Alice Savage

Play-ing with Language: Conversation Skills through Theatre


In recent conferences there has been a call for instruction in the “hidden” language of pragmatics, but the field is only just beginning to figure out how to create classroom materials. What if the materials are already out there? What if we could use plays?

Most course book dialogs do not include the patterns of real conversations. There are practical reasons for this because a more authentic sounding dialog would take a lot of space. Add the fact that most scripted course book dialogs are meant to display grammar or practice pronunciation points, and it is easy to see why students may be exposed to a rather unlikely statement such as, “I can play the piano, but I can’t play the violin,” but not a highly useful expression such as, “I can’t help it,” as in “She makes me so mad. I can’t help it. I feel like I have to say something!”

However, the language in theatre scripts comes from a very different place. The mission of a playwright is to write conversations that feel real.

“I put words in their mouths,” wrote Australian Playwright, Andrew Bovell in a 2017 platform paper. “It is this, more than anything else that distinguishes what I do as a playwright and screenwriter from the work of the novelist, or the poet, or the short story writer. They write their words primarily to be read. I write mine primarily, to be said and heard.”

In addressing this distinction, Bovell is very aware of the pragmatics of the situations in which he puts his characters. For example, if a character wants to get something from her husband, she has to create the conditions in which he is likely to agree. If she speaks recklessly, she may hurt her chances of success. This movement towards a resolution is what theatre artists call rising tension. The situation is constructed, but it resonates with people because it reflects the impulses and dynamics of real life people interacting.

Teachers and students can make great use of these dramatic conversational contexts. Students can experience the character from the inside and see what it feels like to make moves and employ phrases strategically. They can experiment with gesture and intonation. They can also step out of the roles to discuss cultural similarities and differences or ask questions about when and how certain expressions are likely to appear.

Professionally written plays are wonderful tools for the classroom. They offer insights into life and culture from different times and places. Many traditional 20th century scripts such as Death of a Salesman, or You Can’t Take it With You have narrative structure built around family dynamics. Their themes are easy to grasp and the plot unfolds in an accessible linear format.

At the same time, it can be challenging to find the perfect script because they are not written with English learners in mind. For teachers who want to experiment with theatre written expressly for ELLs, Alice has a new series!

Integrated Skills Through Drama (Alphabet Publishing) is a collection of plays that support students in investigating and experimenting with the social moves and expressions of North American English speakers. Each volume contains a short play of seven to ten scenes, background readings, pronunciation and pragmatics activities and guidelines for staging a readers’ theatre or full production.

Currently, there are two plays available, Her Own Worst Enemy, about a young woman trying not to become an actress and Only the Best Intentions about a relationship that goes on the rocks when a young man gets involved in high stakes computer gaming. A third, Rising Water, about a teenager caught in a flood, explores the impulse to take risks. It will be available in the summer of 2018.

Each play contains scenes in which characters in conflict use pragmatic strategies and high frequency expressions to achieve personal goals. In many interactions, which range from dealing with divided loyalties to rebelling against authority, only one of the characters will win.

Building a Pragmatics Lesson

In designing lesson plans that teach pragmatics through theatre, there are several approaches a teacher can take. The following example sequence is just one option among many, and not all the elements would need to be included.

Ideally, a pragmatics lesson starts with an experience, so a video or audio recording of a scene can provide a model and initiate discussion. Or students can simply read the script silently and make notes.

The following is a student produced recording of Her Own Worst Enemy. (It’s 20 minutes and includes multiple scenes.)

Screenshot 2018-02-28 18.59.03

Once students are familiar with the characters and dialog, they can do a close read of a specific scene and have discussions about why a person says what they say, what that person hopes will happen and what actually does happen. The teacher can ask guiding questions such as, “Does the character get what s/he wants?”

After reading and discussing the script, students can take on roles and practice reading parts. They can work in groups to discuss the plot, the motivations of their characters, and their relationships. Then when they start rehearsing, they can play with stress, intonation, and gesture to convey emotions and intentions..

Students should also be encouraged to adapt. They can cut, add lines, or even create whole new scenes. Depending on the class, a female character can become a male character, or vice versa. The play sets up the situation, but in the classroom, this situation can be a starting point for further exploration.


