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Drama in the Classroom- Getting Them to Talk
by Mitzi Geffen


Ask many high school graduates what they think the weakest link is in their years of learning English, and you will frequently hear that they have very little confidence in their ability to speak English.

This is no coincidence. After all, most teachers devote most of the inadequate time provided for English lessons to reading comprehension, and vocabulary expansion (for reading comprehension). The next priority is usually writing, followed by listening comprehension, and in last place, speaking. Activities that involve speaking are time consuming, and it's more difficult to see and assess progress in speaking than in the other skills. And yet, when our students go out into the world, the ability to speak English fluently and confidently is a wonderful advantage. Clearly, it is worthwhile investing some of our valuable time to develop this ability in our students. Moreover, I have found that oral activities, which require use of particular grammar structures and/or lexical items, strengthen reading and writing as well. The key is having a focused goal for the activity, and not just thinking of it as giving the kids a chance to talk.

The following are examples of activities ranging from the most elementary level to the most advanced:

  1. "What?! Oh" -

    Objectives:

    1. Getting even the most reluctant, least confident students to speak.
    2. Practicing a single basic sentence structure.

    Set-Up:

    After the instructions are given, the students work in pairs, practicing their less -than -a -minute-long presentation to be presented to the teacher, another pair or the entire class.

    Procedure:

    1. Explain to the students that words often take on different meanings, depending on the tone of voice used when the words are said. The word "what?", spoken in a questioning tone , for example, can mean "I didn't hear what you just said." However, the same word said loudly in a tone of amazement can mean "I can't believe what you just said is true!" Demonstrate these two ways of saying What? to your students and ask them what they think you meant.

    2. Choose the type of sentence you want them to practice (from "I have a _______" to "I went to the ___________ last week" to "I think that________________") Ask each student to complete the sentence you choose in a way that is true for him/her.

  2. The dialogue then goes like this: (I'll use the sentence "I have a pen" as an example, but any sentence will do.)

    A: I have a pen. (no emotion)
    B: What? (= I didn't hear you)
    A: I have a pen. (louder)
    B: What?!!!! (stunned)
    A: I have a pen ( "A" chooses a tone to use - apologetic, excited, angry, discouraged, etc.)
    B: Oh. ("B" says "Oh" in a tone which is an appropriate reaction to "A" 's tone in the previous utterance. )

    Demonstrate this dialogue to the students before giving them time to practice in pairs. Walk around the room and give each pair a chance to perform for you twice - switching parts for the second time.

    Presentation:

    With very reluctant speakers, it may be enough to just perform for the teacher. Other options are having pairs perform for each other, making groups of 3 or 4 pairs and letting each pair perform for the small group, or inviting pairs to perform in front of the class.

    Note:

    Because the dialogues are so short, and the activity is so amusing, I have found that there is no need for a listening task. Students of all levels have a riotous good time doing this quick activity, and echoes of the short dialogues can be heard in the halls all day after the lesson.

  3. Emotional sentences - (a well known improvisation exercise)

    Objective:

    Practicing a specific sentence structure and/or lexical items.

    Set up:

    Students work on their own for the writing part of this activity.
    Presentation can be to a partner, a small group, or the whole class.

    Procedure:

    After learning new vocabulary or a grammar structure, ask the students to write a sentence using a certain number of the words or the grammar structure (or both!). Pass around small slips of paper and have the students write an emotional state- happy, sad, excited, etc. on each slip. It is good to have at least 2 slips per student. You can avoid having all of the slips say "happy" by assigning initial letters (or a range of letters) for the words they write.
       After the sentences are composed and checked quickly by the teacher, who walks around the room as the students write their sentences and emotional states on the slips of paper, divide the class as you wish for presentations - any sized group will do.
       Each group should get a packet of slips with emotions written on each. In turns, the student picks a slip out of the bag, without showing it to the others in the group, reads his sentence as if he is in the emotional state written on the slip. The others listen and guess what is written on the slip.

    Note: This is a very amusing activity for all levels of students. You control the level of difficulty by deciding on the structure of the sentence. The advantage of doing this is that, though the activity can be completed in 10 minutes, everyone gets a chance to speak, and everyone hears the same structure used many times. In order to encourage the students to make an effort to use expression, points can be given to the speaker when the group correctly guesses the emotion on the first try.

  4. Pre-readers' theater -

    Objectives:

    1. having the students demonstrate understanding of a story line, and the characters in the story
    2. practicing conversational sentences

    Set-up:

    This is generally a whole-class activity, after a story has been read and discussed.

    Procedure:

    In this activity, the teacher is the narrator and the students are randomly chosen to take the part of the characters. This can be done as simply or elaborately as you wish. For the simplest version, the students are all seated at their desks. More elaborate versions have the students standing and acting, perhaps even adding costumes and props. In any case, only the teacher sees the text.
       The teacher reads the story until the point at which one of the characters says something. Instead of reading the line, the teacher points to a student to say the character's line, before continuing with the narrative.

    Here is an example:

    Teacher: Little Red Riding Hood's mother wanted her to take a basket of goodies to her grandmother, who was sick in bed. Mother called Little Red Riding Hood and said:

    Student (playing mother's part) "Take this to Grandmother."

    Teacher: Little Red Riding Hood was worried about the wolf in the forest on the way to her grandmother's house. She said:

    Student: "But what about the wolf in the forest?" ( or But I'm afraid of the wolf! etc.)

    Note:

    Students ad-lib their characters' lines, and are accepted as long as they are true to the story. Obviously, there can be many variations of this activity, including students having the character say something which changes the story line. The goal of the activity and the rules must be decided before beginning.
       The advantage of this activity is that the narration gives the student a prompt of content and vocabulary, giving him the confidence to speak without having to be completely original in what he is saying.
       I call this activity pre-readers' theater, since using the Readers' Theater model, described in a previous article in this journal, the students all have the script and divide the narration as well as the characters' lines.

  5. Secret sentences - improvisation game for more advanced students

    Objectives:

    1. grammar and/or vocabulary practice
    2. experience in unrehearsed conversation

    Set-up:

    The teacher prepares strips of paper with a sentence written on each strip. The sentences include recently learned vocabulary, grammar structures or both. Students are divided into groups of 4.

    Procedure:

    Each group of students is asked to think of a short scenario which they will present to the class ( 2-3 minutes). They are not to prepare what they will say, only to think about the flow of events and each one's character in the scene. When they are ready, each student is given a strip of paper with a sentence on it. The object of the game is for each student to manage to insert the sentence on the strip into the dialogue during the presentation. After the presentation, the class tries to identify the secret sentences.
       Another easier version of this game is to give each group only one sentence strip. The object of the game is to insert the sentence as many times as possible during the skit.

    Note:

    This game is for more advanced students who have had practice playing less demanding games. Students, who are used to performing in front of the class, enjoy this game very much. Making sure to keep a fairly brisk pace is crucial to ensuring that this is an enjoyable activity. Preparation of the scenario should take no more than 5 minutes. If this is the first time the students are playing this game, give directions for a specific type of scenario - an argument in class, friends deciding which movie to see, a family birthday, etc. The skits themselves should also have a strict time limit - 3 minutes at the most! In this way, everyone has a turn in one 45 minute period.

  6. Ping-pong Debate-

    Objectives:

    1. Practice expressing opinions
    2. Practice listening and thinking "on-your-feet"

    Set-up:

    It's best if you can divide the class in half and have the 2 sides facing each other, but it is also possible to do this activity without moving anything in the room. Whether or not you move tables and chairs, half of the class is designated "pro" ( in favor) and the other half "con" (against).

    Procedure:

    1. Choose an issue which is either serious or silly. ( possible examples: serious - "Smoking should be prohibited everywhere but in private homes"; "There should be bike paths along every street in every city"; "There should be an alternative system of assessment to replace Bagrut exams" silly - "Half of every school day should be spent at the beach"; "Everyone should be permitted to bring a pet to school"; "There should be milkshake fountains in every hallway in school"; etc.
    2. Ask every student to write at least 4 reasons which support the position to which his side has been assigned.
    3. Ask one student to read one of his points aloud. Next choose a student from the other side to refute the point just read. The second student must listen to the first point read and react to that point, not read one of the points he had previously listed. The argument is "tossed" back and forth between the 2 sides, each student refuting what the previous student said. After a few exchanges, have the next student read a new point, and toss that back and forth a few times.
      In this type of debate, no student speaks for more than a minute, and everyone gets a turn. Everyone has to listen to the student who is speaking, because the order of speakers is random.

      Note:

      This activity is also for students who have had practice with easier oral activities. Although this is not strictly a dramatic activity, students are encouraged to argue passionately and with exaggerated expression to make a convincing point. It is great fun for all. It is also a good exercise to prepare your students for formal debates, because they get practice listening and responding to specific points and also seeing the issue from another perspective.

      In conclusion, I have used all of these activities in my classes from 7th to 12th grades, adjusting the content for level. When planned carefully, with English content in mind, these activities are a very efficient way of improving all aspects of your students' English.

      For a wealth of ideas of additional activities of this sort, try this wonderful site:
      http://fuzzyco.com/improv/games.html

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