The power of drama

This week we have a guest post from Henritte Sudah, who teaches English at Zababdeh girls secondary school, Jenin, Palestine.

When I went on the training course with Nick in Ramallah about using stories in teaching English I was unsure about whether I would be able to apply it in my classes. Some of the girls in my class have learning difficulties and they don’t know how to read or write any English at all. But as soon as I had told the first story to the students they were very excited about singing the song and acting it out. I could hear the children singing the song to themselves in the playground long after the class had finished. For the play, one student explained to everyone else what their roles should be and they worked the whole thing out on their own. The children who took part in these performances now come to meet me very morning at the school gate. So now I am proud that I am part of this project, but most of all I’m proud of my students.



Staging a lesson around a story

Over the past two months, along with doing lots of online sessions myself, I’ve been running several series of online training sessions with dedicated teachers in many different places around the world, who have given up their time to volunteer with the Hands Up Project. A few weeks ago, a teacher on one of the courses asked me if she could see some videos of whole sessions, so as to get more ideas as to how to stage an online lesson around a story.

It’s true that all of the videos on our youtube channel for teachers have so far just focused on individual activities led by the teacher, or performances of plays and chants by children. I’m about to rectify that however, with this video of a complete 45 minute session led by Alexandra Guzik in Krasnodar, Russia, with Sahar Salha coordinating things from the other side, with her class of girls at the Elementary co-ed “A” UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza.

Alex first got in touch with me back in May to see if we could arrange a link up between her class of kids in a private language school in Russia and a class in Gaza. You can read about what happened here.

Now Alex is a volunteering once a week, working with a group in the Sahar’s school. There are lots of really great things happening in this session in my opinion (you can watch it in full below) Here are a few of the key things for me.

  1. It’s a very nice example of teacher as audience. Alex is an audience for the homework which she’d asked them to do at the end the of the previous session (find out some interesting facts about animals). She’s also an audience for their performances of their stories and chants. Like all good audiences, she’s actively listening to what the children are saying and, by this empowering them immensely – not least for Rania, the student who was so visibly pleased to be able to communicate with Alex in Russian.
  2. It’s a very well staged lesson. Alex builds on what they did for homework, thereby emphasising the fact that learning English isn’t just something that happens in class time. She also provides a nice balance between teacher input and student output in the whole session, and she includes some really motivating and learning rich pre-story and post-story activities.
  3. There’s a strong focus on communication. I’m coming to the conclusion that video conferencing isn’t that great for accuracy work, like drilling or any form of pronunciation practice, especially when the internet connection isn’t very strong. It is very good however for negotiation of meaning. In fact the difficulties with the connection seem to push everyone to rephrase things and to try to speak more clearly and loudly so that the message gets through.  This can only be a good thing, and there are lots of examples of it in this extract.
  4. It’s very effective team teaching. Alex has planned the session but she allows space in what she’s doing for Sahar, the teacher at the other end, to control much of the session too. And whilst Alex is driving the narrative of the class, Sahar is managing everything on the ground in Gaza, knowing which students to bring in for certain activities, and scaffolding and supporting what they are saying.  The interaction between them when they are deciding what to do is also excellent exposure to comprehensible input for the children. How often do children in contexts like this get the chance to hear two super advanced speakers of English, modelling dialogue in English about things which are directly related to the children?




Your song

I’ve been so busy lately I haven’t had much time for blogging, but this week we’ve got something special – a guest post from Amal, an English teacher who works with teenagers at the UNRWA school in the Khan Younis refugee camp, Gaza. Last week we arranged a live link up between her students and a group of grade 12 students at a secondary school here in the UK. Here’s Amal’s post about what happened…..

For the last three years my colleagues and I have been working on a project that aims to explore different cultures, learning about different countries around the world and creating global citizens.

One of the best ways to achieve this was by bringing an international dimension to everything we do at school. Our students have been introduced to a global dimension in the school curriculum and in their lives, and the entire school has been  involved in a variety of activities.

