Essay – Active Listening: a principled approach towards autonomy and metacognition



Dear Drama gamer friends, I bear good news!

I was accepted at the University of Birmingham into their TESOL Masters programme!!!

I couldn’t believe my eyes when that happened.

Well, I’ve just finished my first module and decide to share with you all my first essay on Active Listening.

I hope you enjoy reading it as I did researching and writing about the topic.


1.   Introduction

The Cinderella of the four skills (Nunan in Richards and Renandya, 2002), listening was often overshadowed by its ‘elder sister’ speaking and treated either as a passive activity meriting little classroom attention (Vandergrift, 2004) or as a mere means to reinforce language input (Field in Richards and Renandya, 2002) and testing comprehension as a product. However, the concept of listening as a skill to be explored in class has sprung and increasing academic studies that promote the perception of listening comprehension as process have emerged (e.g. Vandergrift, 2004; Goh and Taib, 2006; Rost, 2013; Rost and Wilson, 2013). While academia blooms in research regarding listening as a truly active skill which deserves special attention and ought to be taught in terms of subskill strategies so that students can ‘listen to learn’ (Vandergrift, 2004), classroom instruction seems not to have adhered to this new wave, as Field puts it:


“The teaching of listening has become more sensitive to learner needs, but our listening lessons remain predictable in form and content, and the presuppositions which underlie them are left unquestioned.”

(Field 1998:2)


This paper proposes an examination of my own current practice in teaching listening and observing if praxis corresponds with modern academic methodological propositions. Also, approaches and techniques will be exposed as a suggestion for improvement. At the same time, a reflection on the benefits the suggested approaches and techniques can have on the learners the author currently works with will be presented.


  1. Current practice in listening instruction

This section intends to depict how listening instruction is practiced in my classroom. The analysis of procedures and rationale were divided in pre, while and post due to the standard format of the listening lesson (Field in Richards and Renandya, 2002) still remaining as the same three-stage process.

It appears that the principles behind aural comprehension lessons nowadays include at heart the attempt to recreate and stimulate learners to better cope with listening in their real lives. Nevertheless, it would be ludicrous to infer teachers are able to cover every possible scenario in which learners might find themselves. Ur (1984: 2) affirms to be possible to list some examples of the types of listening we might expect reasonably educated people living in a developed country to be exposed to. Therefore hoping that an examination of the results might bring some useful conclusions, meaning the teacher can only prepare the class bearing in mind a certain audience and hope the assumptions made may actually aid students during real life linguistic needs.

The audience described above by Ur matches the one who attends the lessons here analyzed: a majority of German or Swiss adults who work for multinationals or have frequent contact with other non-natives.

Now that the structure, principles and target audience of the lessons are outlined, common practice in the instruction of listening for this audience will be observed during pre, while and post-listening phases. In order to exemplify how my personal teaching can be improved, three different activities taken from materials most frequently used by me in the classroom will be analyzed in the following section.


2.1 Pre-listening phase

A story, vocabulary elicitation through brainstorming, an image used to generate discussion: these are the most common techniques used by this author to introduce a topic.

The rationale behind this practice is the attempt to activate students’ schemata, set the context, create motivation for listening and encourage both top-down and bottom-up processing. Richards (1983) calls this knowledge that we have in advance about the subject-matter or context of the discourse in real life situations ‘script competence’ and that is precisely what pre-listening activities attempt to recreate.

As for the practice of motivating students to create expectations about the text, it has been said that expectation and purpose for listening are closely linked together and these previously forged assumptions actually generate opportunity for success in listening, for ‘heard discourse which corresponds closely to what the listener expects and needs to hear is far more likely to be accurately perceived and understood than that which is unexpected, irrelevant and unhelpful’ (Ur 1984: 3).

Hence, the approach presented here is aligned with current ELT pedagogy, which supports the instruction of listening as a means to capacitate learners to deal with authentic listening situations by enforcing several means of data processing.

We shall take the lesson prepared around Material’s extract 1 as a practical example.

Material’s extract 1


(Doff, Thaine, Puchta, Stranks, Lewis-Jones. Empower A2 2015: 81)


The proposed pre-listening activity seemed to lack in incentives to activate mental data processing based on decoding the sounds in a linear way, gradually combining increasingly larger units of meaning (Vandergrif, 2004), known as bottom-up processing. Consequently, the teacher provided students with four chunks of language: Rio de Janeiro, Olympic Games, support and demonstrations[1]. These prompts were used to generate a brief discussion about the pros and cons of holding the 2016 Olympic Games – a means to retrieve students’ knowledge of vocabulary units that could be key to decoding the text later on.

This choice of procedure also enabled learners to activate their ‘inside the head’ information (Hedge, 2000) in order to build a conceptual framework for comprehension (Vandergrif, 2004), known as top-down processing. This choice aligns with the paramount concept that both bottom-up and top-down processing skills are to be taught simultaneously (Nunan in Richards and Renandya, 2002) in order to equip learners with as many strategies they can resort to as possible, owing to the fact that if a student fails to make use of one of them, an utterance or discourse may be incomprehensible (Richards, 2015). Apart from these, the activity promoted opportunity for affective connection to the topic and an information gap, which generated expectation and, thus, purpose to listen.

Only then students’ attention was drawn to the first proposed exercise. By then, however, learners had already been encouraged to build their script competence, find purpose, connect personally with the topic, elicit specific vocabulary to aid bottom-up processing and activate schemata to benefit top-down processing. Consequently, their aural comprehension was facilitated in the following tasks. On the other hand, both of these goals could be reached in 5 minutes or so (Field in Richards and Renandya, 2002). Time management during pre-listening activities is paramount and the 15 minutes usually taken by this paper’s author to fulfill this phase are excessive. Therefore, timing is at the top of the list of improvements this teacher should work towards. Other areas with room for growth are decreasing TTT (teacher-talking time) and being more learner-centered.

Succeeding the observation and analysis of the pre-listening phase, we now move on to the activities involving the act of listening itself.


2.2 While-listening phase

Presenting learners with dialogue from which hardly any extra-linguistic queues (Ur, 1984) can be retrieved, assigning activities that prioritize testing rather than teaching strategies and carrying out the lesson in a teacher-centered manner seems completely out of sync with the current perspective of effective listening instruction (Richards, 2015). Nonetheless, it is still predominantly what is found in teaching materials and, ergo, in language classrooms (Field, 1998).


We shall exemplify with the listening lesson in Material’s extract 2:

Material’s extract 2


(Cotton, Falvry, Kent. Market Leader Intermediate 2013: 8)


If rigorously taught as proposed, the lesson would begin by inviting students to listen for gist via extensive listening, followed by general questions establishing context (Field in Richards and Renandya, 2002). The four prompted sentences prior to listening are a way to activate processing and guide students’ attention. Consequently, learners will probably focus on identifying words (bottom-up) and ideas (top-down) written on exercise A and bring knowledge of the script into play in order to make sense of content (Hedge, 2000).

The above-mentioned procedure can be especially helpful for learners who tend to focus excessively on understanding every single word emitted, which ultimately impairs comprehension on the grounds that our working memory is limited. Therefore, there should be supports provided to the learner in direct relation to the discourse to be listened to and the tasks to be performed (Vandergrift, 2004), as to optimize the use of the students’ working memory.

Merits aside, noticing the proposed activities for the completion of the while-listening phase – exercises B and C –, it is clear that no other strategies or skills are worked on. Moreover, absent from this lesson would be the opportunity to work on identifying specific information through intensive listening and subskills training (Field, 1998), discussing inferences acquired from the text (Rost and Wilson, 2013), aiding comprehension with visuals and transcripts (Wilson, 2008), developing metacognitive skills (Goh and Taib, 2006), focusing on the process of listening instead of its product (Vandergrift, 2004), among others.

Such heterogeneity of outcomes could be reached by getting learners to listen to the text several times – however, following different instructions each time (Nunan in Richards and Renandya, 2002), then practicing a number of strategies. Yet, due to lack of perspicacity or available time, teachers – including yours truly – merely follow what the course book proffers and vital elements learners could benefit from are left aside. In the words of Field (1998):


“Materials writers do not seem to have responded by designing appropriate exercise types or developmental syllabuses, and (…) teachers do not appear to have incorporated subskills teaching into their practice.”

(Field 1998:113)


Based on the examples presented on this paper, it is observable that the gap between academia and classroom practice when it comes to the while-listening phase is far greater than during the pre-listening one and there is still much room for improvement and implementation of process-focused techniques and subskills training in the instruction of listening.

After recognizing the issues that lie during the listening phase, we shall move on to an analysis of the activities proposed subsequently.


2.3 Post-listening phase


In real life, listening is almost always succeeded by an action inspired by the content of what has been heard. In other words, people react to the acquired information, forming an interactional bond with the message and controlling the propulsion of communication forwards.

As discussed in the previous section, current research in listening instruction has focused its attention on emulating these life-like situations in the classroom so that learners are exposed to more authentic communicative practice. For instance, Harmer (1991) proposes 6 possible purposes for listening in ELT based on genuine daily goals, which require some sort of post-comprehension action: (1) listening to confirm expectations; (2) listening to extract specific information; (3) listening for communicative tasks; (4) listening for general understanding; (5) listening to recognize function; and (6) listening to deduce meaning.

Once the while-listening activities are over, students are usually encouraged to react and interact with the contents of the exposed recordings. Though just how satisfactory these post-listening interactions really are is the real issue to be observed in this section.

Taking Material’s extract 3 as a sample:

Material’s extract 3


(Clandfield and Jeffreys. Global Advanced 2012: 10)


There are two post-listening activities proposed by this course book, exercises 5 and 6. The course of action usually chosen by this paper’s author is to follow the procedure as presented for the first and modify the second.

Exercise 5 offers four pieces of vocabulary from which learners have to, via top-down inference, retrieve as much as their working memory has retained and contrast it to the concepts depicted by the 4 given words. It is a highly cerebral task which demands learners to activate a number of mental processes at once. For this reason, it is usually unrevised and proposed as it is. Alternatively, exercise 6 is often altered and presented in Table 1, as follows:

Table 1: Alternative procedure for Global Advanced (2012: 10) exercise 6


1 Teacher reads task title out loud
2 Students spontaneously come up with a few ideas and report them orally
3 Teacher encourages students to summarize their stories in 5 bullet points
4 Students write individually
5 Teacher draws students’ attention to the audioscript of Shaharazad telling her stories and asks learners to observe the words and expressions she uses to make her stories so riveting and transfer them to the learners’ chosen story
6 Students underline their favorite chunks of language on the audioscript and later add the language to their bullet points
7 Teacher allows a few minutes for students to rehearse telling their micro stories
8 Students rehearse individually
9 Teacher sets task: listen carefully to the other students’ stories and decide who would survive the evil king, like Shaharazad
10 Students take turns telling their stories and later vote on who they believe would survive and why

The rationale behind this modified version is to act in accordance with recent research by helping students construct a plan from the elements of the discourse (Hedge, 2000), expanding learners’ interaction with the content and creating more integration with other skills (Hedge, 2000), therefore propelling the communicative scenario forwards. Furthermore, providing autonomy and personalization-prone activities in the classroom are of the essence nowadays and can be done, for instance, as Nunan points out:


“For example, it is possible to increase learner involvement by providing extension tasks which take the listening material as a point of departure, but which lead learners into providing part of the content themselves.”

(Nunan in Richards and Renandya 2002: 240)


Nonetheless, the lesson would still lack other elements. For instance, post-listening activities could not only intensify linguistic studies, further facilitating bottom-up processes (Hedge, 2000), but also borrow subskill training from other abilities, such as inferencing words from context as done in reading (Field in Richards and Renandya, 2002). The most interesting and promising aspect to be explored during this phase is, however, absent from the practice of this paper’s author: metacognition.

Metacognitive instruction encourages self-reflection through planning, monitoring, and evaluating strategies used for the selected listening text (Mendelsohn, 1998). Goh and Taib (2006: 224) argue that ‘the post-listening stage (…) should not stop with using the information gathered from the listening passage. It should extend further to include learners’ introspection of their mental processes during the listening task’. This kind of instruction should be at the top of the list of improvements in post-listening activities for this papers’ author.

To sum up, the efforts observed here to embody the latest trends in methodology research into classroom practice are more successful during the pre and post-listening phases, being the while-listening phase the one with the most room for growth. Suggested enhancements this teacher may adopt are found in the following section.


  1. Refining current listening instruction: inspiring techniques

This section exposes three techniques which, based on the analysis depicted in the previous section, could possibly be integrated to this author’s current practice of listening instruction, pursuing the enhancement and fine-tuning of classroom procedures in accordance with current research.

Subskill and strategy training, TTT, time management and metacognitive instruction were some aspects mentioned in part 2 which could be ameliorated. It is hoped to find some progress for them in Field’s (1998) research on a new methodology for teaching listening, which will be discussed in 3.1. The following subtopic is devoted to diving further into metacognition based on the findings by Goh and Taib (2006). Finally, the third and last subtopic aims at finding procedural inspiration on how to implement all of the above at once with Vandergrift’s (2004) model for modern listening instruction.


3.1 Strategy and subskill training

Field (1998) intends to move away from the idea that listening was primarily a way of enforcing language input, thus product-focused, and implement a new concept of listening as a skill in itself, which has to be handled as a process. He proposes a revised instructional model to cater for these new needs, which includes: a shorter pre-listening period lasting a maximum of five minutes and should concentrate on motivating students and establishing context; a lengthy while-listening phase with numerous replays and chances for learners to re-listen and check their work; and an extended post-listening session where micro-listening exercises would aid students to examine gaps in their listening skills.

Field elaborates on subskill and strategy training techniques for the enhancement of aural comprehension, always advocating in favor of using authentic materials and the borrowing of approaches often used for the instruction of reading strategies, applied to listening. He argues that the procedure should be ‘one of analysis leading to synthesis’ (Field, 1998) and subskills, after being combined, ought to be applied to longer listening texts, from intensive to extensive listening.

In sum, the new methodology proposes shortening the pre and while phases so that this extended post-listening phase may be explored in a series of micro-listening activities focusing on diverse subskills and strategies, mirroring reading instruction procedures. The exercises would have to be designed so that firstly, learners are equipped with the subskills that a competent listener could be expected to possess; secondly, learners are familiarized with the features of natural conversational speech; and lastly, learners are trained in some smaller-scale strategy techniques (Field, 1998).

Since the learners who attend this paper’s author’s class have primarily the goal to communicate orally with other non-native speakers and at the moment are not receiving proper training and incentive to develop their own listening skills, Field’s new methodology seems ideal to be implemented as regular classroom practice from now on.

The only reservation would be the premise of only authentic recordings being used, which would not benefit the students in question since most of them use English with other non-natives and wouldn’t benefit much by just listening to native-like recordings. In this regard, balance might be of the essence.

By raising awareness of the skills and strategies used to improve listening, it becomes paramount for learners to also notice and analyze how they listen. More on this, in the subsection below.


