Drama and Task Based Learning


This week’s post is from Jane Willis who is a keen supporter of the Hands Up project. She wrote her first post here,  Meaning focused activities   in 2017. In March 2018, she came to Palestine for the ‘1st Annual PALTAG International Conference Roadshow’  organised by The British Council, where she very much enjoyed meeting teachers, trainers  and students and watching plays produced for the first drama competition.


Nick tells me that lots of young people in Palestine are very busy creating, rehearsing and getting ready to perform their plays for this year’s Remote Theatre Competition. That is good news because drama activities are fun and can really bring English to life, not just for the lucky students chosen as actors, but also for the whole school.

In my last blog, I emphasised the need to make time in lessons for students to speak freely – to express their own meanings, not just speaking  to practise grammar. I gave examples of tasks that could be done in class to promote free spontaneous interaction.  Many of you wrote interesting follow-up comments.  Nihaya Anaya , Shirin and Rida Thabet all had good ideas for maximising students’ talking time, and Karaman suggested  drama as one way of helping  students to use language for communication.

There is however a danger in ‘doing drama’ –  I worry about equality of opportunity.  Is it not usually the best English speakers who are chosen to act the main parts?   And, as they rehearse, they get even more chances to improve their already good English!    But what about all the other English learners in your school?  Especially those who are weaker at English, less motivated, or who are too shy to speak in class. Surely they could really benefit from the extra opportunities for interacting in English afforded by the process of creating a play?

I want to ask you 3 questions:  1. Is it the teacher’s job to write the script for the play? 2.  How many children in each class are, or could be, actively involved in the process of creating a piece of theatre?  3. How could a task-based approach give all learners opportunities to use their English?

A task, in the language teaching sense, is a meaning-focussed activity where teachers and learners use English freely to communicate with each other for real, to achieve a goal.  Having a clear goal gives the interaction a purpose, and a clear end point.  Achieving the goal brings a feel of satisfaction and success.  Creating a play could involve a whole sequence of tasks with different goals.


To get every student involved, tasks can be done initially in pairs or small groups in each class.  Then each pair or group can prepare to tell the class what they have done, explaining their ideas or opinions, telling their story, enacting their script.  The teacher and class together can then produce a final draft incorporating the best ideas.  (See my 2017 blog for how to handle the task cycle of Task, Planning and Reporting.  I also suggest roles for group members to ensure they speak as much English as possible.)

So how can we use tasks to involve all learners in preparing a piece of theatre??

There are many stages in the process of creating, planning and rehearsing a play leading up to the final performance which is filmed.  In fact some of you may be half way through this process by now.  But each stage has a goal, and this goal can be turned into a meaning focussed task to get learners talking freely.  So here are some ideas.  Select and adapt, according to the stage you are at.

Early stages:  Creating the ideas and characters.

Pairs or groups in your class or drama club could be asked to:

  • choose a topic or a story for a play.  They then summarise their idea to other groups and say why it is appropriate for an international audience. Teacher can lead a class discussion on their opinions then students vote on the best one, or two, or even three plays, giving reasons for their choice.
  • describe the characters for their play and decide exactly what each character will do.
  • finalise the personalities of the characters, and how they could be made dramatic. Tell another group. Put your ideas together, refine them, and tell the class.
  • refine and flesh out the story for your play; tell the class and compare stories. Decide on the best ideas. Teachers can help learners to incorporate them in a new draft.
  • describe the setting(s) for each scene and narrate what happens in each scene. Share ideas with another group, and incorporate the best ideas into your scenes.


Middle stages:  trying scenes out to finalise the script and  the cast

Casting – choosing the best actors – can happen during this stage.  Also choose understudies, who will play the part if the main actor is ill.  For examples, several groups or classes can create their own version of the play, act it out and the teacher might pick one or two actors from each group or class.  Here are some ideas for pair or group work.

  • Groups improvise each scene, then plan a draft script, and act it out (using the script).Then other groups and the teacher watch and comment on their performance.
  • Groups evaluate a draft script from a different group, then write a list of 2 things they liked about it and 2 ways to improve it. Teacher helps with language queries.
  • Groups revise their draft scripts in the light of the feedback and share again.
  • Teacher can discuss and decide with the whole class the best ideas for the final script, and groups act out scenes in front of the class and ask for feed-back.
  • Groups help the actors and their understudies – to learn their parts by heart.

