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Acting UP

Natalia Álvarez-Morillo suggests five improv theater games you can try today with your language classes


When I signed up for an improv theater class, I never thought to combine my passion for theater with my passion for teaching. But once I applied those techniques to my classroom, everything changed—my students’ energy, creativity, and motivation soared.
You may think, “I’m not an actor, I’m an educator. I can’t do improv.” I’ll admit I was skeptical, too, walking into my first class. While I had done theater and stand-up comedy before, creating dialogue on the spot—and in my second language—was intimidating. But I quickly learned improv is for everyone willing to unleash their creativity and have fun.

What Is Improv Theater, and How Can I Use It as a Teacher?
Improv theater is a performance that is unplanned and unscripted, in which the story, characters, and dialogue are created on the spot by the performers. This exercise is an engaging, dynamic way to develop essential skills like creativity, teamwork, and communication. Here are some of the basic principles to keep in mind:
Yes, and… This is the most important rule of improv. Accept what your scene partner has offered and add to it. This keeps the scene moving forward and creates something new and unexpected.

As a teacher, this looks like building upon a student’s idea and helping them develop it further, pushing their creativity. This shows that you’re interested in what they have to say and that you value their contributions.

Listen actively. Improv is all about listening to your scene partner(s) and responding to what they’re saying or doing with relevant material that builds on the scene they’re creating. This collaboration helps keep the story connected.

Give students your undivided attention, and take it one step further by asking clarifying questions and summarizing what they’ve said to demonstrate understanding.

Be present. Improv requires you to be entirely focused on what’s happening right now to keep up with the spontaneity of the exercise.

Paying attention to what is happening in your classroom allows you to respond to your students’ needs and be flexible if necessary.

Trust yourself and your scene partners. Improv is a collaborative art form, so trust is a key component in building the world and telling the story of the scene you’re performing.

Trust yourself, your teaching abilities, and your students to be capable learners.
These principles have proved extremely valuable to me as a teacher because you have to embrace the unexpected in the classroom. Students may ask difficult questions, have off days, act out, or surprise you. When I’m teaching, I need to be able to think on my feet and come up with creative solutions to these challenges. Improv has helped me develop these skills; I’m a better teacher because of them.

Five Improv Games That You Can Use Today
Ready to unleash the power of improv with your students? Incorporating improv techniques into your world language classroom fosters creativity, confidence, and effective communication skills in students, regardless of the language being taught. It creates an engaging and dynamic learning environment in which students can actively apply linguistic knowledge in real-time scenarios. Your students may be hesitant at first—you have to be open to some potential ridiculousness—but trust me, seeing your students laughing and learning is so rewarding.
Here are my top five games that I have used in my own language classroom that are adaptable to your students’ target language and proficiency level.

Freeze Frame
Student Outcomes: Improve vocabulary, encourage creativity, and practice active listening and teamwork
How to Play: Have students stand in a circle. One student starts by saying a sentence and freezing in place. The next student says a sentence that builds on the first student’s sentence and freezes in place. Continue until everyone in the circle has had a turn. At the end, unfreeze the circle and have students share what they like about the game.

Emotion Cards
Student Outcomes: Help students express themselves and use appropriate vocabulary in different situations.
How to Play: Prepare cards with various emotions (e.g., happy, angry, sad, surprised) and scenario cards (e.g., at a party, in a library, at a funeral). Students draw one emotion card and one scenario card, and they must act out a short scene in the target language, incorporating the assigned emotion into the scenario.

Sound Effects Storytelling
Student Outcomes: Enhance students’ ability to listen and describe events and situations using onomatopoeia and descriptive language.
How to Play: Divide the class into pairs. One student narrates a story in the target language while the other provides sound effects using their voice or objects (e.g., tapping a table for rain, clapping hands for applause).

Reverse Charades
Student Outcomes: Encourage teamwork and improve vocabulary and nonverbal communication skills.
How to Play: In this variation of charades, one student stands in front of the class while their team silently acts out a word or phrase drawn from a hat. The student at the front must guess the word or phrase based on their team’s gestures and actions while speaking in the target language.

News Reporter
Outcomes: Improve students’ formal and conversational speaking and storytelling abilities.
How to Play: Assign students roles as news anchors and reporters. Provide them with a headline or a news topic related to the current lesson or a recent event. The news anchors must interview the reporters, who share their findings or opinions in the target language.

Natalia Álvarez-Morillo is a content marketing specialist at Carnegie Learning and a former Spanish teacher based in Columbia, MD. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish language and literature from la Universidad del Zulia and a master’s in Spanish linguistics from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her interests include SEL education in the world language classroom, theater, and how to make the world a less scary place.
Join her at ACTFL 2023 Convention and World Languages Expo. She’ll be hosting an interactive session titled “Yes And: Unlocking Creative Teaching Strategies with Improv Theater” on Sunday, November 19, from 8:00 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. CST at McCormick Place – West Building, room W196c. Uncover the exciting world of improv theater and its invaluable contributions to language education.

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