3.2 Metacognitive instruction

Goh and Taib (2006) encourage teachers to promote the concept of learners taking an active role in their listening development though reports and discussions about the thought processes undertaken by learners during listening tasks. Their rationale in opting for this approach is that ‘besides helping learners explore new ways of learning, metacognitive instruction also reduces language anxiety and builds confidence when approaching listening tasks’ (Goh and Taib 2006: 230).

Also, they expose a framework for developing metacognition in the language classroom divided in three stages: (1) Listen and answer; (2) Individual reflection; and (3) Self-report and group discussion.

As the target audience in Goh and Taib’s classroom was young learners preparing for exams, stage 1 was composed of test-like activities preceded by no pre-listening phase. The second and third phases are actually the most relevant, owing to the encouragement and development of metacognition.

Stage 2 is when learners are invited to dive into some introspection so they can notice and analyze their own mental processes. The following questions were posed and the purpose for each is also stated in Table 2 below:

Table 2: Individual reflexion questions and purposes

Question Purpose
What were you listening to? Confirm comprehension
What helped you to understand the text? Elicit task knowledge (factors that influenced listening)
What prevented you from getting the correct answer? (Same as above)
What did you do to understand as much of the text as possible? Elicit strategy knowledge (strategies for facilitating listening)

(Goh and Taib 2006: 226)


Stage 3 was mediated by the teacher and it took the form of a discussion in which students reported their findings in groups while comments and follow-up questions were made.

As a result, Goh and Taib observed a greater degree of self-appraisal and self-management of listening on the students’ part after being exposed to metacognitive instruction, being the weaker students the ones who benefitted from it the most. The outcome was that instead of just aiming for scoring higher, learners started to include comprehension development in their list of goals.

Despite the discrepancy in the profiles of Goh and Taib’s and this paper’s author’s learners, the findings reported here are of great use for both audiences. Whether listening in order to score high on an exam or for the sake of understanding what is discussed during a conference call, metacognition allows learners to get a hold of their own development, becoming more autonomous and confident.


3.3 Vandergrift’s model for modern listening instruction

Bearing in mind the shift of concept listening instruction has been through from product to process-based, the opportunities strategy and subskill training bring and the importance of metacognition in students’ development, Vandergrift (2004) embodies the very essence of what modern listening instruction is and presents not only a well-rounded rationale, but also a structured approach on how to tackle the teaching of listening in 5 stages.

The suggested model below provides an explanation of what each phase consists of and its correlated metacognitive strategy. In other words, it provides a synthesis of both Field’s methodology (1998) and Goh and Taib’s strategy (2006) into a practical procedure for the teaching of listening.

Table 2: Listening Instruction Stages and Related Metacognitive Strategies

Stage of Listening Instruction Related Metacognitive Strategies

Planning/predicting stage

1. Once students know topic and text type, they predict types of information and possible words they may hear. 1. Planning and directed attention

First verification stage

2. Students verify initial hypotheses, correct as required, and note additional information understood. 2. Monitoring
3. Students compare what they have written with peers, modify as required, establish what needs resolution and decide on details that still need special attention. 3. Monitoring, planning, and selective attention

Second verification stage

4. Students verify points of disagreement, make corrections, and write down additional details understood. 4. Monitoring and problem solving
5. Class discussion in which all contribute to reconstruction of the text’s main points and most pertinent details, interspersed with reflections on how students arrived at the meaning of certain words or parts of the text. 5. Monitoring and evaluation

Final verification stage

6. Students listen for information that they could not decipher earlier in the class discussion. 6. Selective attention and monitoring

Reflection stage

7. Based on discussion of strategies used to compensate for what was not understood, students write goals for next listening activity. 7. Evaluation

(Vandergrift 2004: 11)


Looking at the model attentively, it is recognizable that some active role is to be performed by the teacher during the first lessons, since the procedure differs from that which students are used to. However, the idea is that once learners become familiarized with this approach, lessons would become more and more learner-centered and the teacher would have a secondary role in the classroom. Learners gradually become autonomous, confident and practical, managing their own learning process and relying on the teacher for aid and guidance when needed.

Inspiring, principled and adequate to challenges of current language teaching, this model would definitely refine this paper’s author practice in listening instruction and aid her learners both listen to learn and learn to listen.

As mentioned previously, most of the audience in this teacher’s classroom is adult EFL learners who need English primarily to communicate orally with both native and non-native speakers in several business environments – whether formal meetings, informal dinners or semi-formal in-company atmosphere. This approach will work best with these individuals due to the fact that they will be better able to independently cope with variations in discourse – accent, speed, formality, and so on – because they have actively developed a plethora of subskills in class and are aware of their own listening process. Consequently, their primary goal will be reached through successful aural comprehension as a basis for competent spoken interaction.


4. Conclusion

The shift in concept regarding listening as a process observed in academia has not yet been fully transferred to classroom practice, which needs to be revised in order to accommodate autonomy, mental process analysis, confidence building for learners and a review of the role of the teacher.

In order to eradicate these issues we turned to Vandergrift’s 5-stage approach, which supply the rationale and techniques to support my quest for refining my listening instruction.

