Special report: Gary Carkin

Special report: Paris Colloquium 2005, Agir pour apprendre

Dr. Gary Carkin on “Using Plays for Pronunciation Practice: Acting and English in Seven Easy Steps”

By Anaïs Hicks

I think all teachers would agree with me when I say that one of the things we need most are ideas. Ideas to stimulate and motivate our students; ideas to provide authentic opportunities for the students to use what we teach them; ideas that make the teaching and learning experiences interesting and fun. The presentation at the TESOL Colloquium given by Dr. Gary Carkin was one such idea. The idea to use drama as a support for language teaching.

Gary Carkin is a professor of ESOL at Southern New Hampshire University. He is also a writer and an actor. As a result, he had the idea to use short plays with his students to teach them pronunciation, vocabulary, culture, and all around language skills.

In the presentation he gave on November 19, Dr. Carkin began by sharing his thought on how language acquisition may occur through drama. He gave as an example the ESL program at Southern New Hampshire University, where the drama class has been fully integrated into the curriculum.

He went on to explain the steps of his process. First, the teacher needs to select a number of short, simple plays. Dr. Carkin, aware of the difficulty of this task, has written several short plays that have now been published. Then have students read through the plays, and decide on the ones they like; the number of plays selected will depend on the number of students in the class. Some vocabulary is given for students to understand stage directions, so that as they go through the reading, they can begin to imagine the action taking place.

Students decide which roles they would like to play. The plays are then read out loud, and emphasis is placed on stress, intonation and pronunciation. The purpose it to truly understand the meaning of the script, and to make the language understandable to the listener. Opposing ideas, for instance, or particularly important information, should be stressed.

Once the meaning of the script is there, students are asked to understand the characters. They are asked to think about such questions as what the main objective of the play is, how each scene leads towards that objective, and what role each individual character plays in moving towards that main goal. Each line has a purpose, and students are asked to understand the motivation behind every single word spoken by their character. This in turn will make the performance and use of the language more natural.

At home, students are then asked to write up a biography of their character. This helps them really internalize the characters and interpret them the best they can. According to Dr. Carkin, letting students choose the character they want to be and giving them time to develop the character may help them develop their English-speaking personality as well as the character’s. The students are free to borrow a personality that they would normally not want to adopt in a foreign language and culture.

At each stage of the process, students are able to discuss the play and their characters with each other and with the teacher. This discussion promotes their ability to use social language.

Dr. Carkin’s presentation was very lively, as the audience was asked to get into small groups and practice a short play that the presenter had prepared. Discussions took place about where to put the stress in each sentence and the difference in meaning this would make, and about the motivations of the characters. It was the action of really trying it ourselves that made the idea grow in our minds, and that made us understand how this exercise could truly benefit our students.

What about a final test, to see if this was all worth it? Well, if this whole exercise was placing the emphasis on understanding the language in depth and using it meaningfully, how does the following question sound for a final test: during the performance, does the audience laugh?

Contributed by: Anaïs Hicks
Eastern Michigan University
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