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Drama activities: teaching english in the esl classroom

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5382 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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If even the greatest dramatist that has ever lived in this world believes that all humans are actors, who are we to disagree? I for one completely do not. As a language practitioner, I for one strongly believe that drama has the potential of making the learning experience fun for the students and even memorable because it is “real”. Let me tell you why.

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Students in schools today seem to have very little exposure to the English language. The only contact with the language comes from being taught using the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ method in the English language classroom. They have very little experience with ‘real-life’ situations where the English language is used as a communication tool. It is not surprising then that the Communicative Approach has been introduced in the new ‘Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Menengah’ (KBSM) English Language program. The communicative syllabus will focus not only on the linguistic competence but also on the development of the communicative ability of the learner. Instead of being a passive participant, the learner is now encouraged to take a more active role in their own language learning process in the classroom.

In line with the National Education Philosophy, classroom strategies devised by the English teacher should cater not only for efficient language but also provide opportunities for students’ personal development – to produce students who are competent and confident language users (Compedium, 1989). Teachers who advocate the Communicative Approach are expected to develop strategies that would promote self-learning, group interactions in authentic situations and peer- teaching, instead of the traditionally teacher-dominated and teacher-directed classes. The activities would also require the learner to do things with the language such as making choices, evaluating, and bridging the information gap. Examples of such activities are drama, role-play, simulation games, improvisation and miming. For the purpose of this project paper, we shall look at drama activities as a communicative tool in the teaching and learning of English in the ESL classroom.

Drama has always had a close relationship with the teaching of the English language. With its link to literature, drama is a powerful tool in developing the students’ communicative ability. Generally speaking, drama is student-centered because it puts the students in a position to do most of the communicating and interacting instead of the teacher. Therefore, the onus is now on the students to take control of their own learning. Psychologically, it is also very motivating for there are no wrong answers in drama, allowing success for each student. The flexibility and openness of drama also provides the students a greater degree of freedom as compared to when they are required to find a single acceptable answer in the conventional English language lesson. Students acquire fluency skills at a much faster rate as a result of promoting student – student talk and reducing the teacher’s role to a necessary low level or almost non-existent in some cases.

Looking at it from the teacher’s perspective, engaging in group activities, as in drama, allows students to feel more relaxed and in turn feel comfortable to express their feelings better; compared to when they are required to come up with individual responses. Used properly, drama allows both the teacher and learner to gauge how far the learner’s ability to communicate has developed and this in time can develop confidence and better social skills in the learner. Furthermore, it is emphasized that English should be taught to not only develop the basic means of communication, but to further encourage fluent and accurate expression, both oral and written. Once the students begin to master the language they should be able to overcome their self-consciousness and develop their confidence to express views openly and articulately. These students would then make English meaningful and relevant in the sense that now they can take it out of the classroom and use it in their everyday lives. It is rather obvious to realize the common ground English and drama share. Drama should contribute significantly to the realization of all these aims.

Statement of the Problem

Students in schools today seem to find the learning of English irrelevant and to a certain extent, confusing. They do not need to use the English they have learnt in the classroom in their daily lives. English language moreover, is often described as “a strong second language” but is, in reality only treated as a foreign language in all primary and secondary schools (Compendium, 1989). This change in the status of English in the system has brought with it a lot of problems for both teachers and students.

Students who are hesitant to communicate in English may view the use of the language orally as trivial and insignificant to language learning. To them, to be merely ‘competent’ in the language is sufficient, rather than to ‘perform’ them (Chomsky, 1965). In actual fact, students especially the shy and silent ones, are afraid of making bizarre mistakes or errors. Thus, many resort to the use of their mother tongues or their L1 in their daily discussions or daily convers ations.

The launching of the Language Policy in 1971 adds to this restriction. Bahasa Melayu was made the sole medium of instruction in schools and other formal events. At the same time, students of all races and background seemed to be more comfortable communicating in Bahasa Melayu, and so the importance of English language has been gradually declining.

One possible way of overcoming this problem is to supplement the conventional English teaching methods with suitable teaching techniques such as drama, which offer the students the chance to actually use the English they have learnt. Even though the students’ English may not be perfect, the activities would help them to improve verbal communication.

Objective of the Study

The main aim of this study is to give a broad introduction to drama and to show how such techniques can be useful in the teaching and learning of the English language, particularly in Malaysian schools. This exploratory study plans to achieve the following objectives:

  1. To determine the students’ extent of exposure to drama activities.
  2. To ascertain students’ motivation towards learning English.
  3. To assess students’ attitudes towards learning English.

