The Teaching and Learning Centre’s Dr Ellis Saxey discusses the work that LSE Language Centre has been doing to gradually expand its use of improvisation techniques to teach languages.
A 2015-16 pilot, offered as part of the in-sessional English language programme, was oversubscribed and the student feedback was incredibly positive:
I can talk without fear.
Now I feel more confident, I know that people understand me.
WE WANT MORE SESSIONS!
So in 2016-17, the Centre has extended the number of sessions and participants.
The format is relaxed and built around short activities (the Centre are building an activity archive, currently containing 140 different ‘games’). The ‘audience’ (made up of students who will later be improvising) are often called on for their contributions which will structure the activities: styles of performance, details of scenarios for the improvisers to inhabit. The sessions are currently delivered by Helen Mayer, Inés Alonso-García, and Angelina Castellini, following the programme delivered by Steve Bond (Learning Technology Manager at LSE, and part of the comedy performers Crime Scene Improvisation) for the Language Centre in 2012
Many of the activities contain elements of the impossible or the ridiculous, which help to defuse student anxieties. A student might have to speak about PowerPoint slides which show pictures they’ve never seen before. Or they might become an expert in an outlandish subject: an Olympic trainer, describing why they’re excited to train an animal to compete in a sport (when both the animal and the sport have been suggested by the audience). The act of performance might seem daunting, but the sessions include lower-pressure work (in pairs and small groups), building up to solo improvisation.
Many of the activities work with particular aspects of language development: when one student plays an estate agent, and the other a very picky buyer, it calls on their knowledge of negative and positive descriptive terms. Some games experiment with intonation, others with numbers.
Also being offered in 2016-17 is a pilot using improvisation to teach Spanish (where an hour of improvisation accompanies every two hours of traditional teaching). The Language Centre plans to expand into other languages, also.
The Centre intends to research their current cohort, to explore how improvisation has developed the students’ language skills, particularly their fluency and spontaneity. The tutors are also interested in how improvisation helps students to contribute during their other classes, by, for example, increasing their self-confidence and presentation skills.
Helen and Ines recently led a workshop on Improvisation for Language Learning, at the AULC Annual Conference, which was very well received.
Helen, Ines and Angelina are happy to work with any other academics who would like to introduce elements of improvisation in their teaching.