A more secondary role played by the teacher is sure to decrease TTT in class, handing more responsibility to the hands of students guarantee learner-centeredness, a structured and principled approach to modern listening instruction covers gaps in strategy and subskill training and, finally, the introduction of metacognitive strategy training glues all of the previous together. Alas, Vandergrift provides the approach which most certainly aids this paper’s author to become a better professional and her students to become self-reliant, independent learners.


5. References

Field, J. (1998). Skills and strategies: Towards a new methodology for listening. English Language Teaching Journal, 52, 110-118.

Goh, C. and Taib, Y. (2006). Metacognitive instruction in listening for young learners. ELT Journal, 60, 222-232.

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford University Press. pp. 227-257.

Nunan, D. (1999). Second Language Teaching & Learning. Heinle & Heinle. pp. 199-224.

Richards, J. (2015). Key Issues in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press. pp. 369-405.

Richards, J. and Renandya, W. (2002). Methodology in the Language Classroom. An Anthology of Current Practice. Cambridge University Press. pp. 235-253.

Rost, M. (2013). Teaching and Researching Listening. Routledge.

Rost, M. Willson, JJ. (2013). Active Listening. Routledge.

Ur, P. (1984). Teaching Listening Comprehension. Cambridge University Press.

Vandergrift, L. (2004). Listening to learn or learning to listen? Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24, 3-25.

[1] The word ‘demonstrations’ was used instead of ‘protests’ owing to its proximity to its counterpart in learners’ L1, German – Demonstration. Therefore avoiding shift in focus from the discussion proposed due to vocabulary misunderstandings.

IATEFL 2015 – Summarized inspirations

Dear ESL Drama Gamers, first of all I am so sorry for my absence these past two weeks. I nearly drowned in information from IATEFL, but I survived! I hope you like the post today!

Lots of artsy love,

ESL Drama Queen



Immersed in the spring British mists, a tsunami of all things TESOL made its way into Manchester, where thousands of brave participants, determined to make it to shore a little more knowledgeable,  did their best to keep swimming through the vast waters they saw upon arrival: hundreds of talks, workshops and plenaries to choose from.

As yours truly had a clear objective, all events to do with arts, games and creativity were soon highlighted on the programme and there I went, swimming up the main stream.

Some talks and workshops on the use of art and theatre in the classroom were inspiring and innovative, others were targeted to newcomers in the art of using art and were therefore more basic. Both useful though, since there is an audience for each one of them.

Today I start a series of posts about my favourite talks and workshops throughout the four days of IATEFL 2015 Annual Conference and my personal comments about each of them.

Some of the quotes  were heard at events specifically about arts, some of them at talks that had completely different topics. Despite being heterogenous, all of them are relevant to one who is eager to include drama games in ELT in one way or another, for transdisciplinary approaches require transdisciplinary theoretical basis.

A few of them may seem obvious, however I believe that the strongest epiphany one can have is truly noticing for the first time what the eyes failed to see for so long.

I hope they can be as useful and inspiring to you as they were to me. And may you all sail through the rough yet fulfilling, known yet fairly unexplored waters of using art, theatre and creativity in ELT.

Frozen in thought? How we think and and what we do in ELT

Donald Freeman


Bio: Donald Freeman is a professor at the School of Education, University of Michigan. For 25 years, he was on the graduate faculty at the School for International Training, where he chaired the Department of Language Teacher Education, and founded and directed the Center for Teacher Education, Training and Research. He is author of several books on language teacher education. He is senior consulting editor on ELTeach and editor of the professional development series, TeacherSource. Freeman has been president of TESOL, and a member the International Advisory Council for Cambridge English.



“Rethink proficiency as plural proficiencies”

ESLDramaQueen: Once the teacher acknowledges proficiency as plural, the lesson plan can be prepared bearing in mind multiple goals for multiple proficiencies, one of them being body language. Here, the teacher can choose to attach a drama game to his/her plan to include a kinaesthetic element to the lesson.

“Strange things happen to language when it goes to school”

ESLDramaQueen: The gap between real-life language, whether written or spoken, and the language present in most classrooms is quite noticeable. Especially nowadays that students have access to all kinds of language via internet (social media, search engines, etc.). Drama games and Theatre in general can be a way to utilize the language students really feel genuine and relevant in the classroom while still covering the syllabus.

“Teachers should connect curriculum to what’s going on in the classroom”

ESLDramaQueen: It is crucial that teachers be cautious neither to follow the materials blindly without taking into consideration the real needs of the group nor to propose super fun activities that have absolutely nothing to do with the teaching point planned for that class. A balance between curriculum and relevance should be pursued and all games should have a clear purpose.

“Teaching is central, but we don’t have to think about it in the same way”

ESLDramaQueen: The role of the teacher as a fundamental part in the learning process may be the same in most contexts, however the methods and approaches this teacher chooses to use in order to facilitate learning is completely up to him/her. It depends on the teacher’s experience, knowledge, culture, personality and interests.

