Using Movement and Drama to Teach Language

Make learning fun for ELLs with this engaging strategy that teaches language through movement and drama
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About This Strategy

English Learners need strategies to help them learn and retain language. Using their bodies to give meaning to language can help with that process. Most neuroscientists agree that movement and cognition are intrinsically linked. In this strategy, teachers will match movement and drama to the academic language being taught in the classroom. Teachers will explicitly teach language and movements together so that students begin to associate these movements with the language they are learning. While this strategy specifically targets English Learners to help them gain language quickly, it is also highly effective with students with special needs and any student who finds it difficult to connect to instruction or to sit still for long periods of time. The strategy can be used during transitions and at any point during a lesson, but in particular during direct instruction time, to help students connect to the content being taught. This strategy is particularly effective because it helps motivate students, maintains their attention and helps them make connections to content and language, thus increasing the likelihood they will retain their learning.

Implementation Steps

  1. Identify the content-based vocabulary and terms a student will need to know to experience success with a lesson, unit, etc.

  2. Identify times within that lesson, unit, etc. where movement can be matched to language. For examples of lesson plan templates that can be used for planning purposes, see ESL Lesson Plan Template and Interactive Read Aloud Lesson Plan Template, both linked in the Resources section below. Examples:

    • For transitions and routines: chants, call & response moves, gestures and movements are determined that can help students develop language.

    • Opportunities are created within a lesson for students to dramatize an event, scene, etc. Drama can involve language or not. Students might create a scene tableau without language (demonstrating with their bodies or with props their understanding of a concept or event). If language is used, it can be anywhere from one word to a sentence to a speech depending on the student’s language level and the goals of the lesson.

    • Movements are created to represent target academic vocabulary terms or phrases. For example, students might make angles with their arms to represent the different types of angles in a math lesson. For more information on this strategy, see Total Physical Response in the article To Boost Learning, Just Add Movement, linked in the resources section below.

  3. Encourage students to use the language that goes with movements on an ongoing basis. Examples:

    • Every time anyone in the class uses the term acute angle, the teacher and students will make an acute angle with their arms.

    • Every time the teacher says “I like to” the students will respond “move it” while moving to their designated spot.

  4. Incorporate a freeze frame or drama opportunity into the lesson where appropriate.

    • Freeze Frame / Tableau (for some examples of what this might look like, see Hatchet Tableaux, Vocabulary Tableau, and PreK Freeze Frame: Retell of Salsa Visits the Zoo in the resources section below):

      • Students will work together to create a frozen image of what they have been studying. This could be the reenactment of a scene from a book or from history or a representation of a natural phenomenon like a volcano erupting. Each student will choose a movement or motion they will make and a stance they will take in the freeze frame. Students will work together to ensure that their scene is put together in a way that it fills a space, so the scene has both height and depth, with students in the lower, middle and upper planes, as well as in the front, middle and back of the scene. For more information on this strategy, see Tableau/Snapshot in the article To Boost Learning, Just Add Movement, linked in the resources section below.

      • The teacher will provide a phrase or sentence OR will have students come up with an appropriate phrase or sentence to go with their freeze frame. This phrase or sentence should be representative of whatever is happening in their scene and when possible, should include targeted academic vocabulary. Each individual student could have their own phrase or the group might have a shared phrase. The language level of the students will help determine how much language is used and how complex it is. 

      • Once the above two steps are finished (be sure to set a time limit so that the planning stage does not take too long), students will present their freeze frame. Students will enter the scene one at a time. If each student has their own phrase to speak, the student will make their motion while stating / shouting / whispering their phrase, then will freeze in place. If the students are all to speak the same phrase, each individual student will simply make their motion and freeze in place in this step. They will speak their phrase in step four.

      • Once the entire scene is frozen in place, the teacher will signal the group to say their phrase together. One way to do this is for the teacher to count 3-2-1 at which point the students will say their phrase together. 

    • Drama / Simulations:

      • Students will work to create a dramatic moment. Whatever they present should require movement and language (the complexity of which will be determined by their language and comfort levels). This could be: 

        • A speech (given by a political figure or character). For an example of what this might look like in a history class, see the video, Role Play of Historical Characters, linked in the Resources section below.

        • Reenactment of a scene (from history or from a book). For an example of what this might look like, see PreK Retell in Movement: Salsa Visits the Zoo, linked in the resources section below.

