Using Readers Theater for Pronunciation

In 2008, I taught low level speaking and pronunciation classes to a wonderful group of Korean military men. They were intelligent experienced adults and I found the materials in the textbook I was given to be quite juvenile. I had to find some alternative materials.
It’s always good for ESL teachers to remember that students with a low level of English are often highly educated or experienced adults. Although some materials for young or inexperienced students may be linguistically appropriate, the content may not be.
I had to find something that they would enjoy, but that wasn’t aimed solely at children or adolescents. One of my attempts at finding appropriate material turned up this little script based on a piece of U.S. military history dating from 1855, a story of the U.S. Camel Corps.

The play tells of a U.S. soldier who refused to ride the camel provided him. (Seeing how really tall the camel is in this present day U.S. Army photo, I can, personally, see his point.) The play is still very light, even a little silly, but it’s not about a teenage situation or school, and the men enjoyed it, so I deemed the choice a good one.
The real success of the project, though, came from the way we used it, so I’ve tried to articulate here the things we did that made it work especially well. Perhaps, others who want to use drama to teach pronunciation might find our experience helpful. So, rule number 1…
1) Choose the content appropriately.
I not only chose the subject for my particular students, but the type of drama as well. We didn’t have the time, venue, or interest for producing an action play with props, etc. and the pedagogical goal was to really stress pronunciation and intonation, so I chose a script for Readers Theater, and then modified it to emphasize my goals. For “scenery,” we simply drew a big curve on the whiteboard with a little stick camel off in the distance and had the narrator point toward it. It worked just fine.
If you use drama, remember, it’s easy to get distracted by parts of an activity that are fun or “engaging,” but, as always, keep your pedagogical goals in mind.
In my experience, adult students really appreciate you using their time to teach what they took your class to learn. Make sure your efforts are really aimed at meeting their educational goals.
2) Prepare.
As this was not a drama class, the class opened with a few sessions on the key pronunciation issues the play would develop. As usual, I took ideas from the Lingua Franca Core and combined them with the work on the suprasegmentals that I find most efficiently improve learner comprehensibility. We had particular sessions on thought groups, sentence stress, and intonation, as well as one or two on the difficult phonemes for Korean speakers and the need to pronounce all syllables and to use correct syllable stress.
3) Modify the script as needed.
I modified the script before my students ever saw it, partly because I’m a writer and just couldn’t help myself and partly as their teacher. As a teacher, I made sure that each part had a roughly equal number of lines, shortened sentences to suit my students’ level, and emphasized some things that we’d discussed in the preparation classes, formatted it attractively since they’d be looking at it for weeks, and numbered the lines to make discussion easier. As a writer, I worked to make the dialog more expressive and authentic, because teaching intonation with sentences native speakers would never say is just… wrong.
Far more important pedagogically than my modifications, though, were their modifications. As we read and practiced, I encouraged the students themselves to modify the script. If something was particularly difficult to pronounce, they discussed it and found a strategy for changing it. This forced the students to focus on the pronunciation while allowing them to take ownership of the production. I’ve attached a markup showing just how many changes were made between the original script and our production.* In the end, they had a script they were very comfortable performing.
4) Cast the best person for the part.
I certainly wasn’t going to assign parts. Again, we’re talking about military men here. They could certainly organize themselves without my dictating to them. We started simply by randomly picking parts and reading the script several times. We “auditioned” by switching parts several times and discussing together how each part should be read.
This way, it became obvious to everyone, after a while, which person read which part best. So, our quietest, least dramatic student, who was a good reader, made a great narrator. Our boldest, most gregarious student made a great Private Henry. Our gruffest, most military student made a great sergeant. This went a long way toward building student confidence, and, when you are asking students to speak in a way they consider exaggerated and dramatic (compared to their primary language), confidence is everything.
5) Provide practice.
Ok, confidence is almost everything. The rest is practice. Once the parts were decided, we practiced a good deal in class, but not so much that they’d get bored. As I recall, we practiced together maybe twice a week or so for most of the session. Outside of class though, I encouraged them to practice on their own by uploading an mp3 of my reading of the script. I modified the recording anytime they made a change in the script and really tried to emphasize the intonation and such.
They could listen to the recording as many times as they wanted and practice in private, and they were great about doing that. Their progress between classes was quite good. I would encourage any teacher doing this to provide a recording so that the practice students do outside of class is most productive.
6) Get the students an audience.
I made sure that my students knew we would perform this once they were casted into parts. I’d made arrangements with the other teachers to have a day near the end of the semester when their students would gather to watch the little play. It only took about ten minutes, gave everyone a nice break, and gave my students a goal to work toward.
It was quite important to keeping them motivated to practice. I made sure, though, that they didn’t feel rushed.
Again, you want to build confidence, so be sure to give your students enough time to feel comfortable.
As I recall, it took about six weeks overall. In the end, my students had a good time and their friends at other levels quite enjoyed watching these men perform. Other teachers later asked for my methods and incorporated these ideas into future classes. All in all, it was a great success.
If you try this or have other ideas for using Readers Theater in pronunciation classes, I’d love to hear about them.
*One last note about modifying other people’s work: I try to always model methods for preserving academic integrity for my students: tools like citation, credit, respect for copyright, etc. Although “fair use” allows teachers to use a good deal of material, it’s important for teachers to understand exactly what “fair use” is. I’ll write more on that at a later date, but, for now, I always try to follow the spirit as well as the letter of the law. The script I gave my students had clear links and acknowledgement for the original, even though I’d modified it.

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