The artsy side of teaching

Radmila Popovic

Bio: Radmila Popovic is currently a Senior Education Specialist (TESOL) at World Learning in Washington DC. She was an assistant professor in ETL Methodology at the University of Belgrade and also is a past president of ELTA Serbia. She has worked for many years with teacher training and is now researching the intersections between art and science in ELT.


“It’s hard to define if teaching is more of an art or a science. Art derives from play, while science is methodology. There is no ONE way of doing anything.”

ESLDramaQueen: The discussion about the nature of teaching, if it should be more play-oriented or method-oriented, is a vast and unfinished one. My personal view on the matter is that when it comes to dichotomies, between the extremities there are tons of shades of grey to be explored, each one with a specific outcome and possibly beneficial to a certain audience.

“Leonardo Da Vinci = science plus art / Tesla = science with creativity”

ESLDramaQueen: It could be a good idea for both teacher training and ELT in general to introduce the work and mind frame of DaVinci and Tesla, to warm teachers and students to the idea of using art and science in the classroom (play and method). Maybe through the discussion and application of some of the concepts and praxis present in the body of work of these two artist-scientists, the idea of using art in the classroom can be taken more seriously, instead of being viewed as just extra fun activities for when teachers have time on their hands.

“Art is the difference between technically competent and excellent teachers”

ESLDramaQueen: Teachers that dare break away from the shackles of method from time to time in order to meet the expectations or cater for the needs of the students are the ones on the way to excellency, in my point of view. Improvisation, instinct, translation skills between what students express and what they really mean, ability to summarise, rephrase and symbolise language in order to convey a clearer message to students and also foster these abilities in students: all these can be developed and enhanced by being exposed to art.

“Teacher trainers should nurture not only technical development, but excellence as well”

ESLDramaQueen: Art can be a tool in teacher training to help trainees develop their skills. Instead of just flooding them with information about methodology and asking them to prepare and observe lessons, trainings could also include personal and emotional development through drama games or art projects in general.

“How can art be transplanted into teacher training?

Ask your trainees: If you were an artist/scientist, what kind would you be? Why? Which of these characteristics can be applied to the kind of teacher you want to be?

Tap associative, intuitive and unconscious sources

Give prompts: the more specific the better to generate content

Propose to your trainees: Imagine the opposite of your favourite teaching activity. Describe it and justify why it is bad teaching practice.

Propose the ‘Bad-teaching machine project’:Imagine a machine that signals every time bad teaching is practiced. Which are the signals the machine would read in the classroom in order to identify bad teaching? What kind of signal and to whom would the machine emit?

Play the ‘weather+definitions=metaphor’game: Trainer / Teacher provides some specific vocabulary to be worked on. Trainees / Students have to use weather terms to create a metaphor for the definition of that piece of vocabulary. (E.g. Term: On the spot correction; Metaphor: On the spot correction has to be monitored in order not to become a hailstorm of mistakes crashing on students’ heads.)”


Book: Teaching artist handbook (2013, Jaffe, Cox and Barniskis)

Article: Creativity in the Classroom (2005, Cameron)



Well, these were the two first IATEFL 2015 events to be reported here on ESL Drama Queen.

Stay tuned for more to come the next few days.

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Periscope!

And, as usual, have fun with the games!!!!

Book review – Dramapädagogik im Sprachunterricht (Drama Pedagogy in the language classroom)

„Dramapädagogik ist ein Ansatz, der die Mittel des Theaters zu pädagogischen Zwecken einsetzt. Im Vordergrund steht dabei nicht primär das Ergebnis, nämlich die Produktion eines Theaterstücks, sondern der Lernprozess in allen seinen Dimensionen: physisch, ästhetisch (sinnlich), emotional und kognitiv. «Drama» kommt aus dem Griechischen und heisst «Handlung». Dramapädagogik ist dementsprechend eine Pädagogik, die handlungsbezogenes ganzheitliches Lernen herbeiführt.“

Elektra Tselikas-Portmann

“Drama Pedagogy is an approach that utilizes Theatre for educational purposes. “Drama” comes from the Greek “action”. Result – or presentation – is not the primary goal, but the learning process in all its dimensions: physical, aesthetic (sensual), emotional and cognitive. Drama Pedagogy is therefore a pedagogy that allows acquisition to be practical and empirical”

(our translation)





Dramapädagoggik im SprachunterrichtA promisse of insights. That is the feeling one gets when embarking on the journey that is Dramapädagogik im Sprachunterricht. I have just begun to read it, however I could not wait to share it here with you guys.

The book is in German and, as far as I know, there are no English versions. So I have humbly set myself the task of reading it and summarizing the most interesting parts the author brilliantly exposes.

Elektra Tselikas-Portmann has extensive work as a drama therapist, psychotherapist, drama teacher and supervisor. In Dramapädagogik im Sprachunterricht, she depicts the idea of using Drama Pedagogy in the language classroom by giving the reader reasons why this approach is beneficial, manners to start practicing it, ways to achieve diverse goals with it in the classroom, a few practical exercises and theoretical basis for her thesis.

As mentioned before, I have just started reading it and here I will try to disclosure my impressions of the very first part of the book – which honestly seems very promising.

