In this article, young-learner teacher Claire Venables offers practical advice for using dramatic play with primary-age young learners.

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Children have a natural tendency towards make-believe games. They will frequently and spontaneously turn sticks into wands, blankets into superhero capes or, without any props at all, take on different roles such as astronauts, parents, police officers, dancers and more as they play alone or with their friends. Incorporating dramatic play in the EFL classroom can tap into that interest and motivate learners to develop their communicative skills. Beyond learning language, dramatic play is also said to have a fundamental role in the social, emotional, creative and linguistic development of a child and is, therefore, the perfect addition to any English programme that seeks to focus on whole-child development.

Why use dramatic play?

Children acquire additional languages at the same time as they are developing in a range of other different areas. Susan Hillyard (2016) uses the acronym SPICE to describe the different developmental processes that a child needs to learn and grow. Dramatic play is the perfect medium for providing opportunities for Social, Physical, Intellectual, Creative and Emotional (SPICE) development in a holistic way. Far from being mere fillers or warmers, dramatic play activities can be used as a powerful tool in the foreign language classroom, increasing the efficacy of language acquisition as well as developing many other essential life skills. The benefits can be seen in the learner’s increased self-confidence, pronunciation, fluency and literacy.

A few quick tips for introducing drama games

  • Go slow! If you have never or rarely used dramatic play with students, it might be wise to start off by introducing these types of activities step by step. Drama can be incorporated into lessons by selecting activities that will enrich the requirements of your language syllabus. Start with one or two of the ideas from the list of warmers below and slowly increase your repertoire of drama games that work well with your students.
  • Manage the class effectively. In these types of activities, a teacher must let go of a lot of control that they might have in other more traditional classroom activities. This can be challenging in the beginning and requires new strategies for introducing, managing, monitoring and giving feedback to students. Plan time to discuss these new roles with your students before doing the activities, and make sure everyone is clear about what behaviour and outcomes are expected by writing these rules down and displaying them in the classroom. Think about your seating arrangements and introduce some call-and-response type signals to make it easier to get your students’ attention when moving from one activity to the next.
  • Make group dynamics a priority. In any situation where children are expected to interact with each other, there are emotional and social pressures that can interfere with the learning experience (Vale). We can maximise the effectiveness of drama activities by starting with games that focus on building positive relationships between the teacher and the students and between the students themselves. When students work cooperatively, give and receive trust and support and feel part of the classroom community, the perfect conditions are created for drama games and for learning in general.

Drama warmers

The following are a few example activities that you could use with any class size and adapt to different levels of proficiency. Any of these suggestions would work as a starting point to incorporate dramatic play into your lessons and could be used regularly to build positive relationships between the learners.

Walking on …

In this game, the children draw on their creativity, imagination and motor skills to move their bodies. This activity also helps to increase the child’s spatial awareness and vocabulary. You don’t need any specific materials for this game but some flashcards can be useful for providing language support for the key vocabulary.

Instructions:

  • To start the game, children stand on one side of the room. The teacher should also join in to encourage participation and model the activity.
  • Start walking normally to the other side of the room, taking care not to touch anyone else.
  • Once they have reached the other side of the room, the teacher changes the scene by saying something like, ‘You are walking through thick, sticky mud!’ You could use a flashcard here if the vocabulary is new. The children walk back to the opposite side of the room, but now their movements should change to show how they might struggle to walk across a muddy floor. Their facial expressions could also change to ones that show struggling and maybe a little disgust. The teacher should encourage students by participating and by identifying and encouraging some of the students who have gotten into the spirit of the game.
  • There are lots of different possibilities for this game such as walking on the moon, through tall grass, on hot coals, on quicksand, on a trampoline, on hot sand, on bubblegum or even on a tightrope! Encourage the children to make suggestions too. Make sure to bear in mind that you should establish some rules about safety with the students before you play this game. For example, taking care to respect the other students’ space while moving around and being mindful of the volume of their voices while they play.

