Process Drama: Engage, Understand, Learn

Process Drama: Engage, Understand, Learn

By: Eucharia Donnery

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What should we call it when we do drama in the classroom? Is it theater or drama? Is it educational or social? Process Drama (PD) came from the British 1960s educational drama and is a drama-based, four-skills teaching approach. It occurs within the classroom, without an audience; instead, the students are both actors and audience, as Bowell and Heap (2001, p. 7) say, it is a “genre in which performance to an external audience is absent but presentation to the internal audience is essential,” In the field of Second Language Acquisition, PD aims “to increase the fluency and confidence of students’ speech, to create authentic communicative contexts, and to generate new classroom relationships” (Kao & O’Neill, 1998, p. 15).

While Process Drama as an approach has been utilized across many languages (English, Japanese, German, Italian, Spanish, and Chinese) in both Second Language and Foreign Language contexts since the start of the 21st century, there has been little research on its use in university contexts (Murray, 2020). The current article shows how weekly PD projects gave Japanese university non-English majors the emotional and situational contexts to motivate their desire to communicate with others in a meaningful way, ultimately giving each student a sense of ownership of their own individual English language journey.

Through the Process Drama approach, second-language learners explore global and/or social issues in the target language, a form of Content Language Integrated Learning. This emotional engagement with an abstract theme can accommodate a “new view of intelligence in which emotion and feelings of emotion-related bodily reactions are critical to steering thinking and decision-making” (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2016, p. 27). In this way, there is value placed on the prior experiences of the learners, while fostering social understanding through the PD experience itself. When students explore social and/or global issues through PD, the characters they play can have different perspectives and this gives more multi-dimensional understandings and deeper engagement with complex themes and stories (Kawakami, 2015). Furthermore, PD projects facilitate:

  • a move from an accuracy to a fluency-based model of second language acquisition, through English rather than for English;

  • the development of critical thinking skills: from understanding contemporary Japanese-ness to a broader worldview and the place of Japan in it;

  • a Content and Language Integrated Learning-based approach, which promotes intercultural knowledge in tandem with language competence and oral communication skills as well as developing multilingual interests and attitudes. (Donnery, 2013, p. iv)

Climate Change Process Drama Project

In my previous job at a Japanese mid-level engineering university, there was a system of Team Project Learning seminar-style, year-long courses for second and third year students. These were tailored to the research areas of the supervising teachers; however, to promote learner autonomy, as well as interpersonal skills, all seminar groups were conducted adhering to the overall structure of a Plan-Do-Action-Check cycle (Deming, 1994, pp. 132). My 2019 third-year cohort of Team Project Learning students (six males, two females) opted into my group on the understanding that there would be a drama component to the year-long seminar course, and that it would be focused on the Sustainable Development Goals. There was a six-step PD approach-structure that was prominently displayed on a whiteboard throughout the semester, as below:

    1. Video Clips/Text
    2. Discussion
    3. Tableau + React in-role
    4. L1 roleplay
    5. English roleplay
    6. Writing in-role (WIR)

1. Video Clips/Text

The PD class on climate change started with photos of a weather forecast reporting the approach of Typhoon 15, also called Typhoon Faxai. This was followed by video footage of the typhoon taken by the Guardian online newspaper. Lastly, the students were shown authentic photographs taken outside my home, where the typhoon 15 had flattened a two-meter fence, thrown a neighbor’s shed from a height of ten meters into my garden, a distance of more than 200 meters, and smashed tiles from the roof on the pathway and main road below. This type of authentic, immediate, and relevant content can have a positive effect on learner engagement, especially as each student also had their own experience of the typhoon to contribute to the narrative. Students were motivated to communicate these experiences, first as L1 learners sharing and gaining both knowledge and understanding from multiple perspectives, then as L2 learners.

2. Discussion

In two groups of four, students did research in Japanese for ten minutes about the young Swedish climate-change activist Greta Thunberg and the September 2019 worldwide climate change strikes. Both groups reported on their findings, which was intended to provide stimulus for the following task.

3. Tableau + React in-role

The students, as a class, pose motionless to create a particular scene, a 3D picture of the Tokyo Climate March demonstration. In Process Drama, the teacher partakes in-role as a facilitator to move the action forward or, as in the following, to promote create reflection. As teacher-in-role/ NHK reporter, I “interviewed” each participant about their back-story and sought to establish more information from the scene. The “interview” started with very basic questions within the students’ abilities, before moving on to more challenging ones. This scene was to become the middle (climax) within the start-middle-end narrative arc that students would construct. As all drama consists of a process of conflict and its resolution, this narrative arc can be called setting (the background) – action climax (the problem) –outcome (the resolution). 