Final stages:  rehearsing, refining and performing

Once the actors and understudies are chosen, their classes can still be involved in decision-making.  Before the final filming, the play can be performed to other classes to get audience feed-back.  Small groups can

  • decide and draw the costumes each character could wear for the final performance. Decide who, in the class, will make or obtain each costume.  Tell your teacher in English. Class decides on final costumes and groups refine their drawings, labelling the clothes.
  • write a list of things the actors will need on stage (these are called ‘props’) and who in the class will provide them for each scene and decide a deadline date for collecting them.
  • decide on the final title for the play, and prepare a large written version (with name of class or school), for audiences to read.
  • design and display posters to advertise the play to put up round the school.
  • Invite parents to a final pre-filming performance? Groups write and distribute the invitations.
  • Classes in the school can watch dress-rehearsals and small groups can evaluate them with specific criteria in mind: e.g. entrances and exits,  timings, clarity of expression. Then each group gives their advice to the actors.
  • Groups can watch the final video and write an introduction to the play, or a short review, for new audiences to read.

So  in the process of planning, rehearsing and performing a play,  a series of Task-based cycles can give all learners opportunities to speak spontaneously in small groups and then more formally when reporting and sharing their ideas  with the whole class.  They will gain confidence in speaking freely and develop communication skills necessary both for drama and for subsequent real-world interactions.

I am sure that many of you are already involving the whole school and using this kind of interactive approach (you may not realise you are doing TBL!) Please write your ideas in the comments below!

And a final task for your learners: ask each student to reflect on their part in the drama process and evaluate their personal learning, writing 3 things they liked about taking part, and 2 suggestions for next time.

By the way, my answers to the questions I asked above would be 1. Not necessarily. 2.  all of them, 3.  through the use of task cycles – see the second part of https://handsupproject.org/2017/02/23/meaning-focused-activities/

I wish you much enjoyment and satisfaction in your drama activities. And to those taking part in the competition this year, the best of luck!  I look forward to seeing the videos of your plays.

Jane Willis

Dramatic Drilling

I’ve often had my doubts about  the value of choral drilling in language teaching. I’ve observed so many classes around the world (and taught many of them myself!) where students are supposed to be replicating a model from the teacher in a choral drilling exercise. In reality however, most learners aren’t even getting close to the model and even if they are I wonder whether there is actually any learning going on. As far as I see it the main problems with drilling as as follows :-

  1. If the teacher is just drilling individual words or short chunks there isn’t really any requirement to process the language at all. Learners don’t need to temporarily store the language items in working memory in order to repeat, and can simply use echoic memory to do so. Therefore the cognitive challenge, and consequently the learning, may be very limited.
  2. Items to be drilled are often completely devoid of context. Why is the utterance being said? Is it a response to something? This information is important to make drilled items more meaningful to learners.
  3. In a large class when everyone is repeating at the same time, how can the teacher or, more importantly the learners themselves, even hear whether they are saying the utterance accurately? This means that some learners can get away with doing nothing, or even pretend to say something just to keep the teacher happy.
  4. Unless there is an explicit focus on how to make particular sounds, or connected speech or stress patterns etc, can learners even notice these features by simply trying to imitate another person? Perhaps they just fall back on their own ways of saying things.
  5. The way that we say things affects meaning greatly and yet most drilling doesn’t really have a focus on meaning at all. It is purely an exercise in parroting.
  6. We use our whole bodies when we speak – not just our mouths – and yet physicalisation and gesture is rarely incorporated into drilling exercises.
  7. If utterances are intelligible then there isn’t really much of an incentive for learners to make their pronunciation more accurate and or or more fluent. It’s perhaps only when breakdowns in communication occur that learners see a need to address pronunciation issues.  Drilling, because it’s basically non-communicative, doesn’t provide affordances for this to happen.

On the other hand, the central idea behind drilling – that of encouraging learners to process and reproduce a stretch of spoken language after a model from a more advanced speaker -may be a very useful element of good teaching and learning. It’s something which happens naturally in interaction between parents and children within L1, and it certainly happens to me a lot when I’m talking to people who are more advanced speakers of the languages I’m learning. As a language learner I value this a lot.

Many teachers in Palestine are currently helping their learners to rehearse their lines for their plays for this year’s competition. The kind of drilling which occurs here, with the teacher giving one-on-one models to each learner of their lines may avoid some of the problems with choral drilling that I’ve mentioned above.  In the video below you can see this happening as Lina, in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, rehearses her lines for the play ‘Lemon and mint’. The big difference for me is that she’s repeating after me not just because I’m telling her to, but in order to get the best possible performance in the play. This type of drilling is fully contextualised, meaningful, physicalised and, above all, personalised to the needs of an individual.

