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Game facts and game description


For the past two years, City Lit ESOL has been experimenting and playing with ACT ESOL,
an approach introduced to the wider ESOL world in the UK by the Serpentine Galleries
Edgware Road Project, in which participatory ESOL teachers and Implicated Theatre
worked with English language learners to develop a more political ESOL orientation
combining language learning with a focus on resistance. Inspired by the work of Augusto
Boal and Paulo Freire’s Theatre and Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the project integrated
theatre as transformational action against oppression and injustice and “problem-posing
education” that begins from the participants’ lived experiences of oppression, explores
solutions and acts to change the situation. It also experimented with a variety of theatre
games and exercises with and without speech.
Detail of the project can be found here:

Game description

Within this Erasmus project, City Lit drew mainly on the Forum Theatre approach of ACT
ESOL but also experimented with some of the theatre games. In Forum Theatre, developed
by Boal, participants perform a situation one of them has experienced as oppressive or
unjust but which was either unsatisfactorily resolved or not resolved at all. The aim of the
re-creation is to show the problem but not the solution. Essential to the process is that
the ‘Oppressed’ person wants change but does not know how to get it. The Antagonist, the
‘Oppressor’, can be a boss, a member of the public, even a friend – but is someone who
has made something difficult and non-constructive for the oppressed. The scene may
involve a number of actors but the Spectators are not passive – they are actors too. They
step into the performance at certain times to explore and create alternatural endings to
the story. Finally, there is the Joker, the enabler or mediator who conducts the whole
process and aims to encourage playfulness, to provoke, to think outside of the box and to
create a safe holding frame for complex exploration.
Our approach at City Lit was to be less explicitly political: work with students, in this case,
adults learning English as a new language, on situations they themselves had experienced
as difficult but focus more overtly on the transformation of these situations linguistically
and practically so that learners could learn from the repetitions of the scene and develop
their competencies for repetitions of similar situations. Scenes students re-enacted
included problems at work with bosses, rude situations while shopping, and
misunderstandings between a customer and barista.
Students initially worked in groups and decided which ‘conflict’ per group they were going
to re-enact in front of the whole class. Then they all rehearsed. After the first performance,
and a period of collective reflection, the learners re-played the scene and this time members of the audience (other students) joined in or took the place of the original
enactors to try to find a better resolution to the problem.
Within this play and the transformation of a real event into an aesthetic form, students
worked on all aspects of their English while maintaining a pragmatic focus. They also had

Project outline

We chose this ACT ESOL approach because we were interested in focusing on the
experience of play as a learning experience. Was the ‘play experience’ also a learning one?
How was a play experience created? Did the ACT ESOL approach affect such an
experience? Hence, we were interested less in creating playful attitudes on the part of the
learner-player towards their learning than in creating scenarios which demanded play. In
that sense, we followed the famous reflections on play by HG Gadamer in Truth and
Method, which advocates the primacy of play over the consciousness of the players – that
it is the ‘game’ and its movement which determine play not the attitude or decision of the
players. Play occurs when players are drawn in and subject to a to-and-fro movement or
tension whether this is an individual following the movement of a ball kicked back and
forth against a wall or it is a contest between two teams engaged in a fiercely fought
sports game. Such movement involves and absorbs the participants so that their
decision-making and acts become tasks – both immanent and imminent – of the play or
game. So, although the game itself may be taxing and exhausting, the players experience
its ease, as without strain and without the burden of individual initiating – what is
sometimes called ‘flow’. Such absorption, even relaxation, into the game does not mean
the absence of risk. Play requires the risk of continued failure as well as the possibility of
averting or reversing this loss. Indeed, perhaps the more balanced these stakes are –
between loss and gain, failure and success – the more the individuals are transformed into
players of the game. Such stakes are features of the play itself, distinct in time and space
from the rest of the world. Whatever the effect on the outside world, success or failure is
measured only in terms of the game or play itself. Specific rules shape and define the
movement within a separate space – whether a court, a pitch, a table, or in this case a
space for acting – during a time period with a distinct beginning and end.

Throughout the project, we followed a similar pattern though not every instantiation was
the same:
● initial theatre game to relax and orientate the learners
● setting up a space for Forum theatre
● students working in groups of 3-4 with each learner presenting a ‘problem’
● the choosing of one scene per group to rehearse and enact
● enacting of the scene in front of the rest of the learners
● whole-class reflection on the scene to check students’ understanding of what had
happened and different interpretations of it
● a second re-enacting of the scene with members of the audience now entering the
scene to help resolve the situation
● further whole-class reflection of the situation and focus on language or other
learning points
● follow-on work such as writing a script, working on a grammar point etc.

