Teaching Grammar Through Theater

Teaching grammar

By Alice Savage

At first glance, teaching grammar and theater might seem at odds. A grammar-focused lesson generally aims to clarify a decontextualized rule such as how to use the past, present, future or telling the quantity of something. Examples “in context” are provided but without the messiness of human emotions and intentions.

Theater, on the other hand, tends to feature the opposite. A play, sketch or improv activity tends to embrace the messiness of human connections (and misconnections). It relies on grammar to get information across, but it also layers on the emotions, attitudes, intentions and implicit messages that exist in human social behavior. These might involve ambition, power, love, or fear among others.

Interestingly, it is when these two are combined that a learner can feel they have achieved competence in the target language. To know a language is to know the rules not just for grammar patterns but also for social conventions.

Dialog in a play or sketch is useful for learners because it embodies these relationships. Students can take parts and read or perform, and in doing so experience a conversation among culturally situated speakers who have emotions and objectives. They become children arguing with their parents, a kitchen worker standing up to the head chef, or a police officer interrogating a suspect.

In addition to providing a means for embodying target structures, the characters and plot of a drama can be used as content for meaningful grammar practice. For example, students can use modal perfect structures to speculate about a plot point. “He might have hidden the body in the basement. Or they can use infinitive structures to analyze a character’s motivations, e.g., “Maybe she wants to escape.”

A useful model for guiding a drama-into-grammar activity is the experiential learning cycle developed by David Kolb (1984).

A lesson starts with an experience of the script. Students might watch, listen to, or better, perform, a sketch or a scene from a short play (examples and sources below).

The next stage is the reflection stage where they describe the scene, understand what happens, who the characters are, what they say, and what they want. In the language classroom, this is where comprehension work happens to ensure that students understand.

The third stage is called abstract conceptualization. This is the stage where focused language work can take place. Students can discuss the conflict in the play in different ways, write about it, and use the context for a grammar lesson as in the example activity below.

Finally, in active experimentation, students can role-play, improvise, do a presentation, or have a seminar-style discussion in which they try to bring the structure into a contextualized speaking event.

In the following activity, adapted from The Drama Book: Lesson Plans, Activities and Scripts for English learners (Alphabet Publishing), students use the present perfect to explain a current state.

Perspicacious Present Perfect

Aim: To practice the present perfect while explaining a character’s emotional or physical state.

Preparation: Students should have familiarity with a script that has several characters. Plus, a starting set of questions that trigger the use of the present perfect in the answer. (This activity uses two scenes below as a model.)

Time: About 30 minutes for the grammar lesson.

Activity

  1. Review the present perfect as a way to explain why something is currently true. You might model by saying you are hungry and perhaps even miming. Try to get pairs to give you as many explanations as possible, so you can fine tune their understanding.

Here’s a possible list.

  • You haven’t had breakfast
  • You’ve been exercising
  • You’ve been on a diet
  • You haven’t shopped for groceries this week
  • You’ve given your lunch to a homeless person
  • Next, read a sketch or scene from a play (see script below). Check for understanding. Then use the context to speculate about why a character feels something or does something to elicit the structure in a context.
Why is Cody tired?
He has been in the desert.
He has been walking.
He has been looking for a plane crash.
  1. (Optional) Give students a matching activity to introduce further examples of the form.
1_ Why is Cody wearing a sweater?
2_ Why is Beaux eager to please Cody?
3 _ Do they know what happened?
4 _ Why is it hot now?
5 _ What are they going to do?
a. He has just started the job.
b. They haven’t figured out it out yet.
c. They haven’t decided yet..
d. The sun has risen.
e. He has been in the desert at night.
  1. Go to the next scene or a different scene in the play and repeat, but this time have pairs create their own present perfect contexts to speculate why someone has done something or hasn’t done it (yet). These can be posted, shared and discussed.

Why does Sid accept the toast?

  • He hasn’t eaten breakfast.
  • He hasn’t been able to find work.
  • They have been friends for a long time.
  • He wants her to stop offering. (It’s often helpful to contrast forms.)
  • Next, direct learners to speculate about character motivations in additional scenes.

You may notice that as they get involved in the story, their focus on the grammar fades or disappears entirely. This is a good opportunity to do some in-the-moment correction or record sentences for a follow-up feedback in which you can share correct models you heard and deal with error.

Variation

Put students in competitive teams. Then give each team one question and a time limit. Tell them that the team with the highest number of correct present perfect sentences is the winner. Play a round, determine a winner and then go on to the next question.