4. L1 roleplay

In order to create a coherent narrative arc, as above, the students as a class worked together to devise the start and end of their role play. Students decided that they were indeed Japanese university students who were going to the New York climate-change march to hear Greta Thunberg and would practice marching around the classroom and chanting anti-climate change slogans in Japanese.

5. English roleplay

Following the preparations in Japanese, the students prepared anti-climate change placards in English. They then went on to roleplay the climate change march in Tokyo, with their handmade banners. Each student shouted out their slogan for the others to repeat three times. This “march” actually occurred around the periphery of the classroom, but with such glee and gusto that one student commented that he had never in his life laughed that hard—not even in Japanese. This social emotion associated with connection to others in the class also generated the desire to communicate in English and encouraged spontaneity, fluency, engagement, confidence, and motivation.

6. Writing in-role (WIR)

As always, the three-hour class ended with the students writing in-role as the characters they had created, complete with the backstories and the diary of the day. In this way, the students engaged with the social issue of climate change by developing meaning from the initial discussion and pose stages, then through improvisation in the roleplay, and finally self-reflective analysis through the act of writing. Furthermore, this Writing In-Role allowed synthesis of this new information with previous knowledge, and provided space for a deepening understanding of climate change.


Process Drama activities can be individual (for reflection and writing in-role), paired, in small groups, or in a class group for research and role-plays. It helps to make the “strange familiar and the familiar strange” (Byram & Feng, 2010, p. 210). By roleplaying these experiences, the learners could get a deeper understanding of climate change, combined with all the related emotions that facilitate learning.

According to Freire (1972), students who thrive in the rote learning style of education fail to develop the critical skills to successfully interact with the world. This suggests that such students have communicative competence from the grammatical-formal perspective, but may be lacking in other areas. In effect, students are assimilated into the system of education rather than receiving an intrinsic impetus for it. However, through Process Drama, university learners can experience communication with others in real time by uniting fluency and accuracy cohesively. The nature of PD to interweave between language and culture also frees learners from the constricting bonds of anxiety and fear because it reduces the discrepancy between effort and result, focusing instead on the value of immediate learning. In essence, it promotes human endeavor through engagement with both content and learning at an experiential level. Therefore, PD goes beyond mere language practice by helping students experience the thinking, creating, remembering, and deciding behind the target language, and it is this that leads to deeper learning.


  • Bowell, P & Heap, B. S. (2001). Planning process drama. London: David Fulton Publishers.

  • Byram, M., & Feng, A. (2004). Culture and language learning: Teaching, research and scholarship. Language Teaching 37(3), 149–168.

  • Deming, W. E. (1994). The new economics: For industry, government, education (2nd Ed.). The MIT Press.

  • Donnery, E. (2013). 序破急Jo-Ha-Kyu Enticement — Crux — Consolidation from study to learning: Process drama projects in the Japanese English language university classroom [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. National University Cork, Ireland.

  • Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Herder and Herder.

  • Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. R. (2016). We feel, therefore we learn; The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. In M. H. Immordino-Yang (Ed.), Emotions, learning, and the brain: Exploring the educational implications of affective neuroscience (pp. 27-42). Norton.

  • Kao, S.-M., & O’Neill, C. (1998). Words into worlds: Learning a second language through process drama. Stamford, Conn: Ablex.

  • Kawakami, A. (2015). Using process drama in the EFL discussion classes. In G. Brooks, M. Grogan, & M. Porter. 2014 Pan SIG Conference Proceedings (pp. 55-63). Japan Association for Language Teaching.

  • Murray, K. A. (2020). Practitioner engagement with Process Drama: An exploratory study of process drama practitioners in Japan (Publication No. 28209243) [Doctoral dissertation, University of Liverpool]. ProQuest LLC.

Eucharia Donnery (PhD) is an associate professor at the World Language Center, Soka University, Tokyo. Her background includes process drama in SLA, intercultural communicative competence (ICC) and Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL), as well as colonial discourse and feminist theory. Other interests include reading, running and Muay Thai kickboxing.

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