Building up a conversation with theatre improvisation (improv) activities

By Inés Alonso-García  and Helen Mayer

Communication is an intrinsic aspect of language learning and for many, being able to enjoy a conversation in the target language is of particular importance.  In the Foreign Language (FL) class, however, busy syllabus often do not allow enough time for the development of speaking skills. It is often left to the student to develop oral fluency in their own time and in time perhaps some students will achieve certain level of spontaneity, possibly those who spend some time in a target language country.

If you are interested in including oral practice in the class which will help with fluency and to a certain degree also spontaneity, improv activities are a tool effective for all levels. What is improv? In an improvised theatre play, actors create the play on the spot without advance planning or rehearsing. They strongly rely on skills such as team collaboration and support, listening and responding without time to think, etc. They need to focus and, above all, they need to be present.  As actors, they also need to be confident in front of an audience, to explore diction and body language.

These characteristics are very valuable in a language class context; we believe the above skills are also key to developing fluency, spontaneity, presentation skills, listening, etc. And this needs practice. I am sure many of us can probably remember times when we tried to communicate in a second language and words would just not materialize in spite of having all the knowledge needed.

One of the foundations of improv is the enhancement of collaboration in order to create a conversation in a “scene”.

In order to introduce the games we are about to explain, students should already be more or less familiar with each other.

Our first activity is  Invisible Present with students Sam and Jo.  The following is a sample dialogue:

Sam: This is for you (pretending to give something to Jo)

Jo: Oh, thank you, this is a lovely… mug (until now, we didn’t know what the present was. Even if the first student had another present in mind, once it is named by the second student, it becomes that)

Sam: Yes, I know you like birds and the mug has this lovely painting of a bird on it. Look at the colours!

Jo: Oh, yes, it is great, thank you! That’s really good timing because I broke my favourite mug yesterday!

 In this activity, Jo comes up with the present and Sam needs to come up with an explanation as to why this present was chosen. Jo will then explain why it is such a good present.

In the games, everybody participates and anything done or said in the class is accepted and supported (basic rules of safety and respect apply).

In terms of language, “Invisible Present” is a great game for making offers and accepting presents (also a chance to express cultural differences), vocabulary (the present can be anything), thanking and justifying. In terms of improv skills and group dynamics, this activity fosters creativity, spontaneity and building up on each other’s input.

The second activity is called Painting a Scene.  In groups of three to five students, each group has to describe a scene for the rest. The class (audience) suggests a place (pub, a valley, a hospital operating room…). One by one students in the “performing” group go to the front of the class and describes one or two elements of the scene, pointing to indicate what goes where (in 3D, it is not a painting). The second student builds upon what is already there until they have all had a go. When the scene is complete, students can be asked to perform a short dialogue in the scene they have created. Members of the audience can also be invited to walk into the scene and participate in the dialogue.

As well as fostering collaboration and acceptance, in terms of language this is excellent practice for creating a conversation in which listening and speaking are equally important. As before, spontaneity and creativity are present in the games. Students get used to participating in two ways. On one hand, when describing, they have to participate but they only take responsibility for a small part of the final result. Also, as part of the audience, students get used to voluntarily making suggestions. The teacher can exploit this initial part to negotiate with the class which is the best suggestion.

Since both games are based on suggestions from students and built up on their own initial input they are organically suitable for all levels. We have seen wonderful results towards the end of a beginner’s course, after about 30 hours of class. It is the students who take ownership and shape the game to their level. The teacher does not need to adapt the instructions. Naturally, descriptions, suggestions and dialogues become more sophisticated the higher the level.

Improv games are positive in nature and easily create an atmosphere of fun and participation. By working together students get to know each other better, improving the group dynamics. Students create a context based on vocabulary they already know so the main challenge becomes the game and the interaction rather than the language. They get used to thinking on their feet, to building upon what is happening at that moment around them. And very important: they know that whatever they say will be supported by the others (in the same way they will also provide support). This helps to create a safe atmosphere where students participate and dare to take risks with the language because it doesn’t matter if they get it wrong.

Improv activities add a playful component making the FL class fun and engaging. Dare to try?