Guesswork, Improv and More: 5 Exciting Drama Activities for Teaching ESL

It has been widely argued that speech makes up only a fraction of human communication.

The researcher Albert Mehrabian famously broke it down as follows: 55% of communication is through body language, 38% is tone of voice and a mere 7% relies on the meaning of the actual words themselves!

Regardless of the actual figures, it’s abundantly clear that much of our communication is non-verbal.

Facial expressions, hand gestures and body language are essential elements of how we communicate with one another.

What better way to recognize this than by incorporating drama as one of our ESL activities?

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.

And, most importantly, it’s a helluva lot of fun!

So how do we use drama in the ESL classroom? Simple! Simply read on for details on five drama activities you can start using in your classroom, today!

Acting Out, in a Good Way! 5 Sensational ESL Drama Activities

To get the creative juices flowing, it’s always a great idea to model some great acting with native clips from FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

By introducing some of your students’ favorite English media, they feel more confident and even encouraged to participate in acting-based ESL classes. To explore the FluentU program, you can request a free trial and discover all the fantastic additional features. 

1. Can You Tell What It Is Yet?

A simple and fun game that’s very versatile, this is useful for everything from teaching vocabulary to writing preparation.

An easy way to use this game for vocabulary is to print up cards containing nouns based on the vocab the students have been working on in class. For example, if you’ve been looking at “occupations,” the cards might contain words such as “teacher,” “engineer,” “artist,” etc.

In teams, students mime the activities for each other as their classmates try to guess the occupation. The first person to guess then takes their turn by picking a card.

You can add further pressure, and therefore excitement, by introducing a timer into the game. Have two teams compete against each other by seeing who can communicate the word silently to their teammates the fastest.

Although this is a very simple game that can be used to learn a wide range of vocabulary, with a little extension it can also help lead into more advanced fiction writing work.

For example, during this activity, the student must stay in character. This encourages students to consider the importance of non-verbal communication, i.e., the importance of physical movement and facial expression. This kind of reflection and consideration of detail will help your students create fuller and more consistent characters in their writing.

2. Story Performance

The demands of the ESL classroom are such that it’s rare to be afforded the time for a full-blown off-Broadway production! However, this does not mean that drama cannot be woven into the regular material of a lesson.

Simple dramatic techniques benefit good storytelling, regardless of whether the story is fiction or not. Encourage your students to “perform” oral presentations in story format.

The level of your students’ abilities will dictate the complexity of the story they should undertake to perform. Often, familiar fairy tales are so well-known that they easily lend themselves to a performance retelling.

You may also set them the task of performing a true story from their own lives. Topics such as “My most embarrassing moment” or “The scariest day of my life” can inspire some wonderful performances from students.

Students should be aware of their audience, as well as how they use their voices and their bodies to convey a story. Physically performing stories helps students internalize the meaning of the vocabulary they are learning. It helps establish a congruence between oral language and body language. Here are some things for them to consider and keep in mind:

  • Eye contact. Encourage your students to make eye contact when performing their stories. This is good practice for any oral activity. When we feel like we are being directly communicated to, we are much more likely to pay attention.
  • Facial expression. Students should use their facial muscles to communicate their tale. Have them rehearse this in the mirror. Developing individual facial expressions for the dialogue of specific characters is a great way to breathe life into them.
  • Hand gestures. This is not the same as acting out every word. Overkill should be avoided. But well-timed hand gestures bring life to a tale. This may also afford an opportunity to teach the significance of a variety of hand gestures in the English-speaking world; they do not all mean the same thing in every country.

It’s also worth giving consideration to how the students employ their voices in their story performance. Things to consider here include:

  • Pace and volume. There’s nothing more guaranteed to put an audience to sleep than the metronomic, monotonic tone of a struggling reader. Rehearsal is important. Students should vary the speed and volume of their performance according to the demands of the story.
  • Voice variety. Just as with the facial expressions and hand gestures above, developing a specific voice for each character in the story can transport the listener to another place. Accents, word choice and slang can all be part of this consideration.

There are lots more ways to incorporate mime and gesture into your ESL teaching in this article.

