Drama as a Brain-Based Tool of Language Learning

December 2021

Lights. Camera. Action!? Have you ever thought of giving drama a chance in your language classroom? Well then, this issue is just full of useful tips for implementing drama-based activities in your classroom. Drama Skeptic? Well, we just might change your mind as we go over the science behind the effectiveness of drama in the classroom. 


Our cover: “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out.” – Alfred Hitchcock                 

Cover photo by Ruth Archer on pixabay, others from unsplash

Watch before you read...

Drama in the language classroom is the theme for this Think Tank, and to get experts to help us write about it, we went the JALT Performance in Education SIG. Their knowledge of brain matters related to their drama is superb, and their articles informative. The introductory videos include one on teaching English through drama and one on the theory of embodied cognition, a concept central to the neuroscience of drama and learning. Mohammad Khari gives us summaries of these videos in his Introductory article.

Then we start the Think Tank with Eucharia Donnery, who passes on the ways and wiles of Process Drama. Yoko Morimoto follows with her own observations on how drama is a brain-friendly technique and a story about how experiences in Paris turned her on it. Mohammad Khari comes back again, along with Curtis Kelly, to look into four promising areas of brain research that tell us why drama is such an effective language learning approach. Then Dawn Kobayashi describes a special benefit of drama, Flow, and how it energizes language classes. To finish the issue off, long time drama in ELT expert and Blues Brothers runaway, David Kluge teaches us about a technique he has adopted, the Living Newspaper Readers Theatre.

Our Thoughts on Drama

Let’s “Make a Drama out of it” this Time! Mohammad Khari

Most language teachers use some sort of drama in their lessons, whether it is a simple role-play, or changing their voice when reading different characters, or delivering a lesson to camera-off students online, which is the pandemic equivalent of a soliloquy! There is something about drama that makes this combination of performance, movement, and storytelling engaging and interactive. This fascinating form of communication has long survived and evolved alongside our species. Didn’t our ancestors use to dramatize their daily events, gathering round the bonfire, when their language was not complex enough to help them articulate their thoughts and feelings? Wasn’t drama the origin or at the core of dance and rituals?

Think Tank Articles

Process Drama: Engage, Understand, Learn Eucharia Donnery

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).

Drama and the Brain Yoko Morimoto

Editor’s note: A Fuji-sized thank you to David Kluge for interviewing Yoko and working it up into an article for us.

Before you start reading this, click this link to a TED talk given by Dr. John Ratey, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. He’s actually very famous for his studies on the treatment of depression, ADHD, and improving the quality of education through exercise. Step away from the computer and do what he tells you for the first one minute and ten seconds. Click!

Neuroscience Shows Us Drama Is an Effective Language Teaching Tool Mohammad Khari & Curtis Kelly

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)

Let the Words Flow 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.

Multimodality and Drama: Performance in Education David Kluge

Silence and darkness. Orchestral music fills the space. Suddenly lights reveal a large area with structures and huge images. Spoken words, a person singing, people singing. Bodies in action, in dance. Then all these elements come together in a grand crescendo.

What has just happened? An opera? A Broadway musical? A Johann Straus, Offenbach, or Gilbert and Sullivan operetta? Or a multimodal lesson? It could be any one of these—even a Performance in Education (PIE) drama activity. All of these are examples of multimodal activities. Multimodality in education means “an embodied learning situation which engages multiple sensory systems and action systems of the learner” (Massaro, 2021). Masaro goes on to give visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic examples of each mode. What is the value of this multimodality?

Think Tank Plus

Call for Contributions: Ideas & Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Going Deeper

Embodied Cognition for Brain Nerds

In this 90-minute talk, George Lakoff goes deep into how language is produced by neural networks. If you are into predictive processing, neural gating, frame binding, layers, topographic maps, Cascade Theory, etc., then this is for you.

Drama in Education

This drama-based activity, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was developed to be used within a classroom.

The Brain in Simplified English

Don’t miss our new addition to the site! For teaching and learning…

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

        Curtis H. Kelly                 Skye Playsted                Heather McCulloch

    Jason Walters                  Rishma Hansil               Mohammad Khari




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