Using performance to narrow the gap in oral language development

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of CONNECT.

Christian Jalim (Ehime)


Lights! Camera! Action!

Who doesn’t love a good performance?

With the answer to this question in mind, let’s explore how performance can help students in the English (ESL) classroom.

I adore the performing arts to such a degree that when the opportunity presented itself, I dove, head first, into participating in various plays. During my stint in the performing arts, I participated in several concerts and shows hosted by the Centre for Language Learning (CLL). Throughout that time, my gracious senpai mentored me and other performers, giving insights and coaching us. With their guidance, we polished our performance with each improvement we made. Later, I used the skills learned from my performances when I entered the first-ever Japanese Speech Contest held in my home country, Trinidad and Tobago. As a result, I placed first in the competition. 


Parallels between Stage Performance and Speech Development

From my experience, I recognize quite a few parallels between a theatre or stage performance and impactful speech. Understanding these parallels and how to employ them are what I believe have assisted me in being a successful participant at my speech contest. Moreover, the lessons I learnt through stage performance have also become pivotal in my life here as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in Japan.


Language Performance by Example

Someone somewhere at some point in time may ask, “How has theatre and performing on stage impacted your professional life as an ALT?” 

Well for starters, to give students an understanding of what is expected, I often do short skits and demonstrations with other teachers, ensuring we highlight critical parts of the “performance” that constitutes good communication. Additionally, my approach to teaching is often performative in nature. For an ESL class, consider adapting a stand-up comedian type of approach to the classroom. This will not only command the attention of students but also make English-learning fun. Also try doing monologue scenes: act out what is considered a good delivery as opposed to simply reading and hopefully, like an actor portraying a character, the students can also emulate the speech characteristics you put on display.


Voice Projection

Projecting one’s voice is a big part of theatrical performance. While modern theatre performances may sometimes rely on the assistance of clip-on microphones, theatre actors of the old days relied solely on being able to “boom’’ their voices to the amphitheatres. During my time as an ALT, I have found myself mentoring my students in the same way my seniors mentored me—encouraging them to project their voices when they speak. Quite often students shrink their voices due to either a lack of confidence or momentary shyness. This type of behaviour is pretty common in the ESL classroom since learning a new language is, for many, already daunting, and trying to speak a foreign language in front of a native speaker is likely to cause more anxiety than motivation to speak. 

As a teacher of English, try encouraging students to speak by facilitating as many opportunities for presentations as possible. Sometimes during whole-class presentations, go to the back of the class and have them read loud enough that you can hear them clearly from the back of the classroom.


Fostering Oration

Just as imperative as projecting the voice is oration. Oration is a manner of speaking that is easily received by listeners. It’s often lengthy but for now, let’s ignore the length aspect and focus on its characteristic effectiveness. To achieve effective oration, students must articulate their thoughts well. On stage, articulation is crucial not only for audiences to understand what the actor is saying, but also for the actor to evoke emotion and garner attention from the audience. At times, students can resort to a very monotone voice, void of emotion and rhythm when reading or speaking, leading to a rather unnaturally robotic delivery. Hence the reason I ensure my students understand the importance of articulating and changing the tone of their voice, stressing important words, and reading and speaking with appropriate emotion.

A great opportunity for this is during one of my favourite activities called “Keyword Game” where there is a lot of repetition. Constantly change how students pronounce the same word over time during the game, sprinkling some emotion on various utterances of the same word so that they can also understand how native speakers say a word may affect the depth of its meaning. When practicing vocabulary, encourage your students to mimic your intonation, speed, energy, and sometimes even gestures. This way, their oratory skills develop implicitly.


A Teachable Moment

With some parallels between stage performance and oral language development outlined, I would hope that ESL teachers are inspired to be a little more deliberate in using aspects of stage performances to improve students’ language skills. Let me share a speech situation I turned into a “performance” for my students:

One interesting part about teaching students a second language is that when you observe them communicating in their native tongue, they employ several aspects of effective communication— intonation, gesticulation, etc.—simultaneously and flawlessly. However, their entire persona changes when it’s time to communicate in English. As a way to encourage them, I once illustrated what I typically see from students; except, I spoke my second language, Japanese, their first language. I remember giving such a monotonous, robotic, and unnatural speech in Japanese for someone who was to be excited. Amidst the grinning and laughter, I heard some of my students say henna (This is weird!) and kowaii(This is scary!). It was from this feedback that I realised I have shown my students, through mimetic performance, the negative effect of speaking without meaning and hopefully inspired them to be less afraid to pursue their own oral development within English.


Chris(tian) Jalim hails from the sunny isles of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean paradise. He majored in International Relations and Global Studies and has completed three levels of Japanese Proficiency Tests. In his free time, he enjoys many things including-but-not-limited-to language learning, cooking, video games, cosplay, anime, and documentaries about space or ancient civilisations.