By Sharon Leftwich-Lloyd, FCCT, Lead Practitioner & Progress Coordinator for Drama & Theatre. This article was recently published in the Autumn 22 edition of Impact, the Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching.
Over the last twenty years of teaching, I have learnt that students are often driven by a love of practical rather than theoretical work when they opt for Drama; this preference creates a motivation gap between practical and theoretical achievement. The Education Endowment Foundation’s report focuses on seven recommendations including the importance of “targeted vocabulary instruction” and “opportunities for structured talk” (EEF, 2021) which inspired this case study. Students’ need to develop their literacy skills is very much part of the national picture, which has been further impacted by the pandemic. This paper explores the implementation of research-informed strategies at a comprehensive secondary school to develop written attainment and literacy in key stages 4 and 5 Drama and Theatre.
Many students resort to cliched, predictable language when describing ideas and character, despite having rich, highly creative approaches when performing or completing designs. For example, when I asked a student to verbalise their highly sophisticated performance of Inspector Fix sneakily spying on Phileas Fogg in a lesson on ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ they said, “I watched Fogg and looked down.” Scholarly discourse has repeatedly highlighted the fact that high “quality classroom talk” leads to “greater retention of subject-specific knowledge, vocabulary acquisition and reasoning skills” (Gaunt & Stott, 2019:6) and thus improves students’ writing. My first key step was to provide a similar level of planning and resource for oracy as for writing. I began with scaffolded sentence stems and vocabulary boxes for highly structured oracy activities to bridge the gap between practical and written work. My aim was to teach students to speak in a formal structured way, thereby essentially using talk as a rehearsal for written examination answers. Supplying sentence stems and rich tier 2 vocabulary reduced their cognitive load thus enabling them to focus on the quality of their responses.
Students were provided with stems, for example, “I interpret x as … because …”, “on the line …, I would …” and “this would show the audience …”.
Pair discussions provided structure, and students thought more deeply before explaining their ideas to a partner or group. The tier 2 vocabulary boxes were used in a purposeful way by students who considered the best word for their interpretation. Subsequently their ability to express their creative practical ideas began to improve. To further extend and improve student vocabulary, I adopted specific strategies from Beck et al (2013) and Quigley (2018 & 2022) to teach tier 2 words explicitly; particularly successful strategies included simplified definitions, etymology for key words and repetition in a multitude of contexts. I arranged words in tables by type or by usage, and explored synonyms, antonyms, and word gradients - a diagrammatic way of showing words on a continuum (for example irritated, vexed, provoked, furious, enraged) – to continually build students’ vocabulary. The latter were particularly effective in enabling students to explore and experiment with new words.
Developing structures for students to learn and recall new words was critical at this point. Caviglioli’s (2019) research on “dual coding” to reinvent and redesign resources was key. This technique consists, in essence, of presenting information graphically and textually simultaneously, thus creating two possible triggers and doubling the chances of successful recall. Our departmental drama 6s - six key elements for each Drama perspective (for example, acting = voice, posture, movement, gesture, facial expression and space) was an obvious place to start; I used the free online resource thenounproject.com to assign clear, monochrome icons to each element that students needed to learn. I also created diagrammatic scaffolding for each type of GCSE exam question removing superfluous words in favour of a clear diagrammatic flow.
Having developed students’ ability to structure logically and sequentially and describe their ideas in precise detail; I needed them to have deeper, richer, broader dramatic and theatrical knowledge, incorporating an understanding of plot, character, form, style, genre and historical context. Inspired by an ambition to give students access to the very best playwrights, plays, stories and characters available; I decided to implement an intervention of wider reading of plays as homework followed by in class discussion to develop, disseminate and interrogate ideas.
During lockdown, I spent a great deal of time refining a list of plays for GCSE and A level students which was diverse in form, style, genre, theme, and period, as well as rich in substance, and age appropriate. Selecting just a dozen plays for each key stage from the totality of theatrical history was, naturally, both highly ambitious and subjective so I engaged with subject specialists through social media to seek opinions and contributions. I created resources for each of my chosen plays which included background material alongside images and extracts to challenge students, in terms of their own creativity, of what drama can explore, and how theatre can push its own boundaries. Each resource ends with three key questions, the first two challenging ideas and understanding, and the third always ‘How does this play improve / develop / expand your ideas about what theatre is and what theatre is for?’ Exposing students to the very best enabled them to think about their work within a wider context, as well as further developing their theatrical vocabulary.
Both the GCSE and A level Drama specifications require that students write from specific perspectives. To be successful they need to read through and then think like the relevant lens, whether acting, directing or in a specific design role. Webb’s (2022) ‘read like a …’ struck an immediate chord with me; she created well-structured graphics aimed at specific subject disciplines when reading, and shared these via her twitter handle @funkypedagogy. To develop students’ ability to read, think and write through specific disciplinary lenses, I worked alongside my highly engaged year 13 class to develop ‘read like a … director, actor, set designer, costume designer, lighting designer and sound designer’. Section B of the AQA Drama and Theatre paper is challenging, requiring students to move between thinking and writing like a director, an actor and one type of designer (they do not know which until they see the paper). Webb’s structure was perfect for creating a scaffold for students’ thinking and ultimately writing. I split each of my resources into four dual coded key areas.
For example, a lighting designer, for example, reads for: references to location; references to time; the focus of the scene and the emotion and atmosphere. Each key area then has bullet pointed questions for consideration to further guide students during the early stages of reading through a lens. These have been utilised in class as scaffolding which has gradually been removed; the structured approach enabled students to learn a process and quickly change their perspectives when reading during the examination.
The result of these interventions has been, in the first place, that marks in written work have improved. More fundamentally, students have developed in confidence and knowledge, are more able to express their ideas, and regularly access and use a higher level of literacy in practical lessons. I have found students better able to attempt new questions and utilise oracy to experiment with their ideas before committing them to paper.
Students’ evaluative responses have been highly encouraging, Finley in year 11 reported, “the diagrams showing how to answer questions have helped me to centralise my ideas into logical and coherent answers that satisfy the criteria of the question.” Maisy in year 13 said, “read like a … enabled and encouraged me to put myself in the position of a director or designer with a greater understanding of how to create and describe my practical ideas, as well as increasing my confidence in answering these questions in an exam.” Holly, year 13 added, “I found the resources very useful in filling gaps in my knowledge especially social, cultural and historical. I found the idea of ‘read like a …’ a unique and effective way to shift my perspective.” The final measure of success will be on results day in August but lowering stress and watching incremental progress has been joyful.
Beck, IL, McKeown, MG and Kucan, L (2013), Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, The Guildford Press
Cavigliolo, O (2019) Dual Coding with Teachers, John Catt Educational Ltd
EEF (2022) Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/guidance-reports/literacy-ks3-ks4 (accessed 3rd May 2022)
Gaunt, A and Stott, A (2019) Transform Teaching and Learning through Talk: The Oracy Imperative, Rowman & Littlefield
Quigley, A (2018) Closing the Vocabulary Gap, Routledge
Quigley, A (2022) The Confident Teacher. Available at: https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/category/closing-the-gap/ (accessed 3rd May 2022)
Webb, J (2022), Read like a... Available at: https://www.canva.com/design/DAE21CEI9_8/alLm_269Bh3BTrh_yMWH3g/view?utm_content=DAE21CEI9_8&utm_campaign=designshare&utm_medium=link&utm_source=sharebutton&mode=preview (accessed 3rd May 2022)