Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 1: Introduction

This article is another installment in our new Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this new series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms. It is also Part 1 of a series on using plays in the classroom.

   
By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

Plays are a rich language-learning resource, yet they are underutilized in curricula for English language learning. In this series of blog posts, we will investigate what plays are, why they are beneficial for language learning, and how they might be used to practice the four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking), practice grammar and vocabulary in context, develop cultural knowledge, and practice critical thinking. We will also discuss how both teachers and students respond to using plays in the classroom, and how to choose plays for language-learning purposes.

We are lecturers in the American Language Program (ALP), Columbia University’s ESL program at the School of Professional Studies; neither of us has a background in theater, but over the years, both of us have come to see the many benefits of using this genre in the classroom.

What is a play?

A dramatic work for the stage: A play is a story told through dialogue, interaction, and movement that needs to be completed by a performance, for example, Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff (1986 film; 2018 Broadway revival). However, this performance need not be on the stage; a film adaptation, such as Tracy Letts’s August: Osage, County (2013 film), John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (1993 film), Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1987 film), or William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker (1962 film) can be equally if not more rewarding than a work adapted for the stage.

A crucible of culture: The playwright’s skill is to distill language and experience of a specific time and place, focusing on the family, for example. In the plot, character, and setting we find cultural values that can be extrapolated and highlighted to deepen student understanding.

What is an American play?

A play written by an American, set in the United States, and engaged with themes crucial to understanding the U.S.: Because we teach in the U.S., our students want to learn about the culture they are studying in. Each work provides a snapshot of a time and place, with characters acting within a particular socio-historical context. Such rich, evocative settings can provide an important area of research for students, allowing them to develop their understanding of the culture and history that shapes individuals in the U.S. The works often engage with complex and weighty themes: race, class, gender, disability. While these themes may be universal, the way that they are part of the U.S. and its culture are particular and distinct.

What themes do American plays deal with?

Conflicts within families, between individuals, within individuals: These are intensely personal stories unfolding with dramatic emotion before our very eyes. The great American playwright Arthur Miller observed* that the best playwrights have something in common: “They are all burning with some anger with the way the world is … Between the lines it’s exploding.”

While humor may be present, plays more often deal with psychologically fraught, uncomfortable subjects. The family is usually at the core of a play, so we find themes such as the impact of history on families and individuals, parents’ disappointment with adult children, what children owe their parents, and what parents owe their children.

Other themes in the American canon include addiction, betrayal, dishonesty, downward mobility, gender identity, greed, jealousy, mental illness, and religious identity. Given the mature nature of these themes, most plays suit young adult and adult students.

The layers of complexity in a play often touch on themes that can be deeply and sometimes surprisingly meaningful to learners. Still, these themes are difficult to deal with directly in a classroom setting. However, in a play, students can recognize, feel, and identify with the dramatic, emotional struggle of members of a family. Such an experience brings them closer to the target culture.

Why are plays underutilized in language-learning curricula?

 Unfamiliar, incomplete, unsupported with materials: Teachers may be unfamiliar with accessible plays in the American canon or may feel pedagogically underprepared for working with them. Or teachers may feel they are being called upon to teach literature. In this series of blog posts, we will demonstrate a language-centered approach to plays that builds on the same skills teachers apply to many kinds of content. At the same time, instructors can see exploring a new resource as an opportunity for professional development, an opportunity to be a “fellow traveler” with students on the path to learning.

Plays are “incomplete” in the sense that a film or stage performance is essential to the experience. Yet the leap “from page to stage” offers a special opportunity for student engagement, collaboration, and critical thinking. In outsourcing the act of completion, the playwright invites the reader/viewer to step into the shoes of a film or stage director and consider a number of questions: What choices would you make in staging this work? What choices has the director made? Why? How does the stagecraft—lighting, sound, costuming, setting, and so on—enhance or detract from the viewer’s experience? How does casting match or conflict with your own imagined version?

