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Essay: Enhancing literacy

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  • Enhancing literacy
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In recent years, approaches for enhancing literacy have been multifactorial, entailing emotional, technological, cultural and sociological aspects. Literacy serves as a communication tool facilitating the integration of people into the world and enabling them to establish their personal perspective of society. However, people remain profoundly influenced by “overt instruction” and “practical experience” in their daily life; these “pre-established point of views” have the ability to shape our common sense and people naturalise these into practice unconsciously (Kress, G., 1994, P.18). Neelands (1992, p.5) expresses concern regarding the side effects of technological progress in the contemporary world, including “the effects of TV, changes in food technology, the dangers of being on the streets, the prevalence of recorded music in public places and the automation of retailing and industry”, stating that such factors aim to reduce opportunities for young people to experience “shared cultural activity in society”. Additionally, the author of the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig, who focuses on the debate associated with the meaning of word and how people assign definitions to words, claims that in the TEDx Berkeley:
“We forgot that words are made up, but not all of them mean something. We are trapped in our own lexicons that don’t necessarily correlate with people who aren’t already like us.”

Given this reality, using drama to enhance literacy development has become a striking method to avoid misunderstands from “pre-established” information, as it is worth noting that “drama requires the involvement of the whole person—the active and integrated engagement of mind and body, involving imagination, intellect, emotion and physical action” (Anton Franks, p.242). As depicted by Neelands (1992), drama has positive influences in providing children with first hand experiences in situations that are made by children themselves, whilst meanwhile also having opportunities to use the language when they are completing the role they are performing. In other words, drama offers children a unique way to approach the different definitions of words, helping construct a child’s understanding of language when they are using it and then compare their own understanding to other people’s understanding.

Furthermore, in order to fit the changeable and chaotic world, using drama to assist teaching literacy is a constantly changing process. However, this changeable phenomenon offers language learners good opportunities to approach, analyse and search for those details that they want to know about the specific period, whether an historical or contemporary period. In the process of learning such drama by using literacy strategies, the learner will find that they have made progress with their language skills. There will be more benefits in learning through language than simply language skills. Halliday, M. (1978, p.109) states that, language has its own semantic stratum; when children learn language, they are related to both “the context of situation” and “the context of culture.”

The focus of this essay is exploring the relationship between drama and literacy, and the opportunities and challenges when applying drama to enhance the development of literacy in the curriculum. Related theoretical and practical examples will be drawn upon to explain the above content.

1. The relationship between drama and literacy

Drama and language learning are two different approaches to help people engage with society. Neelands (1992, p.3) suggests that drama offers an individual opportunities to pretend that they are other characters. Under specific circumstances, young people can experience another life from diverse times and disparate societies, whilst in the process exploring their imagination and sharing the harvest from their performance. Neelands (1992, p.4) also argues that in drama, the space, movement and speech all tend to be impressive ways to make meaning. The language acquisition potential of using drama as a teaching strategy is based on the action of reading. Concerning the importance of the act of reading, Freire P. (1987, p22) indicates that:

“First, reading the world, the tiny world, in which I moved; afterward, reading the word, not always the word-world in the course of my schooling”

For young people, Freire’s idea of using literacy to forge the relationship of the learner to the world, drama as an integrated activity could offer a more comprehensive view of the world, which is also the process of exploring semantic exchanges. Young people’s knowledge of the relationship of both language and the environment will be enhanced. More specifically, people learn to read the world before learning to read the words.

Meanwhile, instead of mechanically memorising words, it is more effective for people to grasp language by apprehending the meaning of the words through drama. According to Kempe and Holroyd (2004, p.1), presence concerns the indispensable steps of speaking and writing, as well as performing and interpreting the performance. Additionally, reading the world critically, including “adopting the culture, the modes of thought and action and beliefs and values in the society that being acted out by learners” (Freire P., 1987, p23), will avail young people with opportunities to explore human nature.

As discussed above, in the literacy process, two steps are interconnected with each other to enhance the literacy development, which are “progressive mastery of a number of basic functions of language” and “building up of a ‘meaning’ potential in respect of each” (Halliday, M., 1978, p21).

2. The opportunities and challenges of using drama to enhance literacy development

Engaging in play is a symbolic activity for young people to explore the social interpretation of language and meaning, to look beyond the surface of meaning and to develop empathy. Drama offers them another perspective to view this complicated world.

