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Hooked on Books: Drama in the ELT classroom with Susan Hillyard

August 18, 2016 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices. We talk about the importance and transformation of literary texts in education, we ask for genre and title recommendations as well as personal stories.

Susan Hillyard
Susan Hillyard

This month we talk to Susan Hillyard, the author of the latest resource book in our Resourceful Teacher series: English through Drama 

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How long have you been teaching and writing?

I started teaching in 1972 in Coventry, UK, after a degree in Dramatic Arts for Primary and Secondary with a specialism in the Sociology of Education. So I’ve been teaching for 44 years but not all in the UK. I’ve taught English through Drama and Literature, mainly in secondary schools, in five different countries to a total of 32 nationalities.

I have always loved writing, but I suppose I really started writing for teachers when I was invited to speak at conferences or do workshops with teachers on this methodology which was new to Argentina when I first came here in 1989. I was then invited to write articles for teachers’ magazines or journals and later I was invited by a colleague, Rick Sampedro, to join him in writing a Resource Book for Teachers, “Global Issues” for OUP. I also started writing online courses for teachers, designing materials for summer schools, reviewing books and writing up the proceedings from conferences. My latest work is in the resource books English through Drama, which represents my life’s work. I hope the book will help many teachers to challenge themselves and their students to make language learning more effective and more enjoyable and give the students a love of learning.

HRB: How did your love for drama education begin?

I think it really began when I was tiny and my mother used to read me poems and stories which we then acted out at home. When I started primary school I was an avid reader and by the time I was 8 I was invited by the teachers to tell my own original stories to their classes. My mother also sent me to ballet and tap classes, where I learned to perform on stage, thoroughly enjoying the experience of wearing beautiful costumes, putting on stage make-up and having an audience under my spell.

When I decided to become a teacher I decided to read Dramatic Arts at Warwick University and completed the four-year full-time degree ready to start teaching Drama in a secondary school in Coventry. I intended to go back to University to do an M.Ed. in the teaching of Down Syndrome students. I applied for a job teaching in the remedial section of a huge comprehensive school to gain some experience of students with learning difficulties, which I did for three years. But I never did go back to University. Instead I started my travels around the world teaching English through Drama and Literature in Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Spain and finally settling down in Argentina.

HRB: Who or what methodologies inspire your teaching?

It was John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education, the Montessori method, Lev Vygotsky’s theories, Ivan Illich’s Deschooling and, most of all, Dorothy Heathcote’s Educational Drama (or Drama as a learning medium) that inspired me the most at university. We had an amazing library and very creative professors who worked with us to do lots of process drama, followed by innovative productions and we were always encouraged to take risks and move beyond the “usual”. My teaching practices in both primary and secondary schools were always exciting times for me and led me to try out new ideas, which I had visualized through the theories working in practice, with large groups of students.

HRB: What kind of remedial classes have you taught?

In Coventry, in the UK, I had 18 remedial students, aged 13 and 14, with very different kinds of learning difficulties from dyslexia through to emotional trauma and behaviour problems. Most were immigrants or second generation immigrants and none could read or write in English. I also created individual lesson programmes for 36 remedial students aged 11 who were integrated in regular classes where we also did lots of team teaching and project work.

HRB: How can drama techniques help us with students with learning difficulties?

Drama is hands-on so it moves the abstract into the concrete enabling students to get a handle on concepts more readily. It is also multisensorial, affording students with learning difficulties opportunities to use their other channels of communication to express themselves. In this sense it also appeals to all learning styles as we can reach many more students in this way. The kinesthetic students are encouraged to move, while the visual learners have many visual aids to help them out. But most of all Drama works because it acts as the SPICE of ELT and works holistically on all the growing developmental processes of the learner, whatever their age, level or condition: Social, Physical, Intellectual (cognitive), Creative and Emotional. In this way we build a community of learners where language is learned in active, affective ways and is therefore more fun and more effective. All of this leads to what I call “Education for Peace” which I believe should be at the centre of our educational institutions as an undeniable right for all learners.

HRB: How much knowledge of psychology do teachers need to be able to work with mixed-ability classes?

The more psychology the teachers know and can apply to the present moment on an individual basis in their classroom, the better, just as teachers should be reflective, mindful and have a good grasp of the sociology of education. Every teacher should understand how child development works and delve into the latest studies on how the brain works in educational settings. In addition, teachers need to study the most common learning difficulties experienced by students today and be prepared to recognize symptoms and apply appropriate strategies from their “tool kits” of resources, activities, techniques and approaches now so readily available to be studied. Training colleges and INSET courses should also instruct teachers on inclusion and equity so all learners have their rights honoured, to be involved in the regular curriculum of mainstream schools.

HRB: Can these activities work as bridges between students with and without any learning difficulties?

In fact the Drama strategies I propose were first devised in the UK in the 1960s by Heathcote for use in mainstream education with first language learners who had no specific learning difficulties. Heatcote used Drama as a learning medium across the curriculum and in all subjects at all levels, later developing the discipline for use with vulnerable students in inner city schools, the townships of Soweto, prisoners, and with students with mild to severe learning difficulties. Drama is for all in the regular curriculum and was once a statutory subject in all primary and secondary schools across the UK.

HRB: What skills can be improved through these drama teaching strategies? What’s the secret power of drama?

All skills can be improved by using Drama strategies. In fact, Drama acts as a bridge to literacy, develops life skills such as confidence, communication, cultural understanding, cooperation, cognition, collaboration and crap-detecting and develops the locus of control in all students helping them to become more disciplined, more persistent and more autonomous leading to lifelong learning. It also develops a sense of beauty and appreciation so lacking in many education systems today. The secret power of Drama works on the humanness of us all and our intrinsic nature to want to communicate and be understood through doing, taking risks and exploring our worlds.

HRB: How do you select texts for your students? What kind of genres work well?

Actually, we don’t use texts as that would be putting somebody elses’ words into the mouths of our learners. That is theatre. We use a “trigger” or a “springboard” which can be an illustrated story, a piece of literature, an event, a newscast, an article, a song, a mime, a video or an experience to develop the language of the students. There are many games, Drama frames, exercises, tasks and approaches like using puppets, storytelling, role play and improvisation which inform our discipline and give the students opportunities for English in action. Many teachers ask me for scripts and there are some in my book which developed out of real stories, but they have to be dealt with very carefully for them to be useful within the discipline of Drama.

HRB: Can you recommend three authors all English teachers should carry in their schoolbag?

Generally, at least from my experience, teachers want ideas for applying the theory in their classrooms so I’m suggesting four very practical books by authors who explain very clearly the procedures for using Drama to teach English:

  • Hillyard S. (2016) English through Drama London, UK: Helbling Languages
  • Maley A. and Duff A. (1983) Drama techniques for language Learning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
  • Wessels C. (1987) Drama Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press
  • Wilson K. (2008) Drama and Improvisation. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press

HRB: Thank you for the interview!