The University of Iowa

Purposeful Playwriting: Teaching Literacy Skills Through Drama

Teen students writing plays in class

Students can get prepared to practice literacy skills by writing a play through instructional techniques like brainstorming ideas, writing an outline, and warm-up writing exercises.

By:  

Meg Mechelke

Lead Student Writer, Iowa Reading Research Center

Posted on: September 1, 2022

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series that will discuss playwriting as an instructional technique to help adolescents improve their literacy skills.

Often, adolescents’ experiences with drama in the middle- and high-school literacy classrooms consist of things like reading a handful of Shakespeare’s plays and watching the 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet (the one where Romeo looks like a young Zac Efron). However, few students are given the opportunity to craft their own plays, an experience that can be both personally satisfying for them and provide the opportunity to practice numerous literacy skills, especially when paired with an in-class workshop of student-written plays.

How Playwriting Can Benefit Students as Writers

Playwriting can be an excellent way for middle- and high-school students to work on improving their writing skills. First, as with any type of creative writing, students can be taught to draw from their experiences and/or use their imaginations to create stories that are meaningful to them. Teaching students to write creative works, such as plays, that incorporate cultural and social elements from their lives may help them advance their writing skills and transfer those skills to non-school settings. This is because they learn to associate writing skills with their day-to-day experiences, rather than seeing writing solely as something they do for school (Chizhik, 2009). When teachers push students to write about the things they care about, students learn to use literacy as a tool to communicate ideas they are passionate about, rather than learning literacy for learning’s sake. Remind your students that though they may not be writing plays in their day-to-day lives, they will need to be able to write about the things they care about. As you are teaching playwriting, ask your students what issues are most important to them. Are they worried about whether they will find a date for homecoming? Are they frustrated by curfews or other rules set by caregivers? Do they want to find a way to engage in local politics? The answers to these and many more questions could be the premise for a play. Encourage your students to write the kinds of plays they would be interested in watching themselves and remind them that there are no wrong ideas when it comes to what a good play should be about.

Playwriting is also a great way for students to practice several foundational writing skills. Western playwriting has historically been a very plot-centric art form. The “action” or plot of the play ranks first in Aristotle’s list of the six central elements of any play. In the classroom, teachers can pair playwriting with a unit on plot structure as a hands-on way to teach students why the organization of events in a story is so important. Aside from the plot, playwriting also requires understanding of other literary elements. For example, teachers should teach students to think deeply about the characters they are creating. Who are these people? What are they like? And most importantly, how does the way they speak as written by the student playwrights communicate that to the audience? Teachers of playwriting can also help their students learn about tone and mood by showing students how diction and syntax can shape the way an audience understands a character’s personality or the genre of a play. The ability to consider the different connotations of similar words and the ability to structure writing in a way that expresses ideas in clear and varied ways are Common Core Language Standards for Grades 6–12 (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2022). The writing skills learned and practiced by writing plays are transferable to other areas of academic writing as well. One study showed that middle-school students who participated in a 9-week playwriting residency significantly outperformed on a writing examination those who did not. Students in the residency took one 2-hour class each week during which they were exposed to a variety of playwriting exercises, including lessons on character development, dialogue writing, and the creation of a clear setting within a play (Chizhik, 2009).

Furthermore, studies have also found that playwriting can be a helpful learning tool for English learner students or bilingual students who speak in another language or vernacular dialect at home. When teaching playwriting, teachers should encourage students to create characters with different patterns of speech. They should teach students to explore both their home language or dialect and the English taught in the classroom (Heath, 1993). Playwriting also provides the opportunity to teach students to write for multiple purposes within the same text. For example, a character may be providing an argumentative monologue in one scene and describing a detailed series of events to a scene partner in another. Thus, students are practicing a wide variety of writing forms all within one project (Gardiner & Anderson, 2012). Teachers should first teach these types of writing and then assign students to use each type in their plays. For example, a playwriting assignment could require at least one scene of dialogue, one argumentative monologue, and at least five descriptive stage directions (while still allowing students the creative freedom to choose the context in which to present these elements).