Communicating across cultures is one of the challenges that we need to cope with as it gives students a real access to the world and shows them the fun side of learning English, history, geography…etc.

Last Monday Nick arranged an online session in which kids from Gaza and Britain interacted using a video tool called Zoom. Students from totally different backgrounds were engaged in spontaneous conversations about their cities, hobbies, holidays, music and hopes for the future. Furthermore, my students performed Dabke and, in return, students from the other side sang ‘Your Song’ by Elton John brilliantly.

At the end of the session, we had a mixture of emotions, thoughts and feelings. My students walked back home talking joyfully about their new experience with people from the outside. They were recalling some funny moments and sweet memories. I loved how they were trying to imitate the way that the British students were uttering words. They were happy, excited, full of hopes and bright colourful pictures.

A siege of ten years and three cruel wars couldn’t stop those students from interacting and showing the world what cool things they have.



Worth a thousand words


Despite all the hype about learning styles in recent years, it’s a well known fact, backed up by research, that our ability to remember images outperforms our ability to remember other forms of data, such as written words, sounds, or smells. In one study, cited in Medina (2008), people were shown 2500 different images – each one for just 10 seconds. Several days later they managed to remember which images they’d seen with 90% accuracy. After a year the recall rate was still very high at 63%.

I think that one of our jobs as language teachers is to make use of this fact as much as possible. We can do this through exploiting the pictures in the coursebook wherever we can, and by linking them to the words, chunks and grammar that we want the students to learn or practice. We can also do it by bringing in other images to class and doing lots of language related activities with them.

Here are a few pictures from different stories from the Stories Alive material. Before telling the story to the class, I’d suggest that there are lots of activities that we might do using pictures like these, with the purpose of both helping them to follow the story later, and to develop and practice their English. Below are five different ideas. In the Stories alive notes for teachers at the back of the book, you’ll find many more.


Elicitation of key language

Look at the pictures, one by one but not necessarily in the correct order, with the whole class together – either as large blown up flash cards (preferably A2 size), or using a data projector if available. Elicit vocabulary from the class about what they can see in the picture. You could ask the children to call out suggestions for what they can see, or alternatively ask them to put their hands up and take suggestions one by one. Whichever way you do it, it is really important to make sure that everyone is clear about which element of the picture is being referred to so that they can learn vocabulary from their peers. A good way to do this is to point at the part of the picture they are talking about as the learners say the words.

The questions that we ask during elicitation can provide a lot of support for learners. So we could ask for example, ‘What’s this person doing?’ to get the response ‘Leaving’ but with lower level learners we could provide even more support when it’s needed by using a closed question, like ‘Is he arriving or leaving?’

For example:

Teacher: What can you see in this picture?
Student: Person.
Teacher: A person or some people
Student: Some people
Teacher: What’s this man doing?
Teacher: Is he arriving or is he leaving?
Students: Leaving            etc…


02.G colour copy


Picture visualisation

Choose one picture which shows one of the key moments in the story. Look at it yourself but keep it hidden from the students. Describe one element of the picture and then try to engage the students in dialogue to get more information about it. For example…

Teacher: There’s a boy sitting. He’s not sitting on a chair. Where do you think he’s sitting?
Student: ….Table….. Sofa
Teacher: No not a table or a sofa. He’s not inside. He’s …..
Student: …Outside
Teacher: Yes. He’s outside. He’s sitting outside on …..
Student: شو يعني أرض با نجليزي؟ 
Teacher: Yes that’s right he’s sitting on the ground. (mimes) He’s sitting on the ground in front of a….
Student: house
Teacher: No, not a house
Student: Tree.  شجرة  صح؟
Teacher: Yes a tree.  He’s sitting on the ground in front of a tree. He doesn’t look happy. He looks sad. Why? Why does he look sad? etc etc.


