Drama, Language and Writing – Diplomarbeit (PG Diploma)


The work presented here is the result of a case study that was carried out between January and April 2002. It made up part of my written work towards acquiring my Master of Arts in drama in education, namely the Postgraduate Diploma. My intention of the case study was to find evidence that working in a drama context can enhance the students‘ creative writing skills in the foreign language (i.e. English). I wanted to find out in particular whether the texts written by the students differed in originality and word choice when compared with those of students that were taught in a non-drama context. For that purpose, I carried out a project in two parallel classes. When there is reference to the teacher (or the teacher in role), it is always me since I was the regular English teacher in both classes.

The classes consisted of 17 students each and they had been taught the same material for the previous year and a half. Both classes were in their third year of learning English at school. At the time of the study, they were in their second year of apprenticeship, attending a business college for further education.

Both classes were taught with the same material from the coursebook used in both classes (Headway New Intermediate, unit 8). The project was carried out during 4 double lessons (90 minutes each) between January and March 2002. Whereas one class was taught in a ‚conventional‘ way (labelled the «non-drama class» or «class 2b»), the other class (labelled the «drama class» or «class 2a») worked in a fictional context throughout the whole project time. Class 2a had previously used drama techniques in a shorter project (in August/September 2001) and thus had a certain familiarity with drama work.

In the drama class, I created the fictional context of a rich old aunt (Selma) in Florida who was starting to decide who she should leave her fortune to. Having no immediate family, she tried to make out where her relatives were and invited them for a family gathering in Florida. The aunt was never present at any of the meetings but was always represented (with me as teacher in role) by her nurse (Cindy) in the senior citizens‘ residence. At the first meeting, the students were asked to develop the fictional personality they were going to take on throughout the whole project. In the subsequent lessons, we worked in an episodic structure (cf. Neelands 1998: 32) to develop the story of aunt Selma’s decision of
who she would bequeathe her money to. The end was completely open and the actual outcome of the story was determined by the scenes that the students developed in lesson 4.

Teacher and students worked in role throughout the whole project: the students as the characters they had created for themselves, the teacher as Selma’s nurse in her retirement residence. Selma never appeared in the drama but was always represented by her nurse due to her ill health condition. For the teacher, it was a means to solve the dilemma of having to act as a ninety-year-old lady. It also increased the motivation for the students to express their thoughts in a written from since that was the only way they could  communicate with the old aunt.

Due to the fact that we were working in a context of second language learning, each double lesson contained a sequence in which new linguistic material was introduced. The constrictions of the syllabus, namely the fact that a certain unit of the coursebook had to be covered within the time we were working, meant that all the language introduced was taken from the book. The linguistic areas we had to cover were:

  • Vocabulary: words relating to the world of money, finances, gambling, winning and losing money; base and strong adjectives
  • Grammar: conditional clauses (I and II) and time clauses (both structures had been introduced to the students before the project, in December 2001); linguistic structures to give other people advice or make suggestions; ways of expressing present and past wishes
  • Syntax: words that join ideas, i.e. «linkers».

The individual student’s progress was measured with a series of texts that were written at the outset and then throughout the project. They were evaluated against the following traits of writing (adapted from Dahl and Farnan 1998: 113): ideas/originality, word choice, organisation, mechanics, sentence fluency (esp. the use of linkers). Both classes wrote a post-project task one month after the scheme of work. In addition to the writing assignments throughout and after the project, those students of class 2a attending
a preparation course for the Cambridge First Certificate Exam wrote a post-project composition which required them to use the linguistic structures taught throughout the project.


Find a brief outline of each lesson for the drama class underneath with the drama techniques that were used and the tasks for writing in role that the students had to fulfill.

Lesson 1

January 8, 2002

  • calling to mind what a drama lesson consists of (warm-up activity, keying into role, keying into location, exploring the topic)
  • explanation of the topic for the drama project: money, wealth and the consequences of having or losing it
  • negotiating a drama learning contract

The whole lesson served to build up the students‘ belief and to establish the drama context.