How to Teach Playwriting to Beginners

There are several methods of teaching playwriting, all of which have their own strengths. For one method of teaching a plot-driven, Western style of playwriting, check out our “Beginner’s Guide to Playwriting” (see Supplemental Materials for Teachers), which can be used by teachers to guide students step-by-step through the playwriting process. This guide can be supported by additional explicit instruction.

First, introduce students to the two most important elements of a play: plot and characters. Discuss why these elements are important and how they can be clearly communicated to the audience. Next, instruct students to brainstorm the kinds of issues they might like to write about. Mind-mapping, freewriting, or group discussion can all be productive instructional methods for coming up with creative and engaging ideas. Once students know what they want to write about, with teacher support, they can start to develop the plot and characters of their plays. By working through our “Beginner’s Guide to Playwriting” (see Supplemental Materials for Teachers) students will be able to develop a general outline of their pieces.

After outlining, it can be intimidating to start the writing process. It can be helpful to allow students to warm up with smaller playwriting exercises before they begin writing their full plays, especially if they do not have much creative writing experience. To prepare for dialogue writing, encourage students to listen to the conversations that happen around them every day. Perhaps students could be assigned to write down a handful of interesting sentences they overhear over the course of a day or two. Then, talk about what makes those fragments of dialogue interesting or exciting. Did one of the speakers use unexpected word choice or unique syntax? Do they speak in long, descriptive sentences or short, surprising fragments? After this, students can work up to writing a page or two of practice dialogue between two characters in the plays they plan to write. Be sure to explain the conventions of dialogue writing ahead of time to alleviate any unnecessary stress (see page 6 of our “Beginner’s Guide to Playwriting”). As students become more comfortable with writing dialogue, instruct them to work up to longer chunks of text by assigning them to write a monologue from the perspective of their plays’ protagonists. Neither the dialogue assignment nor this monologue need appear in the final product of the play. These are just ways to practice a new style of writing. Stage directions can be practiced in a similar way. Ask your students to pick two or three characters from their plays and write a one-page scene in which those characters interact without speaking. Encourage your students to think outside of the box about what can happen physically on stage. For a short mentor text of a scene without dialogue, see Act Without Words I by Samuel Beckett. This scene is a great example of how a writer can tell an interesting story without using any spoken lines. Ask your students to identify what makes the actions in this piece so engaging and to discuss how the play would be different if the actor were assigned dialogue. For more information on how use mentor texts, see our previous blog post “Using Mentor Texts to Learn from the Best and Improve Students’ Writing.

Now, your students are ready to begin writing their plays. It may be helpful to give a brief overview of how play scripts are formatted beforehand (see our “Beginner’s Guide to Playwriting” for more information on this). Once students have completed a first draft of their plays, they are ready to participate in a playwriting workshop. In the next post in this series, I will explain the benefits of a playwriting workshop and provide guidance on teaching using this method.

Supplemental Materials for Teachers

PDF iconBeginner’s Guide to Playwriting

Step-by-step guidance for middle- and high-school students on writing a play. This will be particularly helpful for beginning playwrights and can be used with teacher or caregiver guidance or independently. The guide includes a glossary of playwriting terms.

References

Chizhik, A. W. (2009). Literacy for playwriting or playwriting for literacy. Education and Urban Society, 41, 387–409. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013124508327649

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2022). Language | ELA Literacy Standards. Common Core State Standards Initiative. http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/L/

Gardiner, P., & Anderson, M. (2012). Can you read that again? Playwriting, literacy and reading the 'spoken' word. English in Australia, 47(2), 80–89.

Heath, S. B. (1993). Inner city life through drama: Imagining the language classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 27, 177–192. https://doi.org/10.2307/3587142

Heath, S. B. (1996). Re-creating literature in the ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 30, 776–779. https://doi.org/10.2307/3587935


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