Research Spotlight- The effectiveness of drama as an instructional approach for the development of second language fluency, comprehensibility, and accentedness

It is that time of year at my school- English performance.

Walking around the building, you will definitely hear the grumbles of teachers lamenting why we engage in such a “time-wasting” and stressful activity.

“C’mon! We aren’t drama teachers!”

While one cannot dispute the stressful nature of a yearly performance in front of parents, colleagues, and administrators, research by Galante and Thomson (2017) challenges the notion that our drama performance is a time-waster and also raises questions about our roles as (English) teachers.

About the Study

Like many of us in the English teaching profession, Angelica Galante followed a unique path to English teaching by first being educated in the theater. It was her experiences as a drama teacher that inspired Galante to apply her pedagogical knowledge for the theater into the English classroom.

Along with her colleague Ron Thomson, Galante and Thompson wanted to study the effects of using drama teaching techniques in the EFL classroom. In particular, the researchers were interested in the impact of these techniques on L2 fluency, comprehensibility, and accentedness.

The researchers aimed to specifically answer the following questions:

  1. Do learners in a drama-based EFL program experience greater gains in oral fluency, comprehensibility, and accentedness compared to learners in a non-drama EFL program?
  2. Does their oral fluency differ across speaking tasks?

To answer these questions, the researchers studied four pre-intermediate classes at a private language institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The classes were divided into control and experimental groups. The control group received traditional communicative English instruction while the experimental group participated in a drama-based program.

The instructors of the experimental group, who had never used drama-based teaching strategies before, participated in a 5-hour training before the experiment and reported feeling comfortable with the techniques following the training.

In order to compare the effects of drama-based versus communicative-based teaching, a pretest-posttest model was used. Before the experiment, speech samples were collected and then graded by Canadian native speakers, who were not teachers of English. After the 4-month study, participants were recorded again and subsequently graded. The researchers used comparative statistics to compare the two groups.

The results reveal that the drama-based group had greater gains in oral fluency than the control group. In addition, a small difference was measured in comprehensibility. However, the data did not reveal any impact on accent between the two groups.

Fluency Matters…

The gains in fluency are worth noting. Nation (2001) marks fluency as one of the most ignored areas in language teaching and emphasizes that teachers should allocate a good portion of class time toward this goal. It turns out drama is not only a fun activity for the students but also beats typical communicative teaching in developing fluency. If we as teachers truly heed Nation’s advice, we would be amiss to not include drama in our classroom.

…And So Does Comprehensibility

Also, I think it is worth mentioning the skills gained from drama-based practice:

These learners (in the drama-based classroom) had opportunities to practice vocal projection, volume, and expression of emotions, in addition to practicing segmentals and suprasegmentals. (Galante & Thomson, 2017, p. 133)

One of the biggest difficulties I have faced in my reading classes is getting students to project their voice and speak loudly. During this year’s rehearsals for our English performance, I have implemented vocal projection exercises designed for theater students. I have recently noticed the carryover of this skill to reading. Perhaps with a little more drama instruction in my class, I could have avoided some of the frustration I had felt during my career.

In terms of expression, this is an area I know my students do not do well and one in which I wish they would magically improve. Such magic, unfortunately, does not exist in teaching. However, perhaps by allocating time toward expression exercises, much in the way that I did with vocal projection, I would see the change that I long for.

But Accents…Not So Much

I think there is a growing consensus in the ELT world that there is no “right” accent. Accents are tied to culture and should be celebrated. The only time accent modification should occur is when accent interferes with comprehensibility. According to the authors:

We agree with Levis’s (2005) suggestion that L2 pronunciation instruction should be guided by the intelligibility principle, with its focus on listener understanding, rather than the nativeness principle, with its focus on nativelike attainment. p 134

That being said, it is not much of a surprise that accents were not affected. Research has demonstrated a critical period exists for accent development and the students may have passed this period. Also, their teachers were local non-native speakers who likely had similar accents to their students. This is not a negative thing, but it would be rather odd to expect students to have a “native-like” accent (however that is defined) without the constant exposure to such.

Conclusion

So is our English performance a “waste of time?” Not if we value fluency and comprehensibility. The data of this research is clear- drama outperforms traditional communicative teaching.

As for the suggestion that “we (language teachers) are not drama teachers.” Galante and Thomson’s research makes me wonder whether language teachers should have more training in some of the fundamental practices of theater. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to think of speaking in a second language as a “performance art” and that to be successful requires much of the same skills. How much better would our language students be if we stepped back and spent some time focusing on some of the fundamental skills of our brothers and sisters in the theater?

We may not be drama teachers, but perhaps it wouldn’t hurt if we were.

Reference

Galante, A. & Thomson, R. I. (2017). The effectiveness of drama as an instructional approach for the development of second language fluency, comprehensibility, and accentedness. Tesol Quarterly, 51 (1), 115-142.

Nation, I. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking. New York: Routledge.

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