The author begins with a brief commentary of what Drama Pedagogy – Theaterpädagogik – is: an approach that utilizes theatre as a means to achieve pedagogical goals. This practice does not base itself in presenting a theatrical play, but enabling the dramatic process which students go through via drama games and, therefore, fostering a diverse kind of learning. In this sense, Drama Pedagogy allows participants to acquire knowledge in a more natural way via dramatic practice.

Tselikas also affirms that Drama Pedagogy is a means to include new ideas and creativity in the communication-oriented lesson plan: it provides the classroom activities with lifelike situations and places that the students are studying and allows them to practice and experience those scenarios in a safe and controlled environment before using the language in the ‘real world’.

After this introduction, the reader is presented with a table of contents which includes information about the inborn human susceptibility towards playing and acting – abilities explored by the Drama Pedagogy.

Dramapädagoggik im Sprachunterricht quote

She explains, though, that these processes – although inherent in every human being – are blocked as time passes by rationality and moral values learned in social life. One of the goals of Drama Pedagogy is also to restore these abilities and bring them to the surface once again and through them, enable a free and creative environment in the classroom.

Neither the teacher nor the students should be professional actors in order to benefit from Drama Pedagogy, according to the author: the objective is merely achieving educational goals, and not contributing to training new actors. And to achieve these educational goals, one must build a challenging representation of real life through drama in order to promote the development of the students’ language skills through metaphors, symbols, roles and emotion.


Honestly, isn’t that mouth-watering?

I will keep posting summaries of this book to you guys, so stay tuned!

As usual, have fun and enjoy the games!

Article Review: Using theater games to enhance language arts learning


I recently came across this article by Sharon Fennessey where she disclosures a few drama games to be used in the classroom and I though it was quite interesting.

The text below is my take on it and a few addaptations of the excercises she proposes to be used in the ESL/EFL classroom.

Have fun and enjoy the games!

Language acquisition through arts is Sharon Fennessey’s academic field of expertise. Thus, her article Using theater games to enhance language arts learning attempts to convey to readers not only the importance but also the use of theater games in the classroom as a tool to enable students to better master English as a second language.


In order to achieve her goal, the author leads the subject in by sharing personal experience with her fifth grade class and the learners’ reaction – which according to her testimony is exquisite. Furthermore, Fennessey points out that drama is taken seriously by all of those involved, teacher and students, and it is also recognized as an equally valued subject when compared to math, reading and writing, for instance.


That being said, a number of reasons why these games ought to be integrated in the lesson plan are mentioned, together with authors that support these beliefs:


  • Improvement of social skills: concentration, confidence, and cooperation (Fennessey, 2000).
  • Development of fluency in language and non-verbal communication skills (Cornett, 1999).
  • Improvement in fluency and pronunciation, especially for ESL learners who are not able to practice much for lack of speaking opportunities outside the classroom (Burke & O’Sullivan, 2002).
  • Development of language and language-related abilities through drama, based on the widespread view of linguists “that language is primarily a spoken art”. (Stewig & Buege, 1994).


Since the article is clearly not aimed at teachers who have previously had any sort of theater training, it unfolds by soothing inexperienced professionals and reassuring that “the classroom teacher does not need to be a creative drama specialist to successfully lead a drama activity”.


Moreover, the aims of drama games are exposed through the theory of one of the most renowned authors on the subject: Viola Spolin. The aspects of Spolin’s work (Spolin, 1986) which were brought up are:


  • Drama games are meant to facilitate actors’ awareness of their work instruments: body, voice and intellect.
  • Drama games are designed to help actors better focus on characters’ tasks, solve problems, interact with the cast, be alert, among other aims.


The purposes above-mentioned may also be applied in the classroom for the sake of verbal and non-verbal communication development. This framework of attributes is by no means unimportant or irrelevant to the ESL teacher and learner. It is well known that learners who are focused, have a sense of belonging in the group, feel at ease in the classroom and are alert have a much better outcome in terms of actual learning.


Though Fennessey presents only a few points on Spolin’s work, even the most unfocused of readers could grasp the link between acting techniques and abilities that are vital to the success of a language class. In fact, since this link has been disclosed, now there would be a golden opportunity for exposing practical ways in which these two universes could be put together. And that is precisely what the author does.


Much similarly to the outline on Spolin’s well-known book Theater games for the classroom, Fennessey chooses to first set the scene to readers and introduce the topic theoretically. Only after that, games and practical tips are given in the form of several short paragraphs leading readers through the steps of the games.


