Have you ever come across drama as a way to learn English? Maybe the answer is “yes” even if you don’t think it is: even reading a dialogue from your textbook using different voices is a kind of drama. Some schools go much further and have their students perform in English on a stage, with costumes, lights, and so on. Sometimes, the students write the scripts for the drama themselves. Interestingly, teachers who get students to do some kind of drama in class find that it is an excellent way for the students to learn English. Why is that? Looking for answers to that question can help us to understand a lot about how people learn.
So, how does drama help us learn? First, drama can be a great source of motivation. Using English in a creative way is a lot of fun. Students often find that the fun they have doing drama makes them want to study English harder, not only for their performance but even after the drama is over.
Second, dramas usually tell a story. Storytelling is an ancient human activity (just think of cave people sitting around a fire telling each other about their adventures) and has a special role in learning. Stories are based on patterns: something happens (for example, two people meet), which causes something else to happen (they fall in love), which causes something else to happen (they encounter problems) and so on. Learning to find these patterns and understand them is good practice for our brains: recognizing patterns is one of the most important skills we need for our real lives. In fact, patterns are so important for learning about the world that our brains look for them even when there are none. In other words, we learn about life from stories. One result of this is that it feels good to find a pattern, whether in a drama or in real life, and we tend to remember things that make us feel good. It is not surprising, then, that the stories told in dramas help us to remember the English used to tell the stories.
The point of the stories told in a drama is to share an emotion with the audience. It might be happiness, sadness, shame, anger, or another, more complex, feeling. By telling the story, the actors feel this emotion and pass it on to the audience. Like patterns, emotions have an important role in learning. It is our emotions that tell us if something is important (= worth learning) or unimportant (= not worth learning). In fact, psychologist Antonio Damasio says that without emotion there can be no learning. It is certainly true that we tend to remember things well if they are connected with a strong emotion. You may be surprised to hear that, since most textbooks do not have much emotion in them. Even the best textbook can only give you a limited amount of feeling. What better way to experience the whole range of human feelings than to act out scenes of comedy, tragedy, protest, and so on? And when we experience emotion, we tend to remember very clearly the situation in which we felt it, including the language (English!) used in that situation.
And then there is movement. Drama is very often expressed in movement. Think of the sword fights and other battles in your favourite action movies. Even when reading out a dialogue in class, the students/actors often feel the need to re-position their bodies or strike a pose. Movement, of course, provides exercise for your body—which is already a good thing, considering that students spend most of their time in class sitting down. Physical exercise keeps the blood flowing to your brain, bringing it the oxygen it needs to keep thinking.
There’s more to movement, though, than just exercise. Brain scientist Daniel Wolpert thinks that the only reason we have brains is so that we can plan and monitor our movements. So, movement is a basic part of the way our brains work and learn. Did you ever notice that when you play a role you tend to move your body and your hands differently? If you are pretending to be an elderly person, for example, you might move more slowly as though you are feeling pain in parts of your body. Professional actors tell us that this works the other way round, too: one way to begin to understand the point of view of another person is to begin to move like that person. This is true when you learn another language, too: the more you experience the world through the other language, the better you can understand what it is like to be a user of that language. So, acting (including moving) like an English speaker is an excellent way to learn English*.
Finally, doing drama can help us to break down the walls of our classroom and practice using English in a great variety of situations that do not naturally occur in the classroom. You can be a superhero. You can go shopping in an English-speaking country. You can check in for an international flight. You can experience the daily life of an English speaker. You can do all these things through drama. Sometimes, you might forget that you are actually in a classroom or on a stage: the situation of the drama can seem quite real to you. Using your English in a realistic situation is great practice. The more real the situation is to you, the better.
What is truly great, though, about doing drama activities in the language classroom, is that all these things happen at once (the creativity, the story-telling, the movement, the emotion, immersing yourself in a new situation). You can experience them all in the same drama activity. Just as the theatre brings together lighting, costumes, words, acting, story-telling and performance, drama activities in English class can bring together many of the key elements for learning English.
Some ideas for drama activities:
TPR (Total Physical Response). One person tells another person what to do, in English. This could be something very simple (“Stand up, “Sit down.”) or quite complex (“Put your left hand on your right shoulder if you had more than one dairy product for breakfast yesterday.”) The listener does as they are told. That’s the physical response. Why “total”? because it can involve the whole body.
Readers Theatre. Students read aloud from a script or textbook. They are encouraged to use their voices to express meanings and feelings. They may also use movement, posture, costumes, objects, etc.
Process Drama. Students dramatise and act out scenes, not for an audience, but to deepen their own understanding of the scene. The performance may include “tableaux”—when the action is frozen and performers are given a chance to think about what their character is doing at that moment and why.
Living Newspaper Readers Theatre. A kind of Readers Theatre which uses recent news stories as the basis for the scenes the students perform. Scripts are written by the teacher or by the students. Music, photos, video, and objects are often used to express the mood of the drama.
Whether you are a student or a teacher, it could be fun to try out some of these drama activities in your English lessons. More than that, it will also help you to learn English. Maybe it’s time to “act” on these suggestions.
*Did you notice the way the word “acting” is used in that sentence? As you know, “to act” can mean “to do something” but it can also mean “to pretend to do something” or “to play a role.” Through this word we can see very close similarities between acting in the world and acting in a drama.