Alice Savage

Teaching speaking skills with a theater sketch

2018-02-26 20.23.00

We may assume that our conversations are spontaneous, but the truth is speakers fall into patterns. We especially fall into these conversational grooves in situations that we experience over and over. The patterns exist because they are comfortable and allow us to connect with each other along easy and familiar pathways. The most obvious example of this is talking about the weather, but we also use patterns in functional language contexts such as when we ask for a favor or apologize.

In fact, these patterns suggest there is a grammar to conversation – it emerges from the experiences we have had throughout our lives. We recognize a situation, and employ strategies that include voice, gesture, and lexical chunks to achieve both a good relationship and a conversational goal. For example, the sketch below contains the high frequency comment, “Promise me you won’t get mad!” The speaker is using it in an attempt to proactively soften the listeners irritation.

A comic sketch can exemplify a conversational pattern and even reveal how certain strategies and moves can be similar across languages. In this activity, students work with a sketch that involves making a minor confession (I dented your car). In performing the sketch, learners draw on their experience making minor confessions at other points in their lives.

You may be asking, “But how can a dented car be comedy?” Technically, it isn’t. The comedy comes from the person trying to soften the response. This is a pragmatic skill and some people are good at it. Such human impulses to influence the other person’s reaction are familiar. We’ve all been in a situation where we had to deliver uncomfortable news to a parent, spouse or friend, and we’ve likely tried to use strategies to mitigate a harsh reaction. Maybe you’ve tried charm, blame, or sincere remorse. Or maybe you’ve been on the other side of it and are trying not to be emotionally manipulated. In either case, the physical, vocal, and lexical choices can cause people to laugh because they recognize something they’ve been through.

In fact, it is the shared experience that helps students embody the role. Along the way, they practice fluency in preparing the role, fixed expressions and prosody in performing the role, and they practice conversational moves and strategies in transferring the patterns to new contexts in roleplays. They are also likely to have a lot of fun.

Note: if this goes well, you might want to try one with an apology or an attempt to extract a secret from a colleague. More sketches, monologues, and even a short play can found in A Handbook for Teaching English through Drama an upcoming resource book by Alphabet Publishing:


Aim: To develop the stress, rhythm, and pitch of prosody, practice the language of making a minor confession, and develop fluency.

Preparation: Make copies of the sketch below, one for each student. (You can find a downloadable document in the Speaking and Listening tab.)

Time: 15 minutes preparation, and about 20 minutes to perform depending on the number of students. Add an additional 10 – 20 minutes for follow up discussions and role plays.

  1. Put students in pairs. Give them no more than 10 minutes to prepare. They should choose roles and create a simple backstory. Who are they? Husband/wife? Parent/child? Roommates? Maybe even a boss/employee? How is their relationship? Also have them think about their emotional delivery. How will they use their voice to achieve the goal of showing regret/displeasure.
  2. Have students perform for the class. If it is a big class, they can perform for another group. You can give the observing group a task such as guessing the relationship. Or guessing what will happen next.
  3. Follow the performance with notes based on your observations. The feedback can follow the individual performances or be reserved for the end. Go over anything you think is important for them to work on in their body language, line-delivery, pronunciation, or other areas.
  4. Put students in groups. Have them tell stories about times when they had to make or hear a minor confession. Who were they with? What was the “crime,” and what was the result? (They often enjoy connecting the situation to their own experiences.)
  5. Discuss as a class. Bring the students together to share observations and reflect on pragmatics if you feel comfortable talking about the phrases and moves that people make to soften someone’s irritation. Elicit or write useful phrases or moves to the board.

An excuse: I couldn’t help it

Defensiveness: I didn’t mean to, I didn’t do it on purpose

Remorse: I feel terrible

  1. Put students in new pairs. Have them roleplay a minor confession in a new context. You can use the cues below or design your own.


  • You forgot to bring the paper plates and cups
  • You accidentally deleted the group project from google docs.
  • You took the wrong keys to work, and well . . .


Have them change partners and try again, or try a different cue. You can do a follow up review with a new role-play cue the next day. You can also invite pairs to perform their new role-plays for the class. Finally, you can have students design an improvised performance based on an experience that they have had.


The Confession

C:         Ummm…

D:        What’s wrong?

C:         Well, I need to tell you something, and I want you to promise not to get mad.

D:        Uh-oh. What did you do?

C:         Do you promise?

D:        How can I promise when I don’t know what it is. Just tell me.

C:         Uh, it’s about your car.

D:        Oh no! What did you do to my car?

C:         Well, I sort of hit a gate.

(D exhales)

C:         It wasn’t my fault.

D:        I’m sure it wasn’t.

C:         Don’t be mad.

D:        I’m not mad!

C:         Yes you are.

D:         I’m not mad. I’m just sad.

C:         I’m sad too. My foot just slipped off the brake.

D:         I see.

C:         I’m sorry.

D:        I know. It’s okay.

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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