Benefits of Using Improv Games for Teaching EFL Classes

Improvisation game techniques in comparison to classical teaching methodologies. An example of a game for all stages of EFL learners

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Methodology – What is Improv and What are the Benefits?
2.1 What is Impov?
2.2 History of Improvisation
2.3 Rules of Improv Games
2.4 Personal Benefits from Improv Games
2.5 Social Benefits for a better classroom atmosphere
2.6 Using Improv Games for Teaching English
2.6.1. Train Listening and Speaking Skills
2.6.2. Trigger Competition as a Motivation
2.7 Connection to Different Teaching Methods

3 Analysis – The Game 'What are you doing?' for ELT Classes

4 Conclusion

5 Works Cited and Additional Resources

1 Introduction

Improvisation is in human nature. We improvise frequent when we have to solve problems in every day life, react to unforeseeable events, and communicate with others, especially through spoken language. Communicative competences are the key to speaking a language. Fluency plays an important role in communication, which “means responding coherently within the turns of the conversation, linking words and phrases, using intelligible pronunciation and appropriate intonation, and doing all of this without undue hesitation” (Hedge 2005:261). While as teachers it is our goal to enable our pupils to communicate in the new language, we are free in the choice of methods with which we want to accomplish this goal.

Overall, classroom games and drama teaching are widely explored in literature from the mid 20th century until today and positive effects on learning and teaching have been reported. However, the mixed form of “improv games” did not receive much attention and therefore still leaves room for further investigation.

Successful communication requires “turn-taking”-skills. These can be trained through improv games because turn-taking is an essential mechanism of improv. Two or more players interact with each other, reacting to expressions and comments, posing questions or solve a task together. The following sections give an insight into what improv games are, how they work and whether they should be used in teaching for different levels of language classes. They key features will be compared to classic teaching methodologies to see how they can integrate into or enhance given techniques.

For easy reading I have alternated the use of male and female pronouns, although every he and she includes both genders, if not explicitly stated to be gender specific.

2 Methodology – What is Improv and What are the Benefits?

2.1 What is Impov?

Improv is a theatrical performance without a given storyline and dialogue. It “[..] is producing something onstage from little more than a suggestion and your own imagination” (Bedore 2004:1). Since every action on stage needs a reaction from the audience or co-players, doing improv trains listening comprehension as well as speaking.

Teamwork is an essential characteristic of improv. Scenes are only successful when the actors work together. Everyone involved uses all the means they have to express their thoughts and ideas. Improv in school therefore helps pupils to push towards their limits or go beyond it, while the teacher can observe silently the strengths and weaknesses of his pupils. “The key is to relax, enjoy yourself, forget about the results and be sure to have a good laugh with your students” (Hudson 2013:9).

Since pupils experience improv rather as a game than a learning activity, their focus lies on the action itself. Learning happens naturally as a side effect. This is why language games in general have a game goal that is different from the learning goal and very motivating (cf. Klippel 2000:29-30). Games create an enjoyable, stress free atmosphere where pupils interact happily.

[...] Improvisationen [dienen] dazu, die Schüler möglichst früh und unter besonderer Betonung von Spaß und Spontaneität und das freie kommunikative Sprechen heranzuführen und dabei die Fertigkeit des Hörverstehens als wesentliches Element mit einzubeziehen. (Vollmer 2011:244)

Besides training important communicative skills, improv has many beneficial side effects and therefore its usage should be considered in planning the lesson. There exist so called training games which have the purpose of preparing the pupils for improvisation and getting them used to it. They teach the basics for completing longer performances, which is needed for the actual improvisation games (Hudson 2013:10).

2.2 History of Improvisation

According to Bedore (2004:2) improv performances are as old as humanity itself: all that is needed is a body for performance and words or sounds to underline the story. Since we are left with cave paintings only, there is no proof from the first men that they used improv theater but it is most likely that they performed stories to tell their tribe for example about a hunt.

The first improv groups in history are dated back to the Middle Ages. In the 1550's so called Commedia dell' Arte developed in Italy. They used a “combination of improvised dialog, a few stock speeches, mime, acrobatics, and broad humor to reach its audiences” (cf. ibid.). This type of theater lost its trend when the written word became popular for theatrical performance.

The modern improvisation was rediscovered in 1930 when the drama teacher Viola Spolin developed different games as classroom exercises for children. While at first they were not meant for theatrical performances her son evolved the games to be performed on stage in the 1950's (ibid.:6). In the 1960's the improv games had their revival, became popular around the world, and were transformed from mere theater into competitive theater sports, thus reaching a broad audience (cf. Hudson 2013:7; Bedore 2004:3).

2.3 Rules of Improv Games

Jumping into the game reality means leaving the classroom reality, loosing fear and stress but also accepting various rules. Like other games, improv relies on certain rules which will be explained in the following section. This is not a complete selection for rules can and must be adapted to each situation or group, but these are the most crucial ones.

First of all, improvising is about speed; there is no time for individual long thinking. It is better to offer the first – maybe silly – idea that comes to mind than coming up with the one great well thought-out idea. Each given idea is called an offer. “Offers are the building blocks of improvisation [… and] can be physical, verbal, a nod or even a wink” (Hudson 2013:11). In view of the fact that many improv beginners will ponder about their ideas, performances can grow into a weary process which slows down the whole game. Thus it is important to teach a first rule: say out loud the first thought that comes to your mind! There should be no thinking, for the first thought is often the best or funniest idea that adds to the enjoyment of improvisation games.

This leads to a next important rule of accepting others ideas. When offers were rejected or judged by classmates it can be discouraging for the person who offered them. In order to keep the game going an motivate pupils to suggest ideas, teaching acceptance is important. This can be trained with some training games. “Once the students let their imaginations run, they learn to trust in their instinctive ideas and enjoy the playful art of improvisation” (Hudson 2013:11).

However, it occurs that pupils show a negative behavior that is closely related to acceptance called blocking an idea. Whoever blocks an idea needs to come up with a new one – immediately – or the story stops. Blocking should be discouraged unless the blocking person has an immediate idea to continue the story in a different way. It is always better to shift the scene according to the “Yes, and...” rule then blocking it with a completely new idea.

The “Yes, and...” rule implies that every time a player is not completely satisfied with an offer of a teammate, he can accept, but add another idea to it (cf. Bedore 2004:17). For example, if one players starts a zoo scene with the words “Let's go to the elephants” but the other player pictured a funny idea in front of the lions cage, he could say “Yes, and afterward let's go see the lions” instead of rejecting his teammates idea. That way he silently communicates his teammate that he has something different in mind without showing overt disapproval for her idea.

Overall improvising means working as a team! It is necessary for every player to stay focused on what is happening around them. Essential for the fun of everybody is a positive atmosphere. “Everyone on stage is a genius” (Bedore 2004:14) which means that there are no wrong answers during a game. Actors should always make sure to cooperate with each other and try to make everybody look good. Private comments out of the story or bullying must be discouraged. Improv games leave no room for own egos; everybody should serve the story.

To involve the audience and thereby giving the feeling of inclusion, the actors can ask for ideas or prompts. This rule is called an ask for and requests names, places, objects or ideas from the audience. A good team spirit between the actors and the inclusion of the audience serve as a basis for a fun experience for everybody in the classroom (cf. Hudson 2013:12-13).

A feature of story telling that creates tension and arises curiosity is to find turning points. In improvisation so called turns are elements to change the scenario, bring up a new view on the scene, or change the atmosphere. Thereby they change a boring and ordinary story into an original one. Since it is impossible to see what is on the players minds, improv stories remain unpredictable and exciting. Following this, pupils need to recognize good turning points and be brave enough to speak up. Introducing a turn works best by using some signal words like “suddenly”, “and then”, “in that instant” or even a simple “no” when the audience expects a “yes”.

Additionally to the previous rule exists the rule of using complementary ideas instead of copying the content of preceding speakers to create an interesting story. It is important to include new objects or persons to a story that might even be contradictory to create tension and spoil creativity for funny situations or events. Reintroducing already known figures or objects, that are not present in the actual scene, can arouse appreciation and good laughs by the audience, for example when a goofy character always pops up in the most unfitting situations.

For a good story the storyline has to stick to some conventions. There should be no regular discussion but an actual performance, where pupils have to act out. Since there is no given plot in the background like in written drama, the audience as well as the actors have to discover the story at the same time and react to unexpected situations. The five step rule helps to structure a storyline. According to Hudson (2013:12) there should be an exposition made in the first step, introducing the topic, characters and place of action. Secondly, a turning point shifts the action creating suspense. This could be made by using keywords like “And then...” or “Suddenly...”. The third part is a chain of reactions to advance the story. It is important to advance for the audience is curious about what happens next. All these actions lead to the fourth step of a big life moment, that serves as a climax for the whole story. This could be special topics out of everyday life e.g. the first kiss, a brand new invention, marriage, or death. Step five – the ending – should be a final conclusion or summary to the story. Every good story needs a satisfying ending. This can be the most challenging part of improvisation, for the pupils need to recognize a good ending point that sums up the action without adding new ideas. “The ending is the climax in any particular story”(Hudson 2013:12).

Common topics of comedy are taboo subjects that play around with sensitive things; these kind of topics can be introduced by pupils in improv games as well. Although it might be hard not to stop a critical topic, the teacher should give the pupils some time to solve the situation in an appropriate way for themselves. Moreover, this offers the chance to discuss offensive topics in an open way and, if necessary, to be commented on by the teacher in the end. Comments should also be made if the problem is not solved in a satisfying proper way (cf. Hudson 2013:13).

Especially with younger learners – or learners with special needs – scaffolding is important. The teacher can give so called side coaching or even jump into the story if it comes to a halt. He can offer new/better ideas or suggest turning points and suitable endings (cf. Hudson 2013:13-14).

Finally, one mistake has to be mentioned: Often beginners of improv use questions when they are stuck and thereby cue up question after question. This habit should be avoided from the beginning. “Obviously, a few questions have to be asked from time to time in a scene, but the point is to answer them, not add more” (Bedore 2004:15). To many questions can make a scene boring quickly.

After some time of practice pupils should be encouraged to perform in front of the whole class. That way a pressure of having to deliver is laid upon the students creating an adrenaline inspired performance that is often full of exciting content. At first the more talented and self-confident pupils should start, creating a fun and encouraging atmosphere for the timid classmates.

2.4 Personal Benefits from Improv Games

Two life skills everybody should have are being self-confident and the ability to adapt to unforeseeable situations. Nothing in life follows a script one could learn by heart. Many unexpected events force people to react in everyday life: an audition for a job or questions during a presentation are only two of many examples. Improvisation helps people to react fast and confident. “Even those not interested in acting will benefit from improv. […] They are not as shy as they were when they started. They seem better adjusted an better able to handle life's twists and turns” (Bedore 2004:6). Pupils learn through improv that the only mistake in life they can make is not trying.

As humans grow older they use their creativity less and less. “Improv forces you to use your imagination. Nothing happens until you make it happen” (Bedore 2004:7). Learning to access ones innate ability of creativity helps in everyday situations whenever there is a problem or challenge to solve. Improv actors learn to see different sides of the same situation and thereby react faster to it.

Improv will give you experience with lots of different imaginary situations and help you control your reactions in real life. Your social skills will greatly improve, and you'll soon see that your life is more fun and less stressful. (Bedore 2004:8)

Coming up with creative ideas has another positive effect especially for the classroom context: players can express their own thoughts and feelings and thereby make the language use more personal. „It has been claimed that personalized practice makes language more memorable“ (Hedge 2005:275). By assigning a topic the direction can be lead by the teacher, but the word choice is up to the player and fits to his personal needs and habits. Hence doing improv stronger impacts the pupils than memorize given dialogues from a textbook.

2.5 Social Benefits for a better classroom atmosphere

“[...] there are no solo stars in improv. Everyone has to work together to create a scene, or it will fall apart. Doing improv together build a group's mutual trust, and helps them appreciate the different talents of individuals” (Bedore 2004:7). Due to this fact, even pupils that are not appraised in a class because of special hobbies (e.g. nerds), outward appearance (obesity, glasses, etc.) or other “disqualifying” habits get a chance to integrated themselves by doing something cool in an improv scene. What is on the outside does not matter for acting out scenes and adding ideas to the game. Classmates might get to know each other from completely different perspectives, thereby reduce their prejudices and keep the positive attitude towards their classmates alive after the game.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Benefits of Using Improv Games for Teaching EFL Classes
Improvisation game techniques in comparison to classical teaching methodologies. An example of a game for all stages of EFL learners
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg  (Intitute of English Studies)
Kompetenz- und Standardorientierung im Fremdsprachenunterricht
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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EFL, Improvisation Games, Impro
Quote paper
Sina Laura Rautmann (Author), 2014, Benefits of Using Improv Games for Teaching EFL Classes, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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