Wednesday, April 11, 2007

the drama of teaching languages

As my local readers know, I'm directing a play in French at school this semester, Théâtre sans animaux. My fourth one! It actually counts as a French class and the students get academic credit for it--as well they should, since it's an intense immersion experience. We've discussed the play in French, written about it in French, held rehearsals in French, memorized the lines in French, and dealt with costumes, props, and publicity all in French.

In my mind (and a lot of other people's--see my thoroughly researched Masters thesis if you want proof!), this is an excellent way to learn and practice a language if you can't spend time in a country where the language is spoken. Because, see, we're not reading dorky little stories from a textbook, we're not filling in the blank with the right form of the verb, we're not listening to an unnatural dialogue that has been contorted to highlight a certain grammatical structure: we're actually using the language to accomplish something. (Full disclosure: I do indeed use activities like that in my French grammar classes sometimes.) Our conversations at rehearsals involve hypothesizing ("If my character had a crush on that character, I'd..."), accepting and rejecting and reconciling ("No! I don't want to act like a turkey during the whole scene. Can I just gobble during the monologue and then run over here and sit down?" "Yes, but stick your hand behind your back and shake it to resemble a bird's tail feathers while you run"), stating and justifying opinions ("This is really funny because of what she said about the samurai earlier"), engaging in conversational gambits like introducing topics, turn-taking, and leave-taking ("Gotta go now! I promise I'll know my lines next time!"), and much, much more. Plus, they're learning entire conversations by heart--er, well, they'd better have learned them by April 27!--which means they're internalizing the sound and the feel and rhythm of the language, along with the vocabulary and grammar. And the benefits go beyond just improving fluency, pronunciation, and listening comprehension--their confidence and passion for the language increase.

You might also be surprised by how many students that I always thought of as shy enroll in a class like this. Taking on the role of somebody else for a play means that the quiet student doesn't have to be himself anymore; he's playing a role, wearing a mask (figuratively and sometimes literally) that enables him to present himself differently than he would in a traditional classroom. Drama in a second language is a valuable gift to give a student.

So this is what I do with my college students learning French in the US--but why not try it at home with your kids whom you're raising with more than one language? You can do improvisations (a la "Whose Line is it Anyway?"), give dramatic readings of poems, act out fairy tales (and then modify them by updating them to modern times or introducing characters from other fairy tales or movies--"Snow White and the Seven Elmos," anyone?), give puppet shows--tons of possibilities exist. Try it at the playgroup, the library, or as an after-school activity too.

To learn more about the theory behind drama as a language teaching technique, get lists of recommended resources, and see messages and files and links from recent online workshops on this topic, visit the following websites: the TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Drama interest section page, the TESOL workshop on drama theory, the TESOL workshop on readers' theatre, and the TESOL workshop about drama techniques in the language classroom. (The latter three are Yahoo!Groups which require you to sign up to access the materials, but it's a very easy process. As we had literally hundreds of messages in each six-week online workshop, you might want to start with the "files" and "links" sections for ideas before skimming over the archived posts. And if you'd like to know more about the last French play I did, you can read an article I wrote in the drama theory workshop files. Unfortunately it's not posted anywhere else so I can't link to it directly!)

I'm curious--has anyone tried drama in a second language with younger children? Please tell us about it by clicking on "comments" if you have!

And click here to see photos and learn more about our production!


  1. Sarah, obviously I am reading through your archives lol! I have been trying to think of an activity the older children in our group CarolinaKinder could do, and the best thing I came up with was to do a play for the younger children in the group. I didn't know there were people out there writing MA theses on the topic ;-)! What level of French do they have to be at to take this drama class?

    You touched on something that I have wanted to work on with homeschooling - not just studying a language but doing something with the language. There are such exciting things going on in the world of foreign languages!

  2. Jeanne, it is a 200-level class, but I accepted students who had completed one or more semesters of college French. Students who were still at the very beginning of their French studies had smaller parts and weren't required to write as much as the more advanced students (say, one paragraph in their journal instead of one page).