        • Anything else that involves getting the students creatively involved in representing something they are studying. For examples of what these dramatic moments / simulations might look like in a math or science class, see Simulations in the article To Boost Learning, Just Add Movement, linked in the resources section below

  5. Assessment and Reflection: when implementing new strategies like movement and drama, it's always a good idea to reflect afterwards on what went well and whether the intended outcome behind the strategies was met. While movement and drama can be an excellent motivating factor for students, if it doesn't achieve its outcome, modifications will need to be made. 

    • Determine whether the outcome was met. 

      • Did the movement/drama help students connect to the content, retain information and acquire knowledge?

      • Will they be able to take the knowledge / skills they acquired in this lesson and transfer them to other areas of the curriculum when movement is not involved?

    • Provide students with opportunities to show their understanding in ways that move beyond the movement and drama of this lesson and/or the content of this lesson.

    • Analyze the time spent on movement activities. Was the achieved outcome worth the time spent? How much of that time was truly on-task? How much time was wasted? Work on tightening procedures around movement in the classroom if needed. The more the students practice a routine like a freeze frame, the more efficient they will get and the less time will be lost in implementation.

EL Modification

Description: For newcomers with no English, this strategy can be particularly effective. Students may choose to speak out loud when they feel comfortable, but until then, they can simply use movements to communicate. As their comfort level increases, they first might simply mouth the words, then whisper them, then eventually say them with confidence.

Implementation steps:

  1. Explicitly teach movement with language. For more information about how gestures and movements can benefit English Language Learners, see the articles, The Importance of Gestures in ESL Teaching and Non-Verbal ESL Communication, both linked in the resources section below.

  2. Set the expectation that the newcomers will make those movements when appropriate. Establish a signal for them so that they know when it is time to speak, so they will have the satisfaction of being able to make the motion with their English-speaking peers. 

  3. Praise and build their confidence. As they become more engaged and relaxed, encourage them to mouth the words, then whisper them, then eventually to speak them with confidence. 

  4. When incorporating freeze frames and/or dramatic moments, allow the student to utilize motion for language in the beginning. As their comfort level increases encourage them to mouth/whisper/say just one word. Build that comfort level and keep encouraging them until they are progressing from just saying a simple word to a phrase to a sentence. As the freeze frame and drama routines become more familiar to the students, the time needed for them to progress from silent motions to speaking words with the motions should decrease. However, keep in mind that each new topic will involve new academic vocabulary, which may mean the student's comfort level will fluctuate as he/she learns new language.

Special Education Modification

Description: Students with limited mobility may still be able to benefit from this strategy. Consider ways to modify a movement that is consistent with their abilities. For example, if making an angle with the arms isn't possible, can a similar angle be made with the tilt of the student's head?

Implementation steps:

  1. Modify the movements being taught as necessary. Seek input from the student as to what movement they might make. Ownership will help with retention. For ideas, see the article, 8 Engaging Activities for Children with Limited Mobility, linked in the resources section below. 

  2. Help the student determine how they might best participate in the freeze frame. What planes are accessible to the student? How might they contribute to the scene being created?

Movement and Drama to Teach Language For Distance Learning

Description: Movement and Drama can be a particularly effective tool in a distance learning environment. Students are sitting for significant amounts of time in front of a screen. Incorporating movement and drama into that time will help with student engagement, motivation and performance.

Implementation steps:

  1. Determine when you can pair movement with language in your lesson. For ideas on how to do this digitally, see the section titled Brain Breaks During Online Learning in the article, Jump Around! The Benefits of Movement in the Online Learning Process, which is linked in the resources section below.

  2. When teaching a motion, be sure to teach about space. How far from the screen do the students need to be for the motion they make to be fully seen?

  3. Practice the motion with the students. Provide plenty of opportunities for the students to use the motion learned throughout the lesson.

Related Lessons

  • This strategy can be used with my social studies lessons because they provide opportunities for students to role play historical figures and to dramatize points in history. The resource below, Social Justice / Activism lesson plan, is an example of a social studies lesson that provides this opportunity.

  • This strategy can also be used with my interactive read aloud (IRA) lessons because they provide opportunities for students to actively participate with gestures, choral responses and/or dramatization of scenes or characters from the read aloud. The resources below, T-Rab IRA lesson plan and Salsa Visits the Zoo IRA lesson plan, both feature these opportunities.