by Nora Pontiki*
Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and Content-Based Instruction (CBI) are two teaching approaches to language acquisition that involve interaction as the main focus. The idea behind CLT is to build a more functional linguistic foundation for students while CBI is based on two fundamentals: motivation and interest. CBI, in specific, postulates that if students are exposed to interesting content, their intrinsic motivation will increase and learning will become automatic. By presenting students with content that is engaging, they are immediately exposed to a large amount of language, they become passionate about their learning and they learn in real-life contexts.
In addition, Fisher’s Triangle of Language Learning (1998) indicates that it is vital for students to “perform” in order to develop proficiency. By this, he means that students need to have ample opportunities to use language and not just understand how it works in a simply receptive manner. Students need to have a desire to use language in a variety of near-to-true life situations. Fisher suggests that students should move from the receptive to the productive, where language joins with thought and the double process acts as a means towards developing higher order thinking skills and a higher competence in language proficiency.
What else would be the most effective way to help students to achieve all these apart from the use of drama in the classroom? While in drama classes, students are exposed to the necessary grammatical, syntactic, phonological, morphological and pragmatic knowledge in contextualized situations mirroring authentic English-language environment. By lowering their anxiety, providing an engaging classroom environment and delivering consistent content, the students’ receptivity to learning is heightened in all ways (Davies, 1990). Drama provides an excellent platform for exploring theoretical and practical aspects of the English language (Whiteson, 1996). Students use English in intriguing and useful ways and all aspects of drama give the students opportunities to develop their communicative skills in authentic and dynamic situations. The benefits of using drama in classroom towards the acquisition and fluent interaction of the target language are innumerable and endless, let alone what the students gain towards their social and cognitive development. We could merely focus, though, on the pleasure the students get on stage when delivering authentic texts by reciting the first part of Jacques’ monologue in As You Like It Act II Scene VII :
English Theatre Society @ I.M.Panagiotopoulos School
Our English Theatre Society classes focusing on all the above have been incorporated in the extra-curricular afternoon activities of our school for many years now and a lot of students enjoy the benefits of combining proficient acquisition of the English language with the pleasure of acting on stage and delivering authentic material taken from theatrical plays, films or literature works of great importance.
Encounter with the basics of theatre
In the process of getting a good command of the English language through theatre, it is imperative that the children acquire a theoretical basis about it. In order to do so, children are getting to know the basics of theatre, in terms of dramatic genres, theory of performance, history of theatre and acting, directing and scenography. This process, of course, takes different paths according to the differences of age of the students.
In Primary school, the focus is for children to get in touch with significant theatrical writers, as William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens etc. Apart from putting on specific scenes of several plays, students get to know biographical information about these writers, the era in which the writer lived (i.e. Elizabethan era), key elements of the dramatic genre of the play (tragedy, comedy, etc.). They also learn basic terms of the theatrical vernacular such as act, scene, plot, theme etc.
In Junior high school, students are more mature and thus receptive to a more theoretical work on theatre. There are specific courses concerning dramatic genres, history of theatre, but for the first time, they get to know aspects of theory of performance and acting, basic semiotic theories linked with the play that they produce and character analysis.
Performance techniques such as tableaux vivant, improvisation and pantomime are common terms during a lesson.
In Senior high school, the process is similar but far more in-depth. At this age, students, as they already have a very good command of the English language, are ready to engage themselves fully in studying theatre. At this stage, the work is focused not only on the analysis of the play concerning its dramatic structure, its themes, plots and subplots, but also on an in-depth character analysis from a historical and a social point of view. They also try to better themselves in acting through the use of various techniques, such as improvisations and voice exercises.
A prop may, also, become an acting sign, as when Macbeth’s dagger appears covered in blood. The signs which a specific scene or play may generate are always dynamic and evolving. The way we read signs like this is called semiotics and the students are coming to terms with this process.
The stages we follow to put on a play are:
1. Selecting a play
The golden rule for choosing a play is to go for things that the children like and appeal to their interests. For example, Shrek worked perfectly for Primary School students as it is a tale of adventure and romance that successfully combines a number of popular story-telling elements: an enchanted princess in a tower, an ugly ogre, a fire-breathing dragon, a friendly donkey, etc. There is humour too, as well as a lesson to be learned at the end. Lord of the Flies by William Golding adapted by Nigel Williams is another example. Junior High School students got thrilled to have a deep insight into the characters of the British schoolboys who, while protecting themselves from the outward threat of the beast, discovered that the real threat was their own primitive impulses.
We generally stick to the original script as closely as possible, as it is manageable for the kids to cope with authentic texts when they get inspired. Obviously, there are changes to be made at times. It has to be “cut to size”, both in terms of length and complexity and also to ‘fit’ to the group’s realities (number of students, level of English, age etc). The language may have to be made more accessible to younger non-native speakers sometimes. Occasionally, students from senior classes can help with the script. Tasks of that kind lead to the discovery of hidden talents who might follow the path of writing later in life.
