Using theatre to improve children’s communication skills

The term English as an Additional Language (EAL) refers to children who grow up in an English-speaking country and speak a language other than English at home. EAL children tend to lag behind their English monolingual peers in terms of linguistic and extra-linguistic skills, but the number of (effective) interventions that aim to boost EAL children’s abilities is small. As a doctoral researcher investigating children’s acquisition of English, I wanted to rectify this issue; as an actor in training, I couldn’t think of a better way to do this besides theatre! Indeed, theatre is often used as a tool for the instruction of modern foreign languages, and it is known that drama-based activities can help simulate real-life communication, allow teachers to focus on specific linguistic constructions, increase intercultural understanding and make language learning fun for young language learners.

Driven by these thoughts, I decided to apply for the TORCH Theatres Seed Fund and was fortunate to receive funding for my project: “From the page to the stage: A feasibility study on using theatre to improve EAL children’s communicative skills”. The project was designed to involve eight two-hour workshops that would take place once a week in St Barnabas CoE School in Oxford and would culminate into a performance. To this end, I decided to partner with the Oxford Playhouse, and their Young Players Festival – an exciting annual event during which groups of children are given the chance to put on innovative productions in the city’s most prestigious venue. The aims of the project were to determine how well the different parties (students, teachers, theatrical partners) engaged with the project, as well as whether the workshops had a positive effect on the students’ linguistic, communication and teamwork abilities.

With the project aims in mind, our theatre facilitator (Collide Theatre’s Emily Louizou) and I came together to design the eight workshops and final showcase. We decided to structure each workshop around drama activities that our nine EAL KS2 participants would complete solo, in pairs or small groups. The activities were meant to serve as the springboard for creating the performance. Yet, due to the project’s short timeframe, the activities would not generate enough material; thus, in the first workshop we asked children to write a letter to their older self (in which they could talk about their hopes and dreams on a personal and/or a global level), and intended to use the letters to formulate the script of the show. At the end of each activity, the children were asked to sit in a circle and express their feelings and thoughts about what they had just done. These conversations provided an indication of children’s linguistic and extra-linguistic abilities, which were monitored throughout the duration of each workshop: while the theatre facilitator guided children through the devising process, a research assistant was present in the room, observing children’s output and behaviour. The collected observation data would be valuable for the project evaluation that would take place after the project had come to an end.

Unfortunately, the end came way sooner than we expected or hoped: due to COVID-19 and the lockdown(s) it brought about, we were not allowed to visit the school to complete half of the workshops, and we were informed that the festival wouldn’t go through. In the beginning of the pandemic, our team tried to design the project from scratch – taking social distancing measures, the new school opening dates and the festival’s organisation plans into account. But as the opening dates and festival plans kept changing, it eventually became clear that we had to let the project go.

However, the work we completed during the first few workshops remains valuable – not least because it can answer some of the project’s initial questions. As far as the stakeholders’ engagement is concerned, the collaboration with the theatre partners was seamless, the school was involved throughout the process and, importantly, the students were excited about taking part in the project. Turning to the students linguistic, communication and teamwork abilities, some development was noted: by the fourth workshop, some of the students were able to express themselves using more varied and complex words, both during the activities and the conversations that followed; moreover, pupils who were less vocal at the start of the project became more eager to express themselves as time passed, while pupils who were more vocal at the start of the project began to give more space for their peers to share ideas during groupwork.

Overall, devising seemed to be a suitable technique for triggering (an improvement in) children’s communication skills due to the collaborative (verbal and non-verbal) improvisations it involves. Furthermore, the performative aspect appeared to be good for motivating children to participate in the project and for maintaining their interest throughout the process. Yet, there are potential changes to the project structure, as well as to the data collection and evaluation methods, that could improve future renditions of the project from a research perspective and also make it easier to implement from a creative perspective. For instance, I believe that the project would benefit from focusing on specific linguistic constructions and/or communication skills which could, in turn, allow for the collection of more targeted data. In addition, the use of video-recordings could complement observation data and enrich the data analysis process. Moving to the creative side of things, I think that it would be good to ‘grade’ the language and activities so that EAL children whose knowledge of English is limited can participate throughout the workshop and not feel left out. Moreover, I would not consider using a writing activity again, as some of the children found it very difficult; a speaking activity on the same topic would be far more productive.

These ideas wouldn’t have occurred to me without having the ability to ‘trial run’ the project; so, gutted as I am for not having been able to finish it, I am grateful to TORCH for giving me the opportunity to plant the seed of this work. Together with my collaborators and partners, I look forward to seeing the project grow and bear fruit in the (hopefully not so distant) future!

Faidra Faitaki

DPhil Student in Education (Applied Linguistics)

Department of Education, University of Oxford

St Barnabas School entrance