Movement & Drama in ELT - by Juliet du Mont

Drama activities in the language classroom are a well established tradition, but the mention of movement tends to provoke a question regarding its relevance to learning a language.

I have always loved both words and movement. Twenty years ago in New York I began experimenting with uniting the two by creating a dance solo accompanied by words rather than music. Dance and words are often viewed as unnatural partners but during this process I became aware of inherent parallels in terms of rhythm, flow and phraseology.

Much more recently in Nairobi, Kenya, I was working on an ELT classroom-based research project which touched on different learner types, and became especially interested in the kinaesthetic learner. At the end of the project one of the participants remarked that for her learning had to do with the whole body, all of the senses, linked to her experience of life. She said, ‘One learns with everything. This comment gave impetus to the construction of an outdoor dance floor under the tree canopy which became the context for experimentation with integrating movement and language learning.

In this paper I will say why I feel incorporating movement into learning a language is important, examine why it is not widely used, and briefly recommend groundwork and approaches for including movement in ELT.

According to British drama educator Dorothy Heathcote, effective drama is achieved by taking students´ minds off themselves. Fluency in language learning is certainly much helped by students losing self-consciousness, and drama, by appealing to the imagination, is an excellent way of achieving this. But how is drama separable from movement? As Barker says, ´…acting is above all a physical activity…´ [1977, p.27], which implies that movement’s presence in the ELT classroom should automatically be guaranteed.

Capturing the imagination of your learners supplies a precious learning tool. In Nairobi, the fact of learning English in the open air was already different, but add to that the invitation to learn whilst moving freely and you have a situation which is original to the point where in the case of adults, a moment of acclimatization is necessary. However, the unusualness of the learning situation caught their imagination, creating an openness to experimentation with various ways of learning through movement.

The oral and visual senses are those traditionally associated with language learning,but approaches involving the other senses also have great power to capture the imagination, e.g.the tactile sense which acts as reinforcement to the visual in memorization, or can be used in isolation to elicit description from the learner who describes an object with the eyes closed. Both smell and taste are also triggers for description and storytelling, especially powerful when eliciting memories. However, there is also that often neglected extra sense, the kinaesthetic. This is sometimes used as a synonym for touch, but whose broader meaning according to The American Heritage Dictionary is the following: ‘the sense that detects bodily position, weight, or movement of the muscles, tendons, and joints’. It is this sense which I suggest is a widely underused tool in English language teaching. Using movement in the ELT classroom as an adjunct to visual and oral input enhances fluency, can facilitate the learning of tricky language areas and helps to create a learning-receptive state.

Fluency of speech may be described as the ability to access chunks of language automatically and with ease, to sound ‘natural’, to communicate ideas effectively, all this with continuity, absent from communicative breakdown. Fluency is a top priority for many learners but often tends to remain elusive. The difficulty lies less in a learner’s level of knowledge of the target language than in the fact that fluency involves a skill in ‘performance’: the ability for instant verbal action/reaction. Inherent in this skill is the confidence to trust one’s language knowledge, coupled with a willingness to run risks, because unlike reading and writing, there is no private time just to ponder and figure things out. A lack of skill in performance leaves one a victim of self-consciousness, of anxiety with regard to the accuracy of memorized language and speed of recall, so that even when a speaker supposedly has the language structures and vocabulary at hand, there can be a fluency barrier. So how can drama and movement help?


  • Drama captures the imagination, emphasizing communication of the ‘message’ rather than the words that carry it
  • The urgency of the message pushes students past the fear barrier so they freely access language they already know. It also pushes them to experiment with structures they are less sure of
  • Performance skill can be acquired by learning language structures in the context of real life situations encountered using movement and drama


  • You learn with the whole body. The more totally involved the body in an ‘act of learning’, the more likely you are to absorb information
  • The possibility of absorbing linguistic structures, i.e. automating chunks of language, is now trebled, via the activation of three different sense mechanisms
    • oral
    • visual
    • kinaesthetic(muscle memory)

Keeping in mind what is needed to become fluent in a second language: accurate memorization, speed of recall and above all the confidence which must go hand in hand with these skills to reproduce effectively, let us think about something that may seem entirely different - what happens when dancers perform.

