Drama in the ESL Classroom

One of the ESL teachers from my PLN @vivimat78 asked me many weeks ago now to write a post about Drama in the ESL classroom. To be honest I was a little stumped. I have had very little to do with non-English speaking background (NESB) student’s in my classes thus is the nature of my school. We do have a small number of NESB student’s and we do have a very dedicated ESL teacher (who is mighty keen on trying out Drama in her classroom I might add). Never to shy away from a challenge though, I have seen @vivimat78’s request as a chance to do some learning of my own.

First, Foremost & Most Importantly…

Ask yourself. What do you think of when you think of Drama? Role play? Improvisation? Chaos? Potentially, yes. Many teachers coming into the unfamiliar world of Drama are terrified that the kids will be out of their seats and running riot. Like any classroom, desks or no desks, systems and routines are important and necessary. At the same time though, Drama is organic and whilst in the ESL classroom there should be a focus on language it can be so much more than that for our NESB student’s. It is just as much about problem solving, group work, connecting emotionally, playing physically, listening intently and responding energetically.

Change That Mindset…

Think of your Drama ESL lessons as being more about language practice rather than language acquisition. By running the workshops in English and encouraging responses in English the students will be practicing whilst developing other skills at the same time. Noise and laughter are your friends.

Think About Your Structure…

You will all have different day structures, period lengths etc. Consider if you want the Drama lesson to go for 5 minutes or for 50 minutes. For a full period lesson as a rough guide start with a 5-10 minute warm-up game, focus on a particular skill or language skills for 15-20 minutes, watch and respond to each others performances for about 10-15 minutes and wrap-up the lesson with a written or spoken reflection for 5 minutes. Each of those time frames can be used on their own. For example you could just do the 15-20 minute language skills activity, or the 5 minute reflection on an English speaking program they watched on TV the night before combined with other tasks you have to get through in your ESL time.

Work Around the Elements…

Consider framing lessons around the Elements of Drama, the bread and butter of every drama performance. With things like scene work you will use more than one. I like to group them together in combinations that I think work well in lessons. They work well in the 15-20 minute blocks.

  • Character/Role
  • Focus
  • Tension
  • Time/Place/Situation
  • Atmosphere/Mood
  • Symbol/Language/Moment
  • Rhythm/Timing/Sound/Movement

Or Work Around Skills

Pick activities that focus on listening (focus), responding (to what they see in performance), problem solving, group work or being physical.

Try These Ideas…

  • Improvisation – use Theatresports games. The rules create great boundaries but encourage problem solving.
  • Role Play – Acting out short scripted dialogue, making up dialogue.
  • Reader’s Theatre – performing written stories. The writer reads the stories aloud whilst the others perform in mime.
  • Masked Theatre
  • Puppet Shows

Most of the lesson ideas I have written about here on the blog would be suitable for ESL classrooms. Keep the language and situations simple to begin with so as to encourage the student’s to become familiar with the different structure to the lessons.

Mostly Though, It’s About Play

Holistically, drama is about thinking and feeling about others, situations and experiences.There are no right or wrong answersĀ  (for both teacher and students) and learning happens when the students can take risks in a safe, fun learning environment. What happens in the Drama classroom stays in the Drama classroom so if you can create that environment you’re half-way towards meaningful dramatic experiences that engage with English. Participate and learn along with the kids. If you make an idiot of yourself the kids are more than likely to respond. Here is a great article I read about this idea of play and it’s specific link to ESL classrooms. Now, off you go and play!

I also recommend:

Drama in the ESL Classroom

The Benefits of Using Drama in the ESL/EFL Classroom

Free ESL Materials

How is Drama approached in your school in relation to ESL? What issues or problems are you having?

Be sure to follow #ozengchat on Twitter, Tuesday’s at 8:30pm AEST.

Image Credit: Commedia dell’Arte / centrifuga ā˜ / CC BY-NC 2.0



  1. Glad it helped Arti. Thanks for taking the time to comment. The brilliant thing about Drama with ESL kids is that it doesn’t necessarily have to involve the verbal stuff. There is a lot you can do with non-verbal communication so kids feel comfortable in the Drama classroom because they can participate without feeling like language is a barrier. Good luck.

  2. Hi Karla,
    I accidently stumbled upon your article and thank God for that. I am a primary school ESL teacher and this year I am teaching Drama across Year levels 1 to 7. Although I have used it frequently as a class teacher, I am anxious about doing drama with such diverse age groups. I felt a bit relieved by your article as it has given me a sense of direction.

  3. Thanks! Another question that has nothing to do with it:
    what type of documentation or references do I need to present when applying for a job as a teacher in Sydney? I might do it when I’m there.

    I would appreciate your answer, but no problem if you’re not able to answer it šŸ™‚

  4. Karla, I really like your blog šŸ™‚

    I teach German and English as a second language in Spain. I have taken theater classes myself (only as an amateur) and always try to include drama techniques in my classes. I’m planning to go to Sydney in September/October and I would like to attend a course about Drama in the ESL Classroom. I know that your blog is not about this, but would you mind telling me where can I look in order to find a suitable course for me?

    Thanks in advance and congratulations for your blog!


  5. What an insightful post Karla! You have really hit the nail on the head for me! I felt I wasn’t sure to try drama with my ESL students because I was focusing way too much on the rights and wrongs when I should focus on making drama fun and allowing free language practice. I’m really looking forward to implementing drama in my classes now. Thank you for this extraordinary blog post and also for the relevant links. Cheers! Viviana.

Comments are closed.