The time pressures of teaching English
Raising standards in English has always been the top priority on government agendas across the years. Similarly, most parents and carers measure the success of a school by how well their child can read and write. As a result, increasing amounts of time have been spent on teaching literacy, sometimes at the expense of other areas of the curriculum, including speaking and listening. Teachers can therefore perhaps be forgiven for worrying that they do not have enough time to fit in drama! And yet, despite intensive and relentless drives to spend more time on literacy in primary schools, standards have barely risen. In particular, the quality of children’s writing remains a concern. The reality is that many hours can be wasted when children are given inappropriate tasks that are of no interest, have no meaningful context and do not move the learning forward at a sufficiently rapid pace.
Good English teaching is not just about what is taught, but also about how it is taught. Children need to learn, practise and rehearse literacy and oracy skills in a wide range of relevant contexts if they are to engage with what they are learning and make good progress. The challenge for teachers is to make that process interesting, interactive and sufficiently challenging. Drama is one approach that teachers can adopt to provide such opportunities, and it is an extremely effective tool. Including drama in your planning can add significant value to your teaching, and should be regarded as an integrated part of English teaching rather than an additional requirement and pressure on time. There is a wide choice of drama approaches that can be used to help children to learn, practise and apply the basic skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. These range from five-minute starters to stimulate ideas through to more sustained performance or presentation of work for an audience. However, before going into the finer detail of practical application, let us loot first at the wider place of drama in primary education, and how it has reached the point that it is at today.
The effectiveness of drama for learning
Drama is an art form that is a vital part of our heritage. In primary education, it can also travel beyond this in terms of children’s learning, and there should be no doubt in any teacher’s mind that there are compelling reasons to include drama in the primary curriculum. The four main reasons for this are: drama is a powerful vehicle for contextualising and using language it assists learning, understanding and memory through active engagement and experience it is an effective medium for expressing and communicating thoughts and ideas it is an important part of our artistic and cultural heritage.
Let us consider each of these roles in more detail.
Drama and language
Language lies at the core of human communication and learning. Literacy and oracy are high priority in any Curriculum. They also support children’s learning in other subjects because the curriculum is designed with the assumption that children can read, write, listen to instruction and talk about their work. Drama puts language into action in ways that children can identify with, respond to and learn from. It brings language alive by providing meaningful contexts. These include roles, purposes and audiences, all of which give the language authenticity in the eyes of the children.
Drama and learning
Drama assists the learning process by enabling children to engage actively with their subject matter. In the role-play area, children play out the roles of characters and encounter situations from new perspectives. Their responses can reshape their thinking because the process of active engagement and externalisation of thought are contributing to the ways in which things become organised in their minds. Older children taking part in the simulation of a Viking funeral will be applying their existing knowledge to the situation, acquiring new knowledge and theories from the actions of others, and developing new thoughts and responses in ways which would never arise from simply listening to an account. There is much evidence to support the hypothesis that all these things will also be retained more efficiently in the long-term memory because of the interactive nature of the learning process.
Drama for expressing and communicating
Children produce work in a variety of formats in school: topic books, writing for displays, fiction, reports, newspapers, paintings and so on. Drama offers yet another medium for the expression and presentation of learning. There are different ways this can happen, as you will see as you continue to read this book. It might be a group of five children displaying freeze-frame pictures of Aztec scenes after researching this from non-fiction books or the Internet; it might be a puppet play performance of Macbeth, or it could be an in-role presentation of why a new motorway should or should not be built. As with any piece of work, these end-products should be created with high expectations of children’s preparation, organisation and communication. Standards should be high.
Drama as an art form
Drama is a universal cultural phenomenon, crossing geographical boundaries as it emerges in many forms around the world. Likewise, it goes back through history — the word ‘drama’ is derived from Ancient Greek (meaning ‘action’) - the literature of and approaches to theatre through the ages are well documented Although theatre takes on many styles and genres, even within different cultures, the drama is the unifying element that is at the heart of them all. The power of story, the transmission of knowledge, the shaping of ideas and emotions into an art form that is alive, dynamic and interactive, all make connections with human response to resonate with life itself! It is part of our heritage, it is part of the communication and transmission of ideas and thought, and all children should have equal opportunities to enjoy it, learn about it, use it and be enriched by it. This will happen only if it is firmly embedded as a requirement within our educational system.
Suzi Clipson-Boyles is a leader in school improvement. She has thirty years’ experience as a teacher, head teacher, teacher trainer, local authority adviser and Her Majesty’s Inspector. Some other publications include Drama in Primary English Teaching, Supporting Language and Literacy 0-5 and Putting Research into Practice in Primary Teaching and Learning.