SCRIPT: Suspicious


Suspicious Scene 1

Early morning. The Sheriff’s office of a small town near a desert.

Speakers: Beaux, Cody, Katie

NARRATOR: The sun rises in a small desert town. A man and woman in uniform hurry up the steps to the sheriff’s office.

Sound effect: a door opening.

BEAUX:            Morning, sir!

CODY:              Good morning. You’re Beaux, then? The new officer?

BEAUX:            Yes sir.

KATIE:              Good morning sir. Are you wearing a sweater?

CODY:              I was in the desert last night.

KATIE:              Oh yeah. It gets at cold out there at night.

BEAUX:            That’s impossible. It’s like one hundred degrees out there.

CODY:              Nevertheless . . . it’s a fact. Would you like to know why I was in the desert?

BEAUX & KATIE: Yes sir.

CODY:              There was a call from the campground.

KATIE:              Oh?

CODY:              Some campers thought a plane crashed.

BEAUX:            A plane? A plane crashed?

CODY:              No. There was no evidence of a plane crash. They heard a noise and they thought there was a plane crash.

KATIE:              I didn’t hear anything.

BEAUX:            Me neither.

CODY:              Yeah, well they were absolutely sure they’d heard a boom.

BEAUX:            Like a crash or a boom?

CODY:              I don’t know. A sort of screaming sound and a boom. 

KATIE:              Did you find anything?

CODY:              Nope. Just stars. Stars, stars, stars. It’s really beautiful out there at night you know. Just the howling of coyotes and stars. I had forgotten. . .. But no, I didn’t find anything. 

BEAUX:            Huh . . .

KATIE:              What?

BEAUX:            Just, wondering. If there weren’t any clouds, it couldn’t have been thunder.

KATIE:              And there aren’t any trains that way. The desert is empty.

CODY:              I know. I’ve got a bad feeling about this! 

Suspicious: Scene 3

An hour later.A diner in the town

Speakers: Phoebe, Sid, Buck

NARRATOR: The rising sun slants through the blinds at the town’s diner. A long-time waitress makes a fresh pot of coffee. She’s happy to have a job. Not everyone here does.

Sound effects: diner sounds, possibly a cash register and/or customers quietly talking

PHOEBE:          Here’s your coffee Sid. Do you want breakfast?

SID:                  No, Phoebe. Just coffee thanks.

PHOEBE:          Over easy?

SID:                  What?

PHOEBE:          Your eggs. Do you want ‘em over easy? The usual?

SID:                  No thanks, Phoebe. I’m not hungry.

PHOEBE:          Toast?

SID:                  No, no toast. I’m really not hungry.

PHOEBE:          I’ve got some extra toast. It’ll go to waste if you don’t eat it. No charge.

SID:                  Okay fine! Toast.

PHOEBE:          Be right back.

(Sound of the door opening)

BUCK:              Hey, Sid, how’s the job search?

SID:                  Hey, Buck.

BUCK:              Did the agency call you back?

SID:                  It’s still early.

BUCK:              Yeah, it’s a waiting game. You’ll find a job. It’ll be okay.

SID:                  I know. I’m fine. We’re fine. Lena and the kids are fine. Everyone’s fine!

BUCK:              Okay, okay . . . But I’m your brother-in-law. If you need a loan or anything…

(Sid interrupts)

SID:                  Did you hear the noise last night?

BUCK:              That big bang?

SID:                  Yeah. About two in the morning? It was right outside my window.

BUCK:              I heard it. I thought someone was hunting. Coyotes maybe.

SID:                  I don’t think so.

BUCK:              So what was it?

PHOEBE:          Yeah. What was what?

BUCK:              Hi Phoebe. Just coffee, thanks.

PHOEBE:          I heard it too? What happened?

SID:                  I don’t know, but I have an idea. I think it was those foreigners over at the campground.

PHOEBE:          Who? The campers?

SID:                  I don’t trust outsiders.

BUCK:              Maybe you ought to talk to Cody down at the police station.

SID:                  And tell him what?

PHOEBE:          Yeah. What are they up to?

SID:                  I don’t know, but kids like that are trouble.

BUCK:              I’ve got to go by the campground this morning. Do you want to go with me? We can drop by and check it out.

SID:                  I’m free.

BUCK:              Okay, we’ll take my truck.

Resources

  • Savage, Alice (2019). The Drama Book: Lesson Plans, Activities, and Scripts for English Learners, Alphabet Publishing.

Note: Alphabet publishing also publishes short plays and drama curriculum.