CLILing two birds?

To be honest, I’ve often been a bit sceptical about the value of CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning). The idea that languages are best learnt when the focus is on something else (ie Science, Maths, PE or music etc) is an attractive one, but is there a danger that, rather than killing two birds with one stone, neither the content or the language gets learnt and learners end up leaving the lesson with nothing?

My scepticism partly stems back to a summer course on CLIL I was leading for 30 Spanish primary school teachers a few years ago. The teachers on the course had suddenly been informed that from September they would have to teach their subjects in English, rather than Spanish, and most of them were not happy about this at all!

The were two main reasons for their concerns. Firstly, many of them felt that their own level of English wasn’t high enough to be able to do this. How could they teach Science in English when they didn’t have a large enough science vocabulary themselves, or an appropriate  level of spoken fluency?

Secondly, they were concerned that if they taught Science in English to young learners it would be at the expense of developing a Science vocabulary in Spanish, and knowing how to talk about Science in Spanish was important of course since the children lived in Spain.

In the video below you can see me doing a HUP online session with a group of eighteen, 15 year old girls in a Ministry of Education school in Hebron, Palestine. They are on the Scientific stream, but they are not studying Science in their regular classes in English, they’re doing it in Arabic. However what we are doing in this session is, in my opinion, a form of  CLIL, and I think the problems that the Spanish teachers identified in their own context aren’t really an issue here.

For a start their teacher, Nabiha, is an English teacher not a Science teacher and, like most Palestinian English teachers she has a very advanced vocabulary in English and an excellent level of spoken fluency.

Also, these students are older and have already developed a Science vocabulary in  Arabic. The learning happens when they try, with support from their teacher and from me, to reformulate this into English. And it’s interesting to me that they are also taking on the role of teacher. I was rubbish at Science at school and I’m actually learning about Science myself through the questions they ask me.

What do you think?

Learners as authors

I’ve just returned from a very fulfilling 10 day trip to Gaza and the West Bank. There were so many highlights to this trip for me. I am so proud to be able to witness the creative drama work which is being produced by Palestinian young people and teachers.

We were very excited when we heard the news (right at the last minute!) that the creators of the 3 top plays in last years competition would be granted exit permits to leave Gaza with Melissa and I, and perform their plays in the West Bank – a place none of them had visited before. They performed their plays brilliantly at Alrowad cultural centre in Bethlehem and at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin to huge, very welcoming and excited audiences, and conducted a post performance discussion in Arabic in both places about what the experience of creating and performing a play meant to them.

Post performance discussion at Alrowad Cultural Centre in Bethlehem

It was also an absolute joy to visit so many new drama clubs in different UNRWA schools all over Gaza. These were set up after the drama club leader training I’d conducted for teachers in July. I saw wonderful performances of plays that the children and teachers had created themselves, and observed teachers conducting drama based sessions with the kids.


Drama activities in a circle at an UNRWA school in Khan Younis, Gaza
Group task in Amal Agha’s drama club in Khan Younis, Gaza

Another huge highlight was being able to present all of the 150 children who have one of their plays published in, ‘Toothbrush and other plays’ with a copy of the book.   Seeing their faces when I gave it to them and told them that their plays may now be performed by other children learning English around the world, has brought me more personal satisfaction than any other writing project I’ve ever been involved with.


The cast of ‘Sarah’s dream’ from Jabalia Elementary A UNRWA school, Gaza
The cast of ‘The Bullied’ from Palestine B UNRWA school, Gaza

Thank you to Gilgimish Publishing for your very generous support with this. If you would like to buy a copy of the book you can do so here. All proceeds from book sales go towards supporting the costs involved in this year’s competition.

Rosa Parks - books
The cast of ‘Rosa Parks’ receiving their books in an UNRWA school in Beit Laqiya, Gaza  

Dogme Team Teaching


dogme 3

In Teaching Unplugged (Delta 2009) Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury list the three main principles of a dogme approach to language teaching; namely that teaching should be materials light, conversation driven and focussed on emergent language.

These principles make perfect sense to me. They mirror they way I’ve tried to learn languages myself, and they’ve guided much of what I’ve done as a teacher since I first heard about the approach in the late 1990’s. In fact, if I think back to the first ‘teaching’ I ever did (in Japan in 1991 before I’d had any training as a teacher at all) this was pretty much the way of it too.

