English Teaching Online - Teachit's half-termly e-newsletter

The one with all the
Summer (1) 2008 / Term 5

Avoiding embarrassment | Geoff Barton Borrowing ideas from Drama | Harry Dodds
Spotlight on improvisation | Larraine Harrison Using Drama creatively with pupils with SEN | Andrew Buckton
Don't be scared | Nic Harvey Webwatch | Rhiannon Glover
Exploring texts through drama | Richard Durant >> English Teaching Online Archive

Depictions of English teachers tend to be polarised: either they're planted at the front of the classroom while the students take turns to read aloud, or they're leaping onto desks shouting 'O captain, my captain' or getting their students to act out trips to Parisian brothels (hastily becoming wounded soldiers at Ypres when the headteacher appears). The implication is clear: you're either traditional and dull, or you're an inspiration (albeit also a risk-taking, irresponsible and corrupting influence) and you Do Drama.

I sailed through my childhood with a complete lack of any drama.

Kate Adie

The reality is of course rather different. But while no one would fully identify with either stereotype, on the whole we're probably still closer to the first extreme. Our students do still spend nearly all their time sitting down, reading and writing. That's what English generally involves, and space, time and classroom-management issues can often make it hard to introduce more active approaches. Hard, but perhaps not as tricky as we sometimes think. If you've ever aspired to borrowing more from Drama in your English lessons, this is the issue for you.

There's a cheering mixture of encouragement and examples here. Each writer finds a different way of reminding us why drama is so important and why, in Geoff Barton's words, it 'goes to the heart of why many of us chose to teach English'. And then there are lots of practical ideas and examples, all of them realistic for English classrooms.

Two main messages come out of it all: (1) don't be scared and (2) enjoy yourself. Can't say fairer than that.


Katie Green

Avoiding embarrassment | Geoff Barton

Say the word ‘drama’ in a class of pupils and you’ll occasionally hear a kind of gulp. Some youngsters find it an exercise in ritual humiliation.

I sympathise with this. In my first year at university I decided to take Theatre Studies and duly had to audition for a place on the course. We spent an afternoon leaping around a large room pretending to be creatures from the jungle. In the middle, I recall, the fire alarm went off. “Don’t worry,” bellowed the course tutor, “it’s just a practice.” Minutes later, just as I was perfecting my impression of a particularly giddy chimpanzee, a pair of firemen walked in, gazing in disbelief as we ignored the fire that was apparently raging in a cupboard next door.

Acting is nothing more or less than playing. The idea is to humanize life.

George Eliot

Embarrassment – that was the main emotion I felt then and through too much of my drama experience at school. In those days we assumed drama meant 'doing plays' which, in reality, meant sitting around whilst more talented pupils got the bigger parts.

Now we understand drama to have a more diverse role within English and in the hands of the best practitioners it is used, for example, to explore character, theme and language. It is also essential for exploring the theatricality of the contexts of plays – no student can truly understand Shakespeare without actively exploring the confines of the Elizabethan stage, the minimalist scenery, the nature of the contemporary audience.

But there’s another, less tangible, reason that drama in English is so important and, for me, it goes to the heart of why many of us chose to teach English. Increasingly we’re realising from research like Debra Myhill’s at the University of Exeter, that some pupils will never improve their writing skills if they don’t also have chance to improve their oral skills. For boys in particular, oral rehearsal of ideas can make a huge impact.

We also know from John West-Burnham’s observations that up to 60% of pupils in secondary schools never have a conversation with an adult. They answer their name and answer (too many) (usually closed) questions. But they don’t have conversations. Good drama work helps them to build their linguistic repertoire, develops their listening skills, teaches them new linguistic structures and idioms. In short, it’s essential to help them to make progress in English.

So whatever the pressures on us to get pupils jumping through test hoops or maintaining unrealistically quiet classrooms, let’s resist. Because in using drama approaches skilfully, we’re going beyond the boundaries of our work as English teachers providing a kind of linguistic and imaginative nourishment that is likely to help them to develop as people. And there’s nothing embarrassing about that.

Spotlight on improvisation | Larraine Harrison

Several years ago, when asked to support an NQT with some drama strategies in her Year 9 English class, I was taken aback when she informed me that her class was now 'permanently banned from doing any drama'! It seemed that the day before my visit, real blood had been shed when she asked the pupils to improvise a poem about a murder!

Drama is action, sir, action and not confounded philosophy.

Luigi Pirandello

Needless to say, the teacher had had no training in using drama within English lessons. Fortunately, we now have an English Framework which offers some support for drama, but despite this, I still find that many teachers remain cautious when it comes to improvisation.

