, students got into their tableaux, and I slowly counted down from 3 to 0. Students were to start talking and moving on 0. I was unsure about what would happen, but on the count of 0 nearly every group sprung into action and just kept on going, acting out the scene in basic English. Sometimes it was just keywords, but they could improvise a scene in a foreign language for a few minutes, paying little attention to what other groups were doing. For a short time, they were engrossed in their own creation.

Teachers who use drama in the foreign language classroom will probably have had similar experiences of observing students deeply engaged in a drama activity, using the foreign language with spontaneity (but maybe not complete grammatical accuracy!), and retaining language chunks long after the lesson. Of course, language competence requires equal development of the four basic language skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, but drama-based teaching appears to be especially effective at developing speaking skills particularly creativity and spontaneous output. Learning theories and concepts from educational psychology such as self-efficacy, flow, and anxiety explain how psychological states can enhance or diminish language learning. I wanted to know more about why this was happening so that I could increase the likelihood of students becoming similarly engaged in future activities. And so I went back over my postgrad studies of learning theories, and it was not long before I had my answer. What I had witnessed was students in flow, a state where the individual is so focused on a task that the outside world disappears.

About Flow

Flow is most associated with Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s work on the psychology of happiness and his TED TALK from 2004 is an enjoyable introduction. Flow has been described as “optimal experience marked by focused concentration, full engagement, intrinsic motivation, control over task at hand, and enjoyment.” (Ibrahim, 2020). Flow is often associated with creative or sporting activities where it is often referred to as being visited by a muse or being in the zone. However, it can also occur while learning in the classroom and is especially connected with the Montessori method.

Csikszentmihalyi, (2014) outlines the conditions of flow as below:

    1. Goals are clear: one knows at every moment what wants to do
    2. Feedback is immediate: One knows at every moment how well one is doing
    3. Skills match challenges: The opportunities for action in the environment are in balance with the person’s ability to act
    4. Control is possible: In principle, success is in one’s hands
    5. Concentration is deep: Attention is focused on the task at hand
    6. Problems are forgotten: Irrelevant stimuli are excluded from consciousness
    7. Self-consciousness disappears: One has a sense of transcending the limits of one’s ego.
    8. The sense of time is altered: Usually it seems to pass much faster.
    9. The experience becomes autotelic: It is worth having it for its own sake. (pg. 133)

The autotelic experience warrants further explanation. This is the main area where flow differs from our wider understanding of motivation because in flow, the goal is not to achieve an end product; doing the activity in and of itself is the goal. Performing the task brings pleasure and recreating that experience becomes the goal which in turn leads to long-term, sustained motivation. The autotelic experience then is doing something for the sheer pleasure of the activity. The autotelic experience combines with intense focus, heightened creativity, and persistence (Mawas & Heutte, 2019) to make flow an ideal learning environment in which content is remembered vividly (Ibrahim, 2020).

Studies of flow in educational contexts provide us with some useful insights into why flow can be experienced in drama-based lessons. It is most likely to occur in L2 classrooms when students do speaking tasks and have control over what they discuss (Egbert, 2004). Students may especially experience flow in drama-based classrooms because of drama’s link to creativity and the relative degree of control students have over how drama activities progress (İşigüzel, 2020).

It appears that properly implemented, drama-based lessons are especially effective in getting students into a positive frame of mind to confidently communicate in English. In other words, it helps students to let the words flow.

What teachers can do to enhance Flow

So, what is it about drama-based activities that help students enter a flow state? To help explain, let’s go back to my tableaux experience in the classroom. There are several elements to the tableaux activity that mirror Csikszentmihalyi’s nine conditions of flow. Of these nine conditions, four are within the control of the teacher and activities can be designed to encourage their presence, the other five are results of flow and are factors that we can try to observe or measure in students during or after activities. Let’s look at the four within teacher control.

