Scenario

1649-8526Volume XIIssue 2Year 2017

Assessing Performative Competence in German ELF-Classrooms – The Task of Teachers and Learners

Petra Bosenius

Abstract

When it comes to categorizing what pupils in a German English language classroom do when they are taking over roles and enacting scenes, a variety of terms is usually applied, e.g. acting-out, role-play, scenic play, drama-based education, scenic improvisation, to name but a few. Drama in English Language Teaching (ELT) enables pupils to change perspectives and put themselves into the shoes of other personae thereby learning English in a holistic and creative manner that equally appeals to all senses. The question arises how teachers (and learners) can assess drama activities in an EFL-context. In order for assessment formats to yield conclusive insights into the achievements to be gained in performative EFL-classrooms, the former have to be based upon a sound understanding of the essential elements the construct of performative competence comprises. Therefore, firstly a definition of performative competence will be presented and practical examples of drama activities related to different school levels within the German school system will be provided. Secondly, the teacher’s tasks during drama activities in the EFL-classroom will be discussed, and thirdly, the agents and goals of assessing drama activities in ELT will be outlined before one generic assessment sheet will be introduced and analysed in detail.

1. Towards a definition of performative competence in ELT

Drama activities1 in EFL-classrooms are usually geared towards linguistic and motivational goals in order to enhance pupils’ skills of spoken interaction in situations different from the traditional teacher-student talk on the basis of a course book. Yet, once applied to the language classroom, they automatically take on the characteristic features of performing in front of others, be it in form of a role play or in form of a scene or even a complete play enacted in the presence of class mates or a school audience. In nuce, this is what Susan Holden (1982), a pioneer of drama in language teaching, refers to when she says: “drama is concerned with the world of ‘let’s pretend’; it asks the learner to project himself imaginatively into another situation, outside the classroom, or into the skin and persona of another person” (quoted in Davies 1990: 87). Yet, engaging in a role play or taking part in other drama activities, for instance ‘role-on-the-wall’ or ‘good angel / bad angel’ (cf. British Council Hong Kong 2008/09: 29, 32) may serve the purpose of working creatively on a character and the problems he/she faces without an actual performance in sight. In the context of teaching literature in the EFL-classroom, these activities enable teachers to complement the procedures of literary text analysis by action-oriented, viz. creative modes of work. The value of such drama activities surpasses the purely cognitive-analytic understanding of a literary text and focuses on pupils’ emotional and imaginary approaches to said text. The activities under discussion do not necessarily include the performance of a scene, let alone a complete play. Duff and Maley (1984) also emphasize the process-character of drama techniques and assume their value to lie in “not in what they lead up to but in what they are, in what they bring out right now” (ibid. quoted in Davies 1990: 87; italics in the original). The dichotomy between process and product, however, might not be as prominent as it seems, as any kind of performance bears characteristics of ‘being on stage’ in front of others, even if the intimacy of an EFL-classroom is less official than the stage in the school hall or the local theatre.

On a more general note, Hallet even goes so far as to draw a comparison between the cultural performance of a play and social performance in general. He claims that people often perform in a variety of social situations occurring in their lives (Hallet 2008: 391) and defines performative competence in its broadest sense as:

the ability to understand and participate in staged interaction. (…) Active participation in social interaction presupposes the ability to ‘read’ situations, respectively their underlying deep structure (…), in order to (co-)found and act in them in a responsible way, that is above all, by respecting the positions of the other participants (Hallet 2008: 406).2

Hallet’s definition contains three essential dimensions that are equally ascribed to the concept of Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) devised by Byram (1997) and put to use in the wider context of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe 2001), namely knowledge (in Hallet’s statement, reading the deep structure of the situation at hand), skills (ibid., acting responsibly in a given situation), and attitudes (ibid., respect towards the other participants involved). This triad, that also traditionally denotes the three dimensions of learning objectives in any school context, has likewise been adapted to pupils’ literary competence (cf. Thaler 2008; Volkmann 2015). In a similar vein, performative competence is closely linked to (inter)cultural competence and literary competence in so far as pupils actually act out the roles of imaginary others in English as a foreign language rather than just reading about intercultural encounters or taking them in while analysing a literary text. That is why, pupils’ performative competence in English may be assumed to embrace

These three layers may be applied to learners of all ages as the amount of cognitive involvement, the aspired quality of dramatic skills, and the depth of emotions affected may vary in accordance with the pupils’ age and stage of learning English (cf. Volkmann 2008: 434-449), as will be shown in the subsequent examples of performative competence likely to be encountered at the primary (grades 1 to 4), lower secondary (grades 5 to 10), and upper secondary level (grades 11 and 12) of German EFL-classrooms.

