Skip to content ↓

Apr 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Drama Works! SPICE up your ELT Classes with Educational Drama

Susan Hillyard is a freelance educational consultant, conference speaker, webinar presenter, on-line tutor, materials writer and independent researcher. She has lived and worked in five very different countries and has had work experience in a further 12. Her interests lie in Inclusion, Drama for ELT, Spoken English, Global Issues, World Englishes, Teacher Development and Trainer Training. Email:









This article relates a personal pedagogy, derived from matching the practice of Educational Drama to the theory of Second Language Acquisition (SLA), in five different countries with over 32 different nationalities. Those different nationalities comprised all ages, all levels, all abilities, including SEN (special educational needs) students in many different institutions from international schools, bilingual schools, and institutes, to state schools and hospital schools including one psychiatric hospital centre for teens. The conclusion is that, in the hands of an accomplished teacher armed with a tool kit of strategies for a myriad of contexts, ages and abilities, drama can solve many of the problems faced by ELT teachers around the world today.



Why do we have so many dropouts from our ELT classes all around the world? Even worse, why do we have so many teachers suffering from burnout when they’ve only been in the profession for a few years?

I have spent my whole career trying to answer these questions for myself and now I want to try to answer them for teachers all over the globe who are finding new government policies, such as strictly prescribed syllabi, standardised testing, administrative paperwork etc., so taxing on their resources. I’m suggesting that the answers to these two very complex questions may lie in developing all teachers’ understanding of the teaching/learning process as embodied in the educational drama methodology pioneered by Dorothy Heathcote (Johnson, L. and O’ Neill, C. 1984) in the 60s in Britain. In a nutshell, she said that learning should be both a joy and a challenge and that the teacher should use interactive techniques such as we find in educational drama to enhance learning processes.


Drama works….

I’ve been teaching English through drama for 46 years and training teachers to do so since 1993, but still the ELT world is slow to take up the banner (Belliveau, G. and Won, K., 2013) despite the ever emerging research findings over the past 30 years or so. Those of us who work in the field know it is effective but, sadly, there is not yet enough empirical evidence to support us nor to spread the word, although a new study conducted in Brazil claims that drama as an instructional tool is more effective in fostering fluency than communicative approaches (Galante, A. & Thompson, R. 2017).  The theory is well rounded for L1 contexts and yet, even there, drama is the first subject to be slashed by governments when a budget cut rears its ugly head. Therefore, transmission models of language learning remain prevalent and, of course, I hear the voices of both students and teachers bewailing the fact that CHANGE is necessary. Perhaps the time is now ripe for that change and Drama may be received as a viable methodology for all ELT/ESL classes on a global scale.


Drama as the SPICE of ELT

Drama works because it operates in the holistic dimension working on the SPICE (Hillyard, 2016) or all the developmental processes requiring empowerment in the growing learner. It also shuns the idea of boxing education into subjects and boxing language into its component itemised/atomised parts rendering it a cold mathematical equation of rules to follow and implement, instead of being a true form of communication. The SPICE as I have developed it, refers to S for Social development; P for Physical; I for Intellectual; C for Creative and finally, E for Emotional development. The big question now is: what has all this to do with English language teaching? And if we see that it might be relevant, then HOW do we do it? I will unpack the SPICY ingredients into their own little boxes to try to find answers.


S for…..Social Development

Most traditional classrooms, and even so-called communicative classes around the world, do not take into account the fact that having students seated in rows looking at each other’s’ backs is not conducive to the social well-being of learners; neither is it motivating, nor empowering. Students need to learn to work in pairs, in groups, and in plenary to prepare them for their lives after school. In addition, they need preparation for their careers, which increasingly apply systems thinking and team work. In any case, we should be fostering a natural gregarious feel-good attitude when we have a school system where large groups of students need to work together cooperatively to solve problems, listen to opinions, express their inner feelings and converse about the human condition. In this way we facilitate experiential, multisensory, social learning situations in which we teach language effectively.

Drama Strategy - Mirror exercise: Have the students stand opposite each other in 2s and label themselves X, the leader, and Y, the mirror. X starts to make a series of actions e.g. getting up in the morning and Y must “mirror” her. They then swap over after about 3 minutes. Then ask them to get into 4s and tell each other what their partner mimed. When they finish, ask them to come back in plenary, sitting on the floor or on chairs in a circle and discuss what they liked, what they didn’t like, if they thought it was a good exercise, why or why not. Two separate pairs can now demonstrate what they did to the rest of the class and the class applauds them for their contribution.

Drama does it!


