Teaching English with Improv
On 12 and 13 of August 2013, the Language Centre ran successive sessions of its workshop “English through Improv”. The courses were led by Steve Bond of the Centre for Learning Technology, and Angelina Castellini, an LSE alumna and freelance improvisation teacher. Steve and Angelina also teach classes for LSE Improv, a division of the LSESU Drama Society, during term-time. Improvisation theatre is the art of acting without a script, making scenes up on the spot, sometimes based on audience suggestions. Applied Improvisation uses the skills and techniques of improvisation as teaching tools outside of the theatre setting, in this case for language learning.
The idea that improvisation classes could be valuable for language students arose simultaneously and coincidentally from two separate conversations: one between Steve and EAP co-ordinator Alison Standring, and another between Angelina and Languages Facilitator Inés Alonso-Garcia. Improvisation seemed a natural fit for language classes because it involves expressing oneself clearly, confidently and most of all spontaneously. To improvise well is to listen carefully to other actors, then to reply instinctively and truthfully, without conscious thought. When learning English, speakers of foreign languages may lose fluency because they filter what they are saying first, to make sure it is right. Improvisation techniques aim to remove these filters, to ‘trick’ people into saying the first thing that comes into their head – which is often the most interesting and intuitively ‘right’ thing they could say.
An average workshop is about 1.5 hours long and students are interacting at all times, either in pairs, small groups, or as part of big group games. In the workshops we start with warm-up games, which often involve no speaking at all, but which help to relax students and help them lose their inhibitions about performing in front of others. These games can also be used to develop the focus and attention to others which is vital for improvisation. We then move onto improvisation exercises, games that introduce and reinforce the basic skills required to respond spontaneously and truthfully on stage. One of the basic improvisation skills is accepting other people’s suggestions and building on them, rather than trying to control a conversation by dismissing other people’s thoughts. Finally we move into performing short improvised scenes, putting the basic skills to use in their usual context. The scenes that are created are a mixture of every-day life scenes to completely imaginary scenarios.
At the end of the Monday (12th August) session we collected feedback from the participants:
Yanghee: “I feel more confident in myself”
Bow: “I just couldn’t stop smiling and laughing”
Hitomi: “Very fun and good practice of quick responses”
Tomoko: “I really enjoyed and admired everyone’s imagination”
Nish: “I really enjoyed this because it was a mix of emotional skills and language skills”
Tóri: “What a fantastic way to meet complete strangers”
Over the course of a single workshop, the observed change in some participants’ confidence levels (i.e. in speaking English and presenting themselves) can be quite astonishing. Furthermore, students improve their diction, widen their vocabulary, engage in dialogue, and learn to express themselves freely. These sessions bring the every-day use of the English language closer to the students and can prove to individuals that they are capable of things that they may not have thought possible. Many of the regular members of LSE Improv will testify how improvisation has changed them for the better in all sorts of ways.
Applied Improvisation is most effective when it is offered as regular workshops; however, improvisation exercises are very easy to include into every-day language classes and are as much fun for the teachers as they are for the students. Many of the warm-ups can be used as ice-breakers or speaking exercises as part of a regular class, as most of them only take about 10-15 minutes. The Language Centre is currently working on a Train-the-Trainers session to teach improvisation exercises to language teachers. We also encourage the language teachers to join in the termly “English through Improv” classes to feel the effect of improv themselves.
If you would like to learn more about improvisation and Applied Improvisation, please contact Angelina Castellini email@example.com.