However, how can we help students build a bridge between their pre-established knowledge and the reality in the social life?

According to Neelands (1992, p.28), drama can transmit real experience through a symbolic form by using specific actions and situations, with a brand new story with known context able to be created through initiative driven interactions in drama due to language being deemed a form of social practice, social process and socially conditioned process (Fairclough N., 2015, p55,). More specifically, the consequence of what people speak, listen, write or read tend to be socially conditioned, with those actions having social effects. Therefore, letting students engage in play to experience and observe is utilising the interactions between different participants in drama to compare different roles and identify with those characters that they perform.

2.1 Example— “Voice in the park”

A practical example of a drama class, “Voices in the Park”, explores the ways drama and theatre pedagogies can be used in the teaching of critical literacy and asking social questions, including social register, place, identity and social structure, in relation to language learning. Students are introduced to ways drama can be used to explore relations and the ways language can be used to influence social change. All the teaching strategies in this session tend to look beyond the surface meaning, to help become aware of the ways language can be used to marginalise and cause social injustice, and to challenge dominant forms of language use. The details of how the teaching methods in this case can be used to enhance literacy will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

In the first place, it is possible that the act of speaking and writing only has a few connections with the situational context, which is the environment where the text comes to life (Halliday, M., p109). As the teacher of the session, Dr Rachel King asked the students to think what the park looks like in the place where they grew up. After the participants shared their memories about the different scenes in the park, including what the park looks like, who are the people in the park, their lifestyle and their daily activities, Dr Rachel asked them to use their bodies to create scenes for several given objects common in the park, such as a bandstand, seesaw and slide. This is the point that the participants started to realise the ways that ‘given circumstances’ may affect the way we make sense of our place in the world. Firstly, the participants were asked to review the scenes from the park in their hometown, then they were divided into groups, with the small groups given the responsibility to continue performing the people in the park at two different times: in the morning and evening. Kempe and Holroyd (2004, p.2) point out that children approach language through spoken form. Kress (1997, p17) states that children learn to speak earlier than they learn to read and write. Furthermore, speech occurs before writing, with still more language being used in spoken than written form. All these “dramatic performances” are for the purpose of constructing a clear theoretical sociolinguistic system, and also related to linguistic and social systems (Halliday, M., P110). This is the point for the participants to use drama as a stimulus to interpret a particular situation type and social context to help them make sense of the “class” or status within society. As Winston (2004) states, drama offers young people opportunities to comprehend the language of different social roles, with practice using drama enabling them to use different language codes, including physical and spoken codes, and learn to understand in which situation and at what time we should switch our language code from one to another. This is emphasised by Vygotsky (1978, p.97):

“Action in an imaginary situation teaches the child to guide her behavior not only by immediate perception of objects or by the situation immediately affecting her but also by the meaning of this situation.”

Secondly, this session provides a practical opportunity for students to create a strong imagined context for literacy by engaging in the “Voice in the Park” story. The students looked at some surrealist images of hats and considered what the hats symbolise. According to Neelands (1992, p.27), children share their experiences when they are invited to perform drama, and in the process of sharing, they will think about their feelings and attitudes. After discussing the symbolic meaning of the hats, the participants were separated into groups and received pictures and texts from the book “Voice in the Park” from the teacher. Each group was required to match the correct picture with the text. The following strategies invite the participants to create and inhabit the fictional world of the narrative in order to expand their definition of the real world. The images and the texts given to each group have different plots but are connected with one another. Dr. Rachel asked each group to enact those scenes by performing the roles, with the students encouraged to reflect on their feelings and inject them into the roles. By setting the images in order, the participants work collaboratively to construct the meaning of the text they were given. As Cook (2000, p.36) argues:

“We do need to consider language play in the context of imaginative thought in general and in particular the relationship between the manipulation of linguistic forms and the generation of hypothetical realities. The imaginary worlds which are created largely or entirely through language, and may in some sense be regarded as entertainment.”

Afterwards, several performances took place after each group had finished their rehearsal, with all the participants bringing the text and images to life. The diverse sounds and dramatic movements appearing in the same place allowed the students to feel and consider the relationship with the language and the power it produced. According to Vygotsky (1978, p.97), through the actions made by children in their imaginary situation, they can be affected by the immediate perception of objects, or by a situation that influences them, as well as by the meaning of the situation. In other words, making order of the images and text will arouse participants’ critical literacy, requiring them to think about the power structures that are in operation. Besides, through observing, participants will be conscious of the different plots that the other groups perform and have a more comprehensive view about the story. Neelands (1992, p.32) states that through working and elaborating to build the drama, the students will have an insightful view of each other both through responding to, and reflecting on what other people do in the drama.