Whenever i am asked for advice on how to start using improvisation without risk of bloodshed, I always recommend a drama technique known as spotlighting. This tightly structured approach to improvisation 'enables all pupils to engage in a dramatic performance within a short space of time' (L. Harrison, Drama Links, Hodder). It also supports objectives linked to Speaking and Listening and the Study of Literary Texts and has the potential to provide material for script writing.

3 versions of spotlighting  

To explore a set text

When the teacher shines an imaginary spotlight on a small group of pupils, they perform approximately one minute of improvised conversation about a character or an event in a narrative text. Pupils can role play neighbours, eye-witnesses or other groups with a vested interest in the events. If such roles do not exist in the text, they can be created for the spotlighting.

To create a character

As an imaginary character walks down a street, the pupils role play the people in the houses. These people are spotlighted to perform conversations that reveal their opinions of that character. Pupils then incorporate this character into a subsequent drama or into their individual story writing.

To create a setting

The teacher represents an imaginary character travelling a vaguely defined route, such as by the sea or up a hill to an extinct volcano.  As the character travels the route they stop beside each group of pupils along the way. The group describes what the character sees, hears or senses at that particular point. They may also indicate the character’s response. This informs the context for a subsequent drama or the setting for a story.

How to structure spotlighting

Explain the selected version to pupils.
Seat pupils in mixed ability groups of between two and four.
Set ground rules: no bad language / offensive comments; no physical contact or extreme behaviour; stay seated; take turns when speaking; remain silent when not under spotlight.
Set a time limit of one or two minutes per spotlight.
Discuss possible content.
Allow some individual pupil thinking time, followed by one minute of unobserved spontaneous group improvisations.
Allow groups five to ten minutes to polish up their spontaneous improvisations. 
Allow a final timed rehearsal.

Don't be scared | Nic Harvey

Don’t be scared of it – drama is part of everyday life.  It’s a reflection of how we live and how we would like to live. It can explore ways we are glad we don’t have to live and help us to understand how some people do live.  It’s what we wake up to every morning and what we come home to every evening.

We put on the TV or watch a film to help us to unwind or in order to be entertained but drama can also help us to understand. It can show us different perspectives and give us the opportunity to develop an opinion by showing us how things are or could be. Sometimes we can even put ourselves in someone else’s shoes in order to understand their situation more fully. 

Man is a make-believe animal: he is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part

William Hazlitt

So drama can be a powerful resource in many subjects and although some teachers fear it, students will mostly embrace it and enjoy the experience. Some teachers who have not taught Drama or used it in their lessons, seem to think that it’s a licence for chaos and that as soon as desks and chairs are removed, students will automatically run around the room hysterically, screaming and shouting. I agree that pupils might be excited by the prospect of doing drama – particularly when they are not expecting to, like in Science or Geography, but a calm approach and well planned task should enable any teacher to carry out a drama lesson as successfully as one involving desks, chairs and a whiteboard – with just as positive learning outcomes.

Drama can be used in many different ways to reinforce study in English. Here are some examples for studying poetry.

A poem can be presented by a group, using their voices for impact and effect. 
Moving on from this, it can be performed, perhaps using narration and mime or simply by adding movement and gesture to help understanding. 
A poem can be explored in many ways using Drama. 
A character might be hot-seated or we might improvise flash-backs in order to explain or consider their actions and motivations. 
An idea or issue from the poem might be explored by the group in order to understand it better. 
The social context of a poem might be better understood by acting out scenes set in a particular environment or setting.
A situation might be enacted from different perspectives in order to see how a poem might be interpreted in different ways. 
Forum Theatre might be used to help students see how a character from a poem might respond in different situations. 
Students might be split into groups and given different poems to explain to the rest of the class; giving them a sense of ownership and expertise.  This could lead to a debate or discussion where pupils might argue the different merits of their poem. 

So, Drama can be used as a resource to support the study of many subjects, especially English, but is also important in its own right.  A polished performance of a scripted piece of theatre, a comic improvisation or a sinister mime can be just as valid as educational experiences and forms of sheer entertainment.  So don’t be scared - do some Drama!.

Exploring texts through drama | Richard Durant

My old drama coach used to say, 'Don't just do something, stand there.'

Clint Eastwood

There are few things more depressing than seeing 30 proto-adults mumbling their way through An Inspector Calls or Macbeth in preparation for 30 near-identical GCSE coursework essays. At KS3 we are more likely to push back the furniture and get the class on their feet to work on a play. The problem is that at KS4 (and Year 9) the emphasis shifts from performance to text – from drama to literature. Here are some ideas for exploring texts through drama.

