Drama games and techniques can add a stimulating dimension to language learning - literally in this case! In my post I’ll show you how two-dimensional images, whether they are paintings, photographs, video stills or illustrations in course books, can be brought to life in three-dimensions through drama.
The use of pictures can have a powerful effect on students, even more so if the students are interacting with one another. The following activities can be used in any combination with a wide range of age-groups, abilities and language levels. Simply choose images that are appropriate to the theme you are developing and the level of your group. I’ll explain how to work with the whole class to begin with, although the activities can be adapted for groups and pairs.
How to Choose an Image
The image should have as many characters and objects as there are students. It’s important that there are people in the picture and there is some kind of story or subtext which appeals to the students.
Below are a few examples of images which can be found by doing an internet search.
- Children’s Games by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
- Bal du moulin de la Galette by Pierre August Renoir
- Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat
- Work by Ford Madox-Brown
- The Arrival (graphic novel) by Shaun Tan
- Illustrations by ‘Phiz’ for books by Charles Dickens
- Any painting by L.S. Lowry
Other sources could include illustrations from story books, course books, documentary or news photography, tapestries, Ancient Greek and Egyptian paintings, drawings and pottery.
How to Start
An effective way to begin is by projecting the picture onto a screen or displaying it on a smart board. Posters or other large images are also effective. The same approaches can be used with smaller groups by giving each one separate printed pictures to work with. These can be thematically linked, or they can be a sequence of pictures from a story. Another idea is to choose a picture that has a lot of activity in it, cut it into sections and give a different section to each group to work on.
Show the picture to the students and spend a few minutes asking them to look carefully at what’s happening in the scene. You can suggest speech prompts, such as ‘I can see...’, ‘I imagine...’ or ‘I think…’. The aim is to encourage observation and curiosity. One really effective prompt is ‘I wonder...’. For example, you could say ‘I wonder where they are going,’ ‘I wonder if the boy is afraid.’ or ‘I wonder what is in the woman’s suitcase.’ The students will likely start to notice far more detail in the picture.
Choose a Character
When students have examined the picture in greater detail, explain that you would like them to bring the image to life. Each student will be asked to choose a character, animal or object from the picture. When students are ready, ask them to ‘step into the picture’ one by one. Make sure you have a clear space in front of the picture then invite students to step forward, say who they are and hold a still position. Gradually they will build up a three-dimensional ‘freeze-frame’ or ‘tableau’. This is a good way to practice prepositions, for example, ‘I am the girl in front of the house’ or ‘I am the blue helicopter above the whale’.
To develop the story behind the picture we can start with what the characters (and objects) are thinking by using thought-tracking. When the students are in position, simply tap each one on the shoulder (or point at them). The student should speak as the character, voicing their thoughts or feelings. What they say will depend on their language level, for example ‘I’m in a hurry,’ ‘I’m late for my train’ or ‘I can’t wait to get home.’ It’s important to allow the students time to prepare for a task like this. If they are less confident or unsure what to say, you can ask other students for suggestions. Preparation will not only support them with their language production, it will also help with their confidence and make the activity more enjoyable.
By the way, if the student is portraying an animal or object, they may choose to make a sound instead of using words. No problem - just ask them something like ‘if the table/helicopter/seagull could talk, what would it say?’
The next stage is to bring the scene to life. Explain that when you clap your hands, all the students should come to life by speaking or moving as their character/animal/object. Do this for just a few seconds with the whole group, then signal them to freeze in a new position. With a large group, it’s likely you won’t hear everything that is said. Even so, it’s quite good fun for the group to come to life for a short time and you can discover more details in the next exercise.
Spotlight can be used to focus on different parts of the scene after the previous activity. Walk among the students and hold your hand above them as though it is a spotlight shining down. Choose pairs of students, smaller sub-groups or individuals as appropriate. As you ‘’shine the spotlight’, each sub-group should come to life for a few seconds.
Guess Who I Am
In this activity we can start to develop more language. This quick guessing game is a useful introduction to role- play and hot seating. Begin by modelling an example to the class. Choose a character from the picture without revealing which one you have chosen. Say a sentence or two to the class as though you are that character and see if they can guess who you are. Here is an example of a character playing ‘hide and seek’ in the painting ‘Children’s Games’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
‘Okay you lot, I’ll count to 20 and I want you all to hide! I promise I won’t peep. And don’t all hide in the same place. Off you go!’
You only need to say a few sentences and to behave briefly as the character. After the students have guessed the character, ask them to work in pairs. One student chooses a person/animal/object from the picture and speaks and acts as that character for the other one to guess. Then it’s the other student’s turn to secretly choose another character. When everyone’s tried it you can ask pairs to show what they did to the rest of the class. They only have to saya sentence or two, depending on their proficiency.
The activity could easily lead on to group improvisations or soundscapes, as described below. It is also easy to develop diary/journalistic, descriptive or narrative writing. The students, in character, could write letters or exchange emails with each other. These types of tasks can be set for homework or done in class. Another way to encourage group participation is to ask students to take notes while the other students are performing and then compare these notes in pairs or with the rest of the class.
Divide the class into small groups and ask each one to develop a short scene based on interaction between a few characters from the picture. It’s also interesting to develop before and after scenes. The groups will probably want to share their work with each other, so allow time for this.
Sit the students in a group and ask them for examples of sounds that might be heard in the picture. Explain that the group is going to create a picture through sound – using their voices (and body percussion if appropriate!) The teacher (or a confident student) acts as conductor whilst the students are the ‘human orchestra’. The conductor controls the overall shape of the soundscape by raising/lowering her hand to increase/decrease the volume. Sections of the group can be faded in and out as appropriate so that all the sounds are heard.
You may choose to use simple percussion instruments or everyday objects that make suitable sounds. This works better if you give students an opportunity to explore the sounds they can make with the instruments and to identify which are most appropriate for the soundscape in advance. Spoken words or phrases can be added to soundscapes to provide atmosphere and to express emotions.
With just a few simple pictures and some drama techniques you can add an exciting new twist to your class that will motivate and engage your students.
Have fun and don’t be afraid to experiment!
About the author
David Farmer inspires, motivates and educates teachers about the power of drama to transform learning. Following a stand-out career as a theatre director and producer of shows and workshops for young people across the world, he is an in-demand speaker, trainer and writer. His online course Drama Games for Language Teaching won the Best Resource for Teachers Award from the English Speaking Union. He is the author of several best-selling books on drama including 101 Drama Games and Activities and Learning Through Drama in the Primary Years.