Students can increase their language skills by putting on a play. Plenty of schools will do short plays like this, and if you’re teaching in a primary school, there’s a good chance your students have done plays before. But why don’t we step beyond reciting lines from memory? Why don’t we write, direct, and put on the whole show from start to finish? English learners can get even more out of the play when they have a deeper involvement.
Storyboard the Play
First, your class needs to figure out your story. Coming up with something original is a whole other challenge, and you are welcome to give it a try, but we won’t go into how to create a full-fledged story in this post. A better option for many classes would be to adapt a story everyone (or at least most of the class) knows well. Perhaps you can put on a play of a recent popular book (but not a movie), or perhaps some folktales will do the trick.
Once you know what the story will be, you’ll have to decide what to include. If you’re adapting a more complex story, there may be characters or scenes you’ll need to omit. If the story is a little too simple, you may need to add some things.
Come up with a list of characters. Then map out the scenes. It may help to display your content visually through a technique called storyboarding. Try writing the summary of each scene on a post-it note, then arrange the notes in order. Maybe draw some arrows between scenes that carry the same subplot.
Now that you know the flow of the story, it’s time to get into some details.
You can have the whole class involved in every step, or it may be a good idea to have different students take on different things. Maybe half the class will act in the final production. In that case, the students who are less comfortable acting will have to put forth more effort in the early stages.
Define the Characters
Let’s get into the characters. How would you define them? For each character, list five adjectives that best describe them. (Instead of doing this as a whole class, you can have different groups of students do a character or two). What is the character’s ultimate goal? What kind of relationship does she/he have with each of the other characters?
What does the character look like? What does she/he sound like? What attitude does she/he usually have?
Write the Dialogue
Take this scene-by-scene. What are each of the characters doing or attempting to do in this scene? How do they feel in this scene? How do they communicate with others to express themselves, to react to what’s already happened, and to move closer to their goal? This is typically done through dialogue.
The dialogue doesn’t need to be witty or eloquent or anything. Write it according to the proficiency level of your class. Saying very simple sentences to communicate in a straightforward manner might be perfectly fine for your class.
If you’re adapting a book or folktale, students should collectively paraphrase the dialogue from the scene. If they remember a few key lines, it’s okay to use those in your play. But the whole thing shouldn’t be word-for-word. There’s probably a lot you can leave out, and maybe you’ll want your students to say things in a way that makes more sense to them.
Block the Scenes
Blocking is all about energy, about bringing the characters to life. When you know what a character feels, what they seek, how they relate to others, and what they say, you can then figure out how they express themselves. This is where the performance of the play will go beyond simply reciting lines.
It’s probably good to have class-wide discussions about some of these things. Before getting into the specifics of, say, how one particular character carries herself and emotes in one particular scene, talk about body language in general: how to various stances, movements, facial expressions, etc. reveal how we feel?
How does a character express herself (1) to this specific other character (2) while feeling a particular way (3) to get what she wants (4) in a way that reflects her general demeanor? Keep in mind that if any one of those four things changes, there’s a good chance the method by which she expresses herself changes as well. Should she shout? Laugh? Slouch? Approach another character? Pick up something? Sway? Sneer? Speak quickly? Keep her hands in her pockets? Take a step back? Frown? Scratch her head? Shrug?
Where is your character in this scene? Why is he there? When is he prompted to move to another spot, and which spot should that be? Who does he want to be near? What does he want to stand away from? What direct does he face? Does he move a lot, or is he in one place most of the time? How quickly does he move? Is he sitting or standing?
In this way, students can practice communicating with more than just words.
Rehearse and Perform
Once your class has figured out all the scenes, it’s time to rehearse. You’ll need some props. It’s up to you how big of a production this is: are there sets and lights and sound, or are you keeping it simple? For bigger productions, students (especially those not acting) can take part in putting it together, and that should give your class a greater sense of ownership. But keeping it simple is great as well.
You as the teacher can direct, or you can designate two or three students to co-direct. Depending on how well your students relate to one another, the whole class can give feedback on scenes as you rehearse. Feel free to make changes if a line or character just isn’t feeling right.
Students should know the characters and the story pretty well by this point. Let them rehearse in different ways to get comfortable with the role. Remember, the goal isn’t to put on the best show your town has ever seen; it’s for your students to better understand how to communicate, whether it’s the class communicating with the audience or one character communicating with another. Try doing some scenes wrong on purpose and see how that communicates something different.
When you’re all ready, put on a performance or two in front of the rest of the school. If you can, maybe even invite members of your community to come watch for an evening performance. And most of all: have fun!