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From Storybook to Stage: Creating Scripts for ESL Learners

At Chatteris, we know that drama is a fun and language-rich way for students to practice using English. In this post, Chatteris’ own Lucy Watts-Lanning shares her top tips on how to adapt a story into a playscript appropriate for second-language learners.

As any of Chatteris’ secondary tutors can tell you, Hong Kong schools love drama. No, not that kind of drama, the scripts and stages and spotlights kind! 

We’ve all sat in school drama classes before, some excited at the chance to perform, some dreading standing in front of the whole class with nowhere to hide …

Now, imagine your lines are not written in your native language! And you’re being watched by the whole year group! 

Chatteris Tutor Lucy created play scripts for her students based on the story of Peter Pan. Teaching material development is a key part of many of our tutors’ roles. | Image by Chatteris

At Chan Nam Chong Memorial College, junior classes celebrate the end of the year’s English speaking lessons by taking to the stage in groups to perform some classic English tales of heroism: Peter Pan and Robin Hood. 

Tasked with transforming legendary adventures into digestible scripts suitable for the (generally) low English proficiency at my school, I set about thinking how I was going to successfully take these characters from storybooks to the stage…

1. Condense dialogue down into the key points

No one likes an overly wordy script. Especially not teenagers performing in an unfamiliar language. Make your script punchy and concise by cutting out dialogue from the source text, and only keeping in the key points that keep the story flowing. 

Students participate in an acting game during their lesson with a Chatteris Tutor. Drama related activities can provide valuable language use practice for students learning English. | Image by Chatteris

2. Do not use complex stage directions

“Peter moved one step to the left, shaking his head and frowning at Captain Hook. Then he stepped back and looked around. Then he took out his sword. Then he looked back at Captain Hook and stepped forward.” 

Students of a low proficiency will likely find all of these directions overwhelming, and focusing on them will detract from the delivery of their lines. Short directions are ok, so that students know where they need to be, but don’t overcomplicate things with unnecessary details – let them add their own flair to their movements!

Instead of the word-fest above, try “Peter took out his sword and looked at Captain Hook.” Much easier!

3. Have multiple narrators

School drama performances always need a narrator, and what better way to get the whole group involved than to share the responsibility of recounting the tale to the audience? Keep it succinct, you want to let the action do the talking. This will also give a chance for your shyest students to shine. If they are feeling confident, you could even work some audience interactions into the narrators’ lines. 

Excited primary students enjoy an interactive performance of Robin Hood, hosted by Chatteris at a partner school. Whether the students are actors or audience members, plays are an engaging activity for learners. | Image by Chatteris

4. Add in characters, for example yourself!

Novels and plays can be hard to keep track of, especially when new characters and new places are being introduced in every scene. To ground the story and make it more relatable, add yourself or another teacher into the script! Students will find it hilarious to see their English teacher fight against the pirates in Peter Pan, or arriving on horseback to meet Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. They’ll certainly be able to remember the plot of that particular scene. 

Drama is a great way for Chatteris tutors to interact with their school’s students. It can build their confidence and creativity, as well as creating an extra opportunity for natural conversation! It also allows tutors to channel their own interests into the Chatters experience – whether that be writing, directing, performing or co-ordinating. 

Keen to explore language through drama with Hong Kong students, like Lucy? Apply now to become a Chatteris Tutor.

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