The University of Iowa

Workshopping a Play: Teaching Literacy Skills Through Playwriting

Teen students and their teacher participating in a playwriting workshop

In playwriting workshops, students practice reading comprehension, aural/oral fluency, and revision skills.

By:  

Meg Mechelke

Lead Student Writer, Iowa Reading Research Center

Posted on: October 4, 2022

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

Playwriting workshops provide a fun, interactive environment in which students can practice comprehension, fluency, and revising skills as they read plays aloud together and give each other feedback.

Teaching playwriting in the classroom has many benefits, including increasing writing fluency and narrative-building skills. In the previous post in this series, I discuss these benefits in depth and lay out some ideas for introducing students to this style of writing and practicing of playwriting skills such as dialogue writing and the creation of stage directions. Afterward, your students will be ready to write their first short plays and participate in a playwriting workshop. In addition to helping writers further develop their individual plays, these workshops are a great opportunity for all participants to practice important literacy skills.

The Benefits of Playwriting Workshops

Before getting into the details of what an effective playwriting workshop entails, let us first break down the benefits of this instructional approach. Playwriting workshops allow students to engage with written texts in multiple contexts, functioning simultaneously as writers, readers, and performers. Students are not only writing plays, but also reading and interpreting them, which drama educators and researchers Paul Gardiner and Michael Anderson (2012) suggest supports both reading fluency and comprehension skills. They also say by reading plays aloud and listening to their peers read plays aloud, students are also practicing oral and aural fluency skills.

After a workshop, the student whose work is being read should be encouraged to use both the experience of hearing their work read aloud and the ideas that came up in the feedback session to revise their play. The ability to revise writing is important in everything from creative and academic writing to drafting cover letters for job applications. It is also a Common Core ELA writing standard for Grades 6–12. Educators can use playwriting workshops and the revising that follows to encourage students to think beyond proofreading and correcting and really work to strengthen a piece of writing as a whole.

Throughout the workshopping and playwriting revision process, students must write, listen, and then rewrite to “make words ‘say’ just what they want them to mean” (Heath, 1996). Students revise their plays based on things they have heard from their peers and from having the work read aloud, rather than based solely on feedback from an authority figure. In other words, “students are encouraged not by the teacher but by the play itself, to study words and phrases, to pay attention to cues—to get it right” (Elgar, 2002).

Gardiner and Anderson (2012) also propose that playwriting and playwriting workshops naturally incorporate the four roles of a successful reader. Playwrights must be:

  1. code breakers who understand the relationship between written text and spoken words in a play
  2. text users who know how to identify and develop the purpose of a script through writing, revising, and giving feedback
  3. text participants who can bring their own experience and knowledge into their plays
  4. text analysts who can successfully analyze and comment on plays written by their peers

In addition, Gardiner and Anderson suggest that the playwriting workshop creates an authentic reason for students to practice listening to and reading words at the same time, which the US National Institute for Literacy (2007) suggests is a hugely beneficial way to develop both oral/aural and print vocabularies. The same report continues to state that some studies have shown that increased vocabulary instruction can lead to improved overall reading comprehension.

How to Workshop a Play

A playwriting workshop is an opportunity for playwrights to 1) hear their work read out loud, 2) receive feedback on their work from their peers during a feedback session, and 3) use peer feedback to support the revision process. Workshops are not only for full-length plays. Educators may also choose to have students workshop one-act plays, ten-minute plays, short scenes, etc. The following steps are applicable to workshopping a play of any length with middle school or high school students.

1) Read the Play Aloud

The first step of a playwriting workshop is for the participants read the play aloud. Either the teacher or the playwright should assign a student to read for each role, with an additional student assigned to read stage directions. Remind students to attempt to read their roles with the appropriate expression and enthusiasm. If space allows, have students sit in a circle. Begin with a reading of either the full play or a brief excerpt, as time allows, and then continue to the feedback session.

2) Feedback Session

Begin your feedback session by creating a set of “community agreements” or general expectations that your students have for one another during the workshop process. For example, some guidelines may include:

  • Listen when others are speaking.
  • Contribute feedback for the writer.
  • Be open to new perspectives/ideas.
  • Show your classmates’ work the same respect you want them to show yours.
  • Make sure that your feedback is respectful, actionable, and honest.

Encourage your students to brainstorm what additional guidelines are important to them. It may be helpful to display these rules on a screen, whiteboard, or poster throughout the process.

Next, remind all participants that this is not a space to tell the playwright what is wrong with the play or to prescribe exact rewrites. Instead, encourage your participants to help the playwright better understand the play they have already written. Ask your students to find what is working in the play and to brainstorm ways these strengths could be used to enhance the writing even further, rather than focusing on things they personally disliked about the work. It may be helpful to give examples of what constitutes helpful vs unhelpful feedback. For example, something like “I thought the quick pace of the dialogue made the character’s jokes funnier” is more helpful than “I liked that it was funny.” If you would like to incorporate further writing practice into this workshop, ask participants to write a short letter to the playwright including a short summary of the play, statements of meaning, and neutral questions (see below).

