Saturday, 28 May 2016

Teaching languages through drama/theatre positively impacts oral fluency
=Guest post=


by Angelica Galante and Ron I. Thomson


Do you speak another language? Many people who have heard this question don’t necessarily speak a second language (L2) fluently. Learning to speak a new language is challenging, but fluency in the L2 is a goal many people share. Contrary to what most people believe, opportunities to interact in the L2 do not necessarily guarantee a learner will come to speak it fluently (Derwing, Munro, and Thomson, 2008; Ranta and Meckelborg, 2013), so finding ways to improve fluency in the classroom is important. From our recent research, it seems that drama and theatre can help.

If you have ever taken a drama or theatre class, you will probably agree that it is a lot of fun. But drama is not all about the entertainment; it can also help language learners develop speaking abilities (Kao and O’Neill, 1998; Stern, 1980; Stinson and Freebody, 2006) and can impact oral fluency and pronunciation in particular (Galante and Thomson, 2016). We have both taught English as a foreign/second language for many years in Canada, Brazil, Korea, Oman, and Pakistan. In our constant pursuit of new ways to help our students develop fluency and pronunciation we thought we’d give drama/theatre a try.

Theatre of Dionysos, Athens, Greece
Photo credit: Dan Cavanagh

With my (Angelica’s) background in theatre, I began using drama techniques to teach my own English language classes in the late 1990s. I immediately noticed this was very helpful for learners’ oral development, especially among those learners who were somewhat shy or reluctant to speak in class. I also observed that during drama activities, students would practice aspects of the language not typically offered in traditional language classes: intonation, rhythm, intention, meaning-making, improvisation, among others. Because my drama classes were very well received, I was invited to develop a language program for a prominent English language institute in São Paulo, Brazil, which focused on teaching English through drama and theatre. The program was later distributed among 17 other schools in the country.

At first, teachers were hesitant to apply drama techniques because they felt they had to be actors to do so. However, after some initial short training sessions, teachers implemented drama in their classroom and were quite satisfied with the positive results. Despite teachers’ accounts of the success of drama in their classes, I wondered what particular aspects of oral communication actually improved. To find out, I proposed carrying out a study during my Master’s program at Brock University, in Canada, where Ron Thomson became my thesis supervisor. His extensive background in second language oral fluency and pronunciation research was a perfect match.

In drama/theatre classes, there is quite a lot of speaking practice and both of us knew it was likely that learners could develop speaking abilities anyway. But we were interested in finding out whether drama classes could improve learners’ speaking abilities compared to classes that also focused on oral communication. We tracked the oral development of 24 Brazilian learners of English in four different classes over the course of four months: two English drama classes and two English communicative classes. We collected samples of their L2 speech in five different tasks (monologue, dialogue, etc.) before and after the program, all audio-recorded. We then recruited 30 Canadians to listen to the learners’ speech samples and provide their perceptions on three specific aspects of their oral performance: fluency, comprehensibility and accent. After running several statistical analyses, we found that learners in the drama group experienced significantly greater improvement in their oral speaking skills compared to learners in the traditional communicative language classes.

Photo credit: João Urbilio

In particular, we found that learners in the drama group experienced significant improvements in fluency and comprehensibility compared to learners in a communicative language class. Some of the strategies used in the drama classes had a particular focus on improving fluency: learners practiced performance in front of a group, speech with emphasis on meaning-making, and speaking without inappropriate pauses and hesitations. This result supports the idea that teaching aspects of oral language explicitly can result in larger gains in oral fluency compared to using simple communicative tasks.

Another important finding was that although all the English learners were perceived as having a first language (L1) accent (Brazilian Portuguese), this was not an issue when understanding their speech. This is also important because it tells us that having L1 accent is not a problem when communicating in the L2. This can be surprising to some who falsely believe they need to lose their L1 accent in order to be fluent in the L2. We have always believed that “accent reduction” courses do not really have a place in language learning, and our study provides evidence to support this belief.

If you’re interested in learning more about how drama/theatre can improve speaking skills in a second language, you can watch the video abstract of our study or read the article we have recently published in TESOL Quarterly. There, you will find more details about the study and its methodology. We also provide samples of the classroom activities we used.


Angelica Galante is a doctoral candidate in Language and Literacies Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto and a sessional lecturer at York University. Her research interests include innovative pedagogical applications in language classrooms, drama in language learning, and plurilingual education. You can follow her on Twitter @GalanteAngelica and visit her website Breaking the Invisible Wall for samples of digital projects with language learners.

Ron I. Thomson is an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics/TESL at Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. His research spans L2 oral fluency and pronunciation development, computer-assisted pronunciation teaching, and ethics in pronunciation teaching. Ron is also the creator of English Accent Coach, a free evidence-based online tool that helps learners improve their pronunciation of English vowels and consonants.


© Angelica Galante and Ron I. Thomson 2016

Next post: Switching languages, mixing languages – or using languages? Saturday 25th June 2016.  

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