Purpose: Drama occupies a legitimate place in literacy classrooms and has the potential to democratize instruction, amplify students’ meaning making, and support critical literacy as learners play around with and in all kinds of texts. Given its multimodal nature, drama-based literacies engage all students’ bodies and emotions in composing, reading, and interrogating texts.
Key Message: Research shows that learners’ emotions and bodies (particularly in movement) are primary vehicles for meaning making in literacy classrooms (Caldas, 2018; Chisholm & Whitmore, 2018; Edmiston, 2014; Landay & Wootton, 2012; Roser, Martinez, et al., 2014). Research also indicates that access to multiple ways of knowing (Harste, 2014; NCTE, 2005) supports learners’ transmediation across sign systems (Siegel, 1995). Therefore, teachers should provide learners with opportunities to dramatize meanings in conjunction with literature and other texts.
Context: Given the importance yet marginalization of the arts in the curriculum, a committee of language arts educators who infuse drama into preK–12 and teacher education classrooms revised the 1982 Informal Classroom Drama position statement to emphasize contemporary research and practice regarding the multimodal nature of literacies and to call on teachers to engage learners in composing, reading, and interrogating texts through drama-based literacies.
Composing, Reading, and Interrogating Texts and Drama-Based Strategies
In drama-based literacies, learners’ bodies become texts (Johnson & Enriquez, 2015; Perry & Medina, 2011). Not unlike as in the writing process, learners engage in feedback and negotiation with others, improvisational troubleshooting, and spontaneous and planned revision to create texts that reflect the meanings they want to represent. Choosing to use or intentionally not use the tools of drama (gesture, movement, proximity, gaze, levels of body heights and positions, sound, intensity, and inflection), learners collaborate to co-construct texts in the curriculum. The texts that drama-based, embodied literacies create can be read, deconstructed, and critically interrogated by others (Edmiston, 2014). Drama-based literacies meet all students where they are, creating inclusive and imaginative literacy spaces for learners with varied physical, emotional, and linguistic abilities (Kliewer, 2008; Whitmore, 2015). In these imagined spaces, Edmiston says all learners, “can have equitable access to communication tools, not as people who too often may be considered ‘other’ than the norm, but as valued equal participants in a world where a person’s strengths, rather than any impairments, come to the fore” (2007, p. 340).
- Choral reading empowers learners to engage with preexisting texts and compose a new understanding through symbolic movement and text-based choices (Brewer, 2016).
- Group interview challenges learners to embody and flesh out a character by improvising answers to interview questions asked by fellow learners and teachers (Mandell & Wolf, 2001).
Reading drama-based texts and performances challenges learners to understand the vocabularies and grammars of multiple semiotic systems (e.g., musical, visual, linguistic, dramatic/gestural, sculptural, kineikonic). As inherent meaning makers, learners draw on their readings across a range of modes to deepen their readings of texts (Kalantzis & Cope, 2012). Through transmediation, learners recast meanings across sign systems (Harste, 2014; Siegel, 1995) to generate insights into texts that are potentially unavailable within a single semiotic system.
- In rapid tableaux learners collaborate on creating group images with their bodies (Landay & Wootton, 2012; Wilson, 2003), perhaps in response to a print-based text. A variation on the activity encourages a learner to read the image created by their fellow classmates, or offer their own insights on the physical image without having read or heard the inspirational text (Wilhelm & Edmiston, 1998).
- Sculpture garden invites pairs of students to act as “sculptor” and “clay” to create body sculptures of words, images, or themes from a text (Chisholm & Whitmore, 2018). Other students can then read the sculptures to deepen their own understandings and meanings.
By their very nature, drama-based literacies disrupt typically scriptocentric school spaces (meaning those limited to oral and written language). As a result, they are uniquely positioned to make visible issues of power and positionality inherent in all texts. As a critical, multimodal literacy practice, drama can engage learners’ emotions, call into question historical and literary events, promote risk taking, and prompt examination of values and beliefs in powerful and problematic ways (Caldas, 2018; Enciso, 2014; Roser, Palmer, et al., 2015; Schroeter & Wager, 2016). Learners can focus on and navigate spaces and classroom ensembles (Long & Christel, 2019) to interrogate emotions and actions (Mandell & Wolf, 2001).
