Kill the Drill!

Students acting out a soap opera in Chinese.

Chinese teachers agree that it's best to avoid practice drills that are not based on compelling context. But teachers sometimes struggle to find enough real-life and interesting situations to keep students motivated.

Instead of creating (fake) real-life contexts, one successful tactic is to allow students to create soap operas.

The drama of interpersonal relationships has a special place in many teenagers' hearts. The urge to express themselves—however real or invented—compel students to overcome otherwise seemingly impassable language barriers.

In the first example, a hilarious family drama plays out. Note how the fluidity of language increases with improvisation. Watch:

In this next example, completely produced by students, the language learners clearly had a lot of fun acting out a string of marginally sordid tales. 

In both examples, what is clear is an eagerness of express ideas in students' own words. 

Some tips on how to introduce a soap opera activity in your class:

  • Give students clear instructions on the grammatical patterns and vocabulary words they should use. If you give them a long list, ask that they fulfill a certain number of patterns or words in their skit.
  • Offer a few ideas on storylines (sibling rivalry, a romantic triangle, or duping a best friend), but allow students to be creative with these ideas or ideas of their own.
  • Allow students to write their dialogue. At some point, the language evolves from script to improvisation--and that's exciting to see. 
  • Encourage students to use words they have not yet learned if it helps them express an idea. Be available to the different groups to help them with context-appropriate uses.
  • Video tape the skits. Some students take the work more seriously when it will be peer reviewed. Videos are also an excellent assessment tool for teachers to use. Not comfortable with video? Turn the tasks of filming and editing to students.

Special thanks to Chris Livaccari and Elizabeth Yu Ellsworth for sharing their class videos.


Have you used soap operas in your class? What were the results?

Have you used other improvisational exercises that students especially enjoy? Please share with other readers.