Target group & Setting

We used this approach with a variety of adult learners but mainly people who were
migrant workers or refugees learning English at Entry 2-Level 1 (A2-B2). The students
usually worked in cafes, shops, hotels and sometimes offices. Some were studying for
exams on 17 week courses learning English for 5 hours a week. Others were on more
specialist shorter courses without exams such as pronunciation and ESOL and Customer


One of the benefits of ACT ESOL is that it requires few material resources. However, the
tutor should check the following:
● there is sufficient space in the classroom / learning environment for the games
and play
● objects such a bags or clothes are cleared away and the space is safe
● there are some objects which can be used as props such as chairs, books etc.
however imaginaturally
● there is a something to write on during the reflection periods in particular
● students are choosing situations which contain a conflict or antagonism sufficient
to drive tension and create the to and fro movement required of play
● students have an appropriate space publicly or privately to discuss matters which
might have emerged through the re-enactment.

How to embed

There are no rules about when or how often to use ACT ESOL. Students recognised the
unusual nature of the class as soon as we moved the tables and chairs to one side of the
room to create the Forum Theatre performance space. We usually started with a
drama-based game to elicit trust between classmates. A full list of introductory games,
with pedagogical and language explanation, can be found in the Serpentine Galleries’
booklet, ACT ESOL, Language, Resistance, Theatre (www.serpentinegalleries.org/learn), but
particularly popular games at City Lit were ‘Follow the Sound’, ‘Occupy the Space’ and
The approach worked well across different levels of learners. It can be used at different
times in a course and can be adapted to many different learning contexts. It can be used
on longer general ESOL programmes or shorter work-oriented courses. It lends itself to
particular circumstances such as a work or business oriented ESOL course or even exam
practice. On a 7 week, 2 hours a week ESOL Customer Care course, we used the method
over two sessions with students.
The theatre games can be used fairly regularly as a warm up or filler activity, especially
near the beginning of a course or with a new intake of students within an existing class.,
as well a means of preparing learners for the ACT ESOL part of the class. ACT ESOL can
also be used as a confidence-building tool with reticent students or with a group that
doesn’t seem that cohesive. It is fun and good for class bonding.
ACT ESOL can be used by learners to develop not only linguistic features but also cultural
pragmatic behaviours. The approach embeds learners in a context they have already
experienced as challenging. This situational element gives them the chance to revisit a
difficult situation in a bounded manner and change the outcome. It promotes purposeful
communication and equips participants with enhanced competence for dealing with
similar future difficulties. As a result they gain confidence, fluency and reflective skills as
well as focus on specific language features such as register, tone, or the language of

Use in class

The ACT ESOL method was mainly used with ESOL learners at Entry 2 (A2) and Entry3-Level
1 (B1-B2) levels. But pronunciation classes also used some theatre games.
Examples of Theatre Games used
In Zip, Zap Boing, students stand in a circle and ‘pass’ sounds to one another. The zip
sound is passed to the student (the Joker) to one side of you: you make eye contact with
her, say ‘zip’ and clap. She then does the same with her neighbour. It goes round the circle
continuously without any talking. When students are confident with this, zap can be
added. Here, the Joker looks across the circle, makes eye contact, claps and says ‘zap’.
(This cannot be to the person next to you.) Finally, ‘boing’ is added. This sound is in
response to the sender of a zip or zap: you make eye contact with her and say ‘boing’ with
a hands up movement as if pushing the sound back to whoever has sent you the zip or
zap. As students get the hang of the game, it can be sped up using zip, zap and boing
together. In future lessons, other sounds, words or phrases can be substituted for zip, zap
and boing – for example, to practise pronunciation. The students found this game good
fun and very interactive. It sometimes took a few goes to get it running smoothly. It’s a
good idea not to spend too long on each game, to keep the students interested and

