Dr. Melissa Faulkner
Composition ENG 1400-04
6 April 2016
Drama Integration and Literacy Development in Schools
Children in elementary, middle and high school are encouraged to read and write to develop literacy. Most people do not view acting or playing an improv game as a method to aid literacy development. But according to several scholars, theatre and drama activities can indeed promote literacy development. Ping-Yun Sun summarizes a pervasive mindset about theatre when she states, “Dramatic activities tend to be placed at the “edge” of the official curriculum; they seem to be time-consuming and unnecessary” (1). Although this is a common attitude toward drama, many educators and students report that drama actually is an incredibly useful and practical tool for teaching and developing literacy. This essay examines the effect of dramatic activities on students’ literacy development in three specific cases: the School Drama Initiative in Sydney, the Teaching Artist Project in San Diego, and the personal theatre experience of Adrienne Krater, a college student who was involved with theatre at her high school in Pennsylvania.
There are myriad vocabulary words on the subject of drama, and it their meaning can often be confusing (Sun 1). In her article Drama and imagination: a cognitive theory of drama’s effect on narrative comprehension and narrative production, Wendy Mages shortens a longer definition of drama by Davis and Behm: drama is “an improvisational, non-exhibitional, process-centered form. . . .in which participants are guided by a leader to imagine, enact, and reflect upon human experience” (330). There are infinite drama games, but some examples of drama games one could play in an educational setting include a leader instructing participants to partner up and take turns focusing on their partner and mirroring his or her movements (Brouillette 24), or a leader helping participants tell a story or rhyme expressively using their bodies and voices (Brouillette 23). The term “literacy” is defined as “the ability to navigate through one’s surroundings and fulfill one’s desires.”
The School Drama Initiative started in New South Wales with a simple observation: Professors and actor Ewing, Hristofski, Gibson, Campbell, and Robertson note that “the Arts often remain on the fringes of the formal curriculum in New South Wales schools” (33). In an attempt to enrich the academic programs in New South Wales grade schools and bring drama back into the curriculum, the School Drama Initiative was started. This initiative paired local actors with school teachers. The actors and the teachers worked as brainstorming-teaching teams to develop ways to incorporate dramatic activities and games into the schools’ curricula with the ultimate goal of using drama as a tool to have a positive overall impact on the students’ literacy across the province (Ewing et al. 34).
At the end of the School Drama Initiative, the feedback from the teachers was overwhelmingly positive. By acting out stories, incorporating vocabulary words into the drama games, and working as a team, the students in the schools reaped many benefits, including improved English skills, higher confidence levels among the students, stronger verbal and writing skills, and a heightened sense of morale in the environment. The School Drama Initiative was a success: drama did indeed help develop literacy. (Ewing et al. 38)
The Teaching Artist Project in San Francisco shared many characteristics with the School Drama Initiative: they both involved artists being paired with teachers to develop lesson plans that incorporated dramatic activities with the students. Just like the School Drama Initiative, the Teaching Artist Project was started in hopes of increasing literacy development and enriching education with drama. However, two things about the Teaching Artist Project made it substantially different from the School Drama Initiative: instead of having a wide range of ages participate like the School Drama Initiative, the Teaching Artist Project focused only on children in early elementary school: from kindergarten to second grade. In addition, the majority of students in the region were English Language Learners (ELLs), unlike in New South Wales, where most students were native speakers of English (Brouillette 19).
In the region that the Teaching Artist Project took place, ELLs often exhibited strong fluency in English at the word level, meaning that they could easily sound out, spell, or define words; however, it was much more difficult for them to use those individual words verbally as part of a broader context. The students could identify flashcards, but had very little ability to speak the English language. The primary goal of the Teaching Artist Project was ultimately to improve oral literacy among the ELLs. (Brouillette 21)
One challenge for the Teaching Artist Project was the literacy gap that existed among the students: because some of the children at the school (albeit a small portion) were native English speakers, the developers of the Teaching Artist Project had to make sure that the drama games they used would be difficult enough to challenge the ELLs, while also being accessible enough so that they would not drop hopelessly behind the native English speakers in English literacy. At the same time, the lessons had to be engaging for native English speakers who were already on their way to becoming fluent in English. The developers solved this problem by having the students act out the plot of intermediate-level stories as the story was being read to them. This way, the ELLs and native English speakers could participate in the activity together without a division between them; in addition, the ELLs could be introduced to and assimilate unfamiliar vocabulary words by watching the actions of the people around them and infering meaning from context (Brouillette 21).
