ERIC Identifier: ED477613
Publication Date: 2003-12-00
Author: Sun, Ping-Yun
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Using Drama and Theatre To Promote Literacy Development: Some
Basic Classroom Applications. ERIC Digest.
Although numerous researchers have emphasized the tremendous effect drama and
theatre can have on children's cognitive and affective development as well as
provided abundant resources for teachers, there still exists a gap between
understanding its value and actually applying it (Furman, 2000). The reasons
teachers still hesitate to embrace the ideas of utilizing drama and theatre in
classroom activities can be summarized as follows: (1) In the search for drama
resources to develop curricula, teachers are easily overwhelmed by various terms
used in drama and theatre, such as creative drama, creative dramatics,
developmental drama, process drama, educational drama, improvisational drama,
improvisation, informal drama, classroom drama, drama in education, etc. (2)
Dramatic activities tend to be placed at the "edge" of the official curriculum;
they seem to be time-consuming and unnecessary. (3) Since most teacher education
programs do not offer courses related to drama and theatre, teachers are
unfamiliar with facilitating dramatic activities (Furman, 2000). (4) Dramatic
activities are so playful that teachers might be afraid that children will not
take learning seriously. In light of these factors that hinder teachers in the
use of drama and theatre in classroom application, this Digest will explain the
"myths" of drama and theatre and focus on their effect on children's literacy
development. In addition, rather than presenting a tour de force of resources,
this Digest will highlight some readily applicable strategies for classroom
THE CONFUSING TERMINOLOGY
Historically, the field of drama
for children in America has been associated more with pedagogy than with theatre
studies; hence, theories are generated more from education than theatre arts or
performance studies. However, practitioners cannot agree on one specific title
to define their art, so all the terms listed above have been used. These terms
usually reflect the various methods practiced by these theorists (Woodson,
1999). "Drama" and "theatre" generally refer to the process and the production,
respectively; however, in classroom application, the focus should be shifted
from learning drama to emphasizing the process of learning through drama. In
this Digest, activities that incorporate drama and theatre methods will be
referred to as "dramatic activities."
THE NECESSITY OF DRAMATIC ACTIVITIES
are crucial to early literacy development because children can be involved in
reading and writing as a holistic and meaningful communication process (McNamee,
McLane, Cooper, & Kerwin, 1985). In addition, researchers have discovered
that the mental requirements for understanding drama are similar to those for
reading. For instance, the meaning of a reading is generally grasped in a
transaction between the reader and the text. "Process drama" refers to a
teaching method that involves children in imaginary, unscripted, and spontaneous
scenes, in which the meaning is made from the engagement and transactions
between the teacher and students (Schneider & Jackson, 2000). In addition,
reading can also stand for a "process of interpreting the world," which endorses
drama as a powerful learning medium because it provides a context for children
to relate to their lived experience. In writing development, children who
experience drama also appear to be more capable of making appropriate linguistic
choices as well as expressing opinions or suggesting solutions (McNaughton,
FACILITATING EFFECTIVE DRAMATIC ACTIVITIES
feel intimidated by the idea of leading students in dramatic activities;
however, most dramatic activities do not require teachers to have direct theatre
experience (Beehner, 1990). The intriguing nature of drama and theatre lies in
its flexibility, plasticity, and continuity. There are no specific patterns or
models for most dramatic activities. When drama and theatre serve as teaching
methods, teachers should view them as a concept and a philosophy rather than a
set of curriculum models. Several applicable dramatic activities are:
USING DRAMATIC STORY REENACTMENTS TO DEVELOP CHILDREN'S
In dramatic story reenactments (DSR), children act out or use
puppets to informally perform the stories they recreate. In her research,
Martinez (1993) explained in detail how teachers can foster children's sense of
story structure by encouraging DSR, which promotes their narrative competence.
For children from preschool to second grade, researchers have demonstrated that
children who reenact stories are better at connecting and integrating events to
storytelling than children in a story reading group (Saltz & Johnson, 1974).
DSR can also increase children's curiosity about literature before independent
reading begins (McMaster, 1998). Martinez further described how the teacher in
her kindergarten classroom supports spontaneous, child-initiated, and
child-directed DSR activities. The teacher frequently used repeated readings,
predictable stories, and intense response activities, and she also cooperated
with a second grade class, having some of its students come to her class and do
DSR for her kindergarteners. She also designed a very comfortable classroom
library center, which is the most visited spot where children will reenact
DRAMA ACTIVITIES THAT PROMOTE VOCABULARY
Vocabulary proficiency plays a crucial role in children's
literacy development. In their studies, Alber and Foil (2003) illustrate how to
effectively introduce new vocabulary and facilitate the learning activities with
dramatic techniques. "Creating a memorable event" is recommended when
introducing new vocabulary. The authors depict several scenarios in the article.