Instruct the playwright to take notes throughout both the reading and the feedback session, so that they can look back on these notes while revising the piece. Remind the playwright that not everything that is said in workshop will be helpful, but some of it will be. It may be valuable to talk to students about how to focus on helpful criticism without letting unhelpful feedback frustrate or distract from the revision process.

There are many ways to hold a successful feedback session. One common model consists of these steps, adapted from Liz Lerman’s four-step Critical Response Process (Lerman & Borstel, 2008), with an additional step added.

Step 1: Statements of Meaning

During this section of the workshop, participants state what was memorable, surprising, or exciting about the play. Encourage students to be as specific as possible and to stay positive. Push more advanced students to think beyond simple “I liked…” statements and to articulate why certain moments stood out to them. This can also be a time for students to share objective statements about the play, such as “This play makes me feel…,” or more abstract ideas, such as “If this play was a color, it would be…”

Examples of Statements of Meaning

“I thought it was really interesting that the play was not told in chronological order.”

“The fact that all the characters had distinct speech patterns made the play more engaging.”

Step 2: Playwright as Questioner

The playwright can now choose to ask the other participants any questions the playwright wishes to ask. Remind the playwright to avoid asking whether or not the readers “liked” certain aspects of the play, and to focus instead on specific, craft-based questions.

Examples of Possible Playwright Questions

“Did the character’s choice in this moment feel logical?”

“Could you follow the transition between Scene 1 and Scene 2?”

“Were you surprised by the ending of the piece?”

Step 3: Neutral Questions

Participants may ask neutral, craft-based questions of the playwright, which the playwright generally does not answer. It may take some coaching to keep students on track with truly neutral questions. Encourage students to think about the play that the playwright is trying to write, rather than staying focused on their own personal preferences. In general, these questions should be open-ended and not require a response from the playwright. If this section shifts into more of a Q&A-style process with the playwright answering, it can derail the focus of the workshop. Encourage the playwright to write the questions down and to reflect on them after the workshop, rather than answering them in the moment. It may also be helpful to have students practice writing neutral questions about other mentor texts before workshopping their peers’ projects.

Examples of Neutral Questions

“Why did you organize the scenes in the order you did?”

“I’m curious about why this character reacted the way they did to this event.”

Step 4: Opinions

Participants may state any opinions they have about the piece. Before they do so, they should say to the playwright “I have an opinion about [xxx]. Would you like to hear it?” The playwright can answer “yes” or “no.” This step can be tricky for young students or those who are new to the workshop process, as they may struggle to provide constructive rather than judgmental criticism. It might be best to save this for more advanced students.

Examples of Introducing Opinions:

“I have an opinion about the choice to split this play into two acts. Would you like to hear it?”

“I have an opinion about the number of characters in this play. Would you like to hear it?”

Step 5: Follow-up

If the playwright wishes to share anything about their plans for the piece, they may do so. You may also choose to do a round of “glistens,” where each participant shares one line of the play that stood out to them.

3) Revision

Sometimes, the idea of revision becomes conflated with that of proofreading and correcting minor errors in ones’ own work. While it is important to learn to find and fix typos, spelling, and grammatical errors, it is also important for writers to know how to integrate outside feedback and holistically revise their work to produce the best final product. Students should be encouraged to revise their plays to better communicate the ideas they wish to convey, and not to just make minimal tweaks for the sake of completing an assignment. Remind students that revision can be more than just rewording a sentence here and there. Encourage students to take risks and be willing to rewrite entire scenes as necessary. One helpful revision tip: have students copy their first draft into a new document before starting to revise or make the revisions with their changes tracked. This way, if they end up disliking changes they have made, they still have the original draft to refer back to. Remind students that revision is an ongoing process, and that it is okay to make mistakes. The play will never feel perfect; the goal is just to get it to be the best that in can be in a given moment.

 

Including playwriting in the literacy classroom is a unique way to teach reading, writing, and oral fluency skills. The addition of a playwriting workshop to this practice encourages students to think critically about their own work and that of their peers, and to practice vital revision skills that are transferrable to all areas of personal, professional, and academic writing. Thus, teaching playwriting and playwriting workshops allows students to grow their writing and revising skills as they use the written word to communicate ideas that they are passionate about.

References

Elgar, A. G. (2002). Student playwriting for language development. ELT Journal, 56, 22–28. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/56.1.22

Gardiner, P., & Anderson, M. (2012). Can you read that again? Playwriting, literacy and reading the 'spoken' word. English in Australia, 47(2), 80–89. https://doi.org/10.3316/aeipt.195484

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

Lerman, L. & Borstel, J. (2008). Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. Contact Quarterly, 31(1), 16–20.

US National Institute for Literacy. (2007). What Content-Area Teachers Need to Know about Adolescent Literacy. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. https://permanent.fdlp.gov/lps114885/LPS114885.pdf


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