Just as the School Drama Initiative saw improved literacy development as a result of incorporating dramatic activities with the school curriculum, the Teaching Artist Project also saw positive results. Both the ELLs and the native English speakers gained increased phonetic ability, higher confidence levels, knowledge of story structure, experience performing for one another, greater vocabulary, and greater command of the English language. Teachers in the program remarked how the incorporation of drama activities helped make class time more fun and exciting for the children, providing motivation for doing well in other areas of school (Brouillette 27).
Drama has the power to shape academic institutions and large groups of people, but it can also have a profound impact on individual people. Adrienne Krater, currently a freshman at Cedarville University studying Psychology, is an example of a person whose literacy development has been profoundly shaped by theatre. Krater was involved in several musicals and plays at Great Commission High School in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and actively participated in a drama class every school day from seventh to twelfth grade. In this drama class, skills such as memorization and improvisation were stressed and honed. She says, “Pretty much every day we’d get different scenarios thrown at us where we just had to act off the cuff. Other times we’d have to memorize long sections of plays or monologues.” Although Krater is a self-described introvert and says that participating in the class meant that occasionally she had to come up with something to say at a moment’s notice, she credits this class as contributing to her oral literacy: “It really impacted how I was able to articulate myself in speaking, weather it was off the cuff or if it was just reading something: I could articulate myself better and really understand what I was reading. I would say my literacy improved because I appreciated literature and art more after doing drama.” Krater says that her theatre involvement not only positively impacted her oral literacy, but also had a profound impact on her social literacy. “Theatre really helped me get out of my shell and find a new way of communicating myself in a way that when I was younger I didn’t have at all,” she says. “Through theatre I’ve really been able to become more socially literate.” Drama and theatre as an integral part of her secondary education had a huge contribution to Krater’s literacy, both oral and social.
Just like the developers of the School Drama Initiative, the developers of the Teaching Artist Program, and Adrienne Krater, several scholars share the belief that incorporation of dramatic activities has a positive impact on literacy development of children in school. Mages affirms that “children’s language development, and specifically children’s acquisition of narrative skills such as storytelling and story comprehension, has been linked to scholastic success” (329). Sun says, “From developing their decoding knowledge, fluency, vocabulary, syntactic knowledge, discourse knowledge, and metacognitive knowledge to comprehension of extended texts, drama and theatre in many ways educate children as a whole, and they offer children a more free and flexible space in which to grow and to learn” (1). Kelly Jo Kerry Morgan states that drama has the “ability to harness a child’s well-honed imagination and use it to enhance learning” (317). It is safe to say that theatre can have a profoundly positive impact on the literacy development of students.
Brouillette, Liane. “Building The Oral Language Skills Of K-2 English Language Learners Through Theater Arts.”California Reader 44.4 (2011): 19-29. Education Research Complete. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
Brouillette’s article discusses the benefits experienced by early elementary English Language Learners (ELLs) when theatre activities are incorporated into curricula. She describes a program in which teachers in a San Diego elementary school were paired with artists to formulate a drama-inclusive lesson plan that would fill a crucial but missing piece in ELLs’ educational experience: oral language development. She then describes the content of the lessons, detailing how each specific activity promoted much-needed oral language development.
Brouillette notes that although many elementary-age ELLs can correctly understand, sound out, and spell English words, they often have much more difficulty understanding those words as parts of sentences and using those words together to speak. She states that theatre activities facilitate oral language development: when acting out the plot of a story, students become active participants in the educational experience and have a greater likelihood of assimilating new vocabulary and grammar rules.
By focusing on a specific demographic of student (early elementary ELLs) and a specific need (the need for oral language skills), Brouillette demonstrates one particular instance where theatre activities fill an educational need. Her conclusion provides support to other authors who claim that theatre activities can be useful in literacy development.
Ewing, Robyn, et al. “Using Drama To Enhance Literacy: The School Drama Initiative.” Literacy Learning: The Middle Years 19.3 (2011): 33-39. Education Research Complete. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
This article discusses the School Drama initiative that took place in inner city schools in Sydney, Australia. This initiative sought to improve student literacy by pairing theatre artists with school teachers in an effort to incorporate drama into classroom curricula. The authors of the article discuss the results of the initiative and summarize the feedback from teachers and students, the majority of which is overwhelmingly positive.
