Dramatic Play & Language Learning

from The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s Guide to Aid Transition, Louise Kreuzer-El Yaafouri, Roman & Littlefield International Press, 2016.


Dramatic play is a natural and inherent piece of healthy child development, fostering both language and intellectual capabilities. Dramatics are pertinent to the Newcomer classroom in that they allow for expressed emotion and understanding, even with limited use of the host language. Learners who have not yet become comfortable in the new language framework have an opportunity to discover a “voice” through acting-out processes. These types of constructive experiences can be freeing for the student, revealing for the educator, and base building for the learning community. Beyond all of this, drama is just plain, old-fashioned fun!

One outcome of dramatic play is emotional exploration. Emotional exploration that occurs within a sheltered environment can provide many benefits, especially working with resettled refugee populations, where grief and traumatic exposure are routinely elevated. In positive, carefully crafted settings, dramatic learning structures can provide safe and healthy platforms for combined emotional and vocabulary growth. Meanwhile, theatrics function as a valid comprehension assessment that can be exclusive of the language piece.

For example, guided role-play, in which students silently act out various emotions, can satisfy the aim of associating specific facial features and body language with a given circumstance. In a literary setting, learners may be asked to show a character’s facial expressions (link: feelings); or to mime or act out character traits, actions, or whole scenes. As it is said, the best way to know something is to be it. Here are a few fun starters!


1.              Create A Human Machine

            Begin with one or two connected children creating a simple, repetitive sound.  Children contribute to the machine by entering the work space one at a time, connecting to another part of the machine by some body part, and adding a new beep, honk, bend, squat, jump or squish.  After: Discuss questions, insights, new vocabulary and celebrated demonstrations of creativity.

2.              “Two Noses”

            Invite students to circumambulate the room.  Facilitator calls out a) a number and b) a body part.  Learners respond to the prompt by aligning themselves with the appropriate number of people, touching at the corresponding body part.  For example, three elbows would play out with three students connected to each other in some way by their elbows.  Encourage children to be creative in their connective choices and formations.  This process continues: 4 knees, 6 thumbs, 2 backs, or 5 shins.  This is a fun and creative means of team building; it also functions as a valuable opportunity for vocabulary acquisition.  

3.              Still Pictures/Tableaus

            Working in small groups, students create frozen snap shots of a scene from a text.  Tableaus can capture setting, character thought or emotion, sequence of events.  This is terrific for group work, and also as a means of evaluating individual understanding and participation.

4.              Act It Out

          Read and discuss a text with students (The Hungry Caterpillar, for example), and then ask them play out the story alongside a narration.  This is an entertaining process for all involved!  More than this, dramatic role play is engaging and meaningful for the students, and it meanwhile offers educators a valid formative assessment of learner comprehension.  Other ideas: plant life cycle, character reaction, imaginative journey (to another planet, say), migration trails, bullying responses, historical enactments, or the life of a drop of water.  This is also a great activity for acting out dialogue or the sequence of events in a story or text.

5.              True Theatrics

          Simple plays at early reading levels are fantastic for developing and practicing reading fluency.  Mask making can incorporate a host of various cultural and country traditions.  Puppetry allows for student creativity, reading fluency, imaginative skills, and the ability to act without fully revealing or exposing themselves.  Set the stage!

6.              Human Knot

          Students form a close circle, hands open and facing toward the center of the circle.  Each participant reaches for two hands.  The hands should not belong to the same person, or be joined to an immediate neighbor.  Slowly, and with some coaching, students try to unravel their human knot without disconnecting their hands.  This process stimulates teamwork, problem-solving skills and creativity.

7.              Treasure Chest

          Students sit in a circle.  One student is blindfolded and stands inside the circle.  An object (scarf, piece of paper, stuffed animal) is placed somewhere inside the circle.  Taking turns, participants will guide the blindfolded learner to the treasure chest, practicing the usage of descriptive and clear directions.  (Take three baby steps forward, then turn right…)  Exchange roles.  This process enables students to give and follow prompts, practice directional cue words and creatively problem solve toward a solution.

8.              One Word Story

         Sitting in a circle, the first person offers a single word to begin a story.  The next person contributes the second word of the story, and so on.  The story may shift and change unexpectedly, but should ultimately find closing.  This exercise is great for sense-making, sequencing, and vocabulary building; meanwhile, it is a fun team-building activity.  Certain parameters may be set in advance (theme, topic, unit vocabulary).   Recorded sessions are excellent opportunities for practicing recorded dictation and/or recall, story continuation, and listening station options, among others.

9.              What Are You Doing?

          Divide students in half; one group will be an audience.  The acting group of students forms two straight lines vertically facing the audience.   One of the two students in front begins a verb motion (for example, eating lunch).  The other student asks, What Are You Doing?  The first student replies with a new verb.  I’m brushing my teeth. 

            The second student immediately begins acting out this verb, while the first student goes to the back of his or her line.  The next student in line steps up and asks, “What are you doing?”  The active student responds with a new verb, I’m driving my car, and returns to the back of the line.  The process continues until all players have had a turn.  Actors and audience reverse.

         This is a fantastic vocabulary building game!  For ELLs- if a student can create an action, but is without the English word for it, the audience may kindly assist!  A high five to the audience can signal, “Help me out, here!”  Both sides love this!

10.           Miming

          Give a specific direction.  Model miming exact directive.  For example, Sharpen your pencil.  Open your book. Think. Have an idea. Feel the window and look out. Invite students to join.  Continue, without modeling.  This is a great exercise to check for understanding without language restriction. Miming is also effective for story lines and plot directives.

11.           Mock Interviews

          Author study?  Character study?  New science material? Covering world topics or key figures in history? Perfect for an interview!  Students can conduct this activity in pairs, or as a larger group interviewing a panel of experts.  Many learners, especially ELLs, may need specific insight and modeling regarding the interviewer/interviewee relationship.  Graphic organizers specific to the topic may also be very useful for recording responses. 

12.           Scene Improvisations

          Students divide into small teams.  Each team selects an index card with a scenario or location (at the grocery store; on the bus; at the pool; at a birthday party; at the zoo; learning to ride a bike; losing a tooth).  Teams act out the scenario or a short bit that would reveal the location, without actually saying the actual name of the scenario/locale aloud.  Observing teams will attempt to guess the index card cue correctly.

13.           Emotion Party

          Have students pretend they are going to a fancy party.  One student, acting as the host, will begin in the stage space alone, waiting for guests to arrive.  Another student will knock on the door, and be let in by the host.  The guest, without using words, will show an emotion.  (Silent emotions may work best in the classroom setting). The host, upon understanding the new emotion, will immediately assume the same energy. 

            A new guest will arrive, with a new emotion.  Everyone at the party will demonstrate this new emotion, and so on, until all guests have arrived.  Once everyone has had a turn to enter, each will leave in the order they arrived, with the emotion they came with.

This is a wonderful chance to explore emotions.Beginning learners will demonstrate simple facial expressions, and will match them with baseline vocabulary- happy, sad, mad, or tired.More advanced students will be able to apply other body language and may also be able to reach beyond basic word use, exploring higher level synonyms and altogether new ranges of emotion.

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