When you feel you’ve got as far as you go with this, show them the picture so that the students can see how it compares with what they imagined. In this kind of dialogue with the class you are trying to provide a safe ‘scaffold’ in which the students can notice and experiment with new language. You want them to understand what you are saying but at the same time you’re trying to push them a little to work at the limits of their abilities and to engage with new language. There is potentially a lot of learning that can happen in such a situation.


Remembering detail

Choose one of the pictures from a story and display it so that everyone can see it clearly. Tell the class that they should look at it for a minute and try to remember as much detail as they can. Now take the picture away and start to ask questions about the detail to see how much they can remember. For example

There are two animals in the picture. True or false?
The crow is on the left. True or False?
Is there an apple in the picture?
How many flowers are there in the picture?
Where is the chicken? etc

You could do this as a memory competition with one side of the class competing against the other. With a low level class it’s a good idea to write some of these question types mentioned above on the board to use as a model. You could now do the same activity the other way around. That is, the class can see another picture from the same story but it is hidden from your view. They ask questions to you to see how much you can remember. You score a point for each question you answer correctly. They score a point for each question you answer incorrectly. Finally the same activity can be done in groups with the remaining pictures from a story. After studying their picture, one learner from each group asks questions to the other people in her group to test their memories. They can swap pictures with a different group if they finish quickly.


lion and mouse image

Whole class sequencing of the pictures

Six or eight different learners come to the front of the class and each is given one of the large pictures from the story in a jumbled order. They hold the pictures up in a line so that everyone can see them. The teacher now discusses with the rest of the class what the order of the pictures could be. The students at the front change their position according to the order that is agreed. For example..

Teacher: So which picture do you think goes first? Faten?

Student: Khadija picture
Teacher: Why do you think it’s Khadija’s picture that goes first Faten?
Student: Because man and boy looking to mountain.
Teacher: Because the man and the boy are looking at the mountain? Do you agree everyone? Students: Yes
Teacher: OK Khadija. Can you please move to the front of the line? Now which one is next? Etc..

This activity could either be done before listening to the story (as a way to generate ideas and vocabulary, and make the listening process easier) or after listening to the story (as a way of checking that they understood it). By doing it with the whole class together you are providing a very useful model of the kind of language that students can use if they do the same sequencing activity in groups using the smaller versions of the pictures.



Something beginning with…

Display all of the large pictures at the front of the class by sticking them to the board, or use a projector if one is available. Think of something that can be seen in one of the pictures. Tell the class the first letter of the object and see if they can guess what it is. You could use the line ‘ I spy with my little eye, something beginning with…’ to introduce each word that they have to guess. When you’ve done a few examples the students can do the same activity in groups. This activity works well as a follow up to elicitation. For an extra challenge you can play the game using two words instead of one. So it would be ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with b h  (blue hat) ’ or ‘I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with o j (orange juice)’.


How do you use pictures in your classes with your students. Please add a comment below and let’s start sharing ideas.


Medina, J (2008) Brain Rules; Pear Press


Teacher’s aren’t doctors but sometimes we’re made to feel like we are 🙂

I was at a conference recently and a teacher came up to me with a wry smile on her face. ‘I have a problem,’ she said. ‘You know that chant you did in your workshop last year? It goes like this …Juha! Juha! What are you going to do? The cat came home and ate the meat and nothing’s left for you!.…Well it’s become a complete ear worm for me. It keeps coming into my head when I’m trying to concentrate on something else. Please give me something to get rid of it!’

Earworms can certainly be frustrating. I’ve been listening to a lot of music by the Cuban musician, Silvio Rodríguez, recently and I have an earworm for part of this song at the moment.

My earworm goes like this..

Que maneras más curiosas
de recordar tiene uno,
que maneras más curiosas:
hoy recuerdo mariposas
que ayer sólo fueron humo,
mariposas, mariposas
que emergieron de lo oscuro
bailarinas, silenciosas.

