Ex-Broadway actor, Richard Via, an early enthusiast of using drama to teach English, pointed something interesting out: Using drama to teach language is something all of us do to some degree. If you have students reading dialogs together, then you are using drama (Via, 1978). Over the decades, Via and others have made statements like these to explain why drama in language class is so effective:
“In this way [experiencing it through drama], the English language becomes a part of us, because we have lived it.” (Via, 1978, p. 2)
“By giving learners experience of success in real-life situations, it should arm them with confidence for tackling the world outside the classroom.” (Davies, 1990, p. 96)
It offers “fully contextualized acquisition of new vocabulary and structure” (Boudreault, 2010, para 5)
Interesting, but these statements do not really tell us much. Anyone who has seen students doing drama in class is probably surprised at how quickly and deeply they learn the language. Sometimes amazingly so. And we want to know why. “They have lived it” as an answer, does not suffice.
So, we have decided to turn to neuroscience. Other than an occasional reference to embodied cognition (such as in this paper), no one has ever really explored the neuroscience of drama. So, we will, right here, by examining how narration, emotion, movement, and embodied cognition, make drama a brain-based approach.
 Curtis Kelly once observed an English class taught by drama specialist Theo Steckler and was blown away. The students were physics majors in a university at the bottom of the rankings. And yet, Theo’s students—renowned for their English “reluctance” —spewed out perfectly formed line after line.
Narration and Emotion
Dramas are stories put into motion and, as we like to say, narrative speaks the mother tongue of the brain. Almost anything the brain experiences, from body states to verbal exchanges is processed through cause and effect. And thus, the models the brain creates to navigate through life are cause and effect, little stories based on little experiences. (See our Think Tanks on Storytelling and Predictive Processing.)
How is cause and effect the fundamental operating procedure of the brain? Because of allostasis (Sterling, 2011). When you decide to stand up, your brain increases your heart rate even before you put any muscles into action, so that you won’t get dizzy, and so it goes for every action you take. The brain is constantly, predicting your body’s needs and allocating resources accordingly, and this process is dictated by the brain’s model of cause and effect. Likewise, when driving to work, your brain (actually, the default mode network to be precise) might kick in to mull over that sharp little exchange you had over breakfast. Your built-in storyteller will pore over that incident again and again, making stories out of it that never happened, but should have. That is how your brain builds cause and effect models that will help you make it through the next breakfast unscathed.
 The neuroscientist Peter Sterling has been instrumental in replacing the notion that the brain maintains homeostasis, a baseline state restored by error feedback, with allostasis. After all, there is no “baseline state.” Our body needs are changing all the time. Using predictive models and preparing the body in advance is far more efficient and less likely to result in harm than by a system based on post hoc reactions. Sterling’s interview on the Brain Science Podcast is a favorite.
Narrative, cause and effect, the mother tongue of our brain. No wonder extensive research done in last century’s heyday of narrative shows that we learn information more quickly and remember it longer when it is delivered to us in stories rather than explanations. As the brain loves stories, so it loves dramas. As our brains absorb the cause-and-effect stories passed to it through physical drama, the words of the story get absorbed too, and they are also more likely to be learned more quickly and remembered longer. In the same way you long ago learnt the alphabet through another brain-friendly structure, a song, we learn the words of a story.
And yet there is more. While the narrative structure itself makes the information easier to assimilate, stories draw on another powerful stimulus to learning as well, that of emotion. Emotion is a steering mechanism, a gauge of how personally meaningful something is, that determines whether we pay attention to something or not, and thereby, whether we remember it or not (Immordino-Yang, 2016; Sparks, 2016). And if the emotional valence of the experience is strong, so too becomes the encoding of it, and again, the associated language.
Thus, the power of drama; it delivers language through stories full of emotion.
Our advancing knowledge about the brain suggests another reason why drama is so effective. Deep learning occurs because drama combines language and movement.
How is learning connected to movement? This is still something that neuroscientists are trying to figure out, but a fascinating TED Talk provides some implications for us to consider. Posed by Daniel Wolpert in his amazing talk (2011), the fundamental question of WHY WE HAVE BRAINS has a simple answer: “to produce adaptable and complex movements.” Movement or, as he puts it, the “contractions of our muscles,” is the only way we have to affect the world around us. All other processes (sensory, memory, cognitive, etc.) are serving one purpose which is to “drive or suppress future movements.”
This evolutionary mechanism is taken to its extreme by some species like sea squirts, also known as tunicates: “In order to be able to feed, they must give up on their swimming freedom and permanently fixate on the ocean floor. But that’s not all they give up—in the process, they absorb and digest the body parts they no longer need—including their tail, gills, and brains!” (Andrei, 2021).
We may not be as efficient as sea squirts and eat the organs we no longer need, but this example proves Wolpert’s point that one of our brain’s main purposes, if not the only one, is its role in our movement.
