In the sixth of our posts covering the MaWSIG-LitSIG joint Pre-Conference Event Creative Arts and Materials Writing in Liverpool on 1 April 2019, Alice Savage and Walton Burns discuss materials they have devised to bring natural conversational language into the classroom using theatre.

One of the great rewards of studying a language is the ability to enjoy a meaningful conversation. The hard work culminates in the moment when, sitting in a restaurant or at a wedding, a learner finds they are really getting to know someone in the target language. It’s a wonderful feeling, and as language teachers, if we can expedite this journey towards conversational competence, why not?

One way this might happen is by designing lessons with plays. After all, the work of a playwright is to tell stories through dialogue. Heroes and villains, bosses and employees, siblings and strangers all employ language to resolve conflict and achieve goals. In doing so, they not only engage audiences, but they also provide a text that can offer insight into the pragmatics or different implicit, as well as explicit, ways in which we communicate messages and manage relationships. Students can examine sketches and scenes, identify useful expressions and discuss the way speakers make bids for attention, take turns, express discomfort and exhibit many other social skills that are appropriate (or inappropriate) for a specific context.

In designing lessons with plays, a useful approach for integrating a play or script into a lesson is the experiential learning cycle developed by David Kolb.

The cycle starts with an experience. In this case, students can read, perform, watch, or listen to a sketch, scene or clip. In the reflection stage, they observe and discuss the characters, their objectives, and the degree to which they are successful. In the abstract conceptualisation stage, learners can identify useful language, practise pronunciation, and exploit the context to practise grammar, e.g., use of present perfect to discuss what a character has done up to a point.

Another useful activity for the abstract conceptualisation stage is to have pairs or groups reflect on similar past experiences. In follow-up feedback, the class can brainstorm alternative strategies and language for such situations, which can then be repurposed in the active experimentation stage, where students roleplay in a new context.

The following two activities feature pragmatics skills – the art of using implicit messages, voice, gesture, and signalling words or phrases to communicate emotions and intentions. The first uses voice to communicate feelings; the second shows how a pragmatics lesson might work with a sketch.

1 Play with prosody

This simple activity raises awareness of the role of voice and gesture in communicating feelings and intentions.

A Write a neutral line from your play on the board, such as the following, and several emotion words in a column to the side.


She doesn’t want to be an actor.



B Model by saying the words in the manner of one of the emotions and have students guess how you feel. Use intonation and body language.
C Students work in pairs to practise. Partner A says the line, and Partner B guesses which emotion A is portraying.
D Invite students to perform for the class. Feed back as necessary. You might discuss pitch, tone and word/sentence stress. You can also have students create context for the situation, writing ‘before’ and ‘after’ lines.

2 The confession

This activity is helpful for introducing students to scripts as it is based on a short easy-to-read/perform sketch. Notice that A is quite adept at proactively dealing with B’s possible anger. Also notice the potential for getting emotions and intentions across through voice (prosody).

A Experience. Students read or watch the sketch (below).

A:        Ummm …
B:        What’s wrong?
A:        Well, I need to tell you something, and I want you to promise not to get mad.
B:        Uh-oh. What did you do?
A:        Do you promise?
B:        How can I promise when I don’t know what it is? Just tell me.
A:        Uh, it’s about your car.
B:        Oh, no! What did you do to my car?
A:        Well, I sort of hit a gate.

(B exhales)

A:        It wasn’t my fault.
B:        I’m sure it wasn’t.
A:        Don’t be mad.
B:        I’m not mad!
A:        Yes, you are.
B:        I’m not mad. I’m just sad.
A:        I’m sad too. My foot just slipped off the brake.
B:        I see.
A:        I’m sorry.
B:        I know. It’s okay.

B Reflection. Students answer the questions about the sketch.

Performance. Pairs take on roles and practise reading the dialogue aloud using voice and gesture. Invite volunteers to perform to the class or have them perform for another pair.

D Abstract conceptualisation. Choose from the following options.

i. Students discuss whether and how goals are achieved in the sketch.
ii. In pairs, students share stories about similar experiences confessing/apologising or being on the receiving end. What happened? What did they say? What did they want to say? How did it turn out?
iii. Come together and elicit examples. Ask students to talk about what they said or wanted to say, and how they felt. Elicit or provide language options, leaving it up to students as to how and whether they want to adopt them.
iv. Introduce language. Ask students to rank the following apologies from least sincere to most sincere. Have them brainstorm contexts.

Apology Who are they saying it to?
___ I couldn’t help it.
___ Sorry, but it wasn’t my fault.
___ Please forgive me! I promise it’ll never happen again.
___ That was really stupid/careless of me. I should have known better.
___ I didn’t mean to let you down.

Active experimentation. Assign roles. Students roleplay the following apologies or use themes from their personal stories.

  • You forgot to bring the cups, plates, and utensils for a party.
  • You spilt coffee on your classmate’s paper.
  • You took your roommate’s keys by accident or you accidentally locked your roommate out of the apartment/your room.

F Repeat. Students repeat the roleplay with a new partner, switching roles so they can practise the other side.

A monologue, play or sketch offers a unique window into conversation because, unlike a text or lecture in which a writer speaks to a reader, a play shows how people manage a relationship. This is insight that students need if they are to go beyond the literal in their discussions and really get to know speakers of other languages.

Kolb, D. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Savage, A. 2019. The drama book: Lesson Plans, Activities, and Scripts for the ESOL Classroom, Alphabet Publishing.

Alice Savage grew up in a theatre family, studied drama at the University of Washington, and has a degree in English language teaching from the School for International Training. Now a faculty member at Lone Star College in Houston, Texas, she teaches an English through theatre course and has authored several short plays for ESOL. Currently, she is working on a handbook for teachers interested in using improvisation, monologues, sketches and short plays in the classroom.

Walton Burns is the senior editor of Alphabet Publishing, an independent educational publishing company. Having taught English in the Peace Corps in Vanuatu, trained teachers in Kazakhstan, worked with Afghan high school students, and prepared Turkish judges and Chinese video game champions for Masters programmes, he has turned more and more to freelance writing and editing ELT materials, which lets him enjoy time with his son. He has books out with Compass Publishing, OUP, and Pro-Lingua, and, of course, Alphabet Publishing.