Drama techniques: role-play (to build up the necessary vocabulary to talk about finances)

Writing in role: students develop a short portrait of themselves

Lesson 2

January 15, 2002

  • filling in form with drama identities
  • representation of each character’s favourite room at home
  • introducing each other to one’s personality and dwelling place
  • speculating about a possible inheritance from aunt Selma

Drama techniques: paper location, role play

Writing in role: letter to Selma explaining what they would do with a possible inheritance

Lesson 3

January 29, 2002

  • group discussion: consequences of acquiring sudden wealth (based on internet search about lotteries)
  • newspaper article: winners or losers (text on the negative sides of making a windfall)
  • letter (introducing linkers)
  • report about Thaddeus Coats, an actual winner in the lottery
  • advice to a winner in the lottery
  • Drama techniques: group discussion

Writing in role: letter to Thaddeus giving him advice on what to do with his money

Lesson 4

February 5, 2002

  • language input: «I wish’/’if only»
  • assumed time-lapse: Selma has taken her decision, the students show what has happened in the meantime, if they have been lucky or left out, what happened after their inheritance.

Drama techniques: still image, link depiction (showing moment before and after the initial still image)

Writing in role: rewrite the first letter to Selma, include linkers


In their book entitled Childrens’s Writing, Dahl and Farnan pointed out in the final chapter the importance of researching «the relations that exist between writing and other media, such as writing and drama or writing and the visual arts.» (1998: 138) In the same year, David Booth and Jonothan Neelands edited collection of classroom projects in which drama and writing were connected. It was also the year 1998 in which Cecily O’Neill and Shin-Mey Kao wrote the book Learning a Second Language through Process Drama. It is pure coincidence that these three books rendered most insight for my study. And yet, it is surprising that it was only so recently that researchers seem to have focused their attention on the vital importance of the interplay between speaking, reading and writing in connection with drama work.

Booth and Neelands argue in the following way for the benefits of linking drama and writing:

  • Reflective writing afterward provides opportunities for children to revisit and rethink the issues and concerns raised in the drama. (1998: 29)
  • When writing is embedded in a context that has personal significance for the writer, writing skills will be enhanced. (1998: 31)
  • The best drama, and the most effective opportunities for linking writing with it, emerges over extended periods, during which children have time and incentive to work their way into a unit, to refocus and change direction; and to edit and present their creations to trusted and understanding others. (1998: 31)
  • Through the process of writing, participants can give form to their feelings and ideas and learn not only to express their views but to re-examine and reassess themselves in light of the reading audience and its needs. (Booth and Neelands 1998: 31-32)

Over the years, my teaching experience has shown that students put considerable effort into their texts but very little progress can be observed in the actual development of their writing unless most careful attention is paid to their process of improvement. It may be due to the fact that they fall back into habits of L1 acquisition which makes the following quotation about elementary pupils of English seem true for teenagers learning English in Switzerland: «Some beginning writers see writing as fixed and nonnegotiable.» (Dahl and Farnan 1998: 58). Mechanical reproduction of a written text that includes the teacher’s marking has little learning effect. As Dahl and Farnan suggest: «Writers benefit from prompts about revising a series of questions for the writer to consider both during and after writing.» (1998: 68) And: «Teachers‘ comments, it appears, can have a profound effect on student writing, as long as they are focused rather than diffuse, and as long as they are accompanied directly by instruction that includes student revision.» (1998: 128) The authors also point out how important it is that students and teachers share an understanding of the writing. With reference to Langer and Applebee, they list the following five components that make up this shared understanding:

  • Ownership: Students must have a sense that the task has value to them, and they must know what the value is.
  • Support: Students must understand how a given writing task supports what they are learning.
  • Appropriateness: The writing tasks must be ones that students have the knowledge and skill to complete.
  • Collaborative: A collaborative role for the teacher supports the writing-learning connection through acts such as modelling, questioning, and providing feedback. The role of the writing teacher is more collaborative than evaluative.
  • Internalization: Students must internalize the strategies available to them for writing to learn, and they must come to see writing as a natural part of the thinking and learning process. (1998: 73)

As fluent English speakers, we teachers of foreign languages are always taught drama in a situation that completely dissembles that of our students: When we are in role, we work as if we were native speaking students with the full competence of the language to develop the drama work. However, it is of vital importance to keep in mind that adaptations have to be made, primarily on the level of language input. The desired and necessary language to be used in an L2 context must be carefully planned and introduced to the students in order to prevent frustration and to guarantee development in their linguistic skills. O’Neill and Kao (1998: 126-27) list the modifications that have to take place when drama is done in an L2 rather than an L1 context: cognitive appropriateness, cultural differences, potential for further development, evaluation of the quality and quantity of the target language to be used.