    1. Goals are clear. Teachers should explain all steps of an activity to students before beginning ideally with visual handouts and verbal explanation. Doing so means students can focus on each step without worrying about what they might need to do next. For the tableaux activity, all steps were outlines on a simple handout, and I explained to students that as they would perform their tableaux at the same time, there would be no audience. There was no mystery to the activity and students knew their goal was to create a tableau and not to perform for other students.

2. Feedback is immediate. Feedback in flow is better understood as a self-evaluation of performance rather than verbal support. In flow, a student is aware that they are performing a task correctly without the need for external confirmation, doing the activity is its own confirmation of success. In drama activities, students are aware of their success when the scene progresses effectively. As such, activities that involve creative output give students opportunities to experience success and immediate feedback through completing the activity. This is closely related to the autotelic experience because students are evaluating the process of creation rather than awaiting assessment of an end product. Consequently, as teachers it is not always necessary for teachers to grade activities. If grading is required, then I recommend teachers to include students’ self-assessment of task completion, rather than just assessing the end product.

3. Skills match challenge. Scaffolding tasks and designing them to be just above what can be easily achieved will be familiar through Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. Drama based activities are usually carefully scaffolded moving from warmups, through pre task activities to increasingly challenging task. In the tableaux, students first discussed the carjacking scenario description, brainstormed ideas, and considered how the story would progress. Then, they created a tableaux, the snapshot of the action, before they finally added the dialogue. Each step required increasing cognitive and linguistic skills. Importantly, the students were free to use language within their current linguistic range, but the unusual scenario required students to search for key vocabulary, and to stretch themselves to express new concepts such as panic, fear, and placating.

4. Control is possible. When students feel they have autonomy over their own actions they can enter flow because their actions are closely linked to intentions. In drama-based activities students usually interpret a source text. In the tableaux, students interpreted a potential carjacking scenario, and the results between groups were varied vastly from birthday pranks to prisoner escapes, to zombie invasions. But even in more controlled activities such as scripted roleplays, students consider the identities, intentions, and histories of the speakers rather than just reading the script aloud. In this way drama-based activities are effective ways to give students’ control and choice in speaking activities.

"Students may especially experience flow in drama-based classrooms. "
Dawn Kobayashi
TT Author

The remaining five conditions of flow are outcomes that teachers can use post or during task to explore whether students entered flow or not. Some elements such as a distorted sense of time and deep concentration can be observed, as they were with my students in the tableaux who for a few minutes became engrossed in the activity, others require post task evaluation by students. Validated scales for flow in education such as EduFlow can be used to measure the students’ experience of flow during an activity. More research that combines educational psychology and performance in education would provide us with firmer understanding of students’ psychological states during drama-based activities. Areas that deserve attention are the effectiveness of different activities (drama-based and otherwise) for getting students into a flow state; the influence of different personality traits such as anxiety, introversion, and self-concept on how students experience flow; and where flow fits into a wider understanding of L2 motivation.

The results of such research would not only open up exciting areas for future research but should also have beneficial outcomes for language teachers who can enrich their teaching by creating the ideal conditions in the classroom to bring out positive psychological states such as flow. I hope that this article sparks your interest and that we will see a spike in future studies and presentations on the educational psychology of PIE!


  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Applications of Flow in Human Development and Education. Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-9094-9
  • Egbert, J. (2004). A study of flow theory in the foreign language classroom. Canadian Modern Language Review, 60(5), 499–518. https://doi.org/10.3138/cmlr.60.5.549

  • Ibrahim, Z. (2020). Sustained flow: Affective obsession in second language learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(January), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02963

  • İşigüzel, B. (2020). The effect of the drama-based German foreign language course application on motivation and flow experience. Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies, 16(2), 883–895. https://doi.org/10.17263/JLLS.759333

  • Mawas, N., & Heutte, J. (2019). A Flow measurement instrument to test the students’ motivation in a computer science course. Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Computer Supported Education, 495–505. https://doi.org/10.5220/0007771504950505

Dawn Kobayashi (EdD) is an English lecturer at Onomichi City University. Her research interests are educational psychology, speaking fluency, and drama in ELT, she is especially interested in how these areas intersect.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *