• Using Drama to Teach English as a Foreign Language


    This brief article will highlight what is meant by the term ‘drama’ before moving onto look at why drama is a ‘…very effective weapon ‘(Boal, 1979:ix) in the classroom. It will then add to this information a number of influential factors that will demonstrate why drama should be considered as key strategy in teaching English as a Foreign Language.

    Drama holds an array of interpretation and definition. For the purpose of this article I refer to drama as a process of learning and adhere to Booths description that ‘In its broadest term drama covers a wide range of techniques which incorporate interaction, movement, vocal action and mental concentration’ (Booth). In this sense ‘Drama’ is not about creating a spectacle or being an actor/performer but is rather a ‘…property which stimulates the process of learning by experience’ (Boal, 1994; 94). Drama in Education therefore employs the use of Drama Games, role play, improvisation, script writing, devising and reflecting.

    Having outlined the articles use of the term drama, I will now demonstrate why it plays an important role in the classroom.

    There is a Chinese proverb that reads; ‘I hear and I forgetI listen and I rememberI do and I understand’ (Chinese Proverb).This is in essence why drama is a powerful classroom tool. It works through our ‘experiential’ senses. It sees, hears, says and does. The student is not a passive recipient but an active meaning maker. The student engages on a much deeper and personal level then simply being given information. In drama the student demonstrates his understanding by acting out or being what Boal refers to as the ‘spect-actor’. This ‘acting out’ is not prescribed but comes through personal internalisation, context and group dynamic.

    Lets take for example, a history lesson looking at War; a group can be given details and statistics but to connect with and understand these teachings fully, it would be better to demonstrate and involve. I.e. A teacher arrives dressed as a commanding officer and tells his class that they must decide on the strategy needed to occupy the enemies’ terrain. Or a discussion about evacuation leads into a drama about saying goodbye to your best friend. These examples involve mental and emotional interpretation and decision and thus the learning effects remain longer. The education becomes written on us, rather than just spoken or given to us.

    As well as benefits to learning, the use of drama in the classroom can have very positive personal benefits. The student develops communication skills, leadership, team work, compromise, listening skills, presentation skills, self esteem, confidence,

    self-acceptance, acceptance of others, empowerment , pride in work, responsibility, problem solving, management, to name but a few.

    Drama in the classroom makes the classroom ‘….a place where teachers and students meet as fellow players, involved with one another, ready to connect, to communicate, to experience, to respond, to experiment and discover’ (Robinson).

    Having established the need for drama in the classroom, I will now specifically apply it to the teaching of English as a Foreign Language. In teaching English as a Foreign Language the balance of receptive and productive skills is an important area to address. Drama effectively deals with this requirements. Through drama a class will attend to, practice and integrate reading, writing, speaking and listening.

    At its most basic level drama can be used via drama games. Drama games introduce basic language skills and are a great way of introducing vocabulary. Games require speaking and listening skills and many words and sentences are repeated. They are a way of focusing on the externalisation of language rather than the internal study of it. In an informal and non confrontational way, the student begins to interact with the English language and in dong so can increase their confidence and reduce their inhibitions to ‘have a go’.

    The use of role play and real life situations similarly encourage students to organise and activate the English language in a developmental way. It is important to consider vocabulary, word order, tense, correct grammar and pronunciation yet because the communication approximates reality, the language is brought to life..

    Drama efficiently units all the language skills. For example, let’s say we set the class the task of creating a missing scene. They are given a short story (reading, comprehension) about a lady who starts work as a fashion designer and falls in love with the boss. The missing scene they choose to write is the scene where the girl is interviewed for the job (imagination, group discussion, Decision making, literary contextualisation).

    Through a series of role play and improvisations (speaking, listening) the students come up with ideas of what may have taken place during that initial meeting. In the course of these improvisations students have had to respond to grammatical cues of tense and syntax, draw on previous vocabulary and practice being understood. They will have also created a range of characters which encourages an adaptive language approach and ‘…can offer students a dynamic encounter with language that comes closest to real communication’ (Berlinger)

    Additional research which will inform their missing scene can be given to the students. They may write/read job advertisements (reading, writing), speak to others about their experiences of job interviews (speaking, listening), write profiles about the characters (writing), script their dialogues (writing), rehearse their scenes (speaking, reinforces correct language use) and finally present them to the class (Speaking, listening, confidence building).

    One of the benefits of a drama task such as this is that the teacher is able to address all of the student’s levels of needs at one time. In an improvisation for example, the less able students could work as a group on easier roles/situations, whereas more advanced students could create more complex characters with reference to various periods of time. Whilst more able students may be required to fill in a job application form, the lower level students may be expected to write a simple CV/Resume. The teacher is able to plan ahead for each student and evaluate their progress.

    Drama can also be used to demonstrate how we communicate with no language at all. Our silent expression is a vital part of our communication. Miming verbs and adjectives helps students to match their body language to their words.

    Drama is a part of everyday life. We are surrounded by the visual image, it grabs our interest. Stories are told, heard and repeated everday, both real and imaginary. Newspaper articles, favourite films or characters from soap operas, they can all be used to prompt discussion or creative writing in an interesting and relevant way.

    This article is a sprint through why drama is so useful to TEFL. As Conrad Toft observes ‘Advocates of using drama to teach foreign languages say the technique brings the language to life’ (Toft). Not only are students more relaxed, interested and less afraid to speak, but they are also motivated ‘…to generate imaginative and detailed ideas, greatly expand their vocabulary, actively practice language skills and attain far greater fluency, it also provides a setting in which they can explore the social values of a different culture’ (Berlinger).

    In conclusion then, we have seen that drama, in the broadest sense of the term, is not only useful in the classroom but gives a tangible benefit to the students learning and personal growth. More specifically in teaching English as a foreign language these two benefits combine. By strengthening a student’s confidence in English you support their successful acquisition of the language. I therefore argue that the use of drama as a specific strategy to teach English as a Foreign Language is a highly effective experiential learning approach.



    Boal, Augusto. Theatre if the oppresse Londn: Pluto, 1979

    Boal Agusto Games for actors and non actors London Routlegde, 1992

    Boal Augusto Rainbow o Desire London Routledge 9995

    Izen, Catherin Stages in Revolution London Methuen, 1980