Worlds of TESOL: Building Communities of Practice, Inquiry, Creativity
Why Teaching English through Drama Works
by Gary Carkin, Ph.D.
The Institute for Language Education
Southern New Hampshire University
In our 2007 TESOL-Drama/ EVO_Drama forum, we looked at the issue of just why
drama is such an effective facilitator of language acquisition. Of course, the usual
explanations were offered: drama activity lowers the affective filter (Krashen & Terrrel,
1983), eases anxiety, creates relaxation in the classroom (Krashen , 1982), there is an
abundance of comprehensible and interesting input (Krashen, 1982; Kozub, 2000), it
encourages natural speech because students are working on a task and negotiating
meaning in a natural way (Hatch, 1972; Pica, 1994; Long, 1983) it brings the teacher into
position of co-worker and guide, rather than an authoritarian figure in classroom
relationships (Bolton, 1992; Bolton & Heathcote, 1995; Bolton, 1999; Freire, 1972; Kao
& O’Neill, 1998; Vygotsky, 1976; ) it allows all to help each other and for some to seek
help from others who know more (Laughlin & Latrobe, 1990; Prescott, 2003; Smith,
1984; Vygotsky, 1978).
Most to the point and most relevant for us here today, were, we found, the theoretical
concepts of Lev Smenovich Vygotsky (1986), the 20th Century Belorussian
psycholinguist whose seminal works, although published in Russia in the 1930’s are just
receiving attention in the West today. One concept, the idea of the Zone of Proximal
Development as outlined in Mind and Society (Vygotsky, 1978) is generally expressed as
we have mentioned above: the idea that language acquisition occurs when the learner not
only achieves fluency through the help of materials provided and the input of a teacher,
but with the help of a more advanced interlocutor who through example, repetition, or
simplification, models the language (Lightbown, 1999). In reading and working on
dramatic material, we can easily see how this can be so.
But it is in the model which Vygotski provides for us in his work, Thought and
Language, that, I believe, is the most penetrating in its significance to language
acquisition and production and that model is the one that I would like to outline to you
here today as it has received too little attention from the practitioners of English through
drama, but yet may be found to form the fundamental basis of the dramatic approach to
At a skeletal level, Vygotsky’s model looks like this:
A person starts with a MOTIVE to speak. That MOTIVE generates INNER
SPEECH/SUBTEXT. The INNER SPEECH/SUBTEXT generates a
THOUGHT/IMAGE. The THOUGHT/ IMAGE generates a FEELING. The FEELING
propels the SPEECH.
How many of you have studied acting? How many are familiar with the name,
To those who have studied acting and are familiar with the approach of the revolutionary
acting teacher, Konstantin Stanislavski, upon whose work almost all contemporary
theatre training is based, the outline of Vygotski’s understanding will jump off the page
at you as the fundamental approach to acting as taught by Stanislavski. Indeed, it is not
surprising then when we read in Vygotsky’s, Thought and Language, the following:
“Thought has it own structure, and the transition from it to speech is no easy manner. The
theater faced the problem of the thought behind the words before psychology did. In
teaching his system of acting, Konstantin Stanislavski required the actors to uncover the
“subtext” of their lines in a play.” Here, we see that what Vygotsky means by “inner
speech” is called, “subtext” by Stanislavski! And subtext is at the core of any basic acting
class. Vygotsky, in Thought and Language, goes on to give examples from Stanislavski’s
notes for the play called, Woe from Wit. I won’t repeat them here because we will
proceed with a similar experiment in a moment. But I want to point out the significance
of this because the relationship between motive, subtext, thought, image, and feeling
leading to speech (and its reverse) is too often left out of second language acquisition
discussion. In fact, I would go so far as to say that ignorance of this important, step by
step, process to speech production is what leads some to see improvised drama as having
more value in language classrooms than scripted drama and the equally misguided view
that performing scripted drama is not really effective because it is too often a mechanical,
rote, ego driven process. I would be the first to agree that without paying attention to the
elements listed above, scripted drama is just that…mechanical. The richness of the
process evolves from making sure all the elements of the model are considered, worked
at, and incorporated in drama work.
So, let us consider first: Identifying the motive. We turn now to theatre people to do so.
Charles McGaw points out in his book, Acting is Believing:
“ Once the actor has been able to form an idea of “what a character wants,” he continues
analyzing until he understands the character’s desire definitely. Then, he must state the
motivating desire in specific terms…A good name for the motivating force might be the
statement of a specific desire which the character can attempt to satisfy through action”
The intentions of the character should be expressed in active terms, with verbs, not
nouns. “I want to” or “I wish to” should be followed by an active verb, not the verb to be
or a verb that expresses feelings because “being and feeling are conditions, not actions,
and consequently are not actable” (p. 107).
So, in working with scripted drama, we must first determine what the character’s
motivation is for each line that is uttered.
Vygotsky goes on to say:
In Griboedov’s comedy Woe for Wit, the hero, Chatsky, says to the heroine, who
maintains that she has never stopped thinking of him, “Thrice blessed who believes.