Mariposas is a very beautiful song and the words are beautiful too. In English it means something like this…

What most curious ways
of remembering one has,
what most curious ways:
today I remember butterflies
that yesterday were only smoke,
butterflies, butterflies,
that emerged from the dark,
dancers, silent.

I’ve probably just heard it too many times and I would quite happily fill my head with other things, but this little snippet keeps popping up, especially when I’m trying to write. It’s driving me a little crazy.

But if we think about it from the perspective of the second language learner  (I am a lapsed learner of Spanish) then earworms might actually be useful. Could it be that they are part of the cure rather than the affliction itself? I very rarely hear spoken Spanish these days, so having a stretch of naturally connected speech that I keep turning over in my head can only be a good thing in terms of giving me a connection to the language. If we are in a situation where we don’t get that much exposure to the language we are learning, (which is the case for many learners around the world) then an earworm is way to provide some quite focussed listening practice, albeit from an internal, rather than external, voice. If I listen to Silvio Rodríguez singing I can hear that my version isn’t the same of course. I can’t play it on the guitar, I’ve got an English accent and I can’t do it anywhere near as fluently as he does. But the point is that it is MY voice in my head that is singing Mariposas, and by doing this I’m constantly reaffirming to myself that I’m a fluent speaker of Spanish. At least in my head I am! 🙂

One of the things that I’m trying to stay focused on at the moment is turning the Hands Up Project into a charity. It’s the right thing to do because it will allow me to access other sources of funding, but it’s also quite a complex and time consuming process. While this is going on, and while the kids in Gaza are starting their summer holiday, I’m going to take a break from writing these blog posts for a while. In the meantime here’s one of the chants from the Stories Alive book, performed brilliantly by a student in Gaza. If it becomes an earworm for you then the blame lies with me, and I apologise in advance!

Jbēne! Jbēne! As white as cheese! Come with us to the Christ-thorn trees.

Jbēne! Jbēne! Stuck in the tree! You can’t get down. You can’t get free.

Jbēne! Jbēne! As black as night! Stay with the sheep till the morning light.

Jbēne! Jbēne! As white as cheese Marry me! Marry me! Marry me please!

Jbēne! Jbēne! As white as the moon. Marry me! Marry me! Marry me soon!

The (second language) play’s the thing

I’ll have grounds
More relative than this—the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.
                                                                                                   Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 603–605

When Hamlet spoke those lines he was thinking about the power of the play from the perspective of the audience. He decided to put on, ‘The murder of Gonzago’ (the play within the play in Hamlet) because the plot had similarities with the actual murder of his father. Suspecting that his uncle, Claudius, was guilty of the murder, he wanted to observe Claudius watching the play to see if he could detect his conscience being stirred.

In contrast, when we do a play with learners of English as a foreign language, we’re focussing principally on what the participants can get out of the experience rather than the audience. As the acclaimed drama in education expert, Dorothy Heathcote, put it (Wagner 1999), ‘The difference between theatre and classroom drama is that in theatre everything is contrived so that the audience gets the kicks.  In the classroom, the participants get the kicks.’

So how can second language learners benefit from performing in a play?

