Why should theater be used to teach ELL students?

By Laura Mauro, Arts For All Intern

June 22, 2015

During my spring semester at City College of New York, I took a class in which I observed ELL- based students using theater to learn English.  I grew fascinated during this class about what strategies would be most helpful to these students. What I learned was not only “how” we should teach them but also “why” we should teach them using theater as a learning medium.

One of the first strategies that I researched was reading theater.  Reading Theater focuses on repetition and increasing reading comprehension to eventually increase fluency in reading. ELL learners need to read a story many times to gain the fluency that non-ELL students have when they read an unknown text the first time.  In a typical class, they often will read a story one or two times and then move on.  ELL students need more time to practice with a story and understand what they are reading.  This is why the Reading Theater is so beneficial for this population because it gives them time to really understand what they reading without being rushed.

Typically in theater classes, When you put up a full length production the focus is not only the script but on the various elements like sets, costumes and lights that help create the world of the production.  Reading theater allows the text to be the focus of this “production” and, also teaches students how they can use body and voice to enhance the characters in the story.

Another strategy that can also be used to teach ELL students is Tableaux. This strategy is when students create a frozen picture with their body representing a concept that they are learning. An example, is asking students to create a tableaux showing the major conflict in the story they are reading. This technique allows students to physicalize the knowledge and see it rather then just reading it.  Both reading theater and tableaux will help ELL students increase their reading comprehension.

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Students in an Arts For All Literacy Through the Arts Class

Reading comprehension can be challenging for ELL students. This is due to the fact that is often hard for them to engage in what they are reading. Some of issues ELL students might face are insufficient background knowledge to understand a story, which can make it more difficult to identify with the character and situation of the story. That is why strategies like reading theater and tableaux are helpful for these students.

Some of the benefits that occur after using reading theater are an increase in both fluency and reading comprehension. In Kristina Robertson’s article, Reader’s Theater: Oral Enrichment and Literacy development for ELLS,  shestates “ ELLs benefit greatly from having opportunities to read a text many times because it helps them develop fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.”  In addition, Robertson stresses that this work “focuses on enhancing speaking skills like pronunciation, inflection, expression and varied volume.” These elements will then increase student’s engagement in the story. When students are actively engaged in a lesson it is easier to learn more than if they are not engaged. Studying drama helps build students’ confidence and also their ability to complete work. In the article The Benefits of using Drama in the ESL/EFL Classroom,  Chris Boudreault stresses that “ using drama helps the students develop confidence in students ability to learn the new language and that will in turn have impact both in school performance and also developing more engagement in school overall.”

In conclusion, Learning a new language is not easy. That is why using visual or physical strategies can help students not only engage with the material. All students learn in different ways and theater allows teachers to break out of typical teaching and really allows the students not just read about a character but become that character and engage with the story on various levels.

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