English in Action, an educational programme offered by the Ministry of Education’s Area of Special Education in Buenos Aires, was developed by Susan Hillyard B.Ed. (Hons) in 2010 as part of the city’s inclusive education approach. She trained and coordinated the teachers for the first 7 years herself. The programme uses drama to teach English in 20 SEN primary schools throughout the city. When it comes to inclusion, it is our responsibility as educators to provide an environment in which all children can learn and have a sense of belonging. Student growth requires active participation and integration.
English in Action has always attempted to train teachers to implement process drama in their schools as a way to give children inclusive material, drama resources, and a methodology that increases their ability in such a manner that every child learns. We, the teachers of the programme, discovered that drama is extremely important for children with special needs. Our main focus is on students’ abilities and possibilities, not their diagnoses or disabilities. This is exactly why our classes are based on holistic approaches which concentrate on the learner, including Total Physical Response (TPR), Socio-emotional Learning (SEL), mindfulness techniques, visual aids, Brain Gym activities and last but not least meaningful communicative instruction.
Classes and teachers
The remedial schools, located in different parts of the city, assist over 600 students to achieve the expected competencies in core academic skills to be immersed into mainstream education. Even though the population changes by the area, the methodology implemented by the teachers is the essence of English in Action. Each school has a reduced number of students, who are grouped by age with a maximum of 10 in a class.
The English in Action group is composed of passionate, experienced EFL teachers. We meet in person three times a year to agree on the academic contents of the school year, its progress, and assessments. We are constantly in touch with one another as we believe that teamwork is an essential tool for teaching. We share projects, ideas, and materials on different platforms. All teachers in this programme believe in bonding and creating a safe atmosphere for each of our students. That’s why we concentrate on their abilities, interests, and likes to prepare our lessons. We focus the content on communication skills rather than grammar because we want our students to feel comfortable with the language.
Classes are planned in a communicative way and we organize routines to offer our students a sense of stability within their learning environment. Clear classroom rules and procedures are set out so that our students know our expectations and commit to theirs. Once they know the class steps and understand how to act, behavioural problems and distractions dissipate.
The English in Action programme is based on Process Drama, which was developed by Hillyard through research on Dorothy Heathcote’s Educational Drama. According to Hillyard (2010), Vygotsky’s study on the relationship between language and mind supports the use of play and drama as effective methods for teaching language. Additionally, Lozanov’s suggestopedia program, which was designed to improve language acquisition speed, also utilizes role play and the use of the theatre mask.
What is a lesson like?
Here is a short run-down of the main elements of a lesson:
- Brain gym or energizer to start
- Agenda on the board
- “Hello Song” with lyrics and movement
- “Weather Song” with props to identify vocabulary
- “Feelings Song” or moment to express how we feel with our bodies and gestures
- A well-selected story and the necessary props to create a magical moment
- Flashcards, props, and other resources to work on the vocabulary presented in the story
- A song, poem or rhyme related to the topic of the story
- A drama activity (usually TPR) to connect body, mind, and soul with language
- A game to discretely give voice to concepts introduced
- A song (usually chosen by students) to finish the lesson
- A goodbye ritual
The English in Action Toolkit
There are certain elements English in Action teachers always have in their sacks:
- A soft ball (or a soft toy) is used during the routine: students throw it at one another and take turns asking and answering questions. Learners like manipulating objects, and while their brains are occupied with catching these, they produce language spontaneously.
- Posters, flashcards, and props related to our routine provide visual scaffolding by creating a literary environment in the classroom. The use of printed words, picture flashcards or specific props (e.g. sun, cloud, rain made of cloth) helps them to anchor the vocabulary and patterns of the language and to develop a sense of belonging as they feel they can identify what is happening in class.
- Games with cards, pieces of cloth, elements from nature, etc. Class dynamics are always based on interaction and games in diverse ways and formats. We play TPR games, board or card games on the floor. We use pieces of cloth (big or small, patterned or plain, etc.) as magical elements which turn into different objects and we all mime the action to use it. We collect little branches, leaves, sticks, pebbles and rocks and use them to create different scenarios for speaking activities. Open a piece of cloth to cover your head as you hear some sound effects of rain or put a blue piece on the floor to represent the lake in a story – let your imagination soar!
- A good story that is easy to tell (for teachers), but also easy to produce (for students) such as traditional rhymes, shortened versions of popular stories, poems, and anything the teacher and the group enjoy. We strongly believe teachers need to enjoy the story they are about to tell. Stories might be supplemented with the printed book, props, flashcards, but they are generally kept short to ensure that learners enjoy retelling them.
- Music (sounds and special effects) and songs are catchy and stimulating for the brain. They also help students anchor patterns of the language without effort. We also use sounds of nature to relax or create a special moment in the class, and special effects (e.g. thunder, suspense, whistle, train, etc.) to work with vocabulary and create new scenes while miming.
- A calming bottle for relaxing moments when students are feeling overwhelmed, angry or exhausted and need a few minutes to recenter. We always have a calming bottle at hand (a plastic bottle filled with water, glitter, food colouring, glow-in-the-dark pieces, LEGO® bricks, or anything else that holds up in water).
- A stuffed animal or puppet as a class pet is a fantastic way to connect with our students, especially when they are having a tough time and bonding takes longer than expected. Even older students like playing with puppets and using them as a means to communicate with the teacher and each other.
- A surprise! We suggest adding a new element to every class. This could be a new song, a new puppet, or even candy. Students love knowing and experiencing how much teachers care about them. Preparing a little surprise for every class keeps the magic alive.
- Last but not least, passion and energy! The SEN classroom requires a teacher who cares and loves being in class. Your energy and passion are essential elements for bonding. Students can sense our energy… ALWAYS!
Each teacher and each group is unique: their preferences might change, and the activities may vary, but the energy created by teachers and students in an English in Action class promotes a safe environment for students to learn happily with confidence and love.
- English Through Drama by Susan Hillyard
- Dorothy Heathcote on Education and Drama by Cecily O’Neill
- Structure and Spontaneity: The Drama in Education by Cecily O’Neill
- Putting Process Drama into Action by Pamela Bowell and Brian S Heap
- Drama Games for Those Who Like to Say No (NHB Drama Games) by Chris Johnston
- 101 Drama Games and Activities by David Farmer