Mime it down the alley

The objective of this game is very similar to the game ‘broken telephone’ but with much higher physical engagement and a much lower linguistic challenge. This allows every student in the group to participate and feel successful, raising the self-esteem and participation levels of those with a lower level of language proficiency. The game requires the children to communicate an object or idea to each other using mime. If they are successful, the last person receives the same ‘message’ as the first and should try to describe it, preferably in English. The game requires no materials, is suitable for all primary aged children and would work with groups of up to 12. Larger classes should be split into smaller groups.

Instructions:

  • Children sit in a straight line, facing away from the first person.
  • Explain that they are not allowed to talk at any point in the game.
  • The first person thinks of or is given a noun or verb phrase to mime, for example: a cell phone or talking on the phone. It could be anything they like or restricted to something from the current theme being studied. The only requirement is that it is able to be shown with gesture and actions.
  • The first person taps the second person in the line on the shoulder so that they turn to face each other.
  • The first person mimes the object, and when the second person thinks they know what the object is, they nod and mime it to the next person. This is repeated until it reaches the last person in the line.
  • The mime is then performed for the whole group to see if the team have been successful at repeating the mime in the same way all the way down the line.
  • Students should be encouraged to use English to describe what was being mimed.

Soundscape

This game prepares learners for pronunciation work by warming up the vocal cords and experimenting with the production of different sounds. The students will use their voices to create a scene using sounds. The activity can be done with learners of almost any age and requires no materials. For learners with lower levels of proficiency, images can be used to support the understanding of the key vocabulary.

Instructions:

  • Get the students to sit in a circle, on the floor or on chairs.
  • Show the cards you have prepared (or write a few examples on the board) of places around the school, neighbourhood, rooms in a house or any specific place that can be recognised by specific sounds.
  • Elicit some examples of things that you could hear in these different places. For example: the wind blowing the leaves in a park, the sound of cars beeping in the street, the school bell ringing in the playground.
  • Explain that students are going to use their voices to create a soundscape – a dramatic event that creates the idea of being in a specific place using only sound.
  • Put students into groups and let each group choose a place. Give them some time to brainstorm the different things that can be heard in each place.
  • Monitor and provide language input where necessary.
  • Ask the groups to perform their soundscapes for the others.
  • Encourage the listeners to close their eyes and try to remember as many sounds as they can.
  • After each performance, discuss what was heard and where those sounds might be heard.

Tell me your news! Show me your news!

This game is a great way to develop fluency and provides lots of opportunities to teach new vocabulary that emerges as students play. It can be easily incorporated into your regular lesson routine as a way of getting students to share what is going on in their lives and, therefore, it also helps to strengthen relationships between the students. For younger students, it is especially useful to help them extend their attention span and practise turn-taking.

This game can be played in small groups or with the whole class. Only a soft ball or scrunched-up piece of paper for each group is needed.

Instructions:

  • Start by getting your students to sit in a circle.
  • Explain that they are going to take turns listening to and sharing a piece of news about their lives.
  • The person holding the ball gets to speak and the others should listen. When they have finished speaking, they can throw the ball to a friend and say, ‘Tell me your news!’
  • The new person now shares some news and passes the ball on.
  • Let students know that they should also listen out carefully because when they hear the teacher call out, ‘Show me your news!’, the person holding the ball should stand up and mime their news instead of speaking.
  • The others must then guess what that person’s news is.

To play this game successfully, children will ideally have learned vocabulary for talking about what they did at the weekend. You can also provide language support by giving them a little preparation time to think about what news they would like to share and to ask you or a classmate about any new vocabulary they need. For groups with lower levels of proficiency, you can easily use this same game format but adapt the topic they will discuss. It could be used to talk about things such as the food they like or their favourite sport.

Dramatic play is certainly not a new idea in the foreign language classroom, but it is perhaps not used as often as it could be. I hope that the ideas presented in this article will encourage you to go back into your classrooms and incorporate some drama games into your lessons with your primary learners.

References

Susan Hillyard http://susanhillyard.blogspot.com.br/p/blog.html

Vale, D., & Feunteun, A. (1995). Teaching children English: A training course for teachers of English to children. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chicago)