Lastly, the session focused on a discussion of the challenges of using drama to reflect

literacy leaning.

The previous discussion revealed how drama makes the context relevant to real life. However, another challenge that arose during the session concerned whether we could use these approaches to theatre-making to uncover the possible meaning of the text. In the session, understanding the specific characters by thinking about their gestus and exploring the relationship between those characters became the entry point for the participants to come to understand the significance of dominant and powerful forms of language. As Neelands (1992, p.27) suggests, drama can be seen as a method to simulate environments for talk, for the reason that people do not really realise the power of drama as an immediate and accessible symbolic form that allows children to use together to represent practice, interrogate and express key areas of human experience. For example, the whole class focused on a father and mother’s story, with the paricipants going back to their original groups and adding movement and physicality, using gestus to develop the details of the characters. However, how do children get over the obstacle of “ordinary everyday linguistic interaction of family and peer group” and learn the basic patterns of a cultural, including “the social structure, the system of knowledge and of value, and the diverse elements of the social semiotic” (Halliday, 1978, p.108). For example, when children start understanding the characters of the mother and father in the “Voice in the Park”, they will get more deeply into the human condition that reaches beyond two dimensional. Winston (2004) states that with the help from drama based strategies, children can be encouraged to have a sense of ambiguity instead of finding a single answer; and to play with the richness and suggestiveness of language, rather than understanding the literal meaning. Additionally, the process of stretching a child’s understanding, inviting complexity and provoking questions should be reinforced in the future, with the challenge of constructing understanding having a long way to go due to the “practical experience” not needing too much elaborating activity. (Kress, G., 1997, p.18).

2.2 Reading through drama and understanding language diversity

Having shown the relationship between physical activity through drama and critical literacy, young people are given freedom to “manipulate linguistic units and structures in ways which draw attention to their formal characteristics” (Cook, G., 2000, p42). The following drama strategies focus on using text to construct meaning and refer to the real world. By reading text, young people gain a more consciousness understanding of the human condition as scripts or poems are considered to represent the deepest consciousness of a particular epoch, as well as homologous with a specific ordering of the elements of literary work.

According to Bernstein (cited in Cook, G., 1960), affiliations and group solidarity created by the act of sharing a story will have a positive influence on establishing and reinforcing relationships between storytellers and listeners. Moreover, based on Bernstein’s theory above, Fish (cited in Cook, G., 1980) states that the reason why people strengthen their relationships through stories is because those people have a common pool of knowledge for allusion and discussion.

However, is it possible that sometimes reading a story can just become a medium for distinguishing different people, instead of letting making them consciousness about how people behave, learn about the world from within the context of human behaviour and have the same feeling as the characters. Freire (1973, p.71) criticises that it is useless for young people to learn knowledge detached from self-experience. Teachers can not guarantee that each student has the same level reading ability and same high quality reading material. One way to solve this problem is based on an explanation by the Russian historian and children’s writer Chukovsky, who states that the very bizarreness of children’s stories may have the ability to avoid unclear understanding and also be closely linked to reality (Cook, G., 2000, p.44).

As analysed above, specific drama strategies should explore how to use the “strong dynamic interrelation of the resources” to show their abundant dimensional representations accurately when facing students from different cultural backgrounds or with a variety of different experiences.

2.3 Example of “Postcard from Kasmir”

In this session, the class worked on the poem “Postcard from Kasmir” written by Agha Shahid Ali, with the session led by Professor Franks. This poem was written by a person who lived far from her hometown, who one day received a colourful postcard from her hometown, Kasmir. She wrote this poem to express her homesickness. During the process of learning this poem, the participants consider the relationship between drama, literacy and language diversity. At the beginning, after they have been shown a picture of Kashmir and discussed its history, the location and season in Kashmir, the colour of this picture, etc., they were asked to read the poem silently to themselves. As Kress (1994, p.18) suggests, sound-effects significantly attract a linguistician’s attention. Afterwards, the poem was read aloud by each participant. Then, the teacher gathered the students together, with each student asked to choose one word in the poem and read it out loud with emotions when another student pointed at them, which is called the “point game”. Additionally, the point game also included asking a group of people (four to five students) to read the same word together when the teacher pointed at them. According to Fairclough (1989, p.59), “Spoken texts” involve interplay with gesture, facial expression, movement and posture for the purpose of gaining a more comprehensive understanding, with those extra actions enabling them to define the meaning of a conversation. Winston (2004, p26) also states that drama can be used to offer students opportunities to use language and analyse its use in social roles.

“Postcard from Kashmir” is a poem about homesickness. After the participants had a rough idea of this poem, they were paired to perform a role play task, starting from the given lines between the writer and her roommate.

A – Oh, you came back early.

B – Yes, the bus was on time.

A – Who’s it from?

B– My family.

A –What do they say?

The participants not only read those given lines with emotion but also continued this conversation. Fairclough notes that:

“In seeing language as discourse and as social practice, one is committing oneself not just to analyzing texts, nor just to analyzing process of production and interpretation, but to analyzing the relationship between texts, processes, and their social conditions, both the immediate conditions of the situational context and the more remote conditions of institutional and social structures.”

This role play drama strategy utilised the value of drama in the class to “create contexts for practice in communication through simulation of real-life experiences” (Fleming, 2004, p115). More specifically, using drama activities when focusing on text can assist students to ascertain some sense of what happened in real life, rather than only analysing the superficial meaning of a given text. Finally, based on the previous task of becoming familiar with the environment in the poem and building the empathy of the characters, the students were asked to divide into groups to work on establishing a family photo of the writer’s family. As previously mentioned, imagination can guide students’ behaviour and activate previous experience and knowledge, enabling them to be more confident in their own understanding. These opportunities for imaginative play, which is “the spontaneous and unformed play” (Neelands, 1992, p11), offered them a chance to connect meaning with actions. In retrospect, during the process of these practical drama based activities in the classroom, students can gain many language experiences.

That discussed above can also be associated with the strategy applied in the ‘Frankenstein’ session. Frankenstein, also called ‘The Modern Prometheus’, is a novel written by English author Mary Shelley. The story concerns a young scientist Victor Frankenstein who creates a grotesque but sapient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. In this session, several drama strategies were applied to the learning process, including comparing the cultural context, resonance and improvisation. The following will focus on using the drama strategies used in this session to construct the meaning of the Frankenstein story.

Initially, the teacher showed several pictures of Frankenstein and gave the students a letter sent to Mrs Saville about the appearance of Frankenstein; in this letter, Frankenstein was described as a wired gigantic stature. The students were given some time to read the letter, with the letter giving them an idea about what this novel is about. According to Winston (2004), the meaning behind text, such as subtext, can be revealed by drama which is based upon an appreciation of particular human intentions and relationships. In other words, drama has the ability to make sense of what the text tends to illustrate or recognise the literal meaning of the actual words. In this step, the students considered what they knew about the Frankenstein story and what Frankenstein means to them. Then, they were divided into two groups, one asked to act out the scene with people on the boat surprised by the appearance of the gigantic stature and the other asked to show the text from the letter in 30 seconds about how Frankenstein presented “a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs, pass on toward the north, at the distance of half a mile: a being which had the shape of man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat on the sledge, and guided the dogs.” The images, the letter and the collaborative, active, dramatic improvisation from the steps discussed above, were all for the purpose of enabling students to have a sense of the context. According to Vygotsky (1978, p.96), children learn to act in a cognitive, rather than an externally visual way through relying on internal tendencies and motives, instead of incentives supplied by external things. More specifically, there is a connection between what children learn though ascertaining a sense of the context and what they learn from the definition of the literal meaning, which is meaning that can be found in the dictionary.

Furthermore, there was a corresponding drama strategy at the end of the session. The students were encouraged to undertake a ‘role-play’ for the specific dramatic scene when Frankenstein is kicked out by a family. They could not act this scene out with pleasure because it was not a joyful scene; it reveals the reasons why Frankenstein feels lonely and hopeless. As Neelands (1992, p.18) states, ‘role play’ can fill the need of real-life experience, with both the teacher and students willing to use dramatic role-playing to gain an impression of being another person or experiencing something as if it were occurring to them. Vygotsky (1978, p.93) also believes that the idea of play as an activity offering pleasure to children is inaccurate. Children would pay more attention in related literacy when their enthusiasms with role playing are satisfied during their participation in such activities, which would more likely to deliver better results.