3. Hot Seating

Hot seating can provide a smooth transition into creative writing. It can also make use of much of the work undertaken in the story performance activity. For example, you can have the student-writer role-play a main character in the story they have performed.

In this activity, the other students ask questions of the character. The questions can be about anything, whether related to the plot, or not. The character’s childhood, embarrassing moments and pet hates are all fair game.

This can also be used as a prep exercise for story performance. Either way, it’s an effective way to get your students to think deeply about their characters and create plausible personalities to people their fictional worlds.

4. Improvisation

While the word “drama” can conjure up images of scripts, line-learning and bossy directors, the essence of improvisation is the essence of authentic communication: Namely, spontaneity.

In intermediate and advanced contexts, improvisation activities acclimatize students to thinking under pressure in a comparatively “safe” environment.

By taking away the time to prepare, students more accurately experience the twists and turns of real life conversation. It also takes them away from the banality of rote learning that inevitably plays some part in language acquisition. Improvisation requires the student to muster up all their language knowledge and combine it with their imagination. No easy challenge!

So how can we incorporate improvisation into the ESL classroom? Whether done in paired or group improvisations, the core of each activity should be giving the students a situation as a starting point. Just a brief outline. Not too much detail. The less detail, the more the students will have to engage their imagination during the activity.

Simple situations are best for warm-up activities. These need not be overly time-consuming, and so can be employed frequently, and adapted to the themes and topics the students are currently working on.

The more complicated premises can be used for main activities, as they will require a little more time. Another way to think about it is that, generally, paired activities serve best as warm-ups and fillers, while larger group improvisations work well as main activities.

This is, of course, a general guideline; you can adapt and amend to best fit the needs of your students.

Here are some fun improv ideas you can use:

  • Old Friends: Have students pair up. Tell them they are at a party when they see an old friend they haven’t seen since childhood (or in several years). They go up to each other and strike up a conversation. This activity can be amended according to group demographics. Variations could be ex-spouses, ex-colleagues, ex-schoolmates, etc.
  • Loitering with Intent: Again, have students pair up. One of them is a burglar standing outside a shop at 3am. A cop on the beat rounds the corner. How does the conversation go?
  • Alien Press Conference: Choose some students to be an alien space crew that has just landed on Earth. Other students perform the role of journalists asking questions. Encourage imagination and creativity here. For example, are the aliens even familiar with the human conventions of a press conference?
  • Noisy Neighbors: A group of students are at a party. The next door neighbors are trying to sleep, study, etc. They go next door to complain. What happens?

5. Drama Grab Bag

In addition to the above activities, here are a few more drama ideas that are easy to incorporate into class time:

  • Two Truths and a Lie: This one is great for students to get to know each other at the start of a new semester or year. Students present three statements to the class about themselves, one of which is a lie. Can the student use their acting skills to misdirect the group?
  • The Story Circle: This is a fun activity that can be easily adapted depending on the ability of your students. Students form a circle. They will tell a story, one word at a time, going around in a circle. For beginner students, this may be a retelling of a story they are already familiar with, while more advanced students can create their own tale. This activity can also be modified by instructing students to use a specific tense, or use a single sentence per person rather than a word. The drama element is introduced by instructing the students to ensure their body language is congruent with their words.
  • Synchronized Storytelling: In this activity, students work in pairs to tell a story. One tells the story orally, while the other acts it out. They can then swap. This can be combined with a creative writing task, or the students can tell a story familiar to them. The “mime” may wish to incorporate props and items of clothing to bring some color to their physical storytelling.


Encourage your students to be drama queens (or kings!).

One of the great barriers to language learning is confidence, or rather, the lack of it. The beauty of incorporating elements of drama into the ESL classroom is that it asks students to do difficult things, regularly. And as any athlete will tell you, we only get better by doing the things we find difficult, repeatedly. The classroom affords a safe environment for students to attempt these difficult things. Think of it like a boxer’s training gym before a world title fight: a place to drill and practice, try new things and make mistakes.

One of the best ways to encourage our students in this undertaking is by modeling it in our own behaviors. Be theatrical in your own storytelling. Participate in the activities yourself. Seeing the “authority figure” in the room fall flat on their face is a great way to give students the confidence to take a chance.

Most of all, have fun!

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