For instance, while children are getting ready for the class, teachers might
say, "Ok, it's time to do some work. Take your cat, rock your desk, and start to
write about the trees on the ceiling." Students are likely to respond with
"what?" or "that doesn't make any sense." Teachers can continue this "game"
until everybody pays attention and looks puzzled. Teachers then respond with
"I'm sorry. I am being incoherent. So, what do you think incoherent means?"
To reinforce and extend comprehension, teachers can read students stories
that contain the new vocabulary words. They may also ask students to act out the
corresponding action or have them draw a word card out of the new vocabulary
box, and act out the definition for other children to guess. For older children,
teachers can ask them to create a skit illustrating the meaning of a vocabulary
term. Teachers should help students to understand vocabulary in the context of
literature by providing relevant literature pieces. Teachers can also list
several new vocabulary items and have students write short stories using them.
INCORPORATING PROCESS DRAMA INTO WRITING INSTRUCTION
does drama extend children's literacy development and how does children's
writing demonstrate their engagement with and understanding of literary texts?
Crumpler and Schneider (2002) conduct a cross-study analysis of writing from
first, second, and third grade classrooms to answer these questions. In the
first grade classroom, the teacher and his first graders read Where the Wild
Things Are (Sendak, 1963). Then, the teacher placed the students in roles as "wild things," so that they had the chance to view the story from the
perspective of characters within the text. The teacher then asked them questions
(in the case of this story, how they survived on their island), which helped
children to elaborate on their characters. In the process, some children
developed a new character: Maxina, who was Max's older sister. The next day, the
teacher took this further, casting the boys as Max and girls as Maxina to travel
back to the island. The teacher asked children to describe what might be needed
for this journey back to the island. After they "arrived" on the island, the
teacher asked what they saw there. After this activity was completed, the
teacher and children spent ten minutes discussing what they thought about it.
Then, the teacher asked children to respond to the question: Think about the
journey to the island, and draw and write about what you like and remember about
it. In children's writing, this drama activity seems to have scaffolded
children's ability to explore the boundaries between reader/writer and
character/actor and to create sophisticated text and image relationships as
In the second and third grade classroom, the teacher and the students studied
the topic of immigrants. They first spent several days reading and discussing
immigrants' stories from children's literature and the students started to
create tableaux or frozen scenes of the immigrants' experiences. Then the
students had to write, in the role of their characters from the tableau, about
what they thought.
In addition, students also created written documents for the immigrants such
as passports and photo albums. They read both fiction and non-fiction and
created documentaries on the immigrants' lives. As a result, students not only
learned about immigrants' experiences but also learned to write in roles from
others' perspectives, to write for various purposes, and to write across
different genres. Through this curriculum, children develop a firmer
understanding of the role and the relevance which writing can have in their
lives (Schneider & Jackson, 2000).
THE MYTH OF "PLAYFUL" DRAMATIC ACTIVITIES
Teachers need to
be aware of that being fun, interesting, and entertaining is only one dimension
of drama and theatre, which provides children with strong incentives to learn
and to discover. As McMaster (1998) advocated, drama can be an invaluable
teaching method, since it supports every aspect of literacy development. 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.
Alber, S. R., & Foil, Carolyn R. (2003).
Drama activities that promote and extend your students' vocabulary proficiency.
"Intervention in School & Clinic", 39(1), 22-29.
Beehner, M. B. (1990). Creating a dramatic script for dynamic classroom
learning. "Education", 110(3), 283-288.
Crumpler, T., & Schneider, J. J. (2002). Writing with their whole being:
A cross study analysis of children's writing from five classrooms using process
drama." Research in Drama Education", 7(1), 61-79.
Furman, L. (2000). In support of drama in early childhood education, again.
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Martinez, M. (1993). Motivating dramatic story reenactments. The Reading
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McMaster, J. C. (1998). "Doing" literature: Using drama to build literacy.
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McNamee, G. D., McLane, J. B., Cooper, P. M., Kerwin, S. M. (1985). Cognition
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McNaughton, M. J. (1997). Drama and children's writing: A study of the
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culturally disadvantaged children: Preliminary results. Journal of Educational
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Schneider, J. J., & Jackson, S. A. W. (2000). Process drama: A special
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Sendak, M. (1963). Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Haper & Row.
Woodson, S. E. (1999). (Re)Conceiving 'creative drama': An exploration and
expansion of American metaphorical paradigms. Research in Drama Education, 4(2),