In Occupy the Space, the students all walk around the room in one direction, focusing on
the floor and keeping an even space between each other. The Joker shouts ‘freeze’ and the
students check their position in the room and move if necessary to maintain relatively
even spaces between each of them. This continues with variations e.g. you overslept and
need to get to work very quickly for an important meeting. It is rush hour. GO! You went to
a party last night and got back very late. You only got 4 hours’ sleep. GO! The Joker shouts
freeze to stop the movement and check the spaces each time. There are multiple
possibilities with this game and the students enjoyed walking in different ways,
depending on the instructions given.
Mirror is a simple game, but requires concentration. Students work with a partner. They
face each other and conduct the game in silence. Student A moves and student B mirrors
their action. The Joker shouts ‘freeze’ and roles are swapped. In the final round of the
game, there is no leader, with students working together, mirroring each other. In the
sessions at City Lit, we generally used about two games per lesson before starting the
Forum Theatre activities.
Once the students were relaxed, the ACT ESOL section could begin fully. The teacher
(Joker) put them into small groups of 3 or 4. The students were then encouraged to think
of situations that had happened to them in their everyday or work life in which someone
had been rude or difficult towards them. They then each related their story to the others
in their group. The Joker went round listening to the situations and encouraged each group to choose just one of the scenes to act out to the rest of the class. She also asked
key questions about the scenario to check some form of confrontation was involved and it
was conducive to Forum Theatre. The lack of an argument or a too easily resolved
situation would not encourage student language production or bring about a situation of
Once the scene had been chosen, the protagonist related the scenario in more detail to
the rest of his/her group and students decided which parts they would act. Each group
then started to rehearse the different scenarios. The Joker continued to talk to each group,
checking everyone had a part in the performance and encouraging students to use props
as necessary. When the groups were ready, they took turns to perform in front of the
audience (the rest of the class). At a point of confrontation in the scene, the Joker
stopped the action by saying ‘freeze’ and asked key questions such as: Who had the
problem? How did the different characters respond? What exactly was the problem? Why
did x or y act in that way? Can you think of another way of dealing with the situation? The
scene was then acted again from the beginning, but this time anyone from the ‘audience’
could come in at any point to swap with a character or add another character to the scene,
in order to resolve the situation. This could be several times, depending on the cohort of
At the end of the Forum Theatre episode, the Joker (teacher) reviewed the scene with the
students usually creating a visual overview of the scenario via the Interactive Whiteboard,
which included possible reasons for the initial problem. In addition, this feedback section
elicited possible resolutions of the situations, which could be used in real life. Depending
on the length of the class, groups sometimes acted out their scenes again, with the
suggested resolutions.
The students came up with a wide range of situations. For example, a scene in a clothes
shop where a customer felt she was being badly treated by the staff at the till when she
came to pay. The cashier seemed to have treated all the previous customers courteously,
but was rude to her. She was the only non-natural speaker in the queue. This threw up
various suggestions of why this should happen. Was the cashier racist? Had the student
misunderstood something because of her language difficulties? Why did the cashier act in
that way? Was she having a bad day? What had happened at home before she got to work?
After students had watched the scene, they were able to offer suggestions for the cashier’s
actions and ways of resolving the situation. The offended student could explain how she
felt at being treated like this and ask for an apology. She could ask for support from
someone else in the queue or, if all else failed, could ask to see a senior member of staff
to explain what had happened and seek some kind of resolution, suggesting that the staff
member received further training in customer care.
Another example was in a coffee shop where a customer had asked for a cup of tea but
was given a cappuccino. Confusion arose when the waitress asked if she wanted chocolate
on the top. Why would she want chocolate on her tea? The customer became very angry
and the waitress had no idea why. Again, students were able to suggest why the confusion had arisen. Maybe the student’s pronunciation of the phrase ‘cup of tea’ was unclear.
Maybe she hadn’t been listening to the waitress when she confirmed her order for the
coffee. The customer could be offered a free cup of tea by way of apology, but the
students also felt she shared some responsibility for the confusion by not really listening
to the waitress as she was on her phone and distracted whilst giving the order.

A third scenario involved a scene at work, where someone had been asked to come in to
do a shift only to be told that she wasn’t needed. In addition, the student involved felt
she had been treated unsympathetically by her boss on many previous occasions and
wanted the matter resolved. Students could see what the problem was: her boss hadn’t
called her to say she wasn’t needed after all and was very uncaring. Perhaps she had had
to arrange childcare to come to work, which was an extra expense. In addition, when the
superior was called to resolve the situation, the student’s boss simply ignored her and
spoke to the superior in their common language. This particular scenario brought up
situations that were recognisable to many of the students. Again, sensible suggestions
were offered to reduce the tension in the situation and bring it to a point of resolution.
The worker could ask for a private meeting to discuss her issues with her boss. The
superior could suggest a new way of arranging the work rota so that staff were given
reasonable notice for shift changes. In future meetings the boss and her superior would
talk in English so that the staff member could understand and feel included.
In another scenario a woman was in a coffee shop waiting for her husband. He was visiting
her in the UK and she thought it would be a good chance for him to practise his English.
She chatted to the waitress and ordered some food when her husband arrived. All went
well until the waitress brought the food and started sneezing over the order. The
customer was a little shocked, but also concerned and asked the waitress if she was
constipated! She kept repeating this question, much to the embarrassment of the
waitress. When the action was frozen the students discussed how the misunderstanding
had arisen. The customer was Spanish, and in her language, the adjectives for
‘constipated’ and ‘congested’ are exactly the same. So, she was asking the waitress if she
had a cold, but this was misunderstood because of the language problem. The students in
the ‘audience’ suggested a way of resolving the situation simply and the scene was acted
again. This time a second customer was already in the coffee shop and was able to
overhear the conversation with the sneezing waitress. She intervened and introduced
herself to the customer as a fellow Spaniard and was able to explain why the confusion
had arisen. The first customer was grateful for the help and apologised to the waitress,
who now understood the reason for the original question and they were all able to laugh
about it, thus quickly defusing the situation.

In addition to this ‘conflict resolution’, these scenes also became language learning and
enriching experiences. A lot of language emerged from the acting, which was elicited and
focused on in the post-scenario feedback and/or followed up in subsequent lessons.
For example, in the first scenario with the rude cashier, this was a good opportunity to
expand the students’ vocabulary related to adjectives of personality. Students were able
to build up a bank of vocabulary which they used in subsequent lessons to write
descriptions of family members or friends. They were able to use a wider range of
adjectives more accurately in their narratives, through the ACT ESOL experience. In all the
situations, students were able to use their powers of inference to suggest reasons for the
actions of the cashier/waitress/manager. At Entry 2 level, students could say ‘perhaps she
was tired/maybe she was angry’ etc., while higher level students could use modal verbs,
e.g. ‘she might/could/may have been depressed/anxious/hungry/irritated’ etc. These
situations lent themselves to a wealth of follow-up work, be it pronunciation-based work
such as a dialogue to practise intonation, gap-fill exercises to consolidate language work
that emerged from the scenes (adjectives, verbs, tenses) or longer pieces of writing, e.g.
an application for a job, the pros and cons of different jobs, a discussion about working
conditions etc. These can be done at a range of levels, depending on the group of
students involved, what emerged from the acting experience and the learners’ specific
interests or needs.

Student experience, testimonials and quotes

At the beginning of this project we asked ourselves whether this ACT ESOL approach
created an experience of play and if so did it constitute a learning experience. The answer
to both of these questions is ‘yes’. Within the classroom a distinct space and time was
created particularly during the re-enacting part of the process. The scene drew in the
learner-participants so they became absorbed in it and also subject to its demands. They
were both creative and CREATED, playing and being played. Each move of the players
became contingent and conditional on another – semi-scripted and prescribed by the
already created situation but still needing to be performed. The involving nature of the
process was in part brought about by the ‘contested’ element and antagonism at the heart
of each scene whether this was between the barista and customer over the mistaken
cappuccino and cup of tea or the rude customer and others in the supermarket. The
disputes enabled a back and forth movement to the scenarios that also led to the
incorporation of more people into the attempted resolution or intensification of the
problem. These learners entered the scene as players. The friction – where something was
at stake – proved essential in creating the play. The scenario’s being based on something
that had happened to one or more the learners distinguished it from more traditional role
play, while the framing of problems within a codified and distinct activity provided a
freedom for the learners. It was evident from filmed footage that the participants were
playing seriously as well as on occasions adopting a playful attitude to what had
sometimes been an upsetting real life experience.One of the most interesting reflections was from a learner on the ESOL and Customer Care
course. She discussed how after working long hours, the play of ACT ESOL revived her. She
lost herself in the recreating of the scene and had fun. And this helped her learning. Listen
to more of her reflections here

Caroline, the teacher: “It became clear fairly early on in the lessons and again in feedback
from students that a substantial element of what we were hoping to achieve through this
play was successful. The majority of the students forgot their inhibitions and their lack of
fluency because they were involved in a situation which had meaning to them and were
invested in resolving the problems they had encountered in real life. One student notably
said that, although she was tired when she came to class, she forgot about her fatigue and
her daily worries because she was immersed in acting out scenes with her classmates. In
addition, the vast majority of students, from a range of classes, said that their confidence
had increased significantly as a result of this method of language learning. They now felt
far more able to deal with difficult situations and to stand up for themselves when
problems arose at work or in their daily life. It was significant that some students who
were generally quiet and slightly on the periphery in class, became totally involved in the
situation they were acting in, thus enabling them to produce language without the
reticence that they often showed in a more traditional class setting. It appeared that,
because similar situations had occurred to the students in their lives, they had a great
deal of meaning and relevance to them. In addition, because of the room layout and lack
of formal seating etc. the students were able to relax into the acting, which in turn
produced language in a way that does not always happen in class. Likewise, they seemed
more open to taking risks in terms of language-production when absorbed in the acting or
‘game’. The act of taking on a different persona also gave them permission to be more
imaginatural with their language and less restricted by anxiety and the fear of making
mistakes, which can inhibit language for some students in a more traditional ESOL class.”

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