Until this point, theory, reasons and relevance have been presented. From this moment on, a series of descriptions of drama games which the author has successfully used in the language arts classroom are exposed and a summary of their aims and possible applications (my own theories) is as follows:


  • One-line improvisations:
    • Aim: coordinate body and voice creatively
    • Possible application: vocabulary practice – sports, professions, food, among others.
      • The teacher can narrow down the possible ‘transformations’ of the given object to the pieces of vocabulary learned during class.
    • Identify the object:
      • Aim: enhance concentration and develop “the use of sensory detail in descriptive language”[4]
      • Possible application: grammar/vocabulary practice – modals and verbs to express uncertainty.
        • The teacher can use this game as a less-controlled or freer practice of the language to express uncertainty.
      • Minefield:
        • Aim: developing trust amongst students
        • Possible application: grammar/vocabulary practice – directions and locations.
          • This can easily be incorporated to a class in which the main goal is to enable students to give and ask for directions and locations.
        • Role-playing book characters and Improvising a scene from literature:
          • Aim: promote understanding of traits and developing a character
          • Possible application: post-reading activity.
            • Schools that include readers in their syllabus can surely benefit from this kind of activities. Instead of just demanding students to express themselves in writing, teachers could add these games as wrap up activities or moments to assess them on reading comprehension skills.


Last but not least, the author enlightens the readers on the subject of balance. Surely a class which is enriched by having drama games added to the lesson would be enjoyable and effective as opposed to one that is not. However, it is wise to bear in mind the idiom ‘moderation in all things’.


Seatwork should also be included, especially since paper and pencil are still most valued by school systems. Actually a balance must be the aim, and the effort should be to combine stirring and settling activities alternately.


Overall, the article meets its purpose of introducing the topic of theater games in the language classroom. Nevertheless, had the author indicated more theories or stuck to one with more depth, I suppose the reader could have benefited more.



FENNESSEY, Sharon M., “Using Theater Games to Enhance Language Arts Learning” (2006). Faculty Publications. Paper 68. Page 689.

Spolin, Viola. (1986). Theater games for the classroom. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Book Review: Theater Games for Classroom – A Teacher’s Handbook

Theater Games for Classroom – A Teacher’s Handbook

Viola Spolin is an institution. Writing about her feels both like talking about an old    well-known friend and reviewing the works of a genius. It is gratifying and terrifying at the same time. But I will try to do my best.

The woman did it all: research, development and advertisement. Had she not decided to look further into the academic side of Theater and Pedagogy and make her ideas available to the world, many would have never come into contact with Drama Games and their use in the classroom (yours truly included).


My first experience with Viola Spolin’s work was through a book that a former teacher and coworker gave me for teachers’ day: Theater Games for Classroom – A Teacher’s Handbook. It was one of the best gifts I have ever received. Really.

The book changed my perspective in such a way that I immediately got caught in the fantastically inebriating Drama spider web. The book is edited in such a way that she is able to convince you little by little that you will no longer be able to teach a class without drama anymore. It worked on me.

The book is divided in 20 parts, however I can see three big blocks grouping them together:

  1. Why one should use these games in the classroom
  2. Categorized drama games
  3. Preparing a theatrical presentation

The first part can be either a trigger for a teacher that has already been curious about the theme or the basis of a convincing argumentation for the skeptical teacher. It is successful in explaining when, where and how these games can be used and how helpful they can be in the classroom environment.

Part number two is the bulk of the book, where Spolin depicts a plethora of games for several objectives: movement, voice, observation, character building, communication, etc…

It is a guide, almost like a lesson plan, where all the games are there, ready to be used. It is one of the most mouthwatering ready-to-use game menus out there!

The last part is a compilation of tips and activities for the teacher to develop and manage all the phases of a theatrical presentation with the students.

In utter shock with that new world of never-ending options, I wondered: how could I apply those amazing ideas to my day-to-day classroom routine without interfering with the syllabus I was supposed to follow? And there it was, my first bump on the dramatic road.

Everything that was written on that magical book was fantastic – on paper. My reality was a much different scenario: I did not have the freedom to choose my own syllabus or the pace of the course where I worked at the time. Everything was already formatted and handed out to me, and my coordinators expected me to teach that exact content at that exact pace. There was little room for my own spice in the recipe.

Right then and there I knew that using Theater would be virtually impossible with my students. There simply was not enough time for that. Also, I have always enjoyed classroom activities that are intrinsically connected to the topic of the day’s class. So how could I connect the entire syllabus of the semester to a play? I would have to do that in order to make the content of the theatrical experience be meaningful to both the students and my coordinator. But it was just too much work with little chance of actually happening.

And that’s when the light bulb went on in my head: maybe I do not have to provide my students with the complete theatrical experience. Maybe they could benefit just from the drama games from the second part of the book, without even noticing that those activities have anything to do with theater whatsoever. Bingo.

As soon as I realized that, me, my coordinator and my students starting benefitting from the works of the marvelous Viola Spolin. Of course every game had to be adapted to the class, syllabus and classroom that I was teaching, but it was worth it!

Each activity would take me a maximum of 15 minutes, the students were more communicative, engaged, alert and also getting along better. I too noticed that fluency, intonation, pronunciation and overall awareness of the language was improved considerably in all groups that were exposed to Spolin’s material.

I highly recommend the book as reference and inspiration for ESL/EFL teachers. But bear in mind that the author did not think about Language Learning specifically when she wrote the book, so some activities have to be modified or adapted to one’s reality.

I hope I could do Viola Spolin justice and that you can benefit from the words I wrote.

If you want to purchase this book and also contribute to this website click on either this affiliate link or the one in the beginning of the text to go to

See you next time and have fun with the games!

Michelle Schirpa