Research Questions

Specifically, this study seeks answers for the following research questions:

  1. Have the students been exposed to drama activities in their language classroom?
  2. What are the students’ motivations in learning the English language?
  3. What are the students’ attitudes towards English?

Significance of the Study

There is fundamental need for learners to bring what they have learned in the four walls of the classroom out into the open and apply it in ‘real-life’ situations; and drama activities meet this need. This study therefore hopes to make teachers of English language aware and to have the conviction that drama activities can be an effective tool in language teaching.

It is hoped that this study will be an ‘eye opener’ for teachers and students of ESL. It provides the necessary information for language teachers to make students inevitably participate in the English lesson and thereby gain self-confidence in using the language. Thus, the significance of this study is to make ESL teachers aware that rather than acting in plays or studying them, students are taught English using a technique derived from drama as a social process of development. This will obviously promote the use of drama in the teaching and learning of ESL and in its widest sense, is best seen as an alternative methodology to one based on the traditional ‘chalk and talk’.

As far as students are concerned, they will soon see the purpose of drama activities in their learning and how realistic and relevant they are when applied in their everyday lives. Since drama activities often portray the society from which the students come from, it can give the students an opportunity to feel what life is all about. Drama activities encourage the students to make practical and rational judgments when confronted by complex situations, which they may encounter later in life. This valuable experience would certainly hold them in good stead in their future.

Thus, the significance of the study advocates the usage of drama activities in the ESL classroom. It is aspired that teachers would adopt this technique and adapt the activities to the relevance and needs of their students.

Limitations of the Study

On the basis of discussion on this project paper, the drama activities presented is targeted towards Form four students of intermediate proficiency level. The drama activities are some of the possibilities for social interactions that lie within classroom situations. However, some of its limitations were recognized, in particular:

  1. In situations outside the classroom, learners will need to satisfy a much wider variety of communicative needs arising from the events of everyday life.
  2. They will need to cope with greater variety of patterns of interactions. These may vary from the formal interview, with its tightly controlled structure, to the informal gathering where everybody competes on an equal basis for turns to speak.
  3. They will need to become involved in different kinds of social relationship, for which different forms of language will be needed.

In order to prepare learners to cope with these wider functional and social needs, we must look for ways extending the possibilities for communicative interactions in the classroom (Littlewood, 1984). It is hoped that by using the drama activities, the apparent gaps can be bridged and in return the students’ language competency and performance can be enhanced.

Definition of Terms


How do we, as teachers of English as a Second Language bring drama into today’s classroom? Though some teachers have tried using drama in their classroom, they are still in a state of confusion. This is not because they do not know how to teach it, but simply because they are not sure of its purpose in education. The use of communicative activities is a technique to achieve one of the aims of the communicative approach, which is to obtain communicative competence. The important aspect of this approach is to communicate with another person in the classroom and in the long term, the society (Wan, 1990).

Drama used in the classroom can be considered a communicative activity since it fosters communication between learners and provides opportunities to use the target language in various ‘make believe’ situations. Thus, drama is any activity, which asks the participant to portray himself in an imaginary situation; or to portray another person in an imaginary situation. Drama is concerned with the world of ‘pretense’. It provides an opportunity for a person to express himself through verbal expressions and gestures using his imagination and memory. According to Wan (1990), drama takes what it shares with English, an emphasis on developing the means of communication and extends this means to include all the paralinguistic aids to meaning which takes communication beyond just writing to gestures and physical interaction.

Drama activities draw on the natural ability of every person to imitate, mimic and express himself. The students are encouraged to draw on their natural capacity to live parts of his past experience that might otherwise never emerge. When students are brought together they bring along with them different life and different background into the classroom.

According to the Oxford Dictionary (1995), drama is defined as a literary composition to be performed by actors; play or the art of acting, writing or producing plays. But for the purpose of this paper, drama refers more to informal (creative drama) as it is used in the language classroom and not on stage. Drama is doing. Drama is being. Drama is such a normal thing. It is something that we all engage in daily when faced with difficult situation. This is clearly illustrated by Tricia (1984) when she quotes, “Getting on with our day-to-day live requires a series of masks”.

Generally, drama is considered as a type of activity in which the learners are given fairly controlled scenarios to interpret. But the term drama is often viewed with confusion because different people use it in different ways to suit different contexts. As such, it seems necessary to define the terms from the perspective of teaching and learning English as a Second Language (ESL).