P for…..Physical Development

Every culture has its own language and its own traits, values, mores and norms which govern communication in that particular culture. Traditional English language lessons always stress verbal language over nonverbal language even though we know that body language conveys, intentionally or not, further meaning for the receptor rather than mere words. Even if you disagree with Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 rule (Haill, A. 2014) as teachers of a language we must take this aspect into account and not ignore it as though it is irrelevant. Nonverbal behaviour is complex, subtle and multichannel and therefore needs to be taught explicitly in the classroom. Not only this, but we need to help our students to grow into their bodies and use their body “signals” effectively in a confident way. This adds to their feelings of self-esteem and their worth as a language learner. Body language includes facial expressions, body posture, gestures, eye movement, touch and the use of space. It complements verbal communication in all social interaction and, therefore, MUST be regarded as an essential component in language classes.

Moreover, we now know there are far more second language speakers of English in the world than first language speakers (Statista) and the meeting of cultures, with the intercultural exchanges that implies, are growing by the day. We MUST train our learners to know what messages they are signalling by the movements of their bodies and that certain gestures, though common in their own language, may be offensive or confusing in others. The brain is not separate from the body, but education often ignores this fact, so we need to help our learners to connect the two. Our learners’ well-being should be at the heart of all our teaching.

Not only all this, but it is now well documented (Wilkinson 2000, Thornbury, 2014) that enjoyable physical movement embeds the emotional impact of multi-sensory experiences on the cells of the body to enable memory and recall more readily than methods having lesser sensory impact.

Drama Strategy-Greetings around the Globe: Ask the students to breathe deeply to the count of 4, then to 8 with three repetitions of each set. When you feel they are relaxed and receptive ask them to move about the space, using all the space but not bumping into each other. Call out “Freeze” and tell them to stop and greet the person nearest to them in a different way each time e.g. Greet a long lost friend/ Greet shyly/Greet someone on the ledge of a high mountain/Greet someone passing in an aeroplane/Greet as an Inuit as a Japanese/as an Italian/as a ghost/as an alien etc. They should move as a group after each greeting, so they meet as many different people as possible.

Drama does it!


I for…..Intellectual Development

Drama puts students into fictional or real learning situations and because of the language games and drama “frames” that we use, our students must think both quickly and deeply. In fact, drama encourages them to think at the level of Bloom’s HOTS, or higher order thinking skills rather than at the level of the LOTS, lower order thinking skills (Baldwin, 2004). She elaborates on this in an original unpublished chart (Baldwin, P. 2002) where she compares the components of Dr Carol McGuinness’ Research “From Thinking Skills to Thinking Classrooms” to the use of quality drama teaching and shows how the skills taught are efficacious in practising Bloom’s higher order thinking skills.

  We thus offer students the opportunity to solve problems in context, to deal with conflict resolution and to consider multiple solutions to the same situation. They may look at diverse perspectives in role play and consider a myriad of responses from different characters, often learning the value of tolerance, compassion and empathy in the negotiation of outcomes. We place on the table, a whole gamut of values for learners to unpack, analyse and compare, helping them to understand that “we are all the same … we are all different”. Perhaps the greatest advantage is that we work at very subtle, sensitive levels in bringing students’ thoughts into the shared reality of the public forum working on Vygotsky’s notions of how thought informs language and language informs thought (Vygotsky, L.S. 1978). Drama scaffolds diverse thinking skills so students can make real progress in their intellectual developmental processes.

Drama Strategy-Improvisation: Read a story, e.g. the story of Rosa Parks. Discuss it. Analyse the plot, the characters, the setting and the message by asking questions. Ask the students to work in groups to create a short sketch based on the story and to present it through their bodies, voices, hearts and minds.

Drama does it!


C for…..Creative Development

Many traditional lessons do not encourage creativity, but we know that we must include the arts (Robinson, K. 2011) in our language lessons, as many students just cannot learn a language purely as a system of rules to be applied. Both teachers and students come to the classroom with heads full of imagination, but how many times do teachers ask students to USE those imaginations? In drama, we learn through practical experimentation, bringing the imagination out into the open and we encourage a free flow of original and personal ideas. Young children learn their first language through play and that is what we, English language teachers who believe in the power of the arts to empower, try to foster in drama with any age group. We ask them to be original, to think outside the box, to be flexible, to brainstorm constantly, to be fluent in their thinking and to elaborate on what they already know… and all of that on their feet!