Scenarios (or ‘interpretations’)

Put students in pairs (A and B) and give student A a simple line like 'Have you seen my new watch?' Ask the pair to speak and react to the line according to various scenarios:

  • A is wearing their watch and they are very proud of it; they want to impress B
  • A can’t find their watch and someone has told them that B has been seen with it on his wrist
  • A believes that B is teasing him (or her) by hiding the watch. This is a typical B trick
  • A is exasperated by B’s refusal to give clear information about the whereabouts of the watch.

And so on…..

Now give students lines from the play you are working on and ask them to deliver them according to given scenarios. For example, take these lines from Macbeth Act 1 Scene 3:

Were such things here as we do speak about?
Or have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner?

Your children shall be kings.

You shall be king.

And Thane of Cawdor too: went it not so?

Here are some possible scenarios for these lines:





You are already suspicious of Macbeth

You have always felt inferior to Banquo


Macbeth has always been your hero

You consider the whole witch episode to be a joke


You’ve heard of witch’s predictions before and you’ve always treated them with contempt

You resent and envy Banquo

Ask student pairs to perform their lines according to different scenarios. Get other pairs to deduce the scenarios being used.

Always get students to ask themselves these questions:

  • which scenario ‘feels’ right?
  • which one works best for an audience?
  • which one best fits with an overall interpretation of the play?

The idea is to get students into an active and experimental frame of mind and to see that the creation of a play does not end with a script but with its interpretation by performers and audience; and that means that the same script can ‘mean’ very different things at different times. This is a point that will not be obvious to the many students who have hardly ever been to the theatre, let alone seen two productions of the same play.

Here are a few more quick, ‘on-your-feet’ ideas for enlivening texts.


Choose a short section of the play. For each character allocate an actor and a ‘thinker’. Ask the actors to play the scene, but freeze the action every so often and get the thinkers to voice their characters’ thoughts at that moment. It is often a good idea to hear the thoughts of the character who has been listening, as well as the one who has been speaking.


Put a student in the ‘hotseat’ as a character with the rest of the class sitting around them in a semi-circle. Let students take turns asking the character questions about how they are feeling, why they said or did certain things, and so on. Get some students to take on an inflammatory, court-room style: (to Eddie in A View from the Bridge) “I put it to you that you were completely and utterly selfish from the start.”

There should always be a clear understanding of the objectives for hot-seating:

  • to deepen students’ understanding of a character and their motivations
  • to use the text as information to support questioning
  • to consider varied interpretations of the role.

Tableau (or ‘freeze-frame’)

A tableau is not just about freezing the action: it attempts to identify the mood or character of each person in the tableau and demonstrate their attitude at that moment. It is an ideal step towards thought-tracking (see above). Of course, sometimes you will want to create tableaux that do not freeze the action at all, but instead symbolically encapsulate an idea. For example, you might want to use a tableau to help students explore the inspector’s notion of social responsibility (An Inspector Calls), or Linda’s assertion that Willy is'only a little boat looking for a harbour' (Death of a Salesman).

The key to good activity is to use it not just for its own sake, but to support students in exploring the ‘world’ of the play and to deepen learning.

Borrowing ideas from Drama | Harry Dodds

"OK, Year 10, now that we’ve finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ve got a little quiz for you, just to make sure that you know what happens in the story. Isis and Lucy, will you hand out these worksheets, please?"

Drama is life with the dull parts cut out of it.

Alfred Hitchcock


"All we ever do is quizzes, Miss. Can’t we do something interesting?"

"Luke, there will be two raffle tickets for everyone who gets more than 15 out of 20. Will that make it easier?"


"OK, Year 10, now that we’ve finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I want you to think about how some of the characters walk. Isis, can you show us how Scout would have walked past Boo Radley’s house at the beginning of the story? Thank you, Isis. Now what was Isis trying to show us about how Scout felt about Boo Radley?....

"What about when she crossed the threshold of Mrs. Dubose’s house? James, can you show us that? Fine, but what’s your face doing? That’s better. Class, what’s James showing us about Scout’s feelings?

"Are there any other moments in the story where the way Scout walks might tell us something about how she’s feeling? OK, Meredith. Yes, Billy, it’s the moment when she enters the circle of men outside the courthouse. And how do we know that?" … and so on.

English teachers have always borrowed strategies and techniques from Drama, usually because we want active engagement with the text or activity, because it’s useful sometimes to get away from the written word, or because we want to promote empathy with a character or something approaching experience of a situation beyond a pupil’s normal life.

Some useful approaches are listed in Pedagogy and practice: Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools, Unit 11: Active engagement techniques, Task 6 (DCFS Standards Site).