To get into the pragmatics, it helps to choose a scene where characters have opposing objectives. Students can discuss the situation, the characters’ motivations and decisions and then identify useful language. For example, in the following dialog from Her Own Worst Enemy, Aida is stuck in the car with her father, Laith. Laith wants her to audition for a theatre arts program, but Aida is equally against the idea:

Laith: Aida. . .

Aida: Dad, stop. I don’t want to talk about it.

Laith: It’s just an audition.

Aida: Please, Dad!

Laith: Think about it. It’s only a weekend in New York. Just you and your mom. You can see some shows, go shopping. You’d like that, right? And then just one afternoon, you go to Julliard. No big deal.

Aida: (Frustrated) Dad. I’m about to open the door and jump out of the car.

Laith: Okay, okay, okay. . . I’ll stop. I just want to say one last thing.

Aida: Last thing!

Laith: If you go, and you don’t like it, I promise never to mention it again.

Aida: Promise?

Laith: Promise. I won’t mention the word theatre or acting ever again.

Aida: Are you sure?

Laith: Yes. . . trust me. At least not in the same sentence as your name.

Aida: (Resigned but perhaps secretly okay with it.) Okay, I’ll do it. But only if you promise never to talk about it again. Ever, ever, ever.

Laith: Never, ever, ever. Only cells, molecules, microscopes, and labs. I promise!

Aida: Alright, I’ll go.

Students can read the Laith/Aida roles with the goal of expressing Aida’s frustration and Laith’s enthusiastic certainty. On one level, the father and daughter may be enjoying the banter. If so, what is the evidence that they have a more equal relationship? If not, what is the evidence that Laith is going to impose his will on Aida?

The context of the play and its characters can then be adapted for improvisation. At this point, the teacher can bring in additional language and strategies, starting with the script and moving out to behaviors in the real world. Here’s an example of how a lesson might move from the play to a focus on strategies and language.

Check the strategies that are used in the scene. What expressions or phrases are used? What other expressions have you heard that fits the strategies?

1. Playing down the difficulty or effort required


It’s just an audition!
2. Playing up the positive outcome


3. Bargaining, e.g., promising something in return


4. Bringing up obligations


Next, the students can improvise with the language in a new roleplay. They might play the same characters in a new situation, e.g., Aida’s friend, Vanessa, tries to convince her mother, Lily, to allow her to audition for drama but the mother is against it. Or they can take the language to a likely context from their own life. For example, Friend A wants B to go to a party,  but friend B is reluctant because of homework.

Students can prepare and practice their new role-plays with support from the teacher. When they are ready, volunteers can present to another group or the class. The teacher can give “notes,” and peers can ask questions.

Such a role play does not necessarily need to be assessed, but a more formal response can have the effect of valuing students’ work. The teacher can create a rubric that includes pragmatics as well as other pronunciation and grammar descriptors. (An example is provided in the Intergrated Skills through Drama series.)

As students experience different scenes and the language and strategies involved, their ability to operate smoothly in different conversational contexts grows. They come away with a repertoire of strategies and expressions to keep “in their back pocket.” These chunks of language with their embedded meanings can then help English learners have agency in their future conversations.


The following is one last example of a dialog from a play that could be used to work on the pragmatics of commiseration:

A Piece of Cake (in press) is set in a hotel kitchen where coworkers sympathize with a friend who is being picked on by the head chef. As you read, think about the way the characters bond through shared mistrust of the chef (Kurt) and how the language might be useful to students in a similar situation.

Hattie: Why is Kurt so hard on you?

Layla: I don’t know. Is he?

Hattie: Yeah, Layla do this. Layla do that. Layla you didn’t put enough salt in the muffins. Layla you didn’t cut the carrots right.

Layla: I thought he did that to everyone.

Hattie: Yeah but it’s like…

(Jay enters)

Jay: I can’t believe that guy!

Hattie: Who?

Jay: Kurt! Who do you think?

Hattie: Oh yeah, I know, right?

Jay: (to Layla) Why is he so hard on you, Layla?

Layla: I don’t know!

Hattie: I don’t know why you put up with it Layla.

For more material, please check out the series of short plays here: Alphabet Publishing Books The scripts work well as sources of plot driven, interesting conversations that can be used as texts for reading skills, spoken lexical chunks, and pronunciation, contexts for grammar, and even produced for a multimodal embodied learning experience.






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