Drama takes into account the socio-psychological aspects of learning as it involves the whole person and his total response. For some students drama techniques can be an alternative means of learning the language and may produce far more positive results than normal classroom teaching (Mordecai, 1985).




Drama is used in ESL classrooms to promote communication in its authentic form. The Communicative Approach advocates that learners need to learn how to use the target language in ‘real life’ situations and drama activities meet this need, for it allows natural learning. If examined carefully, we would find that, English teachers define English as one that encourages and develops communication skills, self-expression, imagination and creativity. These are the key terms, which would surface as aims of teaching in a language classroom. When similarly confronted, teachers of drama say the same thing. Thus, drama invariably and significantly contributes to the realization of all the aims in an ESL classroom.

The Communicative Approach

The term ‘approach’ refers to the theories about the nature of how language is learnt (Richards, 1986). It takes into account the basic units of language structure and the nature of language proficiency. It also considers the psycholinguistic and cognitive processes involved in language learning and the conditions that allow for effective learning to take place.

The Communicative Approach thus refers to the belief that language learning is communicative competence (Richards, 1986). Communicative competence here refers not only to the knowledge of the grammatical rules of a language and how to form grammatical sentences but also to know when, where and to whom to use these sentences in a speech community (Richards, 1985 and Hymes, 1972).

Communicative ‘Methodology’ on the other hand, refers to the different ways of teaching language using the communicative approach. Therefore, the term ‘techniques’ refers to different classroom activities (Wan, 1990). In this study they will be called communicative activities.

In the Communicative Approach, language teaching and learning emphasized the use of language for the communication of meaning than learning the language structures, forms and vocabulary (Wilkins, 1976 and Widdowson, 1978). However, this does not imply that the grammatical and lexical aspects are neglected. In fact, they do have a place in the Communicative Method of language teaching. Therefore, the ‘how’ of language teaching and learning refers to the specific techniques and procedures used to unconsciously acquire and consciously learn a language through communication (Brumfit, 1984).

The Nature of Communicative Activities

Communicative activities refer to the techniques, which are employed in the communicative method in language teaching. Examples of such activities are games, simulation, miming, drama and role-play, which make use of the target language. The activities involve doing things with language and these language activities for communication is not restricted to conversation and may involve listening, speaking, reading and writing or an integration of two or more skills.

Communicative activities have the following characteristics (Wan, 1990):

  1. They are purposeful. They are beyond strictly practicing particular structures.
  2. They are interactive. The activities are often conducted with others and often involve some form of discussion.
  3. Authentic materials are used. The situations in which the learners have to use language should be as realistic as possible. The language models given should be authentic.
  4. They are based on the information gap principle.

Five guiding principles have been vividly outlined behind the use of communicative activities as language teaching and learning techniques (Morrow, 1981). They are as follows:

1. Know what you are doing.

This principle gives relevance to the lesson, which the students would want to use in order to perform in the target language. For example in teaching speaking, the task could be asking for directions to a certain place.. The students here communicate with each other and there is no control over the exact language used but the situation is controlled.

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2. The whole is more important than the sum of the parts.

In the communicative method, the natural language is dealt in real situations where it is necessary to work in the context of the whole. Communication is not learnt inductively as it cannot easily be analyzed into its various components without its nature being destroyed in the process. For example you may teach the component of various forms of greeting but it is no guarantee that the student will be able to choose the appropriate form when required in a real-life situation.

3. The processes are as important as the forms.

The processes of communication such as information gap, choice and feedback, should be as much as possible replicated in trying to develop the ability of the students to communicate in the target language. The teacher must try to devise exercises where there is an information gap so that real meaningful communication can take place. The participants in a conversation also have a choice in what they say and how they say it. When undergoing these processes, there should be ample feedback during interaction between two speakers in order to gauge if the message has been successfully sent across.

4. To learn it, do it.

Only by practicing communicative activities would students learn to communicate. Students must become responsible for their own learning. This is what student-centeredness entails and thus the role of the teacher consequently changes. He / she must learn to take a backseat and should no longer dominate the learning situation. The teacher is now a facilitator and should strive to provide all the help the student needs to play an active role in his own learning.

5. Mistakes are not always mistakes.

As language practitioners we must able to make the distinction between ‘mistakes’ and ‘errors’. There is the need for flexibility in deciding to treat ‘mistakes’ at different stages of the learning process towards communicative competence. We must not be hasty in wielding the axe on the students as ‘mistakes’ are evidence of learning taking place after all.