This is a good time to be thinking about different approaches to teaching and learning in English, not least because we seem to have the QCA and the DCFS thinking in a more relaxed and coherent way. If their new emphasis on creativity and on thinking across subject divisions can help break the stranglehold of assessment-driven teaching, then we should be embracing all the approaches that will breathe life back into English. Borrowing as much as we can from Drama is a good starting point.

Try, with any kind of fiction or drama text, asking pupils to visualise it as a production – there’s a lot of learning to be had from set design, costuming,casting – ‘Which actor from EastEnders would you cast to play Malvolio?’, and from looking at a text as a director might.. They all ask pupils to engage by visualising.

Make opportunities for enjoying yourself.

Using drama creatively with pupils with SEN | Andrew Buckton

One of the biggest hurdles facing children with Special Educational Needs can often be a deficit in their development of social skills.  So many things that one generally takes for granted in children’s’ development can be lagging or lacking to a greater or lesser extent.  Unspoken and unwritten rules that we have come to accept can for some pupils remain unexplored, uninterpreted and unfathomable. 

One of the greatest things drama can do, at its best, is to redefine the words we use every day such as love, home, family, loyalty and envy.

Ben Kingsley

For example, who explained to you that when you go to the cinema you don’t sit right next to someone you don’t know unless you have to because the theatre is busy? 

Through drama, pupils can have the opportunity to explore issues that could otherwise never come to the fore.  Pupils are given the opportunity to explore their surroundings, culture and social structure in a safe environment.  Drama can be used across the curriculum, giving practical experience to sometimes abstract concepts.

For example, I observed a Y11 Science class grappling with the issues surrounding smoking.  All the key issues were addressed by the teacher and explored to some degree in discussion, but it was not until small groups began to engage in some role play that the evidence of their understanding or difficulty understanding the issues came to light.  Pupils were able to examine how they may feel being a smoker in a peer group who smoked.  They were able to safely deal with the rejection they might encounter by abstaining in that same group.  They could explain the health risks as a health professional might to a younger pupil and could interact as a parent with their child to explore how both sides might feel about smoking.  Using drama can be a very powerful tool for helping pupils secure learning and bring things down to earth. 

As a subject in its own right, drama is great for exploring what it is to be human.  Many pupils with SEN may find understanding the emotions of others and themselves consistently difficult to navigate.  Drama is a fantastic vehicle in which to tackle some of the tricky, funny and fragile emotions that make us tick.  I observed a group doing some great work with masks that portrayed different emotions.  Pupils were free to physically act out the emotions and the sessions were videoed.  Edited and set to music afterwards, the session provided resource material for more classes for work on recognising and understanding emotions. 

Role play is a valuable tool for pupils to engage with a host of possibilities, from the simple yet supportive practice of asking a stranger for directions to a complex exploration of mood and motive in a character.  Have fun as you get the pupils to set King Lear in today’s society or support pupils in preparation for travelling on a bus independently.  It's all important stuff.

Webwatch | Rhiannon Glover

Although specifically designed to help students preparing for GCSE Drama, the BBC Bitesize Drama area has many resources which could also be useful to English teachers wishing to introduce more drama into their classrooms. The site is helpfully split into sections on Creating, Responding and Performing but also includes video examples, links to other sites and a student message board.

She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.

Dorothy Parker

The Creative Drama and Theatre Education Resource Site includes classroom ideas and a useful spreadsheet of plays which would be suitable for performance in schools.  There is also a section entitled Theatre Games which provides a brief description of all sorts of activities which would make lively lesson starters in Drama and English lessons for younger students and tips for managing them.

Possibly more suited to students at A Level, Web English Teacher's Drama Resources include a diverse range of free resources for a variety of dramatic texts, from a cartoon summary of Hamlet (with dogs!?) to a complete study guide on A Streetcar Named Desire.

At the National Drama site you can sift through drama news, events and reviews and subscribe to the twice yearly Drama magazine.

Most theatre websites now produce information on current and past productions and drama in general specifically for teachers and students.  The more obvious theatre websites with educational resources include The Globe’s online learning centre where you can find continually updated resources to assist the exploration of current productions, research and blogs, amongst other goodies, and the National Theatre’s education pages.  The latter have workpacks and background packs which include plot synopses, background to the authors and their plays, rehearsal diaries, interviews with cast and creative teams, and suggestions for further research and discussion available free online. The RSC’s learning pages also include study resources to accompany particular productions as you would expect together with quizzes, multimedia resources and information on its Stand Up for Shakespeare campaign, intended to help ensure that children and young people have a positive experience of Shakespeare.

Finally, don’t forget to investigate what’s available near you at local theatres and drama centres.  For example, The London Borough of Redbridge is lucky enough to have its own Drama Centre funded by the local council which provides productions, workshops, INSET and all sorts of other services for local schools.

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