I share a strong belief with all those drama teachers who make the link between drama and writing, reading and speaking. Using drama in teaching foreign language and literature opens up a variety of possibilities for teachers and students to work and to develop themselves: «One strength of process drama is that many new directions for further work are initiated, and another strength is that the impact of participating in drama is powerful and motivating for the cognitive development outside the classroom.» (O’Neill and Kao 1998: 129)

The drama project described on the subsequent pages was carried out with the effort of bringing the prescribed context of a coursebook closer to the students‘ life, of inspiring their creativity and giving them ownership for the various writing tasks that were aimed at making them familiar and fluent with new vocabulary, grammatical structures and ways in which to improve their sentence fluency.


Teacher’s Diary (part of the work carried out for my PG Certificate)

January 8, 2002

There was considerable discussion concerning the fact that the homework had to be handed in by e-mail. It bothered mainly one student who feels great resistance towards this means of communication. Furthermore, several students didn’t understand the necessity of signing a contract. They felt compelled to things that seemed for granted to them anyway. I felt that they were afraid of being pushed into something they didn’t want. «Here comes the small print», said one of the students. After about 12 students had signed a first copy of the contract, some mentioned that group pressure was arising. At that time, I realised that they were signing with their real names and told them I would bring a second copy of the contract in the following lesson which they would sign with their drama names.

The students enjoyed very much having authentic coins from foreign countries in their hands. It was difficult for them to identify Irish and Finnish money (a small cultural lesson on Gaelic being the native language of the Republic of Ireland with the explanation that ‘Eire’ means «Ireland»). The students engaged actively in their conversations and used the grammatical structures that were implicitly asked from them in the task.

Later, I introduced the necessary words to talk about financial matters. Since the students were familiar with the type of vocabulary exercise I used, they could work efficiently and conscientiously and stayed on task very well. Only few of them had to be reminded not to speak Swiss German.

All in all, I felt that it was a very satisfactory start into our drama project. The students were not overwhelmed with a lot of non-verbal, physical activity that they had questioned so strongly after their first drama project. They could gradually start developing their thinking in role and will hopefully move within the role easily in future lessons.

January 15, 2002

In spite of my initial doubts, I felt quite comfortable in my role. The students were sitting in a circle at the beginning of the lesson and looked at me anxiously when I was getting ready to start the lesson. They observed me how I was getting into role, namely when I was putting on a headscarf to signal my new identity as nurse from the Silver Beach residence. Some of them started to giggle a little bit or give me a puzzled look, but I quite confidently started to deliver my prepared opening and within a few sentences felt very comfortable in my role. As the lesson proceeded, I took off my scarf at times to signal that I was out of role again. Later, the students and I found a smooth way to move between roles in that I not only answered their questions concerning language learning but also talked to them in role. They realised immediately when I was trying to get the conversation in role going and co-operated well.

Mistake: I missed to introduce myself. However, later in the drama work, somebody called «Miss Küpfer», and when I didn’t react, he said: «What’s your name?» So I apologised for not having introduced myself and said my name was Cindy. I hadn’t thought about that in my preparation but was quite quick at inventing a name. The students realised my hesitation at saying it and might have been pleased if I had got stuck, but that way, I made myself credible and might also have served as a role-model of how to find a way out from situations of linguistic emergency.

The group was familiar with the task of creating paper locations. Some of them set out very quickly to create their paper locations, others needed more encouragement, but all of them ended up having about 4 – 8 pieces of paper with words on them. The layout was only partially successful, but I didn’t put too much pressure on them. One of the students explicitly asked why she had to do this. I realised she was out of role but kept answering in role, arguing that it was Selma’s wish to know who the people were she was going to leave her money to. I stressed that she wanted to have a more visual idea of them than just the photo of a person she hadn’t seen for ten years. A bit reluctantly, she then moved her pieces of paper from a flat layout on a table to a more visual, three-dimensional one.

I had the impression that the sceptical ones now understood better what the purpose of the previous activity had been. Some of the pairs engaged in active conversations, pointing out several items of the rooms they had created. As I walked around, I commented on some of the places and the students had fun talking to me in role and explaining their imaginary dwellings, especially if they were unusual ones like living under a bridge or in Queen Elisabeth’s palace.

