Drama as a targeted tool for academic language development in the middle primary years

Year: 2021

Author: Cleeve Gerkens, Rafaela

Type of paper: Individual Paper

This paper argues that drama is a powerful tool for literacy learning in the middle primary years, providing an authentic way to support students’ academic language development through extending their language experiences. Academic language skills are vital in the important literacy learning transition that occurs in Year 3-4. At this level, students require a growing bank of academic language to support their interpretation and creation of increasingly complex, discipline-specific texts. Teachers, therefore, need a toolkit of evidence-based strategies to support students’ academic language development. Drama is one such tool. Through creating authentic fictional contexts, drama allows students to try out personas and registers beyond those typical of a classroom. Currently, drama remains underused by primary teachers, and classroom-based research is needed to demonstrate ways in which drama can be utilised as a language development tool.A collective interventionist case study was undertaken in three Victorian schools to examine how middle primary teachers can use drama conventions to support their students’ academic language development. Through an in-depth examination of the ways in which individual drama conventions can provide a supportive context for teacher and student academic language use, this study aims to provide a heuristic for teachers to reflect on their own potential use of drama as a language development tool.I worked with three middle primary teachers to plan the use of drama conventions into a literacy unit of work with a view to providing opportunities for academic language use. A key finding reveals the strength of the embodied experiences created by conventions like Tableau, Mime and Improvisation in creating a contextualised, concrete bridge between students’ initial encounters with abstract academic language and their eventual take-up and ownership of this language. These embodied experiences interact powerfully with the shift in register of interaction between teacher and student created through the combination of Mantle of the Expert and Teacher in Role. These role-based conventions disrupt the traditional teacher-student classroom dynamic, supporting the use of an elevated register by teacher and students. The interplay of these embodied and role-based conventions positions students to reflect on their embodied experiences through an expert lens, empowering them to experiment with academic language appropriate to their expert status. Importantly, the conventions are most effective in promoting academic language use when paired with explicit teaching of target language and accompanying metalinguistic understanding. Future research could investigate how to authentically integrate this explicit teaching into the drama experience.