Learning English through the Performing Arts

In recent years Asian schools, – and I would like to apply this case to Hong Kong as it is the location that I find myself in, have started to include drama and other activities related to the performing arts in their curriculum. This article focuses on how drama, among the performing arts, can improve oral language learning and how beneficial it can be with regards to some other issues faced by Asian students, from confidence building to the prevention of early school drop-out.

If we refer to the country we live in, we can point out one of the main concerns that teachers often refer to in conversation: students being unresponsive, quiet, reserved and passive. Their lack of ability in English is often very obvious, and a consequential lack of confidence arises. The subject is not always enjoyable for students and it is clear that teachers have a big task ahead of them in keeping their students motivated. It is true that if students are engaged in what they are learning, not only they will score higher in their final results but there will be a more relaxed and positive working environment within the classroom. (Tsou, 2005)

However, how to motivate students who are not too willing to participate, and how to engage those students with a poor standard of English who are thus extremely reticent towards speaking?

Performing arts can play a very important role in the second language learner’s life, as students can explore a different experience to that derived from text books. Highly entertaining and beneficial in providing different perspectives, performing arts can help in developing a variety of applications of intelligence, create a positive environment within the classroom and enhance awareness and self-confidence. (Harland, Kinder, Lord, Stott, Schagen, Haynes, Cusworth, White, Paola, 2000)

When learning a language students always face different difficulties; these issues are not only related to the grammatical structure of the language they are learning, but also to the cultural aspect that comes with it. Teachers should not limit their teaching towards an exclusively scholastic approach, but they also should encourage their students to be familiar with the cultural context of the language that they are learning; in Asia and Hong Kong we can understand the issues that students face and the differences between Chinese and English, in both language and culture. Drama approaches these issues and differences in a natural environment where students find themselves experimenting with the language in a variety of ways. With rehearsals and dramatic activities students engage in different situations where characters and possibilities open up to them. Drama offers more than one opportunity to engage in oral activities, not to mention the sheer fun that this discipline is able to offer. (Miccoli, 2003)

As we mentioned previously, children in the classroom may ask questions to the teacher or to other students and they may tend not to start conversations; drama would give an opportunity to use language in order to create situations and use dialogues to create images. Quintessential to this discipline, dialogues are what connect students in a process of social interaction. Stinnson and Freebody, on the basis of Neelands’ study, provide a strong argument for how language can be learned through focusing on the development of dialogue, and how students can develop a better handling of language skills. In this model, Neelands points out that new context and new fictional roles are created through drama; dramatic situations require new language, different from what the students are used to in a traditional classroom. This language leads to dialogues that, consequentially, will bring the students towards a stronger oral development. With this focus on oral communication more opportunities to improve oral language will follow: students will enjoy the opportunity to speak in a “different” way, as well as the chance to experiment with roles and characters in a contest of practice and preparation. ( Stinson, Freebody 2004)

It is fair to add that “Language is the cornerstone of the drama process” (O’Neill & Lambert, 1982)

Drama is a discipline that deals with real life scenarios; therefore, it is easier to relate with it, as people involved in this performing art deal with decision-making and strategy-taking. Whomever experience drama training can feel free to experiment with different levels of communication and take different risks that would be hard to take in real life. (Catterall, 2002)

We have mentioned that dramatic activities have the strong power to lead students towards the development of oral, collaborative, and analytical. The novelty of the language that students encounter in these classes is what enhances cognitive development and gives the opportunity to analyze their views towards their oral abilities; indeed, students are strongly encouraged to communicate thoughts, feelings and ideas. (Bernal, 2007)

However, what other benefits can students find throughout drama and the performing arts, and what would be the most fruitful way to realize those benefits?

Heath, in her paper, points out the fact that extra-curricular activities have started to play a more relevant role in people’s resume, as universities and working places have started to pay more attention to people’s interests. It is becoming more and more important to show that interest in ballet, arts or drama classes can lead to a better attitude towards life and problem-solving. Performing arts can also represent a very valid help to prevent school early drop-out. Very often, there are several reasons that can lead students towards this choice; for many years, research has been involved in trying to find alternative methods to help reducing the percentage of students “at risk” by school and society. Extra-curricular activities can help students distinguish between optional and enforced activities, and can inspire interest in them that would be harder to find in traditional school subjects; their self-confidence becomes stronger as there are a lot of responsibilities and challenges involved in art disciplines. If students are able to perceive a better perspective of life and embrace with enthusiasm this sort of activity, it is very likely that their level of motivation will raise and the risk of school drop-out will be reduced. Heath’s study recommends that extra-curricular activities should not be merged within the classroom, but they should be kept separated. The thought is highly debatable; we have already analyzed in this paper how students involved in artistic activities have a broader mind towards risk taking, creativity and expression, as well as a stronger ability to communicate. (Burton, Horowitz and Abeles, 2000)

Furthermore, Catterall has explored whether other subjects, such as mathematics and history, could be learned throughout the use of performing arts. Having analyzed this question in depth, it is fair to say that nowadays Latin, Greek or mathematics are not accessible to everybody in the same way and not always do they stimulate logic and strategy in students at the same level. In his work Catterall shows us that learning tasks throughout the performing arts offer different effects that break through the traditional conditions of learning, and to support this idea, he refers to what Gardner has mentioned before: first, art, being so engaging and creative, is able to develop different levels of intelligence and abilities in students as it stimulates awareness and judgment. Moreover, they can improve their performance in other disciplines as arts contribute in self confidence building; the “I can do it” attitude can be used in every field and subject.

To conclude this point, we can certainly see that, with all these qualities that drama and the other performing arts can induce into students it would not make much sense to keep this sort of activities away from the classroom, as clearly students can achieve a lot of benefits from them.

Another arguable point in Heath’s theory is that students need to break the monotony of being at school for every occasion; therefore, it would be preferable to conduct extra-curricular activities away from school, in order to give a break from duty and freshen up students’ mind after a long day at school. First, Hong Kong is a city with a vast and dense population, where space is often an issue. The rental of venues is sometimes expensive, and organizing activities within a structure that already exists would cut extra costs and be easier. As students spend biggest part of their time at school, the structure should provide them the possibility for interest classes and extra-curricular activities as all these classes should be beneficial for their learning and not something that needs to be kept separated. Furthermore, as the purpose of these activities focus on the learning of skills that will become useful in the classroom, as well in real life, it is pointless not to include these activities within the school curriculum and have them elsewhere.

To conclude, it would also help students to have a more positive and cheerful vision of their “working place”; school should not be seen just as a place to study but also as a creative space where entertaining and useful activities can also happen.



Catterall, J. (2002). The arts and the transfer of learning. 151-157. Retrieved 23/04/2011 from Google Scholar Database.

Link: http://www.employeetraining.biz/articles/100307/AcademicDevelopmentLearningArts.pdf

Bernal,   P. (2007). Acting out: using drama with English learners. English journal. Vol. 96 (3), 26- 28. Retrieved 23/04/2011 from Google Scholar Database.

Link: http://www.jstor.org/pss/30047290

Heath, S. B. (2001). Three’s not a crowd: plans, roles, and focus in the arts. Educational researcher. Vol. 30 (7), 10- 17. Retrieved 27/04/2011 from Google Scholar Database.



Tsou, W. (2005) Improving speaking skills through instruction in oral classroom participation. Foreign language annals. Vol. 38 (1), 46- 53. Retrieved 27/04/2011 from Google Scholar Database.



Stinson, M. and Freebody, K. (2004) Modulating the mosaic: drama and oral language. 1-7

Retrieved 27/04/2011 from Google Scholar Database.

Link: http://repository.nie.edu.sg/jspui/bitstream/10497/2632/1/CRP8_03MS_Conf04(IDEA)_StinsonFreebody.pdf

Miccoli, L. (2003) English through drama for oral skills development.   ELT Journal. Vol. 57 (2), 122- 128. Retrieved 28/04/2011 from Google Scholar Database.

Link: http://biblioteca.uqroo.mx/hemeroteca/elt_journal/2003/abril/570122.pdf

Burton, J. Horowitz, R. and Abeles, H.   (2000) Learning in and through the arts: a question of transfer. Studies in art education . Vol. 41 (3) 228- 257. Retrieved 28/04/2011 from Google Scholar Database.

Link: http://www.jstor.org/pss/1320379

Harland, J. Kinder, K. Lord, P. Stott,   A.   Schagen, I. Haynes, J.   Cusworth, L.   White,   R.   Riana, P. (2000) Arts education in secondary schools: effect and effectiveness. . Retrieved 28/04/2011 from Google Scholar Database.

Link: http://opensigle.inist.fr/handle/10068/576990


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