How Can Drama Improve Language Learning?

    Sean Hughes sets the stage for introducing acting into class

    Drama is a naturally expressive and creative medium that is centered around the communication of thoughts and ideas. It seems obvious that the practical and communicative nature of drama is a natural companion to language learning, yet it is seldom a key component of any language curriculum. Drama has a much greater role to play in language teaching than it currently occupies in classrooms around the world. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.”

    A vital component of learning a language is repeated exposure to words and sentence structures in the target language. The actual number of times a learner must be exposed to a new word or structure before retaining it will differ from learner to learner, as this is impacted by their natural abilities as well as the size of their existing vocabulary within the target language. However, what we can say for sure is that repeated exposure to new language is essential in order for that language to be retained by the learner.

    Countless language educators worldwide recognize this need and ensure that their students have the opportunity to learn a wide range of words and sentence structures. Unfortunately, having a large vocabulary and knowledge of sentence structures will not facilitate effective communication in another language. This is one of the key downfalls of traditional English language learning, which tends to focus on increasing vocabulary and sentence structures but does not give students an opportunity to apply what they have learned in practice. By failing to do this, we create an illusion of learning. Students might be able to recall all of the new words and sentences they have learned after class, but without having the opportunity to apply what they have learned over a period of time, students are likely to forget much of what they have been taught.

    Taking this into consideration, it can be said that there are two major challenges we face when teaching language.

    1. How can we make learning more memorable for students?

    2. How can we improve students’ functional communication skills?

    Drama education can be the solution to these challenges. Through drama education, we can actually improve the existing aspects of language teaching where we are already doing well.

    By introducing students to new language through the context of stories, which is the traditional way we have always passed on knowledge, we can create a connection between the learning content and the students. Through drama, we have the opportunity to give students a real-life context for their learning, and by doing this, we can make learning experiences more impactful. By varying the content of these stories in terms of locations, characters, themes, and so on, we can manufacture a wide and varied diet of language input for students to engage with, all within a natural and immersive context. This makes the learning experience more meaningful for students and ultimately more memorable. As students recall the events of a particular story or the feelings it provoked within them, this acts as an effective memory trigger, and the students are able to build connections between the stories they have engaged with and the language learned within.

    While it is true that stories and drama are already being used in language classrooms around the world, to unlock the full potential of drama within English language learning, it is essential to write stories with the purpose of improving language skills. Rather than engaging students in incidental language learning, we can purposefully craft an interesting and varied language curriculum that integrates key target language into our stories and scripts. This makes the learning process much more effective because we can pitch stories and scripts to meet the specific needs of our students.

    If we consider the benefits of varying not just language input for students but also the learning process and output, we can really start to recognize the key role that drama can play in language learning. Motivation and perceived importance are key factors in successful learning and retention of knowledge. By getting language students involved with the preparation for and production of a live drama performance in front of an audience, we can provide students with an unparalleled “need” to improve their language and communication skills. This will ultimately have a much greater impact in terms of language attainment than anything else we do in the classroom, because if we can motivate students to take ownership of their learning outside of the classroom, we can accelerate their progress much more. By incorporating key target language into drama rehearsals and performances, we are not just equipping students with the raw language input but also giving them the opportunity to practice and apply this language in real-life contexts.

    Another benefit of using drama to facilitate language learning is that it can meet the needs of a wide range of preferred learning styles, not just in terms of teaching input but also student output. By giving students an opportunity to showcase what they have learned through a wide range of theatrical games and activities, we give them the opportunity to demonstrate their language skills in a natural and communicative format.

    The collaborative nature of these theatrical games and activities also ensures that students have an opportunity to engage in a wide range of group tasks, requiring them to communicate with their peers and take on a variety of different group roles. Through these games and activities, we can also revisit the target language, giving students an opportunity to engage in “spaced learning,” which involves reintroducing learning objectives after set periods of time to help transfer this knowledge into students’ long-term memories.

    The end result for students—showcasing all of their hard work on the stage—can be a profound experience for them and can be a truly effective motivation for them to continue their ongoing language-learning journey. Ultimately, it is our responsibility as language educators not just to teach students individual words or sentence structures but rather to create a natural curiosity and desire in them to improve their own language skills. This will have a much longer-lasting and more profound impact on their language progress going forward. Drama can be a vehicle to empower students and educators across the world, shifting the focus away from learning for the sake of learning and toward a model where students are actually being prepared to express themselves naturally and creatively in another language.

    Sean Hughes ([email protected]) is director of education at Edunion UK, which specializes in teaching English through drama and has created a comprehensive drama English language curriculum based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. The Edunion English Play—Play English curriculum features 28 original stories and drama scripts across six different language levels for schools and educators around the world (www.edunionuk.co.uk).

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