How theatre techniques can help students learn

One of the biggest challenges in education is the creation of an engaging, enriching and equitable classroom atmosphere which is ideal for learning. If the children are in a state of emotional stress or worry, they are unlikely to be open to learning the topic introduced by the teacher. Children have to feel that the classroom is an unstressful space that promotes learning, something that human beings naturally do. The manner in which knowledge is divided into different areas may not be obvious or intuitive to all the students. This could create a kind of disconnect between the child’s natural curiosity and the pedagogical practices in school.

Affective filter

This disconnect could manifest itself as fear, anxiety, lack of motivation or lack of self-confidence. Unless a teacher makes a special effort, classrooms create emotional states that are not ideal for learning. Linguist Stephen Krashen uses the metaphor of a filter to describe how emotional factors make it difficult for young second language learners in classrooms to learn their target language. The emotional factors create an ‘affective filter’, which blocks the student from picking up language in a smooth manner. Can we recreate in the classroom something similar to the natural situation in which a child picks up his home language? Noam Chomsky, who has been the most influential linguist after World War II, observed that children learn their home languages in natural contexts without any explicit teaching.

One way to bring the classroom to life in engaging ways and lower students’ affective filters is to use theatre-based techniques. In one interactive English session conducted at a government higher primary school in Bengaluru, the aim was to teach question words to Kannada-medium students of Class 6. The teacher leveraged her years of theatre experience to pique the children’s interest through planned activities that had them actively engaged. Though she did not speak Kannada, her theatrical techniques lowered the affective filter, fostering an environment highly conducive to language learning. The use of expressions, movements and language reduced anxiety while increasing students’ motivation, making them more receptive learners. Students were given the option to act out their responses to demonstrate comprehension. Collaborative skits facilitated peer learning in the target language. The use of sentence-frames provided scaffolding and practise, and performing built confidence.

This experience underscores an important lesson — embodied theatrical approaches can enrich and enliven the learning process in powerful ways. Often, educational institutions prioritise intellectual content over physical expression and kinetic engagement. However, our work in developing stories as Open Educational Resources (OER) revealed how training teachers in voice modulation, pitch control and theatrical narration equipped them to become captivating storytellers.

In language teaching

Many teachers feel hesitant to incorporate theatre techniques into their pedagogy. Some believe theatre requires special talent or training they lack. Some might even feel that such activities take time away from ‘teaching the textbook’. However, many educators unknowingly already use theatre-based strategies in their classrooms for various purposes related to language teaching — say, a Marathi teacher using dramatic storytelling to introduce new vocabulary, a Kannada teacher in Bengaluru making students act out dialogues to practise conversational skills, or a Hindi teacher leveraging role-playing to explore different perspectives on a literary text.

Simple theatre-based activities have immense value, even for teachers untrained in theatre. Basic techniques like using different voices or sound effects, exaggerated expressions, or gestures to tell a story spark engagement and imagination. Having students act out vocabulary or discussions embeds learning kinaesthetically. Short improvised skits can help build listening skills, focus and teamwork.

Children themselves could be trained using recorded stories and theatrical presentations of them so that they become more comfortable interacting in unfamiliar situations. The process of making children more comfortable with making stories or theatre-related recordings, their confidence would improve and can have other benefits, such as helping children learn public speaking. So the effectiveness of theatre in classroom contexts may improve as a result of, and not in spite of, digital technology.

The Article was published in The Hindu Education Plus New Paper.


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