Improv 101: 5 Activities That Use Language Improvisation to Accelerate Learning
Drama, specifically the improvised kind, has its time and place, even in the language classroom.
Our lives are not scripted, so why should all of our educational activities be?
Improvisation is the best real-world preparation a student can get out of a classroom learning experience.
Incorporating it into your your curriculum introduces students to scenarios they’ll face outside the classroom, encouraging them to think on their toes, have fun and apply what they’ve learned.
As a teacher, you’ll also get to use some of your own improvisation skills as you facilitate. You’ll find yourself reacting more quickly to anything your students throw your way, and being all-around better able to engage your students. Pretty soon, using this effective teaching tool in your classroom will be a breeze and a blast.
Lights, camera, action!
The Benefits of Improvisation Activities in a Language Class
- Imitates real life because it results in organic, unscripted conversations that flows naturally. This should be the ultimate goal of all language learning: to use the language the way it is used by native speakers.
- Builds class trust by giving students the opportunity to step outside of their comfort zones and work off one another.
- Encourages attentive listening because in order to come up with an appropriate response students have to be closely following the conversation. Attentive listening supports retention.
- Improves speaker confidence and clarity by putting students in situations where they must adopt a role and be open, creative and expressive in order to complete the activity.
- Requires participation because there is nowhere to hide during an improvised skit or conversation. Increased participation in turn boosts learning.
5 Activities That Use Language Improvisation
1. Bring a Story to Life
Easing students into improv can be tricky.
Giving them loose guidelines that leave room for creativity can help with the transition. This first activity does just that. Here’s how you do it:
- Read a short story or poem, then have a group stand up and act out the plot. Lean towards simple stories. I like using online children’s story resources like this one.
- Use a different story with each group.
- Now that the students are comfortable, each group stands up again and acts out what they think will happen next.
That third step is challenging and demands more creativity so it helps that they have had step one as a warm-up. If you have a longer story you want to use, you can always split it up and have groups act out different parts.
There are thousands of stories out there so try to use ones that work with your syllabus theme. For example, if it is December and you want to teach holiday vocabulary, choose a holiday story or carol.
If your class is particularly shy, let them stay seated the first couple of times they try improv exercises so that they are not too overwhelmed. Staying in their chairs can make a world of difference in terms of nerves. You may even find that they get so into the activities that they will start itching to get up, gesture and move around on their own!
Once your students are comfortable with one another—and with these kinds of activities—you can step it up a notch.
- Two or three students will act out an assigned scenario in silence.
- Whisper it into their ears or write it on a flashcard. The scenarios could be something like this: you’re sunbathing on a beach when all of a sudden a hurricane arrives or you’re at the hairdresser getting a haircut when all of a sudden there are bees everywhere in the salon. As you can see, slightly ridiculous works just fine.
- Choose one student to be the reporter to narrate what is going on, i.e. what they think the students are acting out.
This is a take on charades, except that it requires coherent narrating and explaining by the reporter. For a particularly shy class, try choosing two reporters instead of one.
You can use this activity to evaluate students’ use of the present progressive or whatever tense is appropriate in your target language when describing presently occurring events.
This exercise is on the tougher side, so if your class can handle it without freezing up or losing focus, then they will be able to handle pretty much any improv exercise you throw at them.
3. Role Swap
Even though this next one is easier, it is still improv through and through.
- Split the class into groups.
- Give each one a card with a character, i.e. grandmother with poor hearing, a diva, angry father, jolly policeman or Queen Elizabeth.
- Have them begin improvising a conversation amongst themselves, encouraging them to embody the characters.
- Instruct them to try to guess each other’s character.
- Then walk around the room swapping cards at random, even across groups, leaving all the students with whole new characters to act out.
Nothing keeps students thinking on their toes like pulling their identities out from under them. It can get a little goofy, but all you need to do is monitor things to make sure everyone is participating, throwing questions at students who seem to be taking the back seat.
You can use your characters to hone in on specific lesson goals by adding some additional descriptions. For example, instead of “diva” you can use “bossy diva” to have students use commands, or remind them that royalty, like Queen Elizabeth, and those speaking to them should only use polite, formal verb and sentence structures.
Use a variety of roles—children, movie stars, polite or old-fashioned characters, bossy or dramatic ones, etc.—so that students have to stop and think about the language they are using and what it can convey. This is particularly helpful for English native speakers learning foreign languages because they are less accustomed to incorporating formal and informal speech.
In preparation, have students split up into pairs and do a scripted role play. Next give them a scenario, for example: you are calling the tow-truck driver to pick you up but the driver is too lazy so you have to convince him to come. Have them improvise the conversation. Maybe try out a total physical response activity if you need to loosen them up further.
By now they should definitely be ready for the role swapping activity.
4. Freeze & Switch
Are you and your students in need of a pick-me-up? This exercise will have you all moving, improvising and laughing in no time.
Describe a scenario that students will act out that features three or four characters. The scenario you make up should have:
- A clear setting
- One or more obstacles to overcome
- Defined characters
For example, a woman is walking her chihuahua when a flock of birds flies down, picks up her dog and carries it away. One character is the woman, one is a witness and one is the policeman.
You can let students decide how the story unfolds. Have a second scenario handy in case your first one does not take off like you would like it to.
Every minute or so you will yell “freeze” and other students will have to jump in and switch spots with the actors, picking up where they left off.
Feel free to throw in extra characters to shake things up, like another person who is looking for his flock of birds that has escaped its cage.
You do not need to swap all of the actors out at the same time. Wait until you feel like the student has had ample speaking time before taking them out.
The value here is that students are having spontaneous, unscripted conversations. Feel free to manipulate the scenarios to include recent lessons. You could have one that encourages students to ask and receive directions—i.e. someone is lost, late for their own wedding and in need of help finding the venue. If you want them to practice how to politely disagree then create a scenario that allows for it, like a teenager trying to convince his or her parents to extend a curfew.
Let your imagination run wild and you will find that this exercise can become whatever you need it to be.
5. Build a Story
You have probably played this one before but never would have categorized it as improvisation. Even though it does not involve acting, it still requires students to make things up as they go along.
- One student starts with a phrase or sentence, i.e. once upon a time there lived…
- The next student picks up where they left off and so on until everyone has contributed to the story multiple times.
- You can amp it up further by doing away with the circular order and pointing at students at random when it is their turn. Speed up the pace to further energize the game.
If you want to incorporate specific vocabulary words you can show the student a flashcard with a word on it when it is their turn. They then have to incorporate this specific vocabulary word into their phrase.
For a loosely related variation, pick a category of words that you have recently learned (vegetables, holidays, countries, etc.) and have the class go around in a circle saying one word from that category. If the student cannot come up with any words that fit, they are out of the round and the circle gets smaller until there is one winner.
Not only is improvisation fun for students, but as a teacher you will quickly see the appeal too.
You will also have to think on your toes as you monitor and facilitate these exercises.
Enjoy scrapping the scripts and seeing where your students’ creativity will take them and you!
Natalia Hurt is a travel and language enthusiast who enjoys studying the connection between people and places from all corners of the globe. Explore her travel-inspired essays and photos here: www.aFarCorner.com