As most plays are unsupported with materials, they may require more work up front to adapt for language learning. Yet you and your colleagues can start small. One play per semester is what we recommend, for high-intermediate (CEFR B1–B2) and advanced (CEFR B2–C2) learners. Over time, you can develop an in-house repertoire of works at different levels by a variety of playwrights. In our experience, our response and our materials may evolve, but quality plays themselves don’t go out of date.

In the American Language Program, we have been collaborating on materials production for many years. We have developed our language-centered approach through the experience of teaching and learning, and we continue to hone the design of our activities, to introduce plays to new teachers, and to come back to teach some of the same plays over and over with new insights and ideas.

*Charlie Rose (Television show). (1992, July 3). Arthur Miller [Video file]. Retrieved from https://charlierose.com/videos/14696

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our series: Preparing the Play


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.

Using Movies in the ESL Classroom

 Joe McVeigh

With Academy Award season upon us, ESL teachers may wish to think about how they can use movies in the classroom. Movies provide a wonderful source of language input for students. They can provide valuable exposure to language and also to culture, as well as being an excellent source of new vocabulary along with slang and idioms. They can be used to help students work on many language skills including listening, reading, speaking, and pronunciation.

Film selection criteria

Some teachers choose to use short excerpts from movies. If you have a class in which you meet with students for several hours a week, you may be able to use entire films with them. There are several criteria to consider when selecting films for use with students. First off, consider the level of interest and relevance for your students. A group of 18-year-old students in an intensive English program may have different interests in movie than a group of fifth graders or a class of adult immigrants and refugees. Be sure that the actors in the film speak relatively clearly, and that the storyline is not too difficult to follow. Analyze the language to ensure that it isn’t too difficult. Consider the content of the film to make sure that it’s appropriate for your students in terms of the language and themes involved. If you wish to use an entire film, check on the availability of a written script, which can be extremely helpful.

Practical considerations

Carefully preview the film in advance, so that you are aware of potentially difficult language or challenging themes for your students. Also check your equipment to make sure that everyone in the room can see the screen clearly and that the sound quality is adequate. If you want to find a particular section in the film, note the time on a counter so that you can access the right spot easily.

Classroom activities

Most films these days are available with closed captions that you can turn on or off. You can choose whether or not to turn on the captions. After viewing the film or an excerpt from the film, you can select comprehension questions or discussion questions to use with your students. You may also wish to pull out various bits of vocabulary, slang, idioms, or new expressions.

If you obtain a complete script of the movie for your students, you can assign them to read it either for homework or in class. You can ask them to act out scenes from the movie, or give them writing assignments based on the film.

For speaking practice, choose a scene from the film that contains a lot of activity. Put students in pairs with one facing the screen and the other with their back to the screen. Turn down the sound, then play the excerpt. Ask the student facing the screen to describe what’s happening to the student who can’t see. Then have the two partners change positions.

To really give your students a reading workout. Choose a film in a language other than English that has English subtitles!

General Discussion Questions about Movies

Here are some questions you can use with your students for a general discussion about movies.

  1. Generally speaking, what kind of films do you like? Comedy? Drama? Romance? Other?
  2. Often, at the end of the year, American film critics like to put together a “top ten list” of the ten best films of the year. If you were going to put together a top ten list for yourself, what movies would be on that list? Give reasons for your selections.
  3. Who is your favorite actor? Why do you like him or her?
  4. What qualities should a good actor have?
  5. Many people believe that the American (Hollywood) film industry has too much influence on the way that people think about the United States, about men and women, and about fantasy and reality. Do you feel that Hollywood has a distorted image of the U.S.?
  6. Some people think that studying film is not very helpful for learning English, it is only entertainment. What is your opinion? Has studying film been helpful for your English ability?  How could it be more helpful?

Sample Post-Viewing Discussion Questions for a Movie

  1. What is the meaning of the title of the film?
  2. How would you describe the mood, feeling, and story of this film to someone who was not familiar with it and who had never seen it before?
  3. What was your favorite moment in the film?
  4. What was your least favorite moment in the film?
  5. Who is your favorite character in the film?
  6. What part did you think was the funniest?
  7. What part did you think was the most special for you?
  8. List three new vocabulary words or expressions that you learned from this movie.