Drama Strategy-This is not a ball it’s a …: Sit in a circle on chairs. Ask the students to stand up and breathe deeply for a few minutes. Show them a large ball, bounce it on the floor and say “This is not a ball…it’s a …” At that point, change your actions to holding the ball in your arms as if it were a baby, rocking it and singing sweetly. The class should say: “It’s a baby!” Pass the baby on to the next student on your left or right and they repeat your last mime and say “This is not a baby…it’s a…and show a new mime without naming the object. Continue until everybody has had a try. Next ask the whole class to repeat the vocabulary in order. Indicate each student in order and say: “She said it was not a …but a … Point to the next student and say  “He said …” The next day ask the students for the list.

Drama does it!


E for…..Emotional Development

In most classrooms around the world the affect and the emotions are not allowed to come into play, but in drama classrooms we actively and positively work on the emotions. We help students to understand their own emotions, to understand other people’s emotions and how to manage them better in real and imagined worlds. When we use authentic materials or the imagination, we often rouse emotions which have lain hidden for years. In this way, in my diverse experience, students learn to express their emotions in appropriate ways and to control their emotions in a safe environment devoid of reprisals. This community of understanding and accepting other people’s opinions changes the person and transforms the dynamics of the classroom. Paradoxically, by putting on the mask of drama we unmask the whole being of the student and help them to know who they are and what they can really do. Life is drama and drama is life!

Drama Strategy-Faces and Emotions: Have the students sit in a circle. Relax through breathing or by playing a concentration game. Ask the group to place their hand below the chin and say: “Show me a happy face”.  Demonstrate how to move the hand upwards to the top of your head and smile a big smile. Ask them all to do it with you and repeat. Then say: “Show me a sad face” and repeat the exercise. Do it for 5 or 6 emotions. Then divide the class into groups of 4 or 5 and ask them to choose one of the emotions. Each group should make up a sketch with words and actions to present to the class. The class has to explain which emotion and say what the person/people were feeling and why.



Through employing the SPICE in every lesson via drama strategies we work holistically, embedding the language in real life or imagined situations, while working on all the necessary developmental processes of the growing learner and making sure there are lots of differentiated activities to cater for all, including those with diagnosed or undiagnosed special needs. In this way we create an inclusive classroom where even the weakest and the shyest and the most unmotivated can flourish.

Drama does it!

Life is drama and drama is life!




Baldwin P. (2002) Chair National Drama from Keynote Speech National Drama Conference in Edinburgh)

Baldwin, P. (2004). With Drama in Mind. Stafford, UK: Network Educational Press.

Belliveau, G. & Kim, W. (2013). Drama in L2 learning: A research synthesis.

International Journal for Drama and Theatre in Foreign and Second Language Education, 7, (2), 6-26. Retrieved 09/03/16 from:

Bloom, B. (1956). Bloom’s Taxonomy Retrieved 30/05/17 from:

Galante, A. & Thompson, R. (2017) The Effectiveness of Drama as an Instructional Approach Video retrieved 26/10/17 from: Article retrieved 26/10/17 from:

Hillyard, S. (2015). The Profile and Practice of Fifteen Teachers working in

English in Action. Challenging ELT Practices in SEN Education. Cited in Giannikas, C.N.; McLaughlin, L., Fanning, G. & Deutsch Muller, N. (Eds.). Children Learning English: from research to practice. Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing Ltd.

Hillyard, S. (2016). English through Drama. London, UK: Helbling Languages

Johnson, L. & O’Neill, C. (Eds.). (1984). Dorothy Heathcote’s Collected Writings on Education and Drama. Evanston, IL: Northwestern.

Haill, A. (2014) Do you know the “7/38/55 rule” on communication – is it bunkum?  Retrieved 27/11/2017 from:

McGuinness, C. (1999) Research Report No 115 “From Thinking Skills to Thinking Classrooms: a review and evaluation of approaches for developing pupils’ thinking” University, Belfast, Crown Copyright, HMSO, 1999 (ISBN 1 84185 013 6)

Robinson, K. (2011) Out of Our Minds London, UK: Capstone Publishing.

Statista “The most spoken languages worldwide” Retrieved 27/11/17 from:

Thornbury, S. (2013). The Body Remembers. Teaching Times (TESOL France)

Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Wilkinson, J. A. (2000). The Power of Drama in English Language Learning:

The Research Evidence. CEO World Wellness Inc. The Ontario Institute for

Studies in Education of The University of Toronto. Retrieved 07/03/16 from:


Please check the Drama Techniques for the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Advanced Drama and Improvisation Techniques for the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

  • Drama Works! SPICE up your ELT Classes with Educational Drama
    Susan Hillyard, UK