Finally, the teacher showed the students the same dramatic scene that they had just acted from the film “Frankenstein” to give them a much more powerful stronger sense, which also leads us to consider the relationship between drama and its many perspectives. The argument about the different effects of theatre and other mediums by Williams (1983, p.11) can be used to explore the “exceptional variety of intention and methods of drama”.

2.4 Enhancing creative writing, understanding and the ability to interpret different kinds of texts through drama

Among the methods used to enhance a person’s writing skills, the most important is to figure out in what ways and why someone loves to write. In other words, the question is focused on finding ways to trigger the passion and desire to write. According to Williams (1983, p.22), the generation of the text can be seen as a result of the interaction of the two participants. Williams (1983, p.27) also claims that writing starts with questions. Both questions and answers are the basis for the structure of writing. Typically, using drama is an active way of helping people to read all kinds of text by engaging the whole learner to collaborate with others, and learning to use words to define things, or more specifically, to use drama to enhance understanding, involvement and ability to interpret different kinds of text.

As discussed above concerning drama and understanding the diversity of language, in

a similar way, there are perhaps pleasurable aspects of working with drama to enhance writing. If it is set up correctly, it can motivate students, help them feel less inhibited and increase understanding. Fleming (2004, p.112) states:

“when we look at particulars through the lens of artistic form we often see more complexity in situations. Literature and drama deal in particulars but also with general or universal resonances. Of course as soon as we start dealing in generalities in matters of culture we run the risk of stereotyping. It is something of a conundrum. We have to deal in generalities in order to communicate – but the border between what is an appropriate generality and a stereotype is sometimes hard to demarcate.”

Williams (1983, p.23) also suggests that it is better if written text has much fuller information and is more explicit than spoken language.

Due to the reason that meaning potential can be represented as a range of options that is characteristic of a specific situation type, in order to define social structure, the text becomes an important process when learning language and learning the cultural behind the text. Furthermore, this can help students to start expressing their own ideas and then define themselves in writing. According to Neelands (1992, p.7), drama is a creative way for young people to understand and express their developing view of human experience. It is important for drama educators and students to not only be involved in drama as observers but also to encourage them to become creative through drama and imaginative play, as well as express and draw out their uniquely individual ideas.

2.5 Example of “A Strange Impulse”

In this session, the students were given a fragment of the fiction “A Strange Impulse” by Lydia Davis. This fragment only included the scene “I” saw “shopkeepers covering their ears” and “the people in the street running as if pursued by a terrible spectre”. At the beginning, the teacher divided the students into two groups, asking one group to build a frozen scene of the people watching and the other group to act the people who were running in the street. Then, the teacher asked them to join the whole scene, which combined both those “running people” and “people who are watching” one by one. As Tandy and Howell state (2008, p.46), children are very good at pretending to be someone or something other than themselves; role-play, including the effort children make in their thoughts and feelings, and words and actions, can stimulate them to tell a story. After all those physical movements in class, the students could develop different opinions about what happened in the story. Then, they were given a new story paper and continued with it individually.

The information in the fragment had no clear beginning and no explicit outcome. However, it became an opportunity for each student to explore their imagination and build a bridge between their thoughts and the real world. Neelands (1992) suggests that learning language through a fictional form with a dramatic context is a new important teaching method; also, the fragment from “A Strange Impulse”, itself, is both “a passage of communication to the real world” and “a form of protection from exposure and insecurity in relation to the real experience”. During the process of reading the text, putting the text into life, observing other people’s reactions and sharing work with the rest of the class, was very powerful for “seeing how their intended meanings are understood and interpreted” (Tandy, M., 2008, P.49). After students develop a sense of audience, they will continue to think about what they really want to say, in what ways they can express their unique ideas and how to make other people understand. Importantly, this is the point that drama triggers their desire to write, in order to communicate.


This essay explored the relationship between drama and literacy, and discussed the opportunities and challenges posed by drama as a way to enhance literacy learning by using several examples applied in a classroom setting. Both theoretically and practically, this essay has illustrated the potential power of applying drama to facilitate the creative development of young people, as well as advancing their language skills using different strategies. However, using drama to enhance literacy development is a constantly changing process because the way people talk and write is always changing, and developments in communication technology, the challenge of constructing understanding and improving teaching methods also evolving. Accordingly, a lot of work and research still needs to be conducted in the future.

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