Improvisation for the Language Classroom
Peter Dyer has been involved with Pilgrims for over 20 years offering a variety of skills-based workshops and two-week courses in drama and improvisation. He is a qualified secondary teacher in drama and media arts and has many years' experience as a professional actor in Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Improvisation and drama are “dirty” words to many teachers when thinking of methodology for the language classroom. “Not so”, say I who has been working in this field for over 30 years.
Let’s look at Improvisation for a start. Improvisation we all know means doing something which is not planned and relying on our instincts to proceed in dialogue, story- telling and writing, painting and music and other aresa. O.K…. How do we get there? How do we approach this and how do we teachers gain confidence in teaching the basic rules for improvisation and participating in it with our students.
Improvisation is taking risks, not knowing what we are going to do or say. It is attempting something with some basic rules but there are no clues as to what will happen, what will be said and what the outcome will be. This in itself is rather scary. We are taught at school and in our professions to always have a clear and direct outcome in mind with everything we do and this is right to a point. But wait a minute…….. Just imagine not being concerned about outcome, just imagine relying on instinct to participate in conversation and not being scared of the unknown. It’s possible you know, providing we have a few simple rules to follow. Just trusting in the rules which I will elaborate on shortly, gives us enormous freedom to explore uncensored conversation and story- telling orally and in writing. We have learnt that we must be clever, intelligent and that we must be creative and imaginative and never to do anything as risky as spontaneity. There is so much pressure on us to perform that the majority of us actually think we can’t be spontaneous, creative and imaginative. And yet, we improvise all the time. Just think of the times when you bump into someone you know. The chat can cover many areas. We haven’t planned to meet that person, we haven’t planned what we are going to say or where our conversation is going to go. Agreed? We just rely on our knowledge of that person to get us through and then at some point they or we give the signal to stop the conversation and move on our way. Some of the most marvellous conversations occur when they are spontaneous. BUT the improvisation we look at for the classroom does have rules in which to play by and these rules help us to carry on and participate.
Why use improvisation in the language classroom?
I am of course not saying in this article that improvisation is the only way we can get our students to speak and write but it is a method that will encourage out students to use what structures and vocabulary, word stressing and intonation they know to communicate naturally and spontaneously in the language they are studying. Improvisation can give our students a great deal of freedom in which to communicate using the language structures and vocabulary that they have built up either through the good work you have been doing and or other colleagues and the students’ exposure to English through a multitude of other sources. Improvisation teaches our students to accept and add to ideas given from their co-players. It teaches us to respect each other’s contributions and it helps us to listen carefully to content. Improvisation helps us to understand and to enjoy spontaneity and taking risks and not to fear an uncertain outcome. Improvisation aids fluency and aids our students to make connection with others even if there are occasional grammatical mistakes and pauses for vocabulary. All of the work also aids in self-confidence and this benefits our students in communicating in the wider world outside the classroom environment.
What rules need to be followed in improvisation?
There are rules to every improvisation game and if the players break out of these rules, the improvisation ceases to exist. Instructions from the teacher to the students need to be simple and very clear and students’ understanding needs to be checked before a game can start. The rules of an improvisation are a bit like an umbrella in that the umbrella is there to protect the players. The players stand beneath the umbrella. If the players step outside the rules, they are in danger of losing their protection. Within these simple rules, students are less concerned about content, the content will take care of itself.
A simple conversational game: Yes but!
Let’s take a simple conversational improvisation game which I often do at or near the beginning of mu workshops aand in language classes. This game is a simple way to get our students to engage in conversation. The rules are very simple and there must be no attempt on the part of the teacher to control content at all.
The students can be placed in pairs for this game although the teacher may prefer to give a demonstration using the whole class first.
The teacher informs the class that after one person starts the conversation by saying virtually anything, the other student must listen to the content of the sentence and without changing the subject must find something in contrast to the sentence by responding with the words, “Yes but” and adding further comment. Then the first student who began the conversation, listens to the response carefully and responds to the contribution with “yes but” and continues. If it helps the students to start, I suggest two characters, e.g. a dentist and a patient or a car salesperson and a customer. Here is an example:
A: Hello Madam. Are you looking for a new car?
B: Yes but I don’t like any here.
A: Yes but this is just a small selection. Look over there
B: Yes but I want a sports car
A: Yes but, they are very expensive………and so on
Questions can be asked but students will soon learn that only closed questions can be used and I often remind them that questions are O.K. but both players must be aware not to use them all the time. If one player uses them with his/her partner all the time, they are leaving the partner to do all the responsive work. The conversations may find a logical end or may go on as long as interest remains.
Students may begin using suggested characters or they may start without a teacher’s suggestion. Perhaps they could start by using a Past Simple tense e.g.” I went to a great Italian restaurant last night.” They must remember that if they begin with a Past Simple sentence, the story must not be real otherwise they may get upset if the improvisation does not stick to the actual events. Alternatively, students may like to start with a Future continuous form e.g.” I’m going to Hawaii by boat next week.”
Using improvisation for creative writing
This activity can easily be adapted for writing and can be done in small groups or in pairs. All the pairs need is one piece of paper. One student begins, passes the paper on to their partner wo reads the first statement and responds using, “Yes but”.
Teachers must be careful not to correct student’s grammatical mistakes as they play because this can interrupt the flow of the conversation and students may not wish to play. Teachers can walk about listening and observing and can feed back on corrections at the end of the game and after they have asked the students what happened in the game. Often students will ask the teacher for a word they need and the teacher is there as a support rather than taking a more central role.
This is just one of many activities which students can be introduced to and the activities can become more challenging as we move on. Once students understand the rules of improvisation and that they can be as free as possible in the content of their conversations and later story- telling, they will want to participate in more of these activities.
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.
Improvisation for the Language Classroom
Peter Dyer, France