  1. Play scripts are ready-made coherent and cohesive texts, where grammar, vocabulary and chunks of language are used meaningfully, naturally and in context. Unlike many coursebook practice activities which focus on language items in isolation, scripts are more holistic, connecting vocabulary and  grammatical structures together through thematic links, rather than semantic ones. Research into how our brains work suggests that language presented in this way is more memorable.
  2. Most learners prioritise the learning of spoken language over written language. However it’s notoriously difficult for learners to notice the features of spoken language since speech, unlike writing, exists in its own time frame, rather than the time frame of the listener. Once words have been spoken, unless they are recorded in some way, they simply disappear. Scripts are spoken language written down, and therefore they provide the best of both worlds.
  3. Of course, we express ourselves and our ideas not just through the words that we use. Communication is a whole body experience and we also create meanings with facial expressions, with gestures and with physical movements. When performing a play it’s important to include all of these features, alongside and in conjunction with language, in order to make the play realistic.  Incorporating physicality helps us to remember the lines for performing the play, but it also helps the language to stick in long term memory long after the play has taken place.
  4. It’s not what you say it’s the way that you say it! A lot of meaning is carried through pronunciation, but it’s hard to get this point across to learners when spoken language is practised in isolation, and without a wider context. When practising the lines of a play, as teachers we can discuss with the learners different ways of saying the lines and the impact that this has. More importantly they can feel it themselves through other people’s reactions to what they say.
  5. Practising and performing a play provides the perfect combination of very controlled and very free language use. Learning the lines involves lots of repetition of a model of natural English, but at the same time there is the potential for plenty of freer discussion around how to say the lines, how to block the scene and whether to use costumes etc. Both of these types of language use are necessary in order to develop fluency. As well as this it can be very useful to involve an element of improvisation in to the process of learning lines itself. If the script is sometimes taken away and learners improvise using whatever language they have available to them it helps them to both remember the lines and to connect what they are saying to themselves.
  6. In order to learn any new word, chunk of language or grammatical structure, learners need to practice it lots of times. A few hours of English a week isn’t really enough time for this practice to be effective, so learners need to take it away with them and do it in their own time. As teachers we want them to be turning new language over in their minds at any opportune moment. Getting ready to perform a play can provide the level of practice needed in a much more meaningful way than the coursebook can usually offer – not just practice for the sake of it, but practice to make the most accomplished performance possible.
  7. Sometimes in ELT methodology we tend to shy away from the idea of performance. We avoid putting learners on the spot and incorporate plenty of pair and group work so that learners feel safe and unthreatened. This is all very well and can certainly help to build learners confidence, but in my opinion so too can incorporating a performance stage. There is a big difference of course between performing something when you are unprepared, and performing when you’ve got to the point where you feel comfortable about what you are doing. In fact for many learners it is the performance stage which provides the challenge they need in order to make real progress.

So here are a group of students at Asma’ Prep Girls A, UNRWA school, Gaza, rising very well to this challenge. They’re performing a modernised and simplified version of the traditional Palestinian story, The Farmer who followed his dream.

And here’s another one, performed by girls at Elementary co-ed “A” UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. They’re doing the Aesop’s fable, The Tortoise and the Hare.

We now have lots of videos on youtube of children in Gaza performing stories from the Stories Alive material. Congratulations to all of you for the wonderful performances and congratulations to your teachers for providing the time for this when I know you’ve all been busy getting ready for the end of year exams.

From Russia with love

Last Saturday we had a rather special zoom meeting  between Sahar Salha’s class at the Elementary co-ed “A” UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza and Alex Guzik’s class of kids in Krasnodar, Russia.

It started with the Russian children performing their own excellent interpretation of the traditional Palestinian story, The Farmer who followed his dream. It was especially nice since the class in Gaza had worked on the same story themselves so they could compare the way they’d done things. After that the class in Gaza did a great performance of another well known story in Palestine – Juha and the donkey.

After that we were surprised to find out that two girls in Gaza were fluent Russian speakers themselves. Rania sang a beautiful Russian song and Aya interviewed the Krasnodar group – in Russian!  Then it opened up into a general question and answer session with them taking turns to ask each other questions. Sports and favourite animals came up and then they ended up listing the ingredients to each other for one of their national dishes – Borsch for the Russians and Musakhan for the Palestinians. A highlight for me was when  Manar in Gaza asked the group In Krasnodar, ‘What do you hope for the children of Gaza?’ The answer they gave was considerate and heartfelt. Despite the four power-cuts that we experienced during the one hour session, and the rather weak internet signal, it really felt like a strong connection was made. Here’s a short snippet of what happened..