Believing warms the heart.” Stanislavski interpreted this as “Let us stop this talk”; but
it could just as well be interpreted as “I do not believe you. You say it to comfort
me,” or as “Don’t you see how you torment me? I wish I could believe you. That
would be bliss.” Every sentence that we say in real life has some kind of subtext, a
thought hidden behind it (p. 250).
That subtext or inner speech behind the text is written in the form of a draft, according to
Vygotsky. It is a realm where there is abbreviation of syntax and is “like writing a first
draft….Predication is the natural form of inner speech; psychologically, it consists of
predicates only…Inner speech works with semantics, not phonetics…(the) sense of the
word over its meaning – the sum of all the psychological events aroused in our
consciousness by the word (Ibid. p.245).
The actor’s job then, or here, the language learner’s job, is to construct the through line of
intentions and objectives with the flow of inner speech which will generate the images
which will in turn create the thought and subsequent feeling that supports the search for
the l2 words that will complete the intention. This is the process wherein new vocabulary
is utilized, new grammar structures are ingrained, and new fluency is achieved.
I will say a series of words. You close your eyes and visualize a detailed and specific
picture. Try to imagine what you would do if you were there. Remember, don’t try to feel
anything, but let any feelings arise naturally as a result of what you visualize. I will
say:”Visualize” and you will visualize, “Tell” and you will tell the person seated next to
you the story of your image. Try to be as detailed in your telling as in your seeing.
Now, try some abstract words. Turn the abstract concepts into concrete images that are
meaningful to you and that can stir response. For example, “power” might be an image of
a gigantic ocean liner bearing down on you in a small boat that you are in.
Now, in these exercises, you have been creating “a film” of visual images that lead you to
some level of emotion. Let me just now quote from Charles McGaw’s, Acting is
In the process you have been obliquely using another helpful technique called
inner monologue. What the actor is thinking – what is in his mind – each moment he
is onstage is vastly important to his performance. THE INNER MONOLOGUE IS A
TECHNIQUE FOR CONTROLLING HIS THINKING AND MAKING IT SERVE
THE OVERALL PURPOSE. It is used when he is not speaking the playwright’s
words, that is, during pauses in his own speeches and during the lines of the other
characters. It is one of the actor’s truly creative contributions because, except in some
special instances, it is not given by the dramatist. It should be carefully planned,
written out, memorized, and thought at each rehearsal and performance, just as the
actor memorizes and speaks the playwright’s lines (p. 91). (Emphasis added).
In class, when I am introducing my students to the use of drama, I usually have one
person who says, “But, I CAN’T act!!” I always use the film analogy, but reverse the
focus. I say to that person, “Have you ever cried at the movies, or laughed, or felt
embarrassed, or felt sympathy for the people in the film?” Inevitably, s/he will say,
“Yes.” Well, then, say I, acting on the stage is exactly the same process. We have to relax
comfortably, like sitting in a darkened theatre, focus on a series of images that are of
interest to us and which evolve from the script and involve us emotionally. As the images
involve us, our feelings evolve naturally. We think and react naturally, and people are
simply looking over our shoulder watching us. But we don’t mind, because we are
focused on what we are seeing in our film that is happening in our minds and on the
stage. I point out that this inner work of the actor is what makes every performance and
production different. We go to the theatre to see and hear the subtext because we can read
the text at home. Every production of Hamlet is different because of the subtext. And
that’s what makes a play a classic. This inner work is the truly creative work of the actor
and language learner.
David Magarshack, in his preface to Stanislavski and the Art of the Stage says:
The actor needs…an uninterrupted series of visual images which have some
connection with the given circumstances. He needs, in short, an uninterrupted line not
of plain but of illustrated given circumstance. Indeed, at every moment of his
presence on the stage…the actor must be aware of what is taking place outside him
on the stage...or of what is taking place inside him, in his own imagination, that is,
those visual images which illustrate the given circumstances of the life of his part.
Out of all these things there is formed, sometimes outside and sometimes inside him,
an uninterrupted and endless series of inner and outer visual images or kind of film.
While the work goes on, the film is unwinding itself endlessly, reflecting on the
screen of his inner vision the illustrated given circumstances of his part, among which
he lives on the stage (p. 38).
Charles McGaw simply says: “When an actor acts, he see a picture. He keeps the images
before him as if they were on a television or a motion picture screen” (p. 90).
So, in this short acting lesson, what do we have to do? First, we define the character
intention or motive for the speech utterance, next, we determine the words of the subtext
and write them out (I want to… I wish to….) in so far as these wants and wishes effect
another person on stage with us. We then generate, write out and rehearse an inner
monologue that keeps our thoughts rooted in our part while listening to the lines of others
onstage and then we allow this play of subtext or inner speech and inner monologue to
generate a flow of images that in turn create the feeling that supports the speech.
Now, the opposite process occurs as I listen to the words of another character speaking to
me. His or her words excite a flow of images (the inner monologue) that release feelings
that motivate a reply, and the whole process continues back and forth in the ongoing
dialogue which is the play. That’s where real language acquisition occurs.
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