Introduction

The series of focus groups conveyed within the framework of the Erasmus + project “SIMELTA: Studying innovative methods of education for languages through theatrical activities” (2017-2019) was conceived and designed by the team of researchers from Latvia to be further implemented by all partner countries. After developing, adapting and piloting resources for teaching languages to different groups of people, the idea of the FGD was to reach a wider expertise and receive the unbiased outside view on the issues arising when using theatrical activities in teaching foreign languages.

SIMELTA- Focus Group Discussion

FGD analysis: Latvia

The focus group was organised and conveyed by the team of researchers from the Centre of Applied Linguistics, Faculty of Humanities, University of Latvia. 

Method

  • A two-hour masterclass with a group of seniors was conducted and recorded (see SIMELTA youtube channel), and a 6-minute video excerpt was selected by the project members (Activity 3: Guess how I feel). The criteria for selecting included the explicitness of the method employed, a crosscutting theme, i.e. the focus on one language aspect from the setting till the final product, and the emotional impact of the episode.
  • Since “[a] primary difference between focus group research and other types of research such as surveys, individual interviews, and laboratory experiments is that data collection occurs in, and is facilitated by, a group setting” (Stewart et al, 2007: 19), the selection of experts was done with a particular care. Although only 5 people answered the invitation, all 5 participants had necessary qualifications (a Master’s degree or higher) and the experience of teaching several languages as well as they were non-native English speakers. Other unifying factors were their work in higher education and experience in teaching 18-25 and 26-45-year-old students. The rest of the demographics, including versatile teaching context, varied, which potentially widened the scope of the discussion on the employability of theatrical activities. In a sense, the experts represented the three generation of language teachers that also partly reflected in their answers to the questions posed later. Importantly, no one had previously worked with the target group (i.e. seniors); the aspect of novelty provided for more objectivity and served as a good trigger for discussion. Thus, the selection of participants was appropriate for the FGD purpose and the demographics provided for successful blending.
  • A big room at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Latvia, was chosen as suitable both for showing the selected video and recording the focus group discussion. The working team comprised a facilitator, assistant and cameraman, all but the last one involved in the SIMELTA project.
  • The experts were provided with the extended plan of the whole lesson in advance ( Lesson Plan). They were also asked to fill in a brief questionnaire and sign the video recording consent form.

The results of the questionnaire allow to make a conjecture that the experience of using theatrical activities is rated more positively by younger teachers, whereas older generations seem to be more reserved in their assessment. The freedom to introduce innovative methods in their classrooms, however, does not appear to correlate with any other data. Still, any such conclusion should be validated on a bigger amount of data.

Process: 24 May, UL Faculty of Humanities, Riga

  • After greeting the participants and informing them about the agenda, a short description including some information about learners, teacher, context and other relevant data was given, and the previously selected 6-min video excerpt from the workshop was watched by the FGD participants.
  • It should be acknowledged that the selection of the video appeared to be successful, and positive emotions (smiles turning into a good-humoured laughter) on the faces of the experts spoke for themselves. After the material was watched, the proper FGD started.
  • The ending time was set within an hour and a half from the start and the principles of the discussion, such as no-censorship norm, no right/wrong answers and no politically correct responses, were agreed upon. With the participants knowing each other, there was no need in introductions.
  • The first question was asked, and the selected video proved to be felicitous again, judging by how easily the discussion was initiated, how smoothly it went, and how little probing was necessary to keep it going till the very end.
  • The discussion was ended within the set time; the working team stayed to discuss important takeaways and body language cues, thus, adding to a comprehensive view of the FGD.

The following inferences were made on the basis of transcriptions of the FGD video recordings, the assistant’s written notes as well as relevant observations by all team members. The discussion does not obligatory follow the order of the questions, but it is congruent with the overall FGD logic.  

Answering what they like/dislike about the activities in the video, all the participants marked

high involvement of the students, with those feeling comfortable, enjoying themselves and willing to interact. In the experts’ opinion, such a language class presents a good way to overcome loneliness of the elderly and re-integrate them in society. The release of positive emotions was so strong that it was said to affect the audience, and the impact made the focus group suggest developing sketches into a full-scale theatre.

Keeping the goal of the class in mind (see the lesson plan), the participants were asked to evaluate the suitability of the activity for the older adults.

Activity 3. Guess how I feel (reading a situation) 15-20 min

→ in pairs writing a dialogue on a given topic with verbs in the past simple; role playing the dialogue with given emotions; memorising words of emotions

Each pair gets a situation with the task to demonstrate some emotions. They create a script and play it out in front of the class. Others have to guess a hidden emotion. Preparation time: 8-10 min.