The use of communicative activities is to achieve one of the aims of the communicative approach, which is communicative competence. The essence of this approach is to communicate with another person in the classroom and in long term the society. Hence, drama can be used in the classroom since it fosters communication between learners and provides opportunities to use the target language in various ‘make believe’ situations. Drama also allows participants the opportunity to act out roles and to use all the media of communication, the voice, gesture and movement. It thus takes what it shares with English, an emphasis on developing the means of communication, and extending these means to include all the paralinguistic aids to form meaning. This takes communication beyond the two dimensions, writing and talking, to involve the third dimension of gesture and physical interaction, thus encouraging active and discriminating observation and listening, which true communication always demands (Tricia, 1984).

Drama Versus Theater

Susan Holden (1981) defines drama as any activity which asks the participant to portray himself in an imaginary situation; or to portray another person in an imaginary situation. Drama is thus concerned with the world of ‘let’s pretend’. It provides an opportunity for a person to express himself through verbal expressions and gestures using his imagination and memory. In this paper, drama refers more to dramatic activities as the setting is the language classroom rather than the stage. The participants in the drama activities are thus learners and not actors.

To have a further understanding between Drama and Theater, a clear distinction has to be made between the two concepts. One way of accomplishing this is to look at Drama as process oriented and Theater as being product oriented. Through the examination of the fundamental features that lay behind both these concepts, O’Neill (1995) came up with the following characteristics for each of them:

1. Drama as a Process

  1. The emphasis is placed on participants experiencing personal growth through an exploration of their understanding of the issues within dramatic experience.
  2. Student and teacher share equal places in the development, analysis and the carrying out of the drama activities.
  3. The drama is normally not performed for an audience.

2. Theater as a Product

  1. The student’s personal growth is measured through the learning of skills.
  2. The study is facilitated through a scripted work not of the student’s making.
  3. The teacher transfers her or his interpretation and analysis of the drama.
  4. The primary objective is formal play production.

For the purpose of this paper, we will focus on Drama as a Process rather than Theater as a Product. As opposed to the traditional idea of theater, which results in an end performance, drama as a process is performed for the sake of the act of doing it, not for an audience, not for a production, and it doesn’t need to be rehearsed. The audience can simply be the performers themselves.

Drama as a process refers to a teaching method that involves children in imaginary, unscripted, and spontaneous scenes, in which the meaning is made from the engagement and transactions between the teacher and students (Schneider & Jackson, 2000). The students and teachers work together to create an imaginary dramatic world within which issues are considered and problems can be solved. In this world they work together to explore problems and issues such as betrayal, truth and other ethical and moral issues. O’Neill (1995) mentions that sometimes the work may begin as light-hearted, but the teacher always layers more dramatic tension and complexity into the work because the teacher may aim for a pedagogical outcome.

In Drama as a Process, students learn to think beyond their own points of view and consider multiple perspectives on a topic through playing different roles. Playing a range of positions encourages them to be able to empathize with others and to consider life from their viewpoint. It allows them to walk on other people’s shoes, to walk the paths they tread and to see how the world looks from their eyes. Since the end product is not the focus, students work at every moment to produce to the best of their ability. In this way, drama can be seen as more meaningful, productive, and well-rounded. Drama thus, not only teaches students to be better communicators in a variety of authentic situations, but also compels them to use English in ways that differ from everyday classroom interactions, mimicking more authentic language use.

Drama in the ESL Classroom

Generally, drama involves being an imaginary person usually in an imaginary situation and sometimes a real one (Venugopal, 1986). The learners are given fairly controlled scenarios to interpret. Drama is defined by the scope of the task of problem-solving in order to achieve their goals. Students need to know of their ability to learn from each other as well as to learn independently. They should be aware that they are working towards a goal within a given time limit. This will sharpen their concentration and at the end of the lesson they should have satisfaction of having achieved that goal (Venugopal, 1986).

Drama in education is a mode of learning. Through the pupils’ active identification with the imagined role and situations in drama, they can learn to explore issues, events and relationships (O’Neil, 1994). In drama, students draw on their knowledge and experience of the real world in order to create their own experience they have as well as their knowledge, which they have gained from books, films or television. Although, these imaginary situations may at first seem superficial and only action oriented, through the teacher’s guidance and careful intervention it should be possible for the work to grow in depth. In creating a make believe world students can come to understand themselves and their real world in which they live.