1.1. Example of performative competence displayed at the primary level

At the primary level, pupils learn English by means of item learning rather than system learning, which is to say they get to know basic chunks of the English language as used in games, songs, and stories. Consciousness-raising with regard to single grammatical issues occurs incidentally and takes on the form of experimenting with the language rather than conveying explicit grammatical knowledge typical of teaching English to learners at the secondary level. The imitative character of the classroom discourse in elementary English language teaching only slowly gives way to more independent usage of English on the pupils’ part. Nonetheless, language use may well be accompanied by precursors of drama skills. Thus, by way of example, beginners of learning English enacting the animals of the song “Old McDonald had a Farm”4 need to know what cows, pigs, ducks, horses, lambs and chickens look like and what sounds they make (cognitive level) in order to be able to sing the song and apply adequate gestures to go along with it (level of dramatic skills). They need to pronounce the names of the animals distinctly (level of dramatic skills) to mark the difference between them, and they need to engage in the fun of this nursery song in a way which at the same time prevents them from fooling around too much to make it an effective performance (affective level). Admittedly, this type of drama activity leaves no room for pupils to use English freely. Yet, at this stage of learning, such activities foster the pupils’ listening and speaking skills while at the same time providing a learning context in which pupils use their bodies and practise various forms of stress and intonation while performing the song in English.

1.2. Example of performative competence developed at the lower secondary level

Lower secondary pupils enacting the text of a course book rounding off a teaching unit need to understand the basic dilemma presented, they need to breathe life into the course book characters by communicating as authentically as possible, perhaps by also deviating from the text given in the course book, and they need to feel themselves into characters they would probably distance themselves from in reality. In the fifth unit of English G 21 (Schwarz 2007: 88-90), for example, five eighth graders suspect a new girl in class to have stolen various items, such as lunch money, a pen, and a mobile phone. They set a trap by deliberately leaving a purse in the classroom which contains a key ring that bleeps once someone nearby whistles. The children move around the school premises to find the suspect. Finally, they detect bleeps near the caretaker who is handing over the purse to the class teacher. The ‘detectives’ have to acknowledge that they are not to blame others, especially a new class mate, for taking things without adequate proof. Whereas understanding the situation at hand cognitively will surely not pose any major difficulties, one challenge affecting the level of dramatic skills as well as the affective dimension consists of how to enact bullying behaviour in English on the one hand and of how to present the emotion of being ashamed of that same behaviour on the other. Drama techniques, such as hot-seating (cf. Neelands & Goode 2015: 43) might help pupils to develop the individual roles to be adopted in the role play further.

1.4. Example of performative competence deployed at the upper secondary level

At the upper secondary level, there is practically no limit to the texts that might be suitable for acting in English. They include scenes from poems, songs, novels or dramas, or complete plays depending on the goals teachers intend their learners to achieve with regard to their literary and intercultural understanding of a text. The level of performative competence on the pupils’ part varies according to the extent to which they have already been made familiar with drama activities in their school lives either in English or in other school subjects. The example provided here is taken from the song “Blind Willie McTell” that Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize Winner in Literature 2016, wrote in 1983, first played in public on August 5, 1997, and last on June 17, 2017.5 The song pays homage to a blues singer of the same name and simultaneously presents scenes from American Civil War history, such as the following in two succeeding stanzas:

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

In order to convey a lively picture of the scenes presented pupils could be encouraged to present two still-images: one could show the relation between a slave owner hovering above a group of slaves and swinging a whip; another one could represent a gang of prisoners who are chained to each other and sing out loud while forced to work on a road (cf. Detering 2008: 84). Thereby, pupils can embody the corresponding situations of oppression and violence.6 Although they work mostly non-verbally when applying this drama technique, they will obtain a feeling for blocking and space they can later transfer to other drama activities. Furthermore, pupils might invent a conversation among the slaves or prisoners to render their fate more personal and to make the audience understand the social situation at hand on both a cognitive and an emotional level. Even though only a number of scenes are presented, the characteristics of the action in question require careful warm-up and sensitive phasing-out.

2. The teacher’s tasks in performative EFL-classrooms

Since the focus on the performative as outlined in the present paper is realized in the context of English as a foreign language at school in Germany (for a historical overview related to English or German as foreign or second languages see Schewe 2007), two assets are obvious: first, by performing in a foreign language in someone else’s shoes pupils may gain confidence when using the language; secondly, using the foreign language in a meaningful context strengthens pupils’ belief in the purposefulness of the enterprise. Still, two drawbacks are also evident: on the one hand, one needs to take into account that pupils might be shy and feel awkward while performing and, on the other hand, one needs to acknowledge the fact that they might regard performing itself as something artificial that they cannot easily relate to. That is why, the teacher’s tasks in performative EFL-classrooms are manifold: firstly, they need to be convinced of the advantages of drama in ELT themselves; secondly, they need to motivate their students to engage in drama activities and to encourage them to gradually develop a feeling for acting in the role of another; thirdly, they need to endow them with adequate support both in terms of linguistic resources and in terms of drama skills.7 Most importantly, they need to create an atmosphere in which pupils feel safe to let go and, presumably sometimes, make ‘fools of themselves’. Teachers will usually also focus on the idea that pupils need not be afraid of being graded once they engage in drama activities.8 Nonetheless, assessment, not necessarily grading, plays a vital role in drama activities themselves whenever pupils and teachers (in-role) reflect upon their feelings (cf. Volkmann 2008: 446, 448) impressions, experiences and achievements while acting. The teacher’s task here involves dealing with particular “competences and behaviour that s/he is going to comment on during the session whilst working with the groups, such as (…); use of voice, pitch; working in English; use of levels; use of gesture; (…); use of silence and pausing (British Council Hong Kong 2008/09: 38). The assessment sheet presented below (see 3.3) aims at endowing both teachers and learners engaged in peer assessment with a tool to base their observations on. It needs to be closely linked to the layers of performative competence to be assessed.

3. Assessment procedures

3.1. Layers of performative competence to be assessed

No matter whether it is a brief meeting and greeting using English in the primary EFL-classroom or a textbook dialogue acted out in front of a lower secondary English language class or whether it is a scene from a Shakespearean play enacted by pupils at the upper secondary level/in the sixth form of a German secondary school, the three layers of performative competence introduced above are involved (see chapter 1). As these layers are inherent in any drama activity, the question arises how they can be operationalized in order to be applied for assessment purposes in EFL-classrooms irrespective of the staging form or drama technique involved. A major difficulty emerges with regard to the cognitive understanding of a dramatic situation in so far as the latter may relate both to the characters and action to be performed as well as to the drama conventions employed to comprehend said characters. In this way, pupils might either learn something about the social situation, often a dilemma or conflict at hand; or, they learn something about the drama convention they are working with (cf. British Council Hong Kong 2008/09: 39, for example, on the functions of the drama conventions ‘role-on-the wall’ and ‘thought tunnel’). Thus, the knowledge pupils acquire may refer to the content of the situation/play or to drama as content. That is why the cognitive dimension strongly depends on the individual context of a drama activity and needs working out by the agents of assessment concerned.

As far as the dramatic skills of performing as a persona both verbally and non-verbally are concerned, precise levels of observation during performance are feasible, particularly, as “[f]requency scales are excellent for assessing performance skills (…)” (Brookhart 2013: 78). At the same time, another difficulty arises in so far as pupils’ drama skills are intertwined with their linguistic skills in English. So any attempt at assessing the former requires adequate categories for assessing the latter. Finally, the affective dimension of dealing with a character’s and one’s own emotions has an objective and a subjective side to it, because a pupil’s success in enacting certain emotions might well be visible to an external observer – for instance a classmate or a teacher – whereas the pupil’s own emotions during performing can only be the topic of personal reflections after the performance. Before suggestions for a concrete assessment tool are introduced in detail, the agents and goals of assessing pupils’ performative competence need considering.

