I decided to write my first book for teachers, Dialogue Activities (CUP 2007), because of an idea which I think I’ve always been very interested in as a language teacher. This is the principle that when spoken language is written down by learners (as in when they create a dialogue for example) it can provide a slowing down of experience so that more noticing of language, and ultimately, more learning may happen. It’s a way of focusing and reflecting on spoken language without the immediate pressure of having to produce it spontaneously in real time communication. This premise is central to many of the activities in the book.
It’s also one of the main rationales behind the playwriting competition that we run for Palestinian children – now about to enter its third year. Of course when creating a play, there are many other things to do before getting down to writing the dialogue (brainstorming ideas, coming up with stories, agreeing on which story to turn into a play etc) but even at very high levels, both the thinking involved in composing a story and the discussion involved in choosing a story is likely to happen in the mother tongue. I would argue that working together in groups and drafting, redrafting and editing the script is one of the stages of play making which is most conducive to second language development, and since as language teachers our contact time in class is never going to be enough, I’d say that this stage is what we should prioritise class time for.
So we could ask learners to do these other stages outside of class time, or it may be more appropriate to give learners ready-made scenarios in small groups and ask them to start working on turning them into scripts straight away. This way there is an immediate focus on spoken English and, because the learners know that they are going to be saying the lines that they are writing, there is an inherent need for what is written to be accurate, appropriate and clear. Learners will also automatically start mentally preparing themselves for saying the lines if they know that the lines are part of a dialogue.
Here’s one of the scenarios that I used with some children in Gaza in a workshop on remote theatre that I was running in June this year.
The hospital window
Two women are lying in bed in the same hospital room. One has a bandage over her eyes as she is waiting for them to heal. She is really depressed about her situation. The other is sitting up and looking out of the window (the audience). The two women talk a lot about their lives and the woman by the window describes all the beautiful things that she can see out of the window to cheer the other woman up. One day the woman by the window dies peacefully in her sleep and soon afterwards the others woman’s bandages are removed. Her eyes are better, and she looks out of the window only to see…a brick wall! The woman can’t understand why the other woman was telling her about all of the beautiful things that she said she could see. The nurse explained that the other woman was blind and she said those things just because she wanted to make her feel happy.
Now I know I keep banging on about the benefits of young people creating plays to be performed in the language they are learning (this must be at least the 5th post I’ve written here about the topic!) but it’s because I’m convinced that it’s one of the most powerful ways that there is of enabling learners to move away from just being regurgitators of language supplied by their coursebooks or their teachers, and towards being fully fledged users of language in their own right. If you haven’t already tried asking your students to make a play in English, I’d really recommend that you give it a go.