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Developing literacy in the drama curriculum at Key Stages 4 and 5

6 min read
Sharon Leftwich-Lloyd, FCCT, Lead Practitioner and Progress Coordinator for Drama and Theatre, The Polesworth School, UK

Over 22 years of teaching, I have observed that my students are mostly driven by a love of practical rather than theoretical work when they opt for drama; this preference creates a motivation gap between practical and theoretical achievement. Students’ need to develop literacy skills inspired this case study, which involved developing ‘targeted vocabulary instruction’ and ‘opportunities for structured talk’, as recommended by the Education Endowment Foundation’s report on improving literacy in secondary schools. (EEF, 2021) This paper explores the implementation of research-informed strategies at a comprehensive secondary school to develop written attainment and literacy in Key Stages 4 and 5 drama and theatre. 

Many of my own students resort to clichéd, predictable language when describing ideas and character, despite having rich, highly creative approaches in their practical work. For example, a student verbalised their sophisticated performance of Inspector Fix sneakily spying on Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days as ‘I watched Fogg and looked down’, rather than ‘I hunched down into my seat and peeked sporadically over and to the side of my newspaper with lowered brows, before quickly hunching down to hide’. Scholarly discourse has repeatedly highlighted that ‘[high-]quality classroom talk’ leads to ‘greater retention of subject-specific knowledge, vocabulary acquisition and reasoning skills’ (Gaunt and Stott, 2019, p. 6) and thus improves students’ writing. My first key step was to provide a similar level of planning and resources for oracy as for writing. I began with scaffolded sentence stems and vocabulary boxes for highly structured oracy activities to bridge the gap between practical and written work. I aimed to teach students to speak in a formal, structured way, thereby using talk as a rehearsal for written examinations. Supplying sentence stems and rich tier 2 vocabulary (mature words utilised in literature) reduced their cognitive load, thus enabling them to focus on the quality of responses.

Students were provided with stems – for example, ‘I interpret x as… because…’, ‘on the line…, I would…’ and ‘this would show the audience…’. Pair discussions provided structure and students thought more deeply, making notes and drafting their ideas before explaining them to a partner or group. The tier 2 vocabulary boxes – for example, vocabulary describing atmosphere listed from light/positive to tense/negative, with ‘ecstatic’ and ‘nightmarish’ as extremes – were used in a purposeful way, and students considered the best word for their interpretation. Subsequently, their ability to express creative practical ideas began to improve. To further extend and improve student vocabulary, I adopted specific strategies from Beck et al. (2013) and Quigley (2018, 2022) to teach tier 2 words explicitly; particularly successful strategies included simplified definitions, etymology for key words and repetition in a multitude of contexts. I arranged words in tables by type or usage, and explored synonyms, antonyms and word gradients – a diagrammatic way of showing words on a continuum (for example, irritated, vexed, provoked, furious, enraged) – to continually build students’ vocabulary. The latter were particularly effective in enabling students to explore and experiment with new words. 

Developing structures for students to learn and recall new words was critical at this point. Caviglioli’s (2019) summary of research on dual coding to reinvent and redesign resources was key. This technique of presenting information graphically and textually simultaneously creates two memory triggers and doubles the chances of successful recall. Our departmental ‘drama 6s’ – six elements for each drama perspective (for example, acting = voice, posture, movement, gesture, facial expression and space) – was our starting point. I used the free online resource to assign monochrome icons to each element that students needed to learn. I also created diagrammatic scaffolding for each type of GCSE exam question, removing superfluous words in favour of a clear diagrammatic flow. 

Having developed students’ ability to structure logically and sequentially and to describe their ideas in precise detail, I needed them to have deeper, richer, broader theatrical knowledge, incorporating an understanding of plot, character, form, style, genre and historical context. Inspired by an ambition to give students access to the best playwrights, stories and characters available, I decided to implement an intervention of wider reading of plays as homework, followed by in-class discussion to develop, disseminate and interrogate ideas. I spent time refining a list of plays diverse in form, style, genre, theme and period for GCSE and A-level students, which was rich in substance and age-appropriate. Selecting 12 plays for each key stage from the totality of theatrical history was both ambitious and subjective, so I engaged with subject specialists through social media to seek opinions. I created resources for each play, which included background material alongside images and extracts to challenge students in terms of their own creativity, of what drama can explore and of how theatre can push its own boundaries. Each resource ends with three key questions, the first two challenging ideas and understanding, and the third always ‘How does this play improve/develop/expand your ideas about what theatre is and what theatre is for?’. Exposing students to the very best enabled them to think about their work within a wider context, as well as further developing their theatrical vocabulary.

GCSE and A-level drama require students to write from specific perspectives. To be successful, they need to read through and then think like the relevant lens, whether acting, directing or in a specific design role. Webb’s (2022) ‘read like a…’ struck an immediate chord with me; she created well-structured graphics aimed at specific subject disciplines when reading, and shared these via Twitter (@funkypedagogy). To develop students’ ability to read, think and write through specific disciplinary lenses, I worked alongside my Year 13 class to develop ‘read like a… director, actor, set designer, costume designer, lighting designer and sound designer’. Section B of the AQA Drama and Theatre paper requires students to move between thinking and writing like a director, actor and designer. Webb’s structure was perfect for creating a scaffold for students’ thinking and, ultimately, writing. I split each resource into four dual-coded key areas – for example, a lighting designer reads for: references to location; references to time; the focus of the scene; and the emotion and atmosphere. Bullet-pointed questions for each key area then further guide students during the early stages of reading through a lens. These have been utilised in class as scaffolding, which has gradually been removed; the structured approach enabled students to learn a process and quickly change their perspectives when reading during the examination. 

The result of these interventions has been, in the first place, marks in written work improving by an average of one band across my cohorts in Years 11 and 13. More fundamentally, students have developed in confidence and knowledge, are more able to express their ideas, and regularly access and use a higher level of literacy in practical lessons. Students are better able to attempt new questions and utilise oracy to experiment with ideas before committing them to paper. Students’ evaluative responses have been encouraging: Finley in Year 11 reported, ‘The diagrams showing how to answer questions have helped me to centralise my ideas into logical and coherent answers that satisfy the criteria of the question.’ Maisy in Year 13 said, ‘“Read like a…” enabled and encouraged me to put myself in the position of a director or designer, with a greater understanding of how to create and describe my practical ideas, as well as increasing my confidence in answering these questions in an exam.’ Holly in Year 13 added, ‘I found the resources very useful in filling gaps in my knowledge, especially social, cultural and historical. I found the idea of “read like a…” a unique and effective way to shift my perspective.’ Our journey to develop literacy across school continues. 

Some key principles in applying these ideas are:

  • Identify key areas where students struggle to express their ideas; map and teach vocabulary that would enable them to do so
  • Scaffold students’ talk to enable them to ‘speak like a… historian/theologist/musician…
  • Extend thinking by presenting challenging texts by the best practitioners and writers in your subject.



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    Author(s): Bill Lucas