2. Introducing the play and the characters to the students
We start it off in class by introducing the story and the characters. After the students being informed about the play and given directions about the roles, we encourage them to read the whole play or book or watch the film, if there is one, at home. It is taken for granted that they will use English subtitles. This allows for opportunities of watching it more than one time. Kids are motivated. They will want to be in a position to be able to discuss it in class. They like to be familiar with the story because they want to know exactly what roles are on offer and which they should try to secure. At this introductory stage, it is always watching for pleasure. It is important for them to engage with the story in the way that a native speaker would –in other words, viewing for content and the joy of experience rather than introducing language related tasks.
An open discussion in class, focusing on key messages, characters, important scenes and the climax in the story, is the next step. We discuss the implications of new developments or actions, analyse characters, and explore their feelings or motives for a particular type of behaviour and so on. If necessary, the teacher gives input on the historical background or points out cultural differences, if there are any. Needless to say, children are really interested in finding out about these things. But most often, it is they themselves who guide the discussion, bringing up important issues, asking pertinent questions.
3. Allocating roles and studying the characters
The next important step is allocating roles. The teacher needs to make a conscious effort not to be influenced by the students’ competence in English and make sure that everyone in class has some role or something important to do. Some students may not want a speaking part, so extra filler roles can be provided. Experience has shown that eventually students learn most of the lines of the play and they may even become prompters, as children naturally overcome difficulties and respond to challenges.
Studying the roles thoroughly is the next secret. The students study the respective scenes again and again while they are given directions on how they should move, how their body language should reflect certain feelings at any given time etc. This is why they deliver their lines confidently, carry themselves appropriately, use the right gestures and body language. And this is why their emotions flow through the text. By the time we get to rehearse, they know exactly what they are saying and they “feel” it too. They really get to “live” their part, in other words.
4. Practice – Surrendering yourself to the text
Practice, then, is the key point. The teacher has to break things down – scene by scene. The early stage of the group working together involves a lot of reading. Reading for meaning. For example, one of the scenes may involve five characters. The students that represent these characters all sit in a circle, read their parts out loud again and again until they can say it without looking at the text. Each time round, the words seem to carry more meaning and the actual delivery becomes clearer and more confident. Eventually, the students stand up and say their lines without being prompted to do so. It is as if they grow into the part, assume the voice and body language of the characters. When they focus on the intended message of their lines, we are in the correct path. The aim should be a total surrender of oneself to the text – body and soul. The teacher can intervene either to refine the delivery of the lines or adjust the script to make sure that the words and their meanings are accessible and can be assimilated by the user. For example, if a young student is not comfortable enough when delivering the lines or he/she stumbles over difficult words or struggles with a long stretch of language, the teacher has to be prepared to modify the script to make it more natural sounding to the user. It is a kind of “on-the-spot editing”. A “do-and-learn by saying” approach, in other words.
5. Staging – Putting everything together
And then, comes the fun part. The staging – putting everything together: who enters and when, from which side of the stage, what else is happening at that time. The students practise and eventually we add music to the scene as this always has an impact on the performance. The movements become “choreographed” or set in stone, so to speak. The final practice stages are all about synthesis. It is at this point, when everything has “grown” to a full scale production that the teacher realises that the students have learnt not only their part but the entire play from beginning to end.
To put it on stage, props and costumes are also necessary and every student of the group is responsible for them. We work together finding things, bringing things from home, mixing, matching, creating from scratch if necessary. There is a lot of room for the children’s creativity and the whole process adds to the bonding experience. The costumes and props needn’t be on a grand and expensive scale but they are worth the extra effort. It is taken for granted that the teacher should try to involve the group in every stage of the production and keep for himself/herself the role of the orchestrator. All the rest is about working as a team, encouraging ownership of the play.
Conclusion – Effects of a drama class on students
Apart from the good command of the language and the communicative skills that the students gain, as mentioned in our introduction, it is evident, and ample research has shown, that drama allows children to enhance not only their intellectual but also their physical, social, emotional and mental abilities. It also provides them with psychological support that is not found in other areas of the curriculum (Wilkinson, 2000). The reason for all these benefits is attributed to the holistic nature of drama. There are cases where students come out of the experience of this drama course completely transformed; students who go from being passive in class and disinterested in their academic performance to relishing being the centre of attention in a lead or secondary role. They seem to develop a real enthusiasm for delivering well their lines, being the “character” and, last but not least, perfecting their English, as the play is the real and relative incentive to learn and use the language.
- Davies, P. (1990). The Use of Drama in English Language Teaching. TESL Canada Journal, 8(1), 87-99.
- Fisher, R. (1998). Teaching Children to Think. Newcastle UK: Stanley Thornes
- Holden, Susan (1981): Drama in Language Teaching. Essex: Longman
- McCaslin, Nellie (1996). Creative Drama in the Classroom and Beyond. London, Longman Publishers
- Morrow, Keith (1981): Principles of communicative methodology. In: Johnson, Keith
- Whiteson, Valerie (1996). New Ways of Using Drama and Literature in Language Teaching. Alexandria,VA., TESOL.
- Wilkinson, J. A. (2000). The Power of Drama in English Language Learning: The Research Evidence CEO WorldWellness Inc. The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto