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Performing without written scripts

Greg Wheeler, Hokkaido University

Quick Guide

  • Key Words: Natural flow of conversation, eye contact (gaze), intonation
  • Learner English Level: False beginners to intermediate
  • Learner Maturity: University
  • Activity Time: Depending on class size, 60-90 minutes
  • Materials: None

Skits and/or role-playing have become widely used in Japanese university classrooms. Often, however, students are simply required to memorize dialogue from a textbook. Unfortunately, all too often students memorize the text without actually grasping the meaning. Additionally, there is a lack of cohesion: Student A memorizes her lines and student B memorizes his, with little interaction. As a result, intonation and eye contact may suffer, and the delivery can be flat. Having students write their own dialogue is certainly an improvement, but students tend to overuse dictionaries, using vocabulary they are unfamiliar with. Also, writing the script first and then memorizing it can use up an inordinate amount of time.

The following lesson plan involves students creating and memorizing their own dialogues based on the theme of the day's lesson. However, students are not permitted to write anything, and are discouraged from using their dictionaries. Once the students have memorized their dialogue, they move out into the hallway and give their presentation in front of the teacher. I do this because I find often that students find performing in front of their peers a more daunting task than doing so with only the teacher present. If nothing else, knowing that only one person is watching, rather than a class of up to 40, may help the students relax somewhat. Additionally, if presentations are done outside the classroom, they will not be a distraction to those students who are still preparing, nor will finishing students be able to lift material from other performers.


Step 1: Divide students into pairs or groups of three. Announce the theme of the conversation students will be creating. Depending on how long you want the conversations to be, allow students anywhere from 20 minutes to almost the entire class to prepare. In my class, I ask that the presentations be from 90 seconds to 2 minutes. Students are usually ready to perform about 25 minutes after beginning preparations.

Step 2: When the first pair/small group indicates that it is ready, take those students into the hallway. After the more nervous ones have taken a couple of deep breaths, let them start.

Step 3: After students make their presentations, comment briefly on some of the good points, as well as mention a couple of areas that could be improved upon. I would not spend too much time pointing out grammatical errors. There are bound to be a few in any conversation over one minute, and the main focus of this exercise is not grammar. When the students return to the classroom, have them write the conversation (this can be homework if students are performing near the end of class). Give them the option of repeating the conversation later in your office (if applicable). Granted, it is unlikely that many students will choose to do so, but occasionally there are those who are dissatisfied with their initial performance and wish to repeat it.

Another possible activity (suggested by Kim Bradford-Watts) would be to tape the performances, and then give students the tape to transcribe. Encourage the students when they rewrite the script to correct any grammatical errors they hear, or phrases/sentences which they feel may sound awkward in retrospect.


Benefits I have observed stemming from this exercise include: (1) Students remember dialogue more quickly if they are not writing it, and the process saves a step (they are not first writing and then memorizing). Additionally, since there is nothing for them to look at on paper, students are compelled to work with each other on a continuous basis, speeding up and deepening the memorization process. (2) Conversations are generally simple, yet understandable. Students use previously obtained knowledge, drawing on what they are already familiar with, rather than trying to memorize new material via a text script or overuse of a dictionary. (3) Greater eye contact. The students have been working with each other for the past 20-plus minutes; they should be at least somewhat comfortable with looking at each other. (4) Improved intonation. This comes about, perhaps, because students are freed from the burden of having to memorize a written script and the delivery has more of a natural quality, and is less of a monotone.

Appendix 1

This script is a culmination of themes from the students' previous two classes: giving advice and asking for directions. I also asked students to include at least one tag question in their dialogue. The following conversation between three students was performed about 25 minutes after the project started. Student 1 is performing the role of a first-time visitor in Sapporo. Students 2 and 3 are his guides. The performance length was 1 minute and 48 seconds.

  • Student 1: By the way, I really enjoyed shopping today.
  • Student 2: Yeah, me too.
  • Student 3: Yeah, I was enjoyed today. Uh, and when you come Sapporo again, uh, we can show you around there.
  • Student 2: Yeah, good idea.
  • Student 1: Yeah.
  • Student 2: If you come to Sapporo in winter, uh, you can see the Snow Festival in Odori Park.
  • Student 3: Yeah, it's very famous.
  • Student 1: Really?
  • Student 3: Yeah, but, uh, do you know where is it?
  • Student 1: No.
  • Student 3: We passed today, didn't we?
  • Student 2: You didn't find it?
  • Student 1: Really?
  • Student 3: Yeah, a lot of people gathering there today.
  • Student 1: Would you tell me the way to the Odori Park?
  • Student 2: Yeah, uh, let's see.
  • Student 3: Wait, wait. Uh, I have a time enough today, so if you have a free time from now, uh, uh, why don't you go there again?
  • Student 1: But I feel very tired so I can't.
  • Student 3: Oh, well.
  • Student 2: Well, then, we are in . . . we are in Sapporo station.
  • Student 1: Here now.
  • Student 2: Here we start. Go straight along Route 36 about five blocks. You can see a big tower in front of you. It's Odori Park.
  • Student 3: You can't miss it.
  • Student 1: I suppose I've been trouble.
  • Student 2: If you feel at all very calm, please call us. . .or. . .why. . .why don't you go to Odori Park with us tomorrow?
  • Student 3: Yeah, that's good idea!
  • Student 1: Yeah, please!
  • Student 2: O.K. See you then.
  • Student 3: See you. . .see you around.
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