The article provides a summary of the School Drama initiative and a list of goals and texts used throughout the process. Next, the article lists the findings of the study: the effects that the initiative had on the students, the educators, and the schools as a whole. Outcomes of the initiative include improved English skills, greater self-confidence, and better morale in the environment. The article briefly discusses the implications of the initiative’s findings and then speculates on the future of the School Drama initiative.
This article is valuable because it documents the results of a real-life operation to incorporate drama into grade schools with the goal of improving literacy. Findings from this initiative highlight the untapped potential drama has in providing additional literacy development to students. The results are exciting and infer the probability that similar initiatives in other locations would be met with success.
Kerry Moran, Kelli Jo. “Nurturing Emergent Readers Through Readers Theater.” Early Childhood Education Journal 33.5 (2006): 317-323. Professional Development Collection. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
In this article, Kerry Moran explains the concept of readers theatre, proposes possible benefits that participation in readers theatre can have on students’ literacy development, and explores possibilities of incorporating this activity into educational curricula.
Kerry Moran suggests that students can gain greater language fluency by participating in readers theatre, and takes note of the adaptive nature of readers theatre.
By exploring the benefits of incorporating readers theatre into curricula, Kerry Moran shows a specific example of a theatre activity that can be used with students to help develop literacy. This practical example is helpful for educators seeking specific ways to use theatre to aid literacy development. Along the way, Kerry Moran provides plenty of guidelines for educators to facilitate the incorporation of readers theatre into curricula.
Krater, Adrienne. Personal interview. 5 April 2016.
In Krater’s interview, she explains her involvement in drama, plays, and musicals during grade school and notes the positive impact these experiences had on her literacy development. Her view is very personal, and provides an inside glimpse at a few of the many positive effects that theatre involvement can have on students.
Throughout elementary and secondary school, Krater was heavily involved in theatre at Great Commission High School in Altoona, Pennsylvania. In particular, Krater describes improv activities she participated in during a drama class every day from seventh to twelfth grade. She explains the skills she learned in drama class, including the ability to speak off the cuff. Krater also observes that the plays, musicals, and drama class that her school provided helped develop her literacy in positive ways by giving her an appreciation for literature and helping her better articulate her ideas. Toward the end of her interview, Krater describes the positive impact theatre had on her social literacy: she developed a spirit of teamwork and cooperation, she came out of her shell even though she is a self-described introvert, and she discovered a new channel of communication.
Krater’s interview provides a personal example of theatre’s positive effect on literacy development. Her experience as a person whose literacy was profoundly influenced by theatre provides a unique perspective that complements and lends credibility to educators’ viewpoints.
Mages, Wendy K. “Drama And Imagination: A Cognitive Theory Of Drama’s Effect On Narrative Comprehension And Narrative Production.” Research In Drama Education 11.3 (2006): 329-340. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
In this article, Mages explores a possible causal link between involvement in drama and language acquisition. First, Mages explains that there is a correlation between drama and language acquisition. She then explains that if this connection was shown to be causal, drama advocates would have a better platform by which to promote the incorporation of drama into primary and secondary education. After explaining theories of intrapersonal and interpersonal correlations between drama and language acquisition, she puts forward her own model: the “theory of drama and imagination.”
In this theory, Mages makes an analogy between music, cooking, and drama. She observes that experienced musicians and cooks are able to hear a melody in their head when looking at sheet music or sense what several flavors would taste like when mixed together. Mages proposes that in the same way that inexperienced musicians are unable to intuitively hear music when looking at a page of music or novice chefs have little grasp on taste without actually tasting the flavors, children have little experience feeling the emotions of a story and can gain these helpful imaginative skills through drama. Mages then explains how this imagination gained through drama during childhood can develop into increased engagement when reading during adulthood.
By providing a model that shows a causal link between drama and literacy development, Mages paves the way for future research into the correlation of drama and language acquisition. In doing so, she also demonstrates the importance of imagination and its role in literacy development.
Sun, Ping-Yun. Using Drama And Theatre To Promote Literacy Development [Electronic Resource] : Some Basic Classroom Applications / Ping-Yun Sun. n.p.: Bloomington, IN : ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication, , 2003. Government Printing Office Catalog. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
In this article, Sun addresses the hesitance that many educators experience about incorporating drama into curricula, describes the importance theatre can have on literacy development, and gives several examples of practical ways educators can utilize drama for their students’ benefit. This article is written with educators as the primary audience. It is unique in that it is a straight-to-the-point “cheat sheet” on how teachers can immediately begin utilizing theatre in ways that promote literacy development.