Some examples of suitable situations:

  1. The last trip (peaceful – energetic)
  2. A bedtime story (nostalgic – loving)
  3. At the airport (worried – friendly)
  4. Gardening season (generous – happy)

Intermezzo: Calm down! (A relaxed breathing) 2 min

Overall, the activity was positively evaluated, with

  • the appropriate length of the activity, not too straining for the students’ age,
  • the script as a support,
  • help of the instructor in writing their dialogue,
  • a breathing exercise for relaxation after the strain,

specifically singled out.

The question on whether the participants can use the activity with their students became the turning point of the whole FGD, with participants freely sharing their experience in search of the common denominator. The activity, as any activity involving short dialogues for that matter, was argued to be easily adaptable for any group of learners; for instance, for kindergarteners, simpler emotions and situations aided by puppet speech, masks and other props should be chosen. Alternatively, the level of complexity could be increased, with vocabulary of conflicted emotions offered for advanced students.

Furthermore, in legal English context, a famous movie might be used as a basis for the script, and in communication classes, reciting poetry may serve a key. The most important is to awake emotions: when students are feeling them, the rest is plain sailing. In the opinion of the experts, virtually all language aspects can be taught with the help of theatrical activities. New vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar may be acquired using body to learn the language and learning a new body language to use. What remains immune to the theatrical approach is probably the academic essay and other “heavy-weight” written genres.

Although the methodology did not raise any objections, there still remained the concern how to start and make students speak. The most serious problem, however, is that all these largely successful methods occasionally do not work. In all the contexts, similar theatrical activities might run smoothly in a number of groups and then fail in any next one. Although there is no one explanation of the failure, the experts listed a number of tips which might prove useful.

  • The background (ethnic, social, cultural etc.) of learners is of paramount significance, and it should always be taken into account.
  • First and foremost is the topic, and if the topic is relevant, then the learners “open up”, for they need to desire to listen to and follow along the dialogue.
  • Since much depends on class dynamics, it is important to motivate the “informal leader”; one of the experts mentioned her practice of demonstrating any activity with the bravest student of a group.
  • It is possible to tackle bigger groups subdividing them into smaller ones (e.g. in the kindergarten, 3 bees and 3 flowers instead of one but saying the same words).

The FG participants agreed that the first step to success is to earn respect as a teacher, the one who is creative and loves doing his job. It will never work if the teacher is bored. Then there must be instructions how to use these tools, for the preparation for such classes, at least for the first time, may be rather exhaustive, so the teacher has to feel ready to work in a novel way. The question is how to develop readiness to try it out, the willingness to teach not only language but other skills as well. A serious issue whether teachers are knowledgeable enough to build soft skills essential in this activity. All of the above might be among the reasons why some teachers still avoid using drama activities in the language classroom.

Since using the theatrical approach is not compulsory, often teachers are still ignorant of it. There is a misleading perception that it immediately means staging plays. Further, some believe that one need to be a professional actor to apply drama methods into practice and are afraid of using real emotions. Others are afraid of making mistakes and not ready to laugh at themselves. There exists an opinion that theatrical activities are not for all people – neither for all teachers nor for all students.

So, what in the view of the experts would motivate language teachers to use theatrical activities more often?

Even if the potential of theatrical methods is evident, written instructions are not enough without video support. Such short recordings as the excerpt shown for the FGD might stand in good stead both for students and teachers.

Pre- /in-service teachers should not only attend workshops showing actual work, they have to undergo training for acting skills. The training must become part of the study curriculum. Being just ONE of the methods, the theatrical approach must be demonstrated through stand-alone activities and as part of the whole course.

So, what may be called as theatrical activities in language teaching? Standing in front of the audience and creating an emotional contact while pretending to be somebody else might be the most concise and involved definition for drama in language classroom.

To conclude,

  • the FGD supported most of conclusions on emotional and cognitive benefits made in previous research on older adults’ participation in theatre arts (reference). Importantly, being someone else in foreign language learning decreases seniors’ anxiety and produces a safe stereotype-free space, thus freeing creativity, opening full potential and increasing overall well-being;
  • the high emotional impact of theatrical activities develops viewers’ empathy and, therefore, raises a question of the cultural value of older adults’ performances, the value going beyond the classroom and/or language learning;
  • finally, the necessity of (re)training for language teachers raises a pertinent question about the centre answerable for workshops, seminars, tutorial, etc., the lab equipped by specialists in language education and acting.

Drama might be time consuming, but it is far more interesting a way to teach and to learn foreign languages.

References

Bernard, M., Rickett, M. (2017) “The Cultural Value of Older People’s Experiences of Theater-making: A Review” // The Gerontologist, Volume 57, Issue 2, pp. e1–e26. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnw093

Stewart, D.W., Shamdasani, P.N., Rook, D.W. (2007) Focus Groups. 2nd ed. Sage Publications, Inc. Available at http://datubazes.lanet.lv:5056/Book/focus-groups

FOCUS GROUP DISCUSSION IS AVAILABLE HERE

 

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