In order to engage in drama activities students do not need sophisticated theatre skills. However, they must be willing to (O’Neil, 1997):

  1. Make believe with regard to objects, for example,
    1. a table-top can become a wagon or raft;
    2. a circle of chairs may represent a starship;
    3. cupped hands may contain a precious object.
  2. Make believe with regards to actions and situations, for example,
    1. creeping across the school hall may be means of escaping from the jail;
    2. a group sitting huddled on the floor may be passengers on an emigrant ship;
    3. stealing a bunch of keys may represent a test of stealth and cunning for the warriors.
  3. Adopt a role, for example,
    1. settlers who seek a new life in a foreign country;
    2. poor children living on the streets;
    3. teenagers who have left home.
  4. Maintain the make believe verbally, for example,
    1. describing the doorway in which they spent the night;
    2. presenting the facts about child labour to the committee for reform;
    3. discussing the problems to be faced on a voyage.
  5. Interact with the rest of the group, for example,
    1. agreeing to join the crew of the starship;
    2. choosing a leader for the community;
    3. teaching a skill to a friend;

In drama activities, students are given the opportunities to draw together all the bits of language they have learnt and practice it in situations they are likely to encounter outside the classroom. In any drama activity, learners must create the interactions themselves on the basis of their roles rather than perform in ways that have been predetermined by the teacher (Littlewood, 1981).

This freedom of choice offers the students the chance to use their English learnt to develop the character, therefore promoting spontaneity in activities similar to “real-communication”. Drama in a way helps students to improve oral and verbal communication despite gaps in their knowledge. However, the use of picture cards and other visual cues will narrow these gaps.

Drama activities are essentially social activities and involve contact, communication and the negotiation of meaning. The nature of the work will impose certain pressures on the students but will also bring considerable rewards. Co-operative activities are very rare in the Malaysian schools. Too often students are trained to work as individuals and to be both competitive and possessive about their achievements. Drama on the other hand, works from the strength of the groups.

Drama is an individual’s spontaneous behavior reacting to others in a hypothetical situation. The essential core of the activity is understanding the situation of another person, and to do this well the ‘player’ needs to come to grip with the other participants’ roles, not just his own. In practice, this works when a ‘player’ is given the basic information about who he is, what he is like, and what he wants to do. He must interact with others and relate his situation to theirs and gain a greater understanding of the roles, the relationship and the language involved (Revell, 1979).

Movements and Mime

Mime involves the expressive use of the body. It is a non-verbal representation of an idea or story through gestures, bodily movements and expressions. It may seem strange that mime should be encouraged in language teaching, as it does not involve language. It must be borne in mind that though no language is used during the mime, it will act as a catalyst to generate language during the discussions before the mime is presented and also elicit language when there is need for explanations (Edwin, 1992). Mime is thus used to enrich verbal features rather than replace them. After a mime session, parallel exercises are carried out where appropriate words are added to the mime activities. In the English language classroom, unlike in theatres mime activities are not demanding and this makes mime activities suitable for poor and shy students who lack the necessary level of language proficiency. Mime activities can be incorporated into scenes from texts or improvisation of scenes from texts.

Role Play

Simulation and role play provide the opportunity to move away from the traditional role of teachers and also the classroom setting arrangements where the class is rearranged to reflect the situation that is being dramatized (Edwin, 1992).

Role play can be used for students of different proficiency levels. However, the teacher will have to decide the degree of control over the scenario for the role play. For the very shy and low proficiency students, teachers could ask students to dramatize conversations and dialogues directly from the texts. For students with some English proficiency, teachers could provide a situation, which is relatively structured so that these students would feel confident and be more willing to participate. The more proficient students could be given less structured scenario and they should be encouraged to attempt to improvise the same text.

In role play, a student is required to imagine that he is either himself or another person in a particular situation. He would be asked to behave exactly as he feels the person would. His portrayal of the character will help him understand the character and also provide an intimate experience with the literary text. There are many types of role play, for example, dramatic plays, story dramatization and socio-drama, seminar style presentation, debates and interviews.


Simulations are drama activities that often mirror real life. They can however be imaginary. They are often problem solving activities and students bring their personality, knowledge and experience into these activities. Among the common forms of simulation is the mock trial. It is popular with students and court cases are quite easy to be developed from literary texts, often based on the conflicts faced by the characters in the story. Other forms of simulation can also be encouraged. For example, group work in the fo


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