Drama in foreign language classes
Teaching and learning with the head, heart, hands and feet

In drama workshops, young people not only learn to become more aware of their bodies, but also expand their language skills.
In drama workshops, young people not only learn to become more aware of their bodies, but also expand their language skills. | Photo: © Martin Welker

Acting has a positive impact on personality development, as even Schiller and Goethe once observed. Drama is increasingly finding its way into foreign language lessons too, through pantomime, tableaus or entire school theatre performances.

“Bretter, die die Welt bedeuten” – this popular German saying (incidentally also the standard translation of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage”) refers to theatre in which aspects of the real or fictitious world are presented by actors and, ideally, are critically reflected upon by the audience. Meaning roughly “boards that mean the world”, it comes from Friedrich Schiller’s 1802 poem An die Freunde (To My Friends), in which the idealistic poet attributes great importance to imagination. The phrase implies that the narrow confines of our everyday experience can be overcome imaginatively using the simplest means.
Not only Friedrich Schiller but also Johann Wolfgang von Goethe acknowledged the added value to be derived from theatre. In Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, his Bildungsroman (or coming-of-age novel) that was published in 1795/96, he describes the powerful influence that theatre can exert on a young adult’s personal development. Through his experience of theatre, the protagonist becomes more aware of his own body, overcomes his stage-fright, acts more calmly in his social environment and, not least, expands his language skills.
It is thanks to drama in education, which in a scientific and artistically intensive manner explores the productive tension between drama and education, that such aesthetic spaces for experience have increasingly been created in (foreign language) teaching.

Expert discussion of drama in education

It is not difficult to relate the perspectives which Schiller and Goethe raised in their literary texts to pedagogical contexts, and particularly to foreign language teaching. If a few boards are enough to serve as a stage on which aspects of the world can be presented and critically reflected upon, then this would ideally be an empty room that allows as much freedom of movement as possible for “teaching and learning with the head, heart, hands and feet” (Schewe 1993: 7-8).
This kind of holistic view forms the basis for a concept of foreign language teaching in which drama plays a pivotal role. In it, dramatic art, also in conjunction with other disciplines such as the performative arts, storytelling, dance and opera, becomes a source of inspiration for activities in the foreign language lesson (ibid). Since foreign language teaching can in principle follow a drama pedagogical approach for all target groups, at all language learning levels and in all subareas, a more pronounced artistic orientation in foreign language teaching should be welcomed (ibid).   
Nowadays a wide range of publications exists that explore the educational role played by drama in foreign language classes and seminars (see overview article by Schewe 2016). In the specialist journal SCENARIO, which was established in 2007, more than 200 articles by authors from over 20 countries have been published. These contributions make it quite clear that drama in education has evolved slowly but surely to become a field of research and practice in its own right in foreign language teaching. Anyone interested is welcome to contribute to the journal, which is designed to promote an exchange about drama education activities in foreign language teaching in different countries. 

The impact of classes designed to include drama  

In drama-based exercises, learning generally takes place in conjunction with movement, which gives rise to positive retention effects (Sambanis 2016:54). In this context it is not enough merely to be a spectator; pupils must be active themselves (ibid). Following several repetitions of the combination of movement and content it is no longer necessary to perform the movement because the memory of the movement is in itself enough to activate the content (ibid). The retention effects are particularly evident over a prolonged period of time (ibid).

Content coupled with movement promotes the retention effect. Content coupled with movement promotes the retention effect. | Photo: © Martin Welker If it is more difficult “to forget something that was learnt with the body and the mind, that is to say on a multisensory level, than something that was absorbed solely through the academic channels of hearing and seeing” (Sambanis 2016: 51), is it not then about time that we began searching for new ways in which to teach language, literature and culture?

Culture of performative teaching and learning

Drama in education, Dramapädagogik, Theaterpädagogik, Jeux dramatiques – the various descriptions in different languages reflect the fact that disciplines have emerged which explore the productive tension between dramatic playing, theatre and pedagogy. One thing that all these culture-specific disciplines have in common is that they are closely based around the performative arts, and particularly around the art form that is theatre. For this reason, “performative” should be used as an international generic term. It is used to emphasize an innovative pedagogical practice that arises through an engagement with the performative arts (Even & Schewe 2016).
Over the course of the past two decades, foreign language teaching has developed considerably in German- and English-speaking countries, and the educational potential of performative approaches is increasingly being recognized and exploited. An impressive field of practice has emerged, though a distinction needs to be made here between small-scale and large-scale performative activities. Small-scale activities are those that can be performed within one class or seminar, such as the preparation and presentation of tableaus, a short pantomime play or voice collage, whereas large-scale activities include school theatre performances or improve theatre workshops that cannot take place in everyday lesson time. Such lively performative practices will presumably continue to have a strong impact within foreign language didactics.

Drama in education as part of a university degree

Preparing a tableau promotes body awareness.  Preparing a tableau promotes body awareness. | Photo: © Manfred Schewe It is probably only a question of time before performance-oriented seminars become an integral part of a foreign language degree course (cf. Fleiner’s 2016 study for details of the current situation) and before the following insight becomes taken entirely for granted in teacher training:

“[T]he performative nature of teaching-learning situations is of central importance for the school. Accordingly, the physicality of the teacher and of the pupils plays a major role in the theatrical framework of the classroom. In this context, action and perception aspects and the area of the senses must complement the cognitive processes …” (Vaßen 2016: 90)
Individual institutional and specific cultural circumstances will of course determine the extent to which a new culture of teaching and learning, in which physicality is emphasized to a greater degree, is able to establish itself over the course of the next few years and decades.
To return once again to Schiller, who particularly stressed the importance of imagination for human beings: let us imagine that more and more teachers in the next few decades design their classes and seminars with their heads, hearts, hands and feet, trusting in their spontaneity and creative potential and thereby ensuring that (foreign) worlds are created time and time again on the simple boards of seminar rooms and classrooms, generating endless fascination.


Even, Susanne/Schewe, Manfred (Eds.) (2016): Performatives Lehren, Lernen, Forschen – Performative Teaching, Learning, Research. Berlin: Schibri.
Fleiner, Micha (2016): Performancekünste im Hochschulstudium. Transversale Sprach-, Literatur- und Kulturerfahrungen in der fremdsprachlichen Lehrerbildung. Berlin: Schibri.
Sambanis, Michaela (2016): Dramapädagogik im Fremdsprachenunterricht – Überlegungen aus didaktischer und neurowissenschaftlicher Sicht. In: Even, Susanne/Schewe, Manfred (Eds.): Performatives Lehren, Lernen, Forschen – Performative Teaching, Learning, Research. Berlin: Schibri, p. 47-66.
Schewe, Manfred (1993): Fremdsprache inszenieren. Zur Fundierung einer dramapädagogischen Lehr und Lernpraxis. Oldenburg: Didaktisches Zentrum.
Schewe, Manfred (2016): Dramapädagogische Ansätze. In: Burwitz-Melzer, Eva/Mehlhorn, Brit/Riemer, Claudia/Bausch, Karl-Richard/Krumm, Hans-Jürgen (Eds.): Handbuch Fremdsprachenunterricht. 6., revised edition Tübingen: Francke Verlag, p. 354-357.
Vaßen, Florian (2016): Die Vielfalt der Theaterpädagogik in der Schule. Theater und theatrale Ausbildung im Kontext des Lehrverhaltens, als Unterrichtsmethode und als künstlerisch-ästhetisches Fach. In: Even,Susanne/Schewe, Manfred (Eds.): Performatives Lehren, Lernen, Forschen – Performative Teaching, Learning, Research. Berlin: Schibri, p. 87-125.