That might be why teachers of children report a deep learning effect when using TPR. It was in the late 50s and early 60s that Dr. James Asher developed a method based on the coordination of language and physical movement known as Total Physical Response (TPR).
Asher developed TPR as a result of his experiences observing young children learning their first language. He advocated the idea that the brain learns a second language in much the same way that it learns a first. According to Asher, the “Neural blueprint does not change with age” (Asher, 2000, pp. 2-6). This means that the way the brain assimilated language when you were a baby is still the best way to assimilate it now. “The result is that we acquire our mother tongue, rather than learn it as we do additional languages. Therefore, the idea of TPR in a nutshell is to create a neural link between speech and action” (Walton, 2021). Asher noticed that interactions between parents and children often took the form of speech from the parent followed by a physical response from the child. He made three hypotheses based on his observations:
- first, that language is learned primarily by listening;
- second, that language learning must engage the right hemisphere of the brain;
- and third, that learning language should not involve any stress.
The distinction between how right and left hemispheres function was one of the fundamental theories (Anderson, 2008) at the time that helped Asher develop TPR: “Input to the left brain in verbal tasks is a slow, incremental multiple exposure process because the left resists the novel. Input to the right brain is a pattern… understood in a flash—in one trial” (Asher, 2000, pp. 1-13). Because left brain resists the novel and information given to the right brain can be “understood…in one trial” (Asher, 2000, pp. 1-13) it makes logical sense to teach new information through “Acting, drawing, games or sports, gesturing, metaphor, pointing, singing, storytelling, touching, and tasks such as sewing, cooking, or small appliance repair” (Asher, 2009, pp. 3-9).
TPR is a valuable asset, alongside other methods, to teach vocabulary, especially phrasal verbs. Here is a sampling of some simple commands a teacher might give:
- Bring me something orange
- March like a soldier
- Shout out your favorite color
- Dance salsa. (Walton, 2021)
Or at a higher level:
- Look at your partner, squint your eyes, and frown like you are angry. Take in a sharp breath and say “Let’s talk.”
- Look at your partner, squint your eyes, and frown like you are angry. Take in a sharp breath and say “Let’s talk.”
 Interestingly, although neuroscience has become more critical of any emphasis on hemispheric differences, the brain uses both sides together(see this article), Asher’s assumptions, especially involving novelty, were of a nature that they could weather that storm.
If used in accordance with the learners’ level, it can offer a positive change in the classroom’s pace and atmosphere, help learners keep the information in their memory longer, keep learners engaged and active, and greatly lower inhibitions and stress as students are not required to speak until they are ready to, thereby creating a “safe zone.”
And if you think about it, TPR is not very different from drama, if not a part of it. “Drama,” coming from the Greek word “draō” meaning “to do / to act,” has movement in its core and can be used in the classroom to help teachers and learners utilize the benefits of acting in language teaching pedagogy.
Thus, the power of drama; it ties movement to language.
If Wolpert is right, if the brain just exists to move muscles, then we must look at all cognition as involving the body. And if all cognition involves the body, then it is not unreasonable to assume language learning does too. Voila! Embodied cognition, a concept in neuroscience that counters the disembodied, brain-in-a-vat notion. After all, our brains are not disconnected from our bodies, they do not stop at our spines, they extend throughout our entire bodies via our nervous systems.
And these pathways fire both ways. Our bodies do not just respond to commands from the brain, they also inform the brain on how to shape those commands through an intricate dance of interaction. Consider all the processing your brain must do for you to just take a sip of coffee while gazing at your screen. To start with, you have to know where the cup is, which your hippocampus has already mapped. Then as you blindly reach out for the cup, your arm and hand send back signals saying you have located the cup and felt out the handle. Your brain tells your arm to lift the cup and, as you do so, your arm sends back signals on weight and position so that you can lift the cup gently, rather than throwing it over your shoulder. After a bit, your mouth joins in on sending feedback on temperature and liquid level to inform the brain how to shape the sip. Interactive, action-oriented, and thus embodied.
That our brains use sensation and physical experience to understand the world, and thus learn from it, suggests that we are built to learn language from sensation and physical experience too, an idea George Lakoff, renowned as the originator of the embodied cognition theory, has long argued for. He holds that “reasoning and language, arise from the nature of our bodily experiences and, thus, even our own metaphors have bodily references” (Wikipedia, 2021, para 22). Therefore, any way to study language that encompasses the body, (shall we call it “embodied language”?), is the purest way for the brain to master language skills.
Thus, the power of drama; it merges body and language.
Curtis Kelly (EdD.) is a professor at Kansai University, a founder of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG, and producer of the MindBrainEd Think Tanks. He has written over 30 books and given over 500 presentations. His life mission is “to relieve the suffering of the classroom.”
Mohammad Khari is an English lecturer at Ozyegin University, Istanbul. He holds a BA in English Literature, an MA in Philosophy of Art, and a CELTA. Mohammad has been reading and researching on the integration of neuroscience into pedagogy, and sharing his ideas through a series of professional development sessions.