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Reflections of using drama in the second language classroom


Catherine Mildred

Leeds University Language Centre

This is a reflection on my experiences of using drama to teach English to a mixed ability class. It aims to show thoughts on taking on this new teaching challenge and the successes that came from it. 

Several years ago, I was given the task of developing a drama course for the Language in Context (LinC) module that the Language Centre was offering our students. It was being offered to students studying on both the English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and General English (GE) courses. This meant it was being offered to students who were planning to do their undergraduate or postgraduate studies at a UK university and those who were in the UK to improve their general English skills, perhaps as part of their home university courses. Outside of the LinC module, these students did not have much, if any, interaction. So, although I anticipated that this would provide some challenges, this was a task I relished as I had previous experience in drama, and I felt it could be very beneficial for language learners.

I am not alone in having this feeling, many others have done research on the benefits of using drama in the second language classroom: ‘Drama encourages adaptability, fluency and communicative competence. It puts language into context and, by giving learners experience of success in real-life situations, it could arm them with confidence for tackling the world outside the classroom’ (Davies, 1990, cited in Belliveau and Kim, 2013, p.7). It was this knowledge that I took with me as I planned the first term of drama.

As with most courses, the drama module continually changed shape as I slowly learned what worked and what didn’t. As I spent more time with the students, developing a better understanding of what they wanted from such a course, I was able to alter the course to try and meet these needs. This came from formal feedback, informal classroom discussions, and my own observations in the classroom. I also had to accept that certain sessions maybe hadn’t gone the way I had hoped. It involved a little bit of trial and error as I had never run a drama course for language students before, and I soon realised there were many things to consider:

  1. Different nationalities in one class and different cultural backgrounds. This meant that certain activities worked well with some students and less so with others. Drama, as a rule, is not the type of subject studied behind the desk, it involves a lot of interaction, and often, moving away from your comfort zone. This can be a challenge in your own culture and when using a first language, but then to do this in a second language and with other cultures and nationalities, this can become even more of a potential issue. I therefore had to try and balance the type of activities done in class, involving a mix of quieter desk work and more interactive activities. I also had to be aware of any cultural differences and be sensitive to the fact that some students might simply wish to sit some activities out. Overall, most students were more than willing to join in with a wide variety of drama-based activities, and I think it is worth mentioning that ‘there is great potential for learning about other cultures through [drama]’ (Fleming, 2006, p.59). It can ‘foster intercultural awareness” among students and “encourage self-reflection on their own cultural expectations’ (Cunico, 2005, p.21).
  2. Students from different EAP and GE levels. Having a full range of language abilities in the class meant that differentiation was key to making the lesson work for all students. As with all the LinC modules, there was a full range of language abilities in drama, and again, this was an important aspect to be aware of. It was crucial to try and find ways for the classes to benefit all the students and encourage them to work together, regardless of language ability. Drama is particularly focused on communication skills, so it was important to try to create a safe environment for all students to participate fully. Therefore, I had to make sure to allow for differentiation within the activities to ensure that all the learners gained from them.
  3. What skills did the students want/need to develop from this course? Drama games are fun, but the course needed to offer more than just fun. Drama is, and should be, fun. This helps students and teachers to relax and make the most of the course. In fact, I would say that it is crucial that it is fun as this is motivating in a drama classroom. “The fun aspect should not be underestimated. When students are enjoying an activity, they are learning and letting their guard down” (Boudreault, 2010, no pagination). However, as true as this is, this drama module needed to offer more than just fun games. It needed to have goals that would help the students to develop transferable skills. One of my aims was that they would be able to take away skills from the drama course and use them in their EAP/GE courses and beyond. For example, I tried to find activities that would help learners to work on different aspects of speaking skills (such as intonation and fluency) so that they could use these on other courses. I had to try and manage expectations: this wasn’t an EAP course, but the skills covered in it would help with some academic work. For example, helping students develop their presenting skills in a fun, relaxed way which would hopefully help them with any presentations they would need to give outside of the course.

A POTENTIAL COLLABORATION                            
By the time I had been running this course for a couple of years, it felt like it was almost at the point I wanted it to be. Students seemed to be enjoying it and they were producing successful projects at the end of term. However, there remained the feeling that an element was missing, a way to enhance the students’ experience even further and help them to work on the main skills that they had come to the class for: speaking and confidence building. I could include more games and tasks that would enable this, but I was really looking for something more. The idea of a collaboration crossed my mind, but I wasn’t sure where to start with that. I had one contact who was doing an MA in theatre studies, but by the time I had reached this idea, she was no longer in Leeds. So, it was back to the drawing board.

As luck would have it, the Summer course I was teaching on in 2018 offered me a potential solution. I had several students in my class who would be going on to complete an MA in the School of Performance and Cultural Industries (PCI) and I started to wonder if this could be the way forward. A collaboration with PCI had the potential to enhance the drama course I was offering, and hopefully, give something in return. So, after a bit of research I sent an email, outlining some of my ideas, and waited patiently for a response. I heard back from Ally Walsh who is one of the lecturers in PCI. Thankfully, she seemed to like the idea so we agreed to meet and try to get an idea of what could work.

When we first met, my original idea was that I could maybe bring my students along to the theatre to run a class there, and if I was lucky, maybe have a workshop or two with one of their MA students. However, it became clear that we could do more than this. If Ally could find some volunteers, we would maybe be able to arrange for them to come to my lessons more frequently, as this would benefit my students and the MA students, as they would be able to work on the practical side of their course. This was a very exciting proposal and one that we both hoped would raise some volunteers.
Thankfully, Ally had three volunteers who were very keen to come to one of the drama sessions every week to run activities. In return, I would give them feedback and we would help them with their practical assessment later in the year. The three students she sent were fantastic and I could tell from the beginning that this would work well. Each of these students had existing practice working in communities using drama as a learning medium. After meeting with them before the term started, we agreed that they would follow my syllabus but that they would have freedom within that to plan and carry out drama activities of their choice. I think that giving them the freedom to take such control is one of the reasons it worked well. I made the conscious decision from the beginning to not micromanage what they did. I didn’t want to take away from their knowledge of drama and I was interested to see how they would interpret my ideas and approach the classes. We had weekly chats where we discussed the coming lessons but also any feedback from me following a session.

I’m very pleased that I did it this way. My LinC students seemed to thoroughly enjoy the extra support in the classroom and enthusiastically joined in with the activities that were planned. It was great to see how the MA students worked within my syllabus and developed the activities to complement the aims. It was very useful for myself too, as I was able to watch as three drama experts came and ran activities in ways I hadn’t tried. Whilst they ran some activities, I offered teacher supervision and extra support as needed. This meant I was able to help the MA students further develop their skills when delivering the activities, as it was very important for the benefits of this collaboration to be mutual. Each week the sessions were relaxed and the LinC students really started to grow in confidence. Even the quieter students started to speak up more and it was great to see each student develop different skills from the course.

Another aspect of the collaboration that I feel is worth a mention is the sense of community that it brought about. I had never seen a group of students from different backgrounds and different language courses bond in such a way before. The group gelled and enjoyed each other’s company and I think that this helped them to make the most out of the sessions. Burke and O’Sullivan mention that ‘if students are relaxed, they are less self-conscious and more willing to experiment’ (2002, p.22). I noticed that this can be the case in our classes. The students were at ease with each other and the MA students and this meant that they would take more “risks”. Now, I know that this can also be the case in other types of classes, but it was noticeable in all the sessions and I feel that it really helped the students’ confidence and, as a result, their speaking skills.

Building on from this, I think the fact that my role became more of a facilitator and less of a teacher is important, especially when the MA students were running activities, I sometimes joined in as a member and my students seemed to love that aspect. I think it really helped that I also looked a bit “silly” and I was taking the same risks as they were, we could all enjoy the drama games and activities together and it felt very safe. I also enjoyed being able to take on this role and relax into the games as a participant when the opportunity arose. I could go on and on about the sessions and how well they went but I think I can summarise by saying that it was easily the best term of drama that I had run so far.

One of the UK’s most influential practitioners of drama in education, Dorothy Heathcote, had this to say about the power of working with drama: ‘1. It works through social collaboration; and 2. It will always involve exploration in immediate ‘now’ time where participants engage with events in the first person; I do. That’s the drama element.’ (Heathcote, 2002).

The benefit of this approach is working through play, and providing a collaborative set of activities, building a sense of common purpose that sits aside from the language learning, but that nonetheless provides the foundations for improving, modelling correct forms and loosening the grip of error-anxiety to the playfulness of the activities. Given time, this approach can build towards using technical language ‘in role’ in a much more profound way than language classroom role play has time for.

This isn’t where the collaboration ends though. We then arranged that the same class of Language Centre students would come along and participate in the PCI practical assessment later in the academic year. Now, bear in mind that this was to take place several months after our course ended. The drama class students were all on different courses and it was at a particularly busy point in their term. Yet, when I sent the email, all but one or two replied and all of these turned up on the day. It allowed us the chance to return the help that had been given to us in our drama course, and it brought the collaboration full circle. More than that, it was wonderful to see the same group of students immediately fall back into the class dynamic. It was like no time had passed at all. The community feeling was still there, and the workshop was fun and relaxed, and my students responded to the MA students in the same way. It was a great way to conclude the partnership between our departments. 

Overall, I would say that this collaboration was a success. It took time to set up and we all went into it unsure of what would happen. We had to spend a lot of time planning and setting it up to make it a success, but it was more than worth the hard work. It has helped me to forge a good relationship with PCI and there is potential for more collaboration in the future.

Address for correspondence:

Belliveau, G. and Kim, W. 2013. Drama in L2 learning: a research synthesis. Scenario. 7(2), pp.7-27.

Boudreault, C. 2010. The benefits of using drama in the ESL/EFL classroom. The Internet TESL Journal. 16(1), [No pagination].

Burke, A.F. and O’Sullivan, J. 2002. Stage by stage: a handbook for using drama in the second language classroom. Portsmouth, Nh: Heinemann.

Cunico, S. 2005. Teaching language and intercultural competence through drama: some suggestions for a neglected resource. The Language Learning Journal. 31(1), pp.21-29.

Fleming, M. 2006. Justifying the arts: drama and intercultural education. The Journal of Aesthetic Education. 40(1), pp.54–64.

Heathcote, D. 2002. Dorothy Heathcote: four models for teaching and learning. [Online]. [Accessed 5 November 2020]. Available from: