Drama: Ways into Critical Literacy in the Early Childhood Years

By Martello, Julie | Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, October 2001 | Go to article overview
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Drama: Ways into Critical Literacy in the Early Childhood Years


Martello, Julie, Australian Journal of Language and Literacy


Drama as pedagogy (a teaching/learning methodology)

Views about what drama is differ among members of educational communities so an explanation of what is meant here by `drama' is needed. The kind of drama discussed here is also called `process drama' (O'Neill 1995) or `drama in education' (Bolton 1979) and this defines its central quality of being a process, rather than product oriented, though of course it is possible to end up with a very impressive product. It is not about the performance of scripted plays but about largely improvised, fictional contexts in which students are guided to explore the kinds of situations faced by people in real life, within a distanced and safe environment. Content across the curriculum is available to exploration through process drama, as is knowledge about the discipline of drama itself. Its teaching and learning potential lies in the role-taking and exploration of particular moments within the drama framework and in the guided reflection that occurs outside of the drama itself.

Although this kind of drama has been promoted and disseminated since its beginnings in Dorothy Heathcote's work in the 1960s, there are still very few preschool or primary school teachers who use it regularly (Mackay 2001, Warren 1998). Teachers have differing ideas about what drama is and many feel that they have insufficient knowledge about how to use it in the classroom. One recent study showed a tendency for teachers to equate drama with theatre or scripted plays because their own experience of drama had been of this kind (Mackay 2001). With drama a part of the recently released Creative Arts syllabus in NSW (Board of Studies NSW 2000) it is timely to reconfirm its value in the curriculum and explore links with another curriculum initiative, the promotion of critical literacy.

This paper focuses on the role of drama as pedagogy, a teaching and learning methodology, and explores its potential as a critical pedagogy which has strong, natural connections to the aims of critical literacy. Similarities between the key characteristics of drama and of critical literacy are highlighted. Examples of drama lessons with preschool and early school students form the basis of an exploration of ways in which drama can realise the aims of critical literacy if early childhood teachers adopt a critical stance.

How does drama promote learning?

Rationales for the use of educational or process drama highlight the unique power of drama to tap into children's intrinsic motivations and to involve the emotions for lasting and memorable learning. Many practitioners have written about the learning potential in using process drama (Bolton 1979, Cusworth & Simons 1997, Morgan & Saxton 1987, O'Neill 1995, Warren 1999). Some of the principal ways in which drama promotes learning are:

* It enables children to use and reflect upon what they know and through this assists them to make their own knowledge conscious. Heathcote (cited in Warren 1999) says children are often barely conscious of what they know or understand and drama promotes awareness and ownership of knowledge.

* It draws upon children's current knowledge, interests, understanding and language and offers opportunities to extend these into the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky 1977) through associated activities and research.

* It involves the emotions which make situations and ideas memorable and assists in lasting learning. From the early establishment of drama as a teaching/learning method theorists have claimed that it is because drama is felt that it is so effective, that it promotes `the deepest kind of change that can take place ... at the level of subjective meaning' (Bolton 1979, p. 31).

* It allows exploration and problem solving in safe, supported and motivated situations where children are more likely to take risks and `have a go' without the threat of real-life consequences (Cusworth & Simons 1997).

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