Dancers learn long strings of movement to be performed without a break over a period of sometimes more than one hour. They learn by repetition, by tying certain movement phrases to sound and lighting cues, to visual cues from other dancers. Dancing is sometimes a kind of wordless conversation. The odd thing is that the participants rarely´forget what comes next´. And they do not commit the movement to memory in any conscious way, i.e. by making a mental note: ‘I must remember this, then that’. Instead they use ‘muscle memory’ which is the committing to memory and reproduction of movement phrases through physical repetition. The body ‘remembers’ what comes next. As Barker [1977], points out, this implies that the part of the brain which is remembering is the ´back´ unconscious brain, rather than the ´ front´ brain which would involve conscious efforts to remember. If once the conscious brain interrupts the dancing process, then the dancer falters and not only fails to remember what comes next, but certainly loses the movement flow, the rhythm, the dancing itself - in other words, everything that really matters. By substituting a couple of words in the last sentence it can be seen how this could apply equally well to speaking a language: if once the conscious brain interrupts the speaking process, then the speaker falters and not only fails to remember what comes next, but loses the speech flow, the rhythm, speech itself. Just as in the case of the dancer, the language student hesitates, stumbles and in this case, may grind to a halt!

It seems clear that far from the existence of a dichotomy between speech and movement, as is sometimes imagined, there are instead, parallels:

Movement Speech
Rhythm Rhythm
Shape/flow of movement Intonation (shape/flow of language)
Phrasing (based on breath) Phrasing (based on breath)
Internalization (automation) of movement/actions

Automation of language chunk

Furthermore, it would seem there is also a parallel between the conditions necessary to achieve fluency of movement and that of speech by way of the need in both cases to suppress the self-censoring action of the conscious brain which otherwise leads to

  • self-consciousness
  • anxiety regarding accuracy of memorized language & speed of recall
  • fear of making a mistake rather than getting the message across

all of which bar access to knowledge which lies at a deeper level.

It is in this context I suggest incorporating movement into learning a language in order to:

  • encourage a learning-receptive state when used as a class warm-up
  • facilitate access to the ‘back’ brain, promoting fluency
  • reinforce learning of language structures, connecting them to implicit movement and body language

In learning a language we all commit to memory a lot more material, more correctly, than we think we do. It is self-consciousness, the fear of making a mistake in public and consequent self-censorship which impedes the ´back´ brain from uninhibitedly producing the knowledge of the target language which it possesses. In a drama-cum-movement learning context the pressure to get the message across not only reveals knowledge which learners have suppressed but prods them into discovering language which they need in order to communicate. Drama situations actively involve the learners and their emotions, putting responsibility for communication squarely on their shoulders, presenting an excellent vehicle for trusting their resources and stimulating risk-taking with language which may be only just beyond their reach.

In the traditional classroom, it was believed that control was maintained by keeping all the action in the hands of the teacher, while the students passively took notes. Pen on paper and the steady dipping and lifting of heads whilst note-taking was the only movement sanctioned. This thinking was based on the following equation: a static classroom situation permits control, which in turn promotes learning. Conversely, movement causes mayhem, which means that little or nothing is learnt. It follows very easily that movement in the classroom was kept to a minimum.

Apart from the perceived practical advantages of the static classroom, another reason for this line of thought may have been the old belief in the separation of mind and body: it was thought learning had to do exclusively with the mind which sat in splendid isolation atop the volatile processes of the physical body below. This already damaging assumption goes a step further in the language classroom owing to the idea held by some, of a speech/movement, i.e. mind/body, dichotomy. But, as Abercrombie [1967, p.24] implies when he says, ´Speech may be said to consist of movements made audible´, the voice is inseparable from the muscles. Furthermore, Barker [1977, p.188, p.26], states ´…no muscle, or group of muscles, can act in isolation. The whole body apparatus is involved…´ and, ´The processes of mind and body are inextricably linked.´

If we think for a moment about the human body in the context of the classroom, it must be admitted that people were not designed for long hours of sitting motionless punctuated by three solid meals a day. Perhaps memories of our hunter/gatherer ancestors still roam the byways of our genes, producing symptoms of physical discomfort when we are required to sit for long periods: tapping foot, jiggling knees, compulsive nibbling, lethargy, and finally, inability to learn - these are signals put out by a body desperate to move. When the pressure from within finally becomes unbearable, the person capitulates, gets up, moves around, and immediately experiences a feeling of relief: the body has taken over.

Becoming unselfconscious is the single most important step towards removing barriers to fluency in a second language. As we have seen, what is needed in the language classroom is a way of freeing the back brain and suppressing the intrusive antics of the front brain because self-consciousness makes us less able to make free use of what we know of a second language. Drama involves movement and emotion and both have the power to drive a wedge through inhibition, liberating linguistic abilities. The freeing effect of movement is very powerful.At very least, physical movement means more blood flowing to the brain, a release of tension, more energy, a greater sense of self, and a boost in confidence.

Since drama is a physical activity, the presence of movement in the ELT classroom should automatically be guaranteed, but clearly this is not the case. We have come a long way in ELT from the static classroom described above, but there is still a resistance to movement, especially among teachers who are unaware of its benefits within a learning environment. Their reluctance is born mostly out of fear of lack of control, self-consciousness about moving freely in the classroom and a lack of knowledge and experience with regard to how to include movement and drama into their teaching context. So how do we begin to rectify this situation?