After the break, there was a funny incident. One of the students had laid out a paper location of snow hills, a cave, a fire and a mammoth. One of the students who wanted to sit down on a chair next to the mammoth accidentally stepped on the piece of paper with the word ‘mammoth’ on, which made ist owner shout out in shock: «Oh no! You have killed my mammoth!» When I heard this, I shared his feelings and asked him if he was sure the mammoth was dead. We found out from him that there was nothing to do to revive the animal. «What can we do with the dead mammoth now?» I asked. Its owner suggested to grill the meat and eat it. «But where could we make a fire to cook the meat?» I asked. «Does anyone know a suitable place where we could go and make a fire?» «There’s one right here,» replied one of the students, so that problem was solved. I then wanted to know what we could do with the mammoth’s fur. The students signalled they didn’t understand the word «fur» (some of them verbally, most of them non-verbally). One student, however, suggested we could make a coat of the fur. I approved of the idea and said she was going to be the one to receive the fur coat. By repeating the word several times in context this way, the rest of the group had a chance to pick it up and reinforce it. Finally, we had to decide what to do with the mammoth’s tusks. he word was new to the group as well, so I said «the mammoths big, long teeth» and showed their shape with my hands. One of the students said: «We can make the thing for the teeth (and pretended to use a toothpick).» «Oh, yes, that’s a wonderful idea!» I said, «we’ll make toothpicks from the tusks! I would never have had the idea to make toothpicks of tusks, but I think it’s brilliant!» And through this repetition, the whole group had a chance to hear the words «toothpick» and «tusk» again.

PW: Showing each other their favourite room at home and catching up with times past. This was another sequence where moving in and out of role worked very well. The students immediately engaged in lively conversations, having a peak at the OHP once in a while to make sure they were covering all the aspects. To me it was a wonderful moment of seeing how conventional patterns of teaching and drama can be mixed. I overheard several students who used conditional 1 instead of conditional 2, so I pointed out to them that they could not count on receiving any money from aunt Selma at this point, that we were still very much in the speculative phase. All of them recognised the point and started using the appropriate form.

Nobody doubted the usefulness of the vocabulary cards I handed out as further inspiration for their speculations about what they could do with sudden wealth, even though only few of them could actually serve as input for their conversation. Some pairs continued their conversation without taking much notice of the cards, others integrated the sentences in their conversation, still others checked whether they could translate the sentences from German into English. One student took out her book and asked me if she could ask me for help for some of the sentences in the book. At first, she was hesitant because she addressed me in role, but then we both quickly switched to the language learning situation. I might even have said that I happen to understand German and could help her out. None of the groups spoke Swiss German!

Writing in role: All the students worked quietly on their texts and were very concentrated (see photos). I occasionally helped out with words and expressions. The students used the dictionaries that are in the classroom. After the lesson, we immediately looked at the photos on the monitor of the digital camera and deleted the ones that we felt could not be published. I explicitly asked for permission to use the ones that were left. Some students were pleased to hear that I felt they looked good in the picture. It was fun to decide together which scenes rendered a good impression of our work and the atmosphere in the class.

When my boyfriend asked me in the evening how everything had gone, I told him about several episodes and realised the enthusiasm I felt. Successful drama work for me means that I can work without feeling the tension of having to keep the students on task and making sure that they don’t use Swiss German. After both afternoons of the conditional project, I felt relaxed and eager to write down my impressions and thoughts about our work. It will be interesting to see how the students feel about this way of language learning.

January 29, 2002

I cannot claim this was a drama lesson in its true sense. We spent most of the time sitting in the circle, reading texts. Although all this happened in role, the students had very little chance to be in role themselves. This is a problem that arises when too much linguistic material has to be covered. Work with a novel will be more suitable to apply a wider variety of drama strategies in the future.

February 5, 2002

Today, I didn’t feel very comfortable. The students politely co-operated, but I had to invest a lot of energy to set them on task. The most frustrating moment was at the very end, when practically none of the sentences were completed correctly. A total failure — from a structuralist point of view. This impression was reflected in one of the students’ feedback, namely when she said she felt she hadn’t learned anything. Another one, however, opened a completely new perspective in this discussion when she said she had liked the fact that the class had had to write so many letters. To her, it was a good occasion to apply the grammar she had learned in class. One student missed her desk and said she didn’t like sitting in a circle and writing on her lap. Another one wanted to have class discussions, but behind their desks with the teacher in front of them. Obviously, nobody appreciated the fact that I had tried to move myself out of the centre of attention. However, there seems to have still been quite a lot of teacher dominance. Certainly, there was little leeway for the class to take decisions. I was busy enough trying to cover all the material with the coursebook and develop a situation which would be of interest to the students. It was really only after the first lesson that I felt relieved because I sensed I had been able to step back from my role as a lion tamer (wrong image; usually, I have to invest a lot of energy to bring the students to life…)


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