Improvisation to Enhance Fluency

Introduction

A few years ago, I had the great opportunity to participate in a series of workshops that promoted the use of drama and its technique in ESL. At the time, I felt I was doing quite well for a new teacher trying to impart and share some speaking techniques with  students: I was covering some pronunciation exercises, conducting fun and meaningful role-plays, touching on interesting and hot topics to spark conversation, and lecturing about public speaking and presentation skills. After the workshops, I realized that I was not doing enough to promote fluency. Below, I am going to share a game on improvisation I learned and played during one of the workshops. I have tried it many times across a gamut of levels and I encourage you to try it with your students.

The Improvisation Game

The improvisation game does not require preparation from  students, but the teacher should have a few prompts and ideas to aid and facilitate the game (especially the very first time). The teacher can come up with simple sentences and then prompt the students to continue the dialogue. If you are interested, it works better with a colleague, so the students can see an example. You can start with a very simple prompt and ask the students to respond with something that makes sense. Leave it open to everyone, so the most daring students can take a first try at it while the others mentally prepare for it. After explaining the game, ask your colleague, or volunteers from the class (should a colleague not be available) to aid you for the first demonstration. I always start with a very straightforward comment; e.g. “It is quite cold today” to which the students may agree or disagree. Then, I increase the difficulty until I say something to which many answers are possible. A popular one is the following, “Well, if it is how you feel, I may just leave!” The first time you play the game, you may want to help the students by showing an emotion: Say the sentence while you are laughing, smiling, crying, pouting, and so on. More advanced students may be proficient enough to continue without you providing a context; i.e., they will assume a role answering appropriately and accordingly by pretending to be a parent (“Good, leave! I’ll turn your room into my office!” or “Child, calm down and let’s talk.”), an angry roommate (“Don’t bother! I have already found another place! I’ll go!”), a desperate landlord who implores you to stay (“I will lower the rent for you if you don’t go!”). Do not underestimate what your students are able to create and be ready to smile at their wittiness. I myself have been pleasantly surprised many times!

Some Tips to Consider

I have tried the game several times with several levels and classes and results have been quite different each time. I have learned that it is necessary to keep some helpful tips in mind:

  • This game works with every level from preparatory to undergraduate, but it needs to be adjusted accordingly. Beginners may need more clues for the simple fact that they struggle to find the right words and it may be easier if you lead them for a while (as an example, you may want to suggest what the situation is and what kind of tone to set).
  • Remind students not to write down any answers, but just to go with it. This is difficult because the students will be a bit reluctant at first. Be patient. Try the game several times (if well received!)
  • After a few tries as a class, divide them in small groups; it will make it easier for students who are rather shy.
  • Give students the option to sit out (at least the first few times). You may lose them altogether if you force them.
  • If the game does not work, do not be upset; different classes and groups of people have very different dynamics.
  • Do not correct grammar and pronunciation too much. It is challenging enough to improvise a good come back. Keep the game low stress and relaxed.
  • Keep an open mind and let the students explore and make mistakes. Remember, the game aims to improve fluency, so do not force anything, but let it unfold.
  • Have fun! If you do, most likely your students will, too.

Final Observation

There are many techniques and games I have acquired from the drama workshops, but this is my favourite because of its comprehensive nature: It is creative and practical at the same time and it merges the tangible need to be fluent in a second language with the fun and carefree qualities of a game. Are you thinking about trying this game? If so, please, let me know how it goes! How do you implement and nurture fluency in your ESL classroom? Do you have a favourite drama activity?

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8 thoughts on “Improvisation to Enhance Fluency”

  1. Thanks for sharing Daniela. Improv can be a great way to work on fluency. I recently read an article in TESOL Quarterly that also supports what you are doing. Here is the reference if you are interested:

    Galante, A., & Thomson, R. I. (2017). The Effectiveness of Drama as an Instructional Approach for the Development of Second Language Oral Fluency, Comprehensibility, and Accentedness. TESOL Quarterly, (1), 115. doi:10.1002/tesq.290

  2. Thanks for sharing this strategy!

    It would be really helpful to provide a short list of sample prompts that have worked for you to get us started.

    Thanks!

    1. Hello MS,

      Here are my favourites!
      “Well, if that’s the way you feel, I’m leaving!” “Hi I’d like to buy some/a _________ (say a name of anything, really! Keep it easy for lower levels)” “HAHAHA!!! So funny! And then what happened??!” (only works for very advanced levels in my experience!); “Let’s go! Do you have our tickets?” (if you say this worried enough, the students will come up with very funny reasons why they are in a rush to leave!); “Can you help me? I need to find ______________ (a strange place makes it more fun!)”
      I have some more! Let me know if you are interested and I can make a more extensive list!
      Thanks,
      Daniela
      Thanks!

  3. Fantastic idea! Thanks for sharing, Daniela! I try to do a lot of role-plays, but these are usually well set up and rehearsed. I’ve been hesitant to let students do straight improv–particularly at the lower ability levels–but this gives me some courage to try it.

    Glenn

    1. Hello Glenn,

      Thanks for your comments! Take the leap! You may have to be more involved in the process with lower levels, but you should still be able to generate some improv response. If you try, let me know how it works.
      Daniela

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