In terms of groundwork, what is clearly implied is a real need for re-education in this area, not only of teachers and learners but also management, administrators, directors of studies and in some cases, parents. What should be covered are benefits to be reaped, pitfalls to be avoided and application techniques to employ. Also to be addressed is the question that not everyone is a kinaesthetic learner, meaning that some people work more easily than others with movement and drama. Beyond this, it is seminal to have the freedom to create a learning environment where drama and movement are feasible.

The next step relates to my suggestion that movement helps create a learning-receptive state. When learners arrive for class it is good both to focus them immediately on the matter at hand and unite them as a group. This can be done by establishing the routine of a short physical warm-up at the beginning of each class. It should include stretching to disperse tension followed possibly by some fairly boisterous movement to energize, exercises concentrating on posture and breathing to focus attention, and finally vocalization to free the voice. It need not take more than a total of seven minutes, the time often taken for a class merely to settle down. Moreover, it combines well with teaching language items such as imperatives and body vocabulary. Most important of all it frees the learners to perform at their best.

In the light of my suggestion that movement can promote fluency, helping to bypass the self-censoring actions of the conscious brain, I propose that the movement aspect of any drama activities be performed full-out, in contrast for example, to a role play being performed sitting down or merely standing in place. Separating language from movement with which it is physically linked, would seem likely to result in hampering learner fluency.

Beyond the question of enhancement of language fluency, this last point brings me back to my final suggestion for integrating movement into ELT, i.e. as reinforcement for learning of new language items or revision of tricky error areas. Since it is claimed that as little as ten percent of communication takes place through the words we use, body language and other factors (context, expectations and ‘knowledge of the world’) making up the remaining ninety percent, it would seem that by connecting the learning of a language item to movement implicit in it, should help not only fluency but also memorization.

In this regard I further suggest exploring the possibilities of muscle memory, devising specific movement sequences with the aim of reinforcing structures to be taught or revised in the target language by linking movement to particular language chunks so that muscle memory helps anchor the structure in the learner. This can be especially helpful in the case of tricky areas such as phrasal verbs, idioms, prepositions, pronunciation, intonation. Body movement adds a spatial dimension to learning and remembering, apart from a muscular one. The shape in space that the body describes when moving, and also the spatial reference within a specific locale both impact on memory.

´One learns with everything´. The thinking behind this learner’s words is this: moving the whole body is a much bolder, more committed action than simply applying pen to paper. It is like shouting rather than whispering. The more totally involved the body in an ´act of learning´, the more likely one is to absorb the information being transmitted. The odds for memorizing a linguistic structure are now maximized, via the activation of a variety of sense mechanisms, not least of which is muscle memory, which together with the confidence that learning in a drama and movement context brings, is a powerful partner in the learning process.


Movement: Anything beyond sitting in a chair. Use the whole body or as much as possible of it. Do it AND say it, if it involves movement

Drama: An umbrella term encompassing everything from improvisation, a skit, ritual, role play, mime, to published plays

Muscle Memory: A term used mostly by dancers and athletes meaning the unconscious recall of physical actions in performance


Asher, J.J., (1977), Learning Another Language Through Actions. Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.
Barker, C., (1977), THEATRE GAMES A New Approach to Drama Training . Methuen
Brook, P., (1972), The Empty Space. Penguin
Dilts, R. & T.A. Epstein, (1995), Dynamic Learning. Meta Publications
Fuller, C., (1994), Unlocking Your Child’s Learning Potential. Pinon Press
Heathcote, D., (1982), ‘Training needs for the future’ in Hodgson, J. & M. Banham (eds.): Education I: The Annual Survey. Pitman (1972)
Kao, S-M. & C. O’Neill, (1998), Words Into Worlds: Learning a Second Language Through Process Drama. Ablex Publishing Corporation
Oezdeniz, D., (1996) ‘Introducing innovations into your teaching’ in Willis, J. & D. Willis Challenge and change in language teaching. Heineman
Stern, S., (1981), ‘Drama in second language learning from a psycholinguistic perspective. Language Learning 30/1
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Xiaolong, L., (1988), ‘Effects of contextual cues on inferring and remembering meanings of new words’. Applied Linguistics, 9/4: 402-13


Juliet du Mont has had a dual career in dance/theatre and ELT in various countries. Now, after three years with the British Council in Kenya, she is resident in Brazil where she freelances and gives workshops in teacher development at the Universidade Federal do Amazonas. She has a special interest in exploring the use of physical movement in ELT.

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