- Augusto Boal’s forum theater asks learners to interrogate texts where oppression is portrayed and envision possible ways to challenge the oppression and oppressor(s). Learners are invited to pause the scene playing out in front of them, step forward to replace a character in the scene, and move forward with a new tactic (Boal, 1993; Caldas, 2018; Landay & Wootton, 2012).
- Process drama (Heathcote & Bolton, 1995; Roser, Martinez, et al., 2014; Roser, Palmer, et al., 2015) offers the opportunity to recreate scenes to reshape the events in the story told, challenging students to rethink assumptions and helping them engage in difficult conversations in ways that cannot be done conventionally.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR TEACHERS AND TEACHER EDUCATORS
- Go all in to get buy-in: Cultivate ensemble
You can borrow the practices and processes of theater to cultivate agency, community, and conversation in classrooms. We encourage you to create an ensemble with your students and shift the power dynamic to grow more space for student voices.
As you are comfortable and as opportunity allows, participate in drama activities alongside your students. Just like your students, you don’t need to be an expert to participate in these activities, but you should allow yourself to go “all in”—even when it means to fail spectacularly! Demonstrate activities yourself and build spaces for “I do, we do, you do” structures, when you can. Allow and encourage your students to collaborate in meaning making alongside you, to offer new tactics for the ensemble to try, and to witness how stories can grow or change when learners tackle them from different perspectives or with different tools.
It takes dedicated time to cultivate ensemble, and it is worth building into your curriculum.
- Normalize physicality: Lower the stakes
Many drama-based activities call for participants to engage with their spaces beyond the realm of sitting at desks, which may be a drastic transition from many students’ day-to-day tasks. As you incorporate drama-based literacies into your classroom, begin with activities that have less risk, or lower stakes, for you and your students, even while still seated in desks. We encourage you to incorporate activities featuring movement, as students are able, to build familiarity and understanding of a new literacy process. As you witness your students’ comfortability increase, shift toward activities that ask more of your classroom ensemble and encourage experiences that take more physicality and more floor space, including moving the furniture or taking the class to the gym, cafeteria, or stage.
- Continue to flex your creativity
A drama-based literacies approach features and engages a myriad of genres and many methods for creating and making. We challenge you to include a wide array of drama activities in your curriculum to activate students’ different intelligences and to engage all types of learners: movement activities without words invite novice English learners as full participants, and choral reading without movement welcomes learners with physical limitations. With gradual increased experience with varied methods, you and your learners can take more risks.
Challenge yourself to try new drama-based literacies year to year or unit to unit. Experiment with how drama-based literacies experiences occupy different spaces within your lesson plans. Reduce risk by including nongraded activities. Take what works and leave the rest, and reflect on the myriad benefits of drama-based literacies.
Boal, A. (1993). Theatre of the oppressed. (C. A. McBride, Trans.) Theatre Communications Group.
Brewer, B. M. (2016). Navigating nonfiction through drama: Using choral reading to create a transaction with the text. English Journal, 105(4), 76–80.
Caldas, B. (2018). Juxtaposing William and Grace: Exploring gender non-conformity through drama-based pedagogy in a dual language classroom. TESOL Journal, 9(4), 1–13.
Chisholm, J. S., & Whitmore, K. F. (2018). Reading challenging texts: Layering literacies through the arts. Routledge and National Council of Teachers of English.
Edmiston, B. (2007). Mission to Mars: Using drama to make a more inclusive classroom for literacy learning. Language Arts, 84(4), 337–346.
Edmiston, B. (2014). Transforming teaching and learning with active and dramatic approaches: Engaging students across the curriculum. Routledge.
Enciso, P. (2014). Prolepsis and educational change: Interrupting inequities through drama. In
- Davis, B. Ferholt, & H. Grainger (Eds.), Dramatic interactions in education: Vygotskian and socio-cultural approaches to drama, education, and research. Bloomsbury.