3.2. Agents and goals of assessing performative competence in English language classes

Generally speaking, assessment is usually considered to be less judgemental than evaluative.

That is to say, the overall aim of teachers assessing drama activities in their EFL-classroom is to foster self-confidence and to provide further support in order to enhance both pupils’ communicative and performative competence. Learners might observe their peers in order to give peer feedback which strengthens cooperative drama work in the EFL-classroom. Furthermore, learners may engage in assessing their drama work in order to judge how well they have accomplished a performance task and how they relate to drama emotionally, thereby applying a meta-cognitive learning strategy (cf. Chamot & O’Malley 1995: 62). All of these endeavours are part of formative assessment that, on a larger level, cater for assessing creativity in a school context (cf. Lucas et al. 2012: 12).9 Finally, external researchers might take different perspectives; for instance, they might evaluate the actual linguistic output learners present while acting; they might consider the learners’ acting skills proper; they might also focus on the conditions under which drama in English language teaching may turn out to be successful, thereby observing what teachers do to initiate, accompany, and round off drama activities in their EFL-classrooms. Devising adequate assessment tools for all of these agents having different goals on their minds would appear to be a herculean task; therefore, the assessment sheet suggested below focuses on the dramatic skills proper as presented in the model of performative competence outlined above (see chapter 1) with a view to enhancing both pupils’ communicative and performative skills whilst being committed to drama activities in the EFL-classroom.

3.3. Assessment sheet: analysing spoken interaction during performance

There are innumerable options to encourage pupils partaking in drama activities inside and outside the EFL-classroom to reflect upon their understanding of a character/scene, a drama technique put into operation, their own performance and their emotions going along with it. Experts on drama in ELT generally agree upon the fact that retrospective reflection is essential to dramatic action. In the EFL-classroom it may be linked to reflection upon the language employed, which eventually leads to language awareness, a concept that is key to the curriculum for English as a foreign language at German schools from the primary through the upper secondary level. In Laurenz Volkmann’s words:

[f]urthermore, (…) reflective talk about the actual acting out (italics in the original) and the language employed in individual communicative situations may support those for some time now highly emphasized meta-communicative moments that pertain to language awareness (italics in the original) (Volkmann 2008: 429).10

Similar to the problem that arises when one attempts to distinguish the knowledge pupils are expected to acquire relating to the content of an imaginary situation or scene/play at hand and the content that the functions of drama techniques themselves entail (see 3.1), an assessment sheet that covers the linguistic aspects of pupils’ performance may contain newly introduced linguistic items that learners are supposed to make use of or a broader appraisal of their communicative competence in spoken interaction as elaborated on in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe 2001; 2017). On the whole, the ensuing assessment sheet has been designed to provide teachers and learners in performative EFL-classrooms with a more exact tool to master assessment sessions after performance than saying what they liked or disliked about their performative experience.

When creating an assessment sheet that can be used by both teachers and learners one needs to bear in mind what type of sheet best suits the agents’ purposes. Professionals in theatre education and teachers in English-speaking countries who teach drama as a compulsory subject at school usually work with rubrics whose “two defining characteristics (…) [are]: appropriate criteria and, for each criterion, descriptions of performance along a continuum of quality” (Brookhart 2013: 53).11 Whereas rubrics might be particularly helpful for (novice) teachers of drama and for criterion-referenced grading purposes, general discussions on the quality of drama activities in an EFL-classroom may also be based on a (check)list of guiding questions as to be found in Volkmann’s principles of practising and performing a play (cf. Volkmann 2008: 440). The categories involved there are, amongst others, language use, body language, and space. Rating scales are another possibility that enables EFL-teachers and older learners, e.g. in grades 9 to 12, who only occasionally work with drama in their lessons, to ‘translate’ what they see into an appreciation of drama skills. In Brookhart’s (2013) words “[a] rating scale is a list of specific characteristics with a place for marking the degree to which each characteristic is displayed” (italics in the original) (ibid. 78). This option has been chosen to design the assessment sheet on spoken interaction during performance that covers both the spoken text and nonverbal communication. For that purpose Krieger’s survey of the semiotics of theatre (cf. 1995: 80) including ‘text’ and ‘tone’ referring to the spoken text as well as ‘mime’, ‘gesture’ and ‘movement’ referring to the expression of the body have been taken into account. Referring to the latter, the section “body language – nonverbal communication” as presented in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe 2001) has also been accounted for:

Paralinguistic body language differs from practical actions accompanied by language in that it carries conventionalised meanings, which may well differ from one culture to another. For example, the following are used in many European countries:

The verbal side of the performance, viz. the spoken text has been further substantiated by the criteria for spoken interaction provided in the CEFR (Council of Europe 2017: 152). By way of example, the proficiency level B1 (Independent User – Threshold) has been taken as a point of orientation as the competences described on this level are those that pupils of English at a German grammar school in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia are supposed to acquire by the end of the ninth grade. The following juxtaposition reveals to what extent the CEFR-descriptors have been transformed in the core curriculum for grade nine:

B1 Spoken Interaction according to the “Common Reference Levels: self-assessment grid”

I can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. I can enter unprepared into conversation on topics that are familiar, of personal interest or pertinent to everyday life (e.g. family, hobbies, work, travel and current events) (Council of Europe 2001: 26; 2017: 152).

Speaking: taking part in conversations according to the core curriculum for English at lower secondary grammar schools in North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany):

Pupils can actively participate in various everyday conversations and can take part in conversations on topics of societal relevance. They can enter even unprepared into conversation with native and lingua franca speakers on topics that are familiar to them (Ministerium für Schule und Weiterbildung 2007: 36).12

Additionally, the newly developed descriptors for phonology (Council of Europe 2017: 156) have been taken into consideration:

B1 Phonology

Pronunciation is generally intelligible; can approximate intonation and stress at both utterance and word levels. However, accent is usually influenced by other language(s), he/she speaks
(Council of Europe 2017: 156).

The assessment sheet has not yet been trialled in any EFL-classroom. It may serve as a model for various ELT-contexts to be modified according to the prerequisites of the respective performative EFL-classroom.

Language use – the spoken text

Figure image

Expression of the body – nonverbal communication

Figure image

4. Functions of the assessment sheet

The ‘assessment sheet: analysing spoken interaction during performance’ may be employed by both teachers and learners. Teachers can use it to provide substantial feedback on pupils’ drama and communicative skills. Before teachers actually apply the assessment sheet, they need to explain the relevance of the entries to be ticked regarding the pupils’ performative competence. Only if pupils understand categories, such as ‘gesture’, ‘space’, and ‘posture’, or ‘turn-taking’, will they be willing to work with the assessment tool in their English language classroom. After using the sheet themselves to assess their peers, learners could set up surveys on the basis of their observations in order to discover what drama and communicative skills still need fostering in their English language classroom. They could report their results to their teacher who can then bring in his/her expertise to integrate the requests made by his/her pupils into further drama lessons. The assessment sheet may also be transformed into a tool of summative assessment, viz. evaluation, if performative competence is taken to be the topic of official evaluation procedures as a special form of testing spoken interaction that according to the North Rhine-Westphalian EFL-curriculum for English at both the lower and the upper secondary level may totally or partially replace a class test (Qualitäts- und UnterstützungsAgentur – Landesinstitut für Schule 2016a, 2016b). For that matter the knowledge related to literary and cultural content inherent in scenes/plays as well as that relevant to the content of drama conventions would have to be described in more detail. Equally, the pupils’ communicative competences would have to be depicted with the help of rubrics that account for grading pupils’ language use in spoken interaction.

To sum up, in the context of teaching and learning English as a foreign language in Germany, the assessment sheet presented in this article is to help pupils and teachers to operationalize performative competence in a way that makes both reflection and debate upon this complex construct a fruitful enterprise. The assessment sheet presented in this paper predominantly accommodates categories for the dramatic dimension of performative competence. Trying it out in practice may yield empirical data on how drama activities in EFL-classrooms can be assessed.

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