Using Speech and Drama in the ESL Classroom

Image result for superheroes

Credit: : Marvel Comics

Let’s role play!

Who is/was your favorite superhero? Batman? Spider-Man? Superman? or maybe Sentry?

When I was a child, I’d love imaginary play. I’d love to role play as a superhero (usually Wolverine or Spider-Man), one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Raphael), or some other popular character from my childhood. I would play out entire story lines with my siblings or friends. We would have a lot of fun fighting and pretending to be our favorite heroes.  Those were some great times!

Role play activities not only help develop imagination, but also speech and acting skills. You can read about how role play influences child development here and here. Lev Vygotsky, a major influence on current child developmental theory, said that when children participate in imaginary play.

They are developing the following skills:

  • social skills – learning to play with others
  • speech and language skills – produce words and sentences, imitating speech from another person
  • and also problem solving skills – able to make props or assist playmates

How does this relate to the ESL classroom?

Role play activities help the development of language production. Students are able to practice pronunciation and speaking fluency, expand their vocabulary base, develop listening comprehension, and interpersonal communication skills. Drama activities also incorporate movement into the lesson, which help kids who cannot sit still for long periods of time.

Drama not only encourages ESL beginners to communicate at the “pre-production” stage of language acquisition, it’s also an engaging way of teaching any language learner.

Drama offers opportunities to simulate real-life situations, draws on the creativity of students and introduces them to the cultural significance of various gestures and body language familiar to native English speakers.

Acting out a story transcends language barriers. It can be used to encourage students to get an authentic “feel” for the weight of the words they are learning. It’s also great for the many students who prefer physical engagement in their learning and can provide an excellent jumping-off point to bridge from oral activities into reading and writing.


Teaching dramatic performance to ESL students may seem like a somewhat challenging task. It’s important to find a play script that’s at an appropriate skill level, and not too time-consuming. If you cannot find a good script on your own, then perhaps try your hand at writing one yourself (I’ve done it a number of times).

When choosing a script, you should look at what objective the students should meet.

  • Should your students practice using target vocabulary?
  • Should they practice improvisational language?
  • Should they practice situational language?
  • Do you want them to develop speaking fluency regardless of grammar mistakes or content?

These are but some things to consider when planning to use drama activities for ESL students. One of the main points is for students to practice producing language, rather than acquiring new language.

What are some benefits to using drama in the ESL classroom?

A quote from this article, sums it up well:

  • the acquisition of meaningful, fluent interaction in the target language;
  • the assimilation of a whole range of pronunciation and prosodic features in a fully contextualized and interactional manner;
  • the fully contextualized acquisition of new vocabulary and structure;
  • an improved sense of confidence in the student in his or her ability to learn the target language.” (Wessels, p.10).

That same article goes on to say this:

Drama for second language learners can provide an opportunity to develop the imagination of the students. The students can go beyond the here and now and even ‘walk in the shoes’ of another. It provides an opportunity for independent thinking  (McCaslin 1996).

Drama also helps kids build self-confidence, team work, organizational and management skills, authentic language production and listening skills, taking pride in their work, and self-awareness (among other important skills). These skills can help students throughout their entire lives as they continue their education, and even into their job.


Tips for teaching ESL students

It’s great to know the benefits to teaching drama, and now here are some useful tips.

  • Pre-learn the vocabulary first – You can use songs, flashcards, or memory games to help students get used to saying key words from the play.
  • Start practicing simple lines – Once the students have learned the key words, have them start speaking lines from the play. It doesn’t matter if they say it perfectly, it’s about vocabulary in-context, as well as whole language production.
  • Use props – Using props, only after the students have learned their lines, allow kids to develop their character. Props add a level of authenticity to the play/dramatic performance, and it’s also fun!

  • Get them moving – Good storytelling not only comes from well-written lines of dialogue and prose, but also through movement. Students should incorporate eye contact, hand gestures, and various facial expressions into their performance.
  • Get them talking – That’s one of the reasons to use drama for ESL students, isn’t it? Students have the opportunity to talk, and while some may be more confident in their abilities, less confident students are also able to participate. All students should work on their pace and volume – not speaking too quickly or slowly, nor too loud or too soft. They should also work on using a variety of speaking styles – like different accents, tones, and inflections, to better express their lines.

Examples of different kinds of dramatic activities

There are many ways to incorporate drama into ESL classrooms, and also for all ages – from kindergarten to adult ELLs. Here are just a few I’ve seen (source).

  • Improvisation – use Theatresports games. The rules create great boundaries but encourage problem solving.
  • Role Play – Acting out short scripted dialogue, making up dialogue.
  • Reader’s Theatre – performing written stories. The writer reads the stories aloud whilst the others perform in mime.
  • Masked Theatre
  • Puppet Shows

One thing that’s important to remember, is to keep the language simple enough for students to work with. If the dialogue has too many difficult words above the students’ level, they won’t be able to develop their skills as easily. Instead, you should scale the language accordingly: simple sentences for kindergarten/young learners, and steadily increase the difficulty towards adult learners.

Final thoughts

Speech and drama activities are not only fun, but they also allow students to develop a wide variety of skills. Drama imitates life and help students understand different situations more easily. They also develop empathy as they experience life through someone else’s eyes. As students grow and develop into adults, they may experience similar situations in their own lives someday, and these activities may give them the tools they need to resolve conflict, or deal with an important issue they face.

I’d like to share this quote,

Therefore, it makes sense that dramatic skills can help us become the person we want to be. In this way, drama has a wider reach than simply making us more fluent in a second language.  It has the potential of making our lives better as we will be better understood and may help us become the people we want to be. Drama is all about how we present ourselves. If the student can communicate better, the more likely others will see him/her as he/she wishes to be seen.


As teachers, we should encourage our students to try new things, and challenge themselves. We should also not discourage them from speaking their minds. Dramatic play can help students develop their own ideas and challenge themselves to set goals.

Don’t be afraid to use dramatic play in your ESL classroom!

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Filed under English, ESL, Kids, Korea, South Korea, Speaking, Teaching

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