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Improvisation In The ESL/EFL Classroom — At Least In Mine

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I’ve periodically read posts or emails on listservs about using improvisation in the ESL/EFL classroom, and I’ve played around with it occasionally. I thought I’d share what I tried out today in my Intermediate English class and which worked out quite well. It took about one half hour.

I gave each student a small whiteboard — these are so versatile and so inexpensive, and if you don’t want to buy them you can make them easily, too — along with a marker and cloth eraser. I explained that I would start off a conversation, that I wanted them to write on their board what they might say in response and hold it up so everyone and I could see it. I’d then choose one of the responses they wrote, and, in turn, respond to it, and so on. Students didn’t quite get the explanation, but they quickly did when we started.

I began by saying that I was holding onto a cliff with my fingers and ready to fall. I then yelled “Help!” and told students to write a response. Students immediately got the idea and the fun began. Responses included “No” “Why Should I?” “What Do You Need?” and “Good-bye.” I chose “Why Should I?” to respond to and said “I’m going to die if you don’t help, please!” The next responses, with much laughter, included “I will step on your fingers to help you fall!” “What will you pay me?” and “Have a good trip.” In print, it may sound like I have a class of crazed students, but it was all done in fun, and everybody participated. I would also point at various people for them to say what they wrote, too.

I next asked them to imagine that I was a pretty girl or a handsome boy, and said, “Will you go on a date with me?” A similar process then began, including at one point my asking, “What restaurant will you take me to?” followed by “I don’t want to go there.” Many students came back with responses like, “Too bad” but one wrote “Where do you want to go?” I pointed out that the student who came up with that response was likely to get far more dates than the rest of them.

Lastly, I said “You are getting an F in this class and will have to repeat it again next year.” Needless to say, an energetic conversation followed.

The lesson was a lot of fun, required next-to-zero teacher prep time, had close to 100 percent student engagement the entire half-hour, and required listening, speaking, writing and even a little bit of reading. You can’t really beat that kind of result. Well, there is one way you can, and that’s what will happen next week. Then, students will take my place and start taking turns being up in front, developing a scenario, choosing which responses they want to pick, and responding to them.

In the comments section, feel free to share your experiences with improv in the classroom, and also write any suggestions you have for future scenarios that have comedic possibilities!

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

10 Comments

  1. This sounds like a fantastic activity, I’d like to try it out sometime, thanks!

  2. I love this idea. It’s almost like an analog twitter chat of some kind: instant feedback, high participation, and quick changing pace. Your title caught me because I really value improvisation in the classroom as a skill. I think all pre-service teachers should experience improv theater (at least briefly) before teaching; it has helped me tremendously! I blogged about it back in September too: http://mooreonthepage.com/archives/190

    I’m going to dig up my white boards next week I think! Thanks Larry!

  3. This is a GREAT activity! I tried it today and was really taken aback by the overwhelming positive response… Every kid was engaged, and my super-low level kid got a chance to show off his sharp sense of humor.

    Scenarios I will use in the future: The kids are parents, and I am a naughty teenager sneaking in at 4 am; The kids are a celebrity (Beckham? Angelina?) and I am a crazy fan; and I’m going to recycle your idea about asking for a date, except this time, we’re ON the date and making small talk.

  4. Fantastic idea – I´ll definitely try this out some time.

  5. I love how real learning and fun so often go hand in hand! I also love improv, especially theatre sports, but here’s one that has a little rehearsal time built in.

    Benita Broccoli

    groups of four (or one may need to be three/five etc)
    group must decide on the name of ONE fruit or vegetable
    group must choose one Christian name that starts with the same letter as the fruit or veg
    group must choose a profession or occupation that starts with same letter sound as above
    group must choose an action verb that can be done to somebody (may need G rating)

    This becomes their presentation. One minute to practice saying it, add actions, and then present it as dramatically as possible to the other kids.

    eg “We are Benita Broccoli. We are bubble blowers. We’re going to bop you!” or “We are Susie Strawberry. We are schoolteachers. We’re going to serenade you!”

  6. Sounds like a great lesson. I work in the arts, so can some of you help me brainstorm ideas on how to better apply this in the arts, or ways you might have done so since reading this blog?

  7. If you live in Britain you can buy individual whiteboards with markers from Poundland now. I bought four for £4 and am intending to use them next lesson. Thanks for your ideas on this blog :-)

  8. This idea sounds great! I’m going to try it tomorrow- I have an intermediate class that I have just been told I need to teach impromptu. I need quick materials to use. These sound fantastic!! Thanks for saving me!

    Cindy (I’ll follow you..)

  9. Cheap Whiteboard solution:

    White piece of paper inside a sheet protector.

    Thanks for this idea. I’m going to give it a shot sometime!

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