Acting out English

STUDENTS in rural schools start with a massive disadvantage in learning literature, Centre for British Teachers (CfBT) language coordinator Helen Campbell Pickford highlighted. 

“Many students don’t understand English or have the language necessary to read a book, so you have students who can’t use simple tenses or string sentences trying to read complex novels and poems such as The Prisoner of Zenda or Robinson Crusoe – which is impossible for them.  

“Many are also not used to reading a whole book, so they get bored especially if the teacher reads the books aloud in class, sentence by sentence,” she said. 

Drama provides students with opportunities to hone English skills ininteractive ways.

The fact is, she stressed, the literary component is just too difficult for more than 80% of rural school students. 

Under CfBT, Campbell Pickford is working with the Malacca state Education Department to support rural teachers in teaching English, including conducting workshops for teachers on creative ways to teach literature in the language classroom. 

The workshops cover all techniques of teaching literature such as looking at specific words in the poem or studying characters and talking about their appearances and characteristics. 

Campbell Pickford shared that this was the first time she has worked on a drama project with students who have limited command of the English language. 

“In the first two rehearsals, they were terrified of me and could not understand my accent. I had to speak very slowly, in simple sentences, and often repeated instructions. 

“After three days, however, they got more comfortable with each other and began to speak and joke in English. 

“The camaraderie was fostered by various theatre games including vocal and breathing exercises. The exercise became a common practice before going on to stage, which,” she shared,” was watched with amusement and bemusement by the rest of the host school.”  

CfBT senior districts English language coordinator Stephen J. Hall explained that the drama was a pilot project that will be shared with other coordinators in the country. 

“The thrust of our work is training teachers to make classrooms more interactive in an area where little or no English is spoken. 

“We work closely with the Education Ministry to provide teachers with the core pedagogy development skills but they will also have the opportunity to develop specific areas that can then be shared across the project,” he said.  

Drama in the classroom, he added, is one technique.  

“Other co-ordinators are using music and songs in the classroom; some are incorporating basic IT in teaching and learning while others are using games to motivate young learners. The main thing is, they have to meet specific needs including something basic such as process writing skills for PMR examinations,” he said. 

Staging a play is a lot of work in the beginning, but the benefits are plenty, noted Noorainun Anuar head of the Language Unit with the Malacca state Education Department, 

“Take The Pearl for instance. It was really a simple production and there were no elaborate props. Many teachers feel that doing drama will be a burden but what Helen and the students did was manageable,” she said. 

Noorainun hoped that it helped Form Five students understand the book better. 

“That is the objective of the project. We hope the students would be able to relate it to their lesson and that it would help them answer the literature question in their SPM examination.” 

Teacher Rajesvari Seeny from SMK Seri Tanjong agreed. 

“It is easier for students to watch the play rather than read the novel because they can’t imagine just from reading, so this play makes the story come alive. Many students feel that referring to the dictionary is too difficult and are not motivated to read.” 

Having the schools’ own Form Four students acting in the play, Rajesvari hoped, would spark more interest in literature.  

“I’m happy to watch my students go out there and speak. Many were shy to speak in English in case they made mistakes, but after rehearsals, they are now more confident. Our biggest challenge is to get them to use English outside classroom.”  

Her collaegue Norhalinda Yunos concurred. 

“The challenge is to give students more exposure to the language. For most, the classroom is the only opportunity they get to use the language and that is only for 40 to 80 minutes a day. Activities like this help because students get to hear the language, and those involved directly in the project are forced to speak in English.”  

Teachers Faniza Ibrahim and Shaiful Putra Zakaria from SM Alam Shah, Putrajaya, were glad that they had made the trip out to Malacca to watch the performance with their students. 

“The play has breathed life into the novel and added layers of perspectives to it. This will help students understand the text and characters better,” said Faniza. 

An advocate of using drama in the classroom, she nonetheless admitted that it could sometimes be difficult to stage productions, given the teachers’ heavy workload.  

“But I think staging dramas is really worth it because the students enjoy it and get to use the language actively. It really helps them improve their English. We can start small, with interclass drama competitions or have more role-playing exercises. My students love role-playing in the classroom.” 

Related Stories:On the road with The Pearl The cast speak 

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