Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Speechless Lessons for Beginners
By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville
There was a full moon over us, a forested park before us, and an elfin presence all around us. It was an ideal setting and a perfect atmosphere for watching a performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The scene was in the medieval Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov, and we, the audience, were waiting breathlessly in the castle park for the actors to appear beneath us and our revolving, open-air amphitheatre… and then they did appear, and they did play, but they did not speak.
We wondered, watched, and continued to listen, but not a word was spoken.
And then, soon enough, we realized who we were. We were an audience of individuals, foreign tourists, who spoke some European language, Asian language, and other language as a first language, and many of us did not speak Czech, the language of Cesky Krumlov, and the players and the producers knew all that.
So, believe it or not, they performed a wordless version of Shakespeare’s play.
Even though many, perhaps most, people in the audience were familiar with the play, did it work? Was the atmosphere important enough? Did we follow the storyline? Were we captivated? How much, in the end, did we think about what could have been said, but wasn’t?
Words or no words, we did follow along.
And no, we did not receive headphones and an IPod with a recording of the play in our native tongue. And no, we did not get a pamphlet with a translation of the play.
The show was a ballet version. It was a wordless, ballet performance which, judging by the audience’s final reaction, spoke deeply to the great majority of us.
But what about the players and their roles? Puck wasn’t difficult to isolate, but how did we know that the girl on the left was Helena and the girl on the right was Hermia, and how did we discover where Demetrius was and who was playing Lysander? Well, we simply read their shirts; their names were written right across them!
Here are a few pictures of the play: http://www.otacivehlediste.cz/porad/1025-a-midsummer-nights-dream )
Wordless plays maybe, but what about wordless lessons? What about speechless language lessons? Is that more crazy than wordless Shakespeare? Maybe, maybe not. But why? And for whom?
After the play, walking back down the steep castle hill to my B&B that night, I thought about planning into my language classes a few more wordless, or partly wordless, lessons, lessons in which words were simply not the main focus. I was thinking mostly about lessons for beginners, learners who often, and quite naturally, resort to gestures when communicating and who are generally vulnerable and quieter in their L2 language circumstances.
To my mind, the number one rule of a wordless lesson or activity, the rule of wordlessness, can bring some relief to beginning ESL learners. Their language level becomes irrelevant and they can feel relaxed on that count even though they are still in the language classroom. These teaching moments can build a non-threatening atmosphere in the learning environment. Through them, students can become more comfortable with the teacher and their peers.
All right, but can such atmosphere-building activities link to actual language-learning activities? And what are some of these activities?
For example, on the first day of a class for beginners, we can ask students to write down their names on cards and then, when pointed to in turn, they can hold up their name cards and mime for the class something that they like, or better yet, do not like. But how will they know what to do, know that they should write down their names and then mime? They will know because we will have started the activity with ourselves, our own name and miming (perhaps of yawning, looking at a clock, getting out of bed, and portraying a sour face about it all).
Taking from this activity, we can move to another by noting down students’ pet peeves and drawing up a list of verbs which are used to express the peeves performed. Afterwards, we can request, by pointing and gesturing, that the group of students mime this or that student’s peeve and then provide the class with the verb or phrase expressing that peeve, at which point a vocabulary learning activity may begin.
It seems to me that I’ve had some real success with beginners and such activities.
At least a few groups became tighter or more comfortable with each other afterwards, and most of those beginners appeared to appreciate learning those words together in that communal and contextual way.
Do you teach beginners and use, or think about using, such wordless activities? Any thoughts on their value?