Looking for a way to liven up your classroom?
Want to keep your students excited about coming to language class?
A fantastic way to break the routine and put a fun twist on the standard parts of a language class is with these two words:
Almost everyone loves to play act, from kids in a beginning class to adults who’ve been working all day.
Drama activities—like the six highlighted in this post—will add spice and interest to your language class, offering your students an entertaining way to apply the language they’ve learned.
Why Use Drama Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom
Drama activities, besides being a fun and exciting way to break through the doldrums of the traditional language class, offer a variety of pluses that directly contribute to the language student’s learning experience.
To combine verbal and non-verbal communication
Using drama activities in your language classroom will help your students to connect the verbal communication involved in vocabulary, grammar and structure with the non-verbal communication of gestures, facial expressions and movement.
Both verbal communication and non-verbal cues are crucial to understanding the target language as seen in real conversations with native speakers and videos from sources such as FluentU.
By introducing a drama activity that gets your students on their feet, you help them to remove focus from exclusively speaking the language “correctly.” They begin to understand that combining what they can say with other natural, non-verbal cues will help them to overcome shyness that leads to a type of quiet interference.
To focus on contextual meaning
A simple question/answer activity will have a limited context for your students. A drama activity, on the other hand, will put the student into a situation where the language being practiced and used makes sense within a larger context. Drama sets a scene and the scene sets the language to be used.
To increase student motivation and interest
Face it, students kind of get bored sitting in their seats, looking at the board, taking notes and reading from the text. Though we can’t always get away from these activities in our language class, we can alleviate the potential for boredom or even discipline problems by alternating regular classwork with drama activities.
Getting the students on their feet, moving about the classroom and shouting out answers will foster not only more interest in the material being practiced and learned, but they will also help students be more motivated to participate in class.
To shift responsibility of practicing from the teacher to the students
Finally, drama activities create an important shift in focus in the classroom.
- You, the teacher, are no longer standing at the front with all eyes on you.
- Students are no longer reciting answers to questions.
- You become quiet while they make all the noise.
While your evaluation of the activities will be important, you’ll actually be silently observing for the majority of the time students are doing these activities. And that’s because they’re student-oriented, so these activities will get your students interacting with one another, and help them to “forget” that you’re there. This creates a relaxing, fun atmosphere where quality language practice can take place.
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How to Use Drama Activities Effectively for Language Learning
Use drama activities at the right moment
Except under remarkable circumstances, a drama activity will be something you’ll want to save for “special moments.” That’s not to say that you can’t incorporate them into your regular class planning; however, you should reserve them for slots where they can best be used. They are activities that reinforce prior learning, so drama activities can actually become an entertaining way to review classwork.
Other moments for drama activities include:
- after an important exam
- once every two weeks, with the promise of doing the same in another two weeks
- at the end of a class when there’s extra time (the shorter, quicker activities are a great for this)
Excite your class with drama activities
Though you’ve planned drama activities as part of your regular schedule (once a week, once a month, end of semester), keep your students aware that the activities will be done. Consider them a “carrot on a stick,” a reward for good behavior or fine exam results. Remind your students during the regular classwork that today’s theme will come up again in one of these drama activities.
Then, if you insert a drama activity by surprise, your students will remain excited with your classes. An excited class just seems to learn easier than a bored one!
Have the right materials on hand
Each of these activities will need a bit of preparation on your part. Some of the items you’ll need you can provide yourself, while for a few activities your students will be involved in the producing, finding or bringing in of some items.
Some basic items may include:
- a deck of playing cards to help with pairing participants
- a bag of hand-held props to use in the activity
- extra chalk or strips of scrap paper
- prepared flashcards
- an egg timer with a bell
Now that you know how to use these gems, here are six excellent drama activities to try out in your classroom.
6 Fun Drama Activities for Dynamic Language Learning
The game of Charades has existed since the 16th century. Most people have played one version or another of this game. In this case, Charades is an activity in which one student mutely uses body language while the rest of the class tries to guess what he/she is trying to communicate. This reinforces the connection between body language and spoken language, and the activity is especially useful for vocabulary review.
- Beforehand, count out one card for each student from a regular deck of playing cards. Then, from a second deck, make a pile of those exact same cards. If you have 20 students, for example, you should have two identical piles of 20 cards—made from two different decks. (Note: For smaller groups, you can use a single deck. An ace of hearts in the first pile would correspond to the ace of diamonds in your second pile, as they’re both red aces.)
- Put the students in a semi-circle with space in the middle for the charade.
- Have on hand:
- Noun, verb and adjective flashcards (one word per card)
- Two decks of playing cards (per above instructions)
- Egg timer
Doing the activity
From the first prepared deck, randomly hand out one playing card to each student. You should have the same cards in your own, second prepared deck. Shuffle your cards, take the first card from the stack and call out the card. The student with that card is the first up to act.
Hand that student a flashcard. The student should begin with an agreed gesture to indicate noun, verb or adjective. For example, “noun” could be miming “hold a ball.” “Verb” could be represented by knocking one wrist on the other. “Adjective” could be pointing to their own smiling face. Set these gestures from the beginning.
Give the student one or two minutes to act out the word, and use your timer to do this. The student can’t make a single sound while miming. The rest of the group should try to figure out the word being acted out. Remind your students to use complete sentences, like “Is it a ball?” or “Are you sad?,” rather than simply shouting out words.
If someone guesses the word before the time’s up, lead the applause and then pick another card from your deck to choose the next student to act. By using the playing cards, you are making sure everyone gets a chance to act out a word.
A variation might be combining two or three flashcards together. For example, an adjective with a noun, or a noun with a verb. “Is it a big ball?” or “Is the toaster running?” might be winning guesses in an ESL class, for example. It doesn’t matter if the words match exactly, that’s part of the joy and should lead to good, fun laughter.
This activity is meant to take the heat off of the student, allowing them to try to experience communication without grammar, structure and vocabulary. On the other hand, it also helps students to identify clues which leads to comprehension through gestures, tone of voice and body language. This is a good activity for practicing reported speech and general past tense explanations.
- Put the students in a semi-circle with space in the middle for two chairs and a table.
- Have on hand:
- Deck of cards to assign partners
- Situation flashcards (i.e. “What you did last night,” “What happened on the way to class,” “Who you saw in town yesterday”)
- Your egg timer
Doing the activity
Pair up students with the playing cards. Have two cards of each number, such that there are the same number of total cards as there are students. Shuffle and pass out cards at random, and then have students find the other student with the same number. After all the pairs have matched up, collect one card from each pair. Shuffle these cards and pick one card. This will be the first pair to sit at the table. Give one student a situation card, which he or she doesn’t show to their partner.
The student with the situation card now has one minute to explain, in a made-up gibberish language, whatever is noted on the situation flashcard. For example, a situation card might read “I got stopped by the cops while driving home last night,” and the acting student would have to try to convey that situation using gibberish, gestures and facial expressions. (Video example here.)
When the egg timer bell rings, the partner who watched must then explain to the class, in the target language, what he or she has understood. You can have the class vote if they agree or disagree with this “translation.” The first student confirms the accuracy of the “translation” of the situation.
Lead the class in applause and pick a new pair to do the same activity.
You can give the students more time to speak gibberish if your class time permits. You can also switch roles before changing pairs, so that all students get a chance to speak gibberish and explain or “translate.”
3. Draw an Object
In this activity, students will be guessing vocabulary based upon drawings done by their classmates. Though it sounds like the popular picture drawing game, it’s actually a double header activity, with two teams guessing at the same time. This is another activity that’s great for vocabulary review.
- Draw a line down the middle of the blackboard.
- Divide the students into two groups and have each group stand on their side of the board.
- Have on hand:
- Vocabulary flashcards
- Your egg timer
Doing the activity
Pull aside one member from each group to the back of the room. Show these two students the same flashcard. They must then rush to the board and will have one minute to draw something that will get their group to figure out the word. However, they cannot draw the item that was on the card!
So, if the word was “book,” for example, they couldn’t draw a book. Students must draw something else—maybe a shelf, reading glasses or Harry Potter and Dr. Seuss’s cat with a hat, for example.
Remind your students to use complete sentences in the target language when guessing (i.e. “Is it a book?”), rather than shouting out single words. When someone guesses the correct word, pull aside two more people and begin again.
You could give points for each team, but the best way to do this activity is to keep the students moving and changing words. You can also repeat words, so that “book” may turn up again after a few other words, but with two other students drawing. This activity should be done quickly and with mounting excitement and noise level; everyone should be talking at once.
4. Where Are We?
In this activity, students will be acting out different objects that are characteristic of a certain place. Though they are miming the objects, students should also use verbal language related to the room.
For example, if they are in an operating room, there will be a table, the instruments, the lighting. They could say “Nurse, hand me the scalpel” or “How’s his pulse?”
- Students are placed in the semi-circle formation.
- They can use a table and no more than two chairs.
- They can also choose one prop per actor from the prop bag.
- Have on hand:
- Some place flashcards (i.e. “dentist office,” “library,” “supermarket”)
- Bag of various props
Doing the activity
Use your playing cards to make pairs or trios. Get the first pair (or trio) up on stage and give them a place card. Give them a minute to organize their ideas together.
They now have two minutes to show the rest of the students where they are by arranging the table and chairs, using the props and having a relevant conversation in the target language. They can not directly name the place they are in, but instead students must act within it. When the timer goes off, ask the audience to guess, in complete sentences, where the scene just took place. Applaud and change pairs.
5. Mirror Talk
This activity is based on the mirror mimicking game many of us have played as children. Instead of simply pretending to be a mirror and following the leader’s movements, one student has to try to say the same thing the other is saying in unison, as if it were a choral exercise.
- Students are, again, in a semi-circle.
- List, on the board, several questions in one column, with answers in the other column to those questions. Let the students see the questions and answers that they’ll be using.
- Have your egg timer ready.
Doing the activity
Pair up students with the playing cards, like you did for Gibberish. Call on the first pair to center stage. One student, let’s call them student A, faces the board while student B has their back to the board and can’t see what’s written.
During one minute, you will point to questions on the board, which student A (who can see them) will ask aloud. As student A speaks, student B tries to say the same question as close to the same time as their partner. Then you will point to that question’s answer, which student A also reads (and student B tries to say at the same time, mimicking his or her partner). Point to questions randomly, but match the answer to the question.
Switch the students and do another minute. Call up a new pair.
Once every pair has done two minutes, begin the second round. This time, you will point to questions at random, but you will not match the answers. So, a question may be “How old are you?” while the answer will be “At ten o’clock.” This random choosing will keep the students on their toes and concentrating on trying to mimic their partner as closely as possible without anticipating.
6. Name Six
This is a fun vocabulary review activity that can be used as a warm-up. It’s based on the old beanbag hot potato game many of us played as kids.
- Push all the chairs and tables back and have students sit on the floor.
- Have on hand: A beanbag or a squishy toy.
Doing the activity
Choose one student to stand in the middle of the circle. This student closes his eyes and turns around slowly, counting to ten. Meanwhile, the circle is passing the hot potato around as fast as possible so as not to burn their hands.
When the center student reaches ten, he or she calls out “stop,” opens his or her eyes and points at the student with the hot potato. You will then give a category, such as “Six words that begin with ‘p’!” If the language you’re teaching uses pictographs instead of an alphabet, you can use a reference word, like “Six colors!,” “Six adjectives!” or “Six occupations!”
The hot potato begins to pass around the circle again while the chosen student has to say six words that begin with the letter “p” before the potato comes back to him or her.
If the student succeeds, there’s no change and the activity begins again. If the student does not succeed, then they become the student in the middle who turns and counts. Repeat the sequence. You can adjust the number of words to be said, or the number of times the hot potato is passed, according to the number of students in your class and their level to give a fair amount of time for producing the words.
Drama activities are not only a great way to get your students more involved in the class. They can also serve as useful review, a reward for work well done and a break from the sometimes unavoidable routine of text work, taking notes and sitting exams.
Have fun with your students while doing these activities, and they will show their appreciation to you with their enthusiasm in your language class.
Revel Arroway is a retired teacher with over 30 years experience in ESL and Spanish teaching, as well as teacher training. Though he no longer teaches, he continues to be active in training teachers, creating and writing about methods and activities that help ESL teachers jump-start their classes and simplify their lesson load.
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