Instructions for Students to Practice Acting out a Scene from a Movie

  • With 1-3 other students, choose a scene from one of the films that we have watched to act out in front of the class.
  • The scene that you select should be an important one in the movie (not something trivial).
  • The scene, when enacted, should last about two minutes (or less), so choose your scene carefully.
  • It is not necessary to memorize your lines or to bring or use props or costumes, though you may do this if you wish.
  • Do not improvise new dialog for the scene. Use only the written dialog from the film.
  • When acting out the scene, use the same actions as the characters in the movies. Do not read directly from the script.  Remember, you are supposed to be speaking, not reading.
  • Try to use the correct pronunciation. Be as fluent and as accurate as you can.
  • Speak loudly and clearly so as to be heard by everyone.

Movie Vocabulary Homework Assignment

  1. For the next class meeting make a list of vocabulary words which are new to you from our film script. Your assignment is to find words and expressions from p. ______ to p. ________Your list should include at least ___________ words and expressions.
  2. Using a dictionary and consulting others, find an accurate definition or meaning of the word or expression.
  3. On your list include:
  • the page number in the script where it is found
  • the word or expression
  • whether the word or expression is commonly used or not
  • whether the word or expression is polite to use or not
  • the meaning

Example:

Page Expression Common? Polite? Meaning
17 Put his foot in his mouth somewhat OK Say something embarrassing or foolish
  1. You may work together with others who are working on the same pages.
  2. Make enough copies of your worksheet to class for everyone in the class. 

Sample Vocabulary from the film When Harry Met Sally

Here are some vocabulary terms and expressions from When Harry Met Sally that you could assign students to learn:

time to kill; to fix someone up with someone; there is no point (in doing something); to come down with something ; affront; to hit it off with someone; to bump into someone; I couldn’t agree more

Successful Films

A couple of films that I have used successfully in the classroom with students in an intensive English program include The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. What are some films that you have used successfully in the classroom? What activities did you use with them?


Joe McVeigh is a teacher, teacher trainer, and independent educational consultant based in Middlebury, Vermont. He has worked in a variety of countries and has taught at Cal State LA, Caltech, USC, Middlebury College, the Bread Loaf School of English, and Saint Michael’s College. He is an active member of the TESOL International Association and has worked as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State. He is co-author of Tips for Teaching Culture from Pearson along with other books for students of English. In addition to talks and workshops at professional conferences, Joe contributes to the field through his website, which contains videos, resources, and presentation slides and handouts at www.joemcveigh.org.

Helping Students with Appropriate Language

 by Joe McVeigh

English language teachers who work with students in the United States know only too well that teaching language by itself is not sufficient. Language learners also need to grasp the culture of the country they are living in, as well as learn how to overcome intercultural differences. These differences often surface in issues such as how to be polite, how to express yourself non-verbally, and how to maintain academic integrity in the classroom.

One challenge for English language learners is discerning the appropriate register  to use in different situations. A communicatively competent person doesn’t speak the same way all of the time. For instance, a teenager would probably use one form of expression with her friends and classmates, but a more polite and formal type of language, or register, with a teacher or principal.

To help students learn about different types of register, try this activity:

1. Write the following on the board:
“Shut the door.”
“Shut the door, please.”
“Would you please shut the door?”
“Gee, it’s a little chilly in here. Shut the stupid door!”

2. Ask students to identify which sentences they think are the most and least polite. Discuss which sentences would be appropriate to use with different people.

3. Write the following on the board:

“What time is it?”
“Hand me those scissors.”
“Bring me a glass of water.”

  • Form small groups and ask each group to choose one of the sentences and write a list of possible ways to express the meaning ranging from very polite to rude.
  • Ask groups for their ideas and write them on the board. Discuss the sentences and the students’ ideas.

You can find more ideas for teaching culture in the classroom in Tips for Teaching Culture, part of the Tips for Teaching series from Pearson.  The Tips for Teaching series covers topics of practical classroom-centered interest for English language teachers. Written in clearly comprehensible terms, each book offers soundly conceived practical approaches to classroom instruction that are firmly grounded in current pedagogical research.