It was certainly materials light, since it was just me and a group of students in a room together, as well as conversation driven and focussed on emergent language  – we just started talking and I would try to help them say the things that they were saying more effectively, or accurately. At least this is what they asked me to do, but I’m not entirely sure that my own language awareness was good enough at that time to really help them very much!

Now, after teaching for 28 years, I know a lot more about English and I know what kind of problems learners can get into when they converse in English. More importantly, I’ve learnt that these problems are generally learning opportunities, and part of my job as a teacher is to make the most of them.

Dogme isn’t easy of course. To be an effective dogme teacher we need to do two things at once; we need to listen to what the students are saying but also listen to how they are saying it. We also need to be aware of the forms that we’re using in our own speech in order to help leaners to notice language. I’ve never been very good at multitasking though, and I find that the moment I start paying too much attention to form I stop focussing on content (and vice versa). There’s a danger that classes become all talk without any attention being paid to new language, or conversely all about focussing on language without really any genuine language use.

When we do dogme type sessions in our online link ups with young people in Palestine we have developed a way of overcoming this problem. We have two teachers!

In the picture below you can see Atiyyeh, a teacher in a village near Ramallah working with a small group of teenage boys in a classroom. Projected onto the white board is the face of Michael, one of our volunteers based in the UK. Michael is having a conversation with the learners through Zoom.


dogme 4

They’re asking him questions and he’s asking them questions. They’re discussing football, why Britain is leaving the European Union, how Palestinians are viewed in the world, and a host of other topics. Atiyyeh is writing up language that emerges on the board. Occasionally he’ll stop to check whether they’ve understood something that Michael has said, and maybe translate into Arabic and/or elicit further examples of a language point. He’s also ready to help the leaners out with questions they want to ask, or things they want to say to Michael.  In many ways I think this is the perfect language learning environment. What do you think?

Dogme team teaching






In last year’s playwriting competition for Palestinian children we had several very inspiring entries which unfortunately were not eligible because they didn’t fulfil the entry requirements. This video made by sixteen year old, Yafa Slemiah from Hebron is a film of course, rather than a play, so it didn’t qualify, but it’s one of my favourite pieces of work made by young people in Palestine.

In June I had the pleasure of attending a huge event in Ramallah, in honour of Dr. Sabri Saidam, the Palestinian Minister of Education, supported by the British Council, and attended by around 800 MoE teachers of English. There were many brilliant performances by Palestinian young people at this event, but none more so than when Yafa came up and stood on the stage. The video was played on the huge screen with the sound turned down and Yafa stood in front of it with her back to the audience, saying the lines. The audience there were very moved and inspired, and I’m sharing this now because I hope that people all around the word will see this too. Thanks Yafa for making a very powerful film about life as a Palestinian girl in Hebron.

From Gaza with love…

When I’m speaking at conferences for language teachers around the world I sometimes wonder why the voice of the most important resource we have – the students themselves – is somehow missing from the talks and workshops that we deliver. It’s all very well talking about techniques and strategies that we can use in our classes, or even demonstrating them with teachers, but do they work with real learners? What do students actually think about our approaches? Can they see the benefits of what we are trying to do?

At the ADRIES conference in Split, Croatia I was hoping to redress the balance a little in my talk about drama and language learning by linking to a group of girls in an UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza.  But I’d sent them a zoom link and not heard anything, so I’d assumed that sadly the internet wasn’t strong enough for them to be able to connect.

In fact their timing couldn’t have been better! They joined by zoom just as I was showing a slide with an extract from Scott Thornbury’s introduction from our just published book of thirty of the plays from last year’s playwriting competition. So I was able to ask the audience to read the slide and hold it in mind as they watched the remote performance of a play the girls had created, ‘Live your life’, and as they listened to the girls’ reflections afterwards. I now invite you to do the same.

“More importantly still, drama is expressive: it invests an imagined world with the thoughts, experiences, feelings, fears and hopes of its creators. In the context of Palestine, this is an incredibly important function – it provides a means of thinking the unthinkable, of saying the unsayable, of dreaming the undreamable. And it is transformative: it empowers its creators by enhancing their English skills, and hence giving them a powerful voice in the wider world. But also, by construing their lives as narratives that can be performed and shared, drama eloquently affirms their identity as Palestinians and as global citizens”

(Scott Thornbury, Toothbrush and other plays – Gilgimish 2018)