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Teaching Drama in the ESL Classroom

Summer is quickly approaching, and many training centers will release mini courses or camps. One of my favorites to teach is a drama course.

“They can’t do that.”

“It’s too hard for them.”

“They are too young.”

These are often responses I hear when I am working with young students trying to teach them a short play or skit.

Don’t take no for an answer!

Don’t let these comments discourage you. I’ve taught short plays to ESL students as young as 4 and 5 years old over an 8-day period. This young age of students does add a challenge to teaching drama in the ESL classroom, since the children are unable to read. However, that makes it even more worthwhile. Prove those naysayers wrong!

Using drama in fun ways

I’ll share with you the one essential your ESL drama lesson needs for it to be successful: ‘FUN!’

Learning CAN BE and SHOULD BE fun. Students are engaged and actively participating when it’s fun. My motto “You can teach anything to an ESL student.” They just need to be motivated to want to do it.

Let’s talk through the basics of teaching drama to ESL students.

Scale your expectations

Unless you are teaching at a legit drama school, many times, the teaching resources will be limited and homemade. Students find facial expression and body language hard to master. Don’t stress if they aren’t standing in the center smiling. And, it’s OK if they forget a line during the production of a play. You are building their confidence and language skills and not turning them into movie stars. Teaching drama in the ESL context is all about fun, building confidence and growing language skills.

Your practice lessons should be varied and include fun activities and games. Phasing and building up to the grand play will be essential. I start my first drama lesson showcasing the end goal. Say you’ve made a mini play of ‘Cinderella’, read the students the story or allow them to watch the movie. You will get them on-board with your ESL drama plan if they understand what your goal is.

Let’s look at a standard drama script for ESL students

Pull out lines from your script and have mini auditions. Let’s look at this example from a rendition of The Three Little Pigs:

Scene 1: Enter Rabbit 1 and Cow 

Narrator: Rabbit 1 and Cow meet.  

Rabbit 1: Hello, I'm Rabbit 1. What's your name? 

Cow: I'm Cow. How are you? 

Rabbit 1: I'm fine, thank you! 

Cow: What’s that? (Points at the blocks Rabbit 1 is holding) 

Rabbit 1: They are blocks. I'm making a house. 

Cow: Can I help? 

Rabbit 1: Yes, you can. Let's go!


Teach the students “What’s your name?” and various “How are you?” responses and have them interact with each other. Your students who are strong with their dialogue practice should get the parts with more speaking lines. Auditions can be simple and easy and quick. It does give the practice a more formal feel.

The work can begin on your ESL drama play

Once you have assigned the students their characters and parts, now the work can begin on your drama classes. Here’s some techniques you can use to keep the activities varied and enjoyable.

Practice emotion reading and speaking

o   Say your line happy then sad then angry. This breaks up the monotony of choral drilling. Students generally tend to have fun because they can be silly.

Ball passes

o   Student 1 says a line and throws the ball to student 2, they must say their line that would come after student 1. This practice encourages them to remember line placement which is important if a student stumbles or mixes up their lines on the big day of the ESL drama play.

o   You can add fun elements into drama practice lessons by calling out the scene number and they must start from the top of that scene. Or if they drop the ball, they have a penalty (sing a song, do a quick dance).


o   Designate areas of the ESL classroom with the characters in your play (prince, rabbits, pigs). Teacher calls out a character and the students assigned as those characters must run to that corner and shout out their lines. You can speed up the pace that you call the characters of your ESL drama, call multiple characters at a time. This is an active game and helps to re-energize the students especially if they’ve been sitting awhile.

Chanting chair game

o   For ESL drama lines that are more challenging or more frequently said in your script, have all the students walking around their chairs placed in a circle chanting the same line. When you stop, they must sit in the chair. I always sit in one of the chairs to ensure one student is left standing. The student left standing must repeat the line back to you. The repetition of chanting helps the students’ fluency. Speed up and slow down the chants to create more interest within your ESL drama practice class.

Mr. Wolf

o   If you have played the Mr. Wolf activity for “What time is it?”, then you will quickly understand the usefulness of this variation for ESL drama practice. The teacher stands at one end of the classroom holding a character card. The teacher calls out the character, the student(s) who have lines for that character must say one of their lines and then all students take one step. The teacher goes through the characters in the English drama play and students continue to move one step at a time. At any point, the teacher can chase the students. The students run back to their starting point which is a designated safe zone. If the teacher catches a student, the teacher can assign an action or penalty.

TPR (total physical response)

o   Don’t forget to add TPR or actions to lines. Hopefully, you are using TPR in young classes normally. First, it helps the student remember the phrase. Second, it prevents the student from swinging and swaying while they are saying their part. On performance day, if a student is struggling, you can charade the actions from the side and assist with them recalling that line.

Having fun doing drama in your ESL class

Fun is the key element. Think through your timing and what maybe challenging for your students. As an ESL teacher, you have probably taught harder language points or concepts than teaching drama for ESL. My final tidbit of advice is to remember teaching a short play or skit means phasing it and breaking down the segments.  Work methodically through your scenes and find ESL drama activities to keep the students engaged. The repetition from practice will create the muscle memory the student needs on presentation day. Keep your cool with your students, allow the drama lesson to be a little freer, and pat yourself on the back when the final day is over, and the parents are giving you praises. You got this!

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by Kris Waters

I am a Senior ESL Teacher at Shane English School Changzhou, China. My students call me Teacher Kris. I am known by the students as the teacher who gives candy. My professional background encompasses HR consulting and training for major companies. I strongly believe in creating repeatable and efficient practices. You can see this in my lesson planning. Outside of work, I enjoy traveling, reading and sports.