Joe McVeigh is a teacher, teacher trainer, and independent educational consultant based in Middlebury, Vermont. He has worked in a variety of countries and has taught at Cal State LA, Caltech, USC, Middlebury College, the Bread Loaf School of English, and Saint Michael’s College. He is an active member of the TESOL International Association and has worked as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State. He is co-author of Tips for Teaching Culture from Pearson along with other books for students of English. In addition to talks and workshops at professional conferences, Joe contributes to the field through his website, which contains videos, resources, and presentation slides and handouts at www.joemcveigh.org.

Towards the Critique: Teaching EAP Students to Be Critical

Tania Pattison PhotoTania Pattison

For EAP (English for Academic Purposes) teachers, it may not be enough these days to teach standard essays and research skills. In order to prepare students adequately for their future studies, EAP teachers at CEFR levels B2 and above need to go further. Recent corpora-based research has shed new light on the genres of writing that our students should expect to encounter in their future studies; for example, in research carried out in the UK, Nesi and Gardner (2012) identified 13 genres that undergraduates could be expected to write; these include essay, case study, narrative recount, and more. One that is common across the disciplines is the critique.

What is a critique?
As Nesi and Gardner put it, “The central purpose of Critiques is to demonstrate and develop understanding of the object of study and the ability to evaluate and/or assess its significance” (2012, p. 94). This could take several forms; depending on their field of study, students may be asked to review books, articles, films, plays, and works of art; they could be asked to evaluate financial data, legislation, government policy, and business operations, or they could be required to analyze critically the results of an experiment, a process, or a system (Nesi & Gardner, 2012). In other words, understanding is not enough; students need to use their critical thinking skills to respond to something they are studying and to express a judgment about its value or usefulness. In the EAP class, the item being subjected to critical analysis is usually a written text.

Learning to be critical
Most EAP students, I have found, are not really clear about what being critical actually entails; many think it has something to do with being negative, and it comes as a bit of a surprise when I tell them that while the word critical often does suggest a negative reaction, critical analysis does not necessarily involve looking for problems within the text. I like to draw students’ attention to people who work as critics of movies, music, restaurants, and so on; these people write reviews that may be positive, negative, or a little of both.

Another thing worth emphasizing to students is that a critique is not an emotional response. Students may be predisposed to disagree with any text that goes against their own personal beliefs, which may have their basis in religion or politics. It is important to emphasize the need to look objectively at the author’s argument and to come to a reasoned analysis, not an emotional outburst. Continue reading

A is for Authenticity

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty 

Since the 1970s, teachers have been arguing about authenticity in the classroom. As a TESOL professor and textbook writer, I’m often asked whether I’m in favor of authenticity. It seems a simple question, but there are several related ideas to consider: How do we define authenticity? What is a continuum of authenticity? How does authenticity relate to materials, situation, and task? and Where and how do we locate authentic materials?

Defining authenticity
Most definitions of authenticity in the classroom can be reduced to the idea of something not created for use by language learners. In general, although textbooks can contain authentic materials, they are not authentic. On the other hand, we consider a local newspaper, menu, or bus schedule as being authentic; the language is natural and generally more applicable to the needs and interests of our students. This is one of the great strengths of exposing students to authentic materials: Outside the classroom, they continue learning as they encounter additional authentic materials.

A continuum of authenticity
The opposite of authentic materials are those that are inauthentic. Elementary school teachers and teachers of beginners use inauthentic materials such as simplified menus with purely descriptive names (hamburger) rather than confusing brand names (Big Mac®, Whopper®). Other aspects of the menu are similarly set in plain speech to avoid confusion.

But between authentic and inauthentic materials are constructed materials. In making constructed materials, teachers and materials developers usually start with authentic materials but simplify vocabulary, grammar, and even typefaces to make them more pertinent and accessible. In other cases, materials are constructed from scratch, based on different genres. As an experiment, I asked 56 experienced language teachers to review three passages and decide which were authentic and which were constructed. Only three teachers identified all three correctly (Beatty, 2015). If most teachers can’t tell the difference, well-written constructed materials are probably an acceptable alternative. Continue reading