Harste, J. C. (2014). Transmediation: What art affords our understanding of literacy. In P. J.
Dunston, S. K. Fullerton, M. W. Cole, D. Herro, J. A. Malloy, P. M. Wilder, & K. N. Headley, (Eds.), 63rd Yearbook of the Literacy Research Association (pp. 88–103). Literacy Research Association.
Heathcote, D., & Bolton, G. (1995). Drama for learning: Dorothy Heathcote’s mantle of the expert approach to education. Heinemann.
Johnson, E., & Enriquez, G. (2015). On literacies, learning, and bodies. In Enriquez, G., Johnson,
E., Kontovourki, S., & Mallozzi, C. A. (Eds.), Literacies, learning, and the body:
Putting theory and research into pedagogical practice (pp. 272–277). Routledge.
Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (2012). Literacies. Cambridge University Press.
Kliewer, C. (2008). Seeing all kids as readers. Paul H. Brookes.
Landay, E., & Wootton, K. (2012). A reason to read: Linking literacy and the arts. Harvard Education Press.
Long, K., & Christel, M. T. (2019). Bring on the Bard: Active drama approaches for Shakespeare’s diverse student readers. National Council of Teachers of English.
Mandell, J., & Wolf, L. J. (2001). Acting, learning and change: Creating original plays with adolescents. Heinemann.
National Council of Teachers of English. (2005). Multimodal literacies  [Position statement]. https://ncte.org/statement/multimodalliteracies/
Perry, M., & Medina, C. (2011). Embodiment and performance in pedagogy research: Investigating the possibility of the body in curriculum experience. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 27(3), 62–75.
Roser, N., Martinez, M., Moore, H., & Palmer, D. (2014). Reinvite drama into classrooms, Part 2: Exploring stories through process drama. International Reading Association.
Roser, N., Palmer, D., Greeter, E., Martinez, M., & Wooten, D. A. (2015). “That isn’t fair!”/”¡No es justo!” Process drama for children: Learning to think critically about picture books in English and Spanish. In D. A. Wooten & B. E. Cullinan (Eds.), Children’s literature in the reading program: Engaging young readers in the 21st century (pp. 127–149). International Literacy Association.
Schroeter, S., & Wager, A. C. (2016). Blurring boundaries: Drama as a critical multimodal literacy for examining 17th-century witch hunts. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 60(4), 405–413.
Siegel, M. (1995). More than words: The generative power of transmediation for learning. Canadian Journal of Education, 20(4), 455–475.
Whitmore, K. F. (2015). “Becoming the story” in the joyful world of Jack and the Beanstalk. Language Arts, 93(1), 25–37.
Wilhelm, J. D., & Edmiston, B. (1998). Imagining to learn: Inquiry, ethics, and integration through drama. Heinemann.
Wilson, G. P. (2003). Supporting young children’s thinking through tableau. Language Arts, 80(5), 375–383.
ADDITIONAL SELECTED RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS
Boal, A. (2002). Games for actors and non-actors. (A. Jackson, Trans.; 2nd ed.). Routledge.
Cahnmann-Taylor, M., & Souto-Manning, M. (2010). Teachers act up! Creating multicultural
learning communities through theatre. Teachers College Press.
Dawson, K., & Lee, B. K. (2018). Drama-based pedagogy: Activating learning across the curriculum. Intellect Books.
Spolin, V. (1986). Theatre games for the classroom: A teacher’s handbook. Northwestern University Press.
Wilhelm, J. D. (2008). “You Gotta BE the Book”: Teaching engaged and reflective reading with
Adolescents. Teachers College Press and National Council of Teachers of English.
This document was revised by a working committee comprising the following:
- Kathryn F. Whitmore, Chair, Metropolitan State University of Denver, CO
- Brittany Brewer, Michigan State University, East Lansing
- Blanca Caldas, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
- James S. Chisholm, University of Louisville, KY
This statement is a revision of the statement titled Informal Classroom Drama (1982).
This position statement may be printed, copied, and disseminated without permission from NCTE.