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English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.


Visual Language in English in the New Zealand Curriculum includes the splendid resource of drama. The functions of Viewing and Presenting include drama explicitly, and the process of Exploring Language includes drama by implication. Drama, including stage production and performance, is also a distinctive part of the Arts learning area in The New Zealand Curriculum Framework.

The viewing strand of the English curriculum refers to "reading visual and dramatic texts". Dramatic texts are defined not only as plays or written scripts but also as dramatic pieces of visual communication that constitute coherent, identifiable language events. As such, dramatic texts refer, for example, to oral narratives, mimes, and performing in role.

The presenting strand requires students to use and combine verbal and visual features (which include drama) in increasingly complex ways in order to communicate a range of information, ideas, narratives, and other messages to different audiences and for different purposes. Exploring visual language in relation to these viewing and presenting functions enables students to achieve their communication objectives.

Exploring Language in the English Classroom through Drama

Moving images in drama, film, and television communicate meaning most often by combining speech and, sometimes, written words with visual signs. Although this relationship between verbal and visual language is the basis of the visual strand in the English curriculum, it is useful to separate out and explore non-verbal signs to enable us to consider the role of the purely visual as well as the other elements present in many different forms of communication.

When we speak and listen to each other, we communicate not only by using and interpreting spoken words or sounds but also by such visual signs as gestures - a nod or shake of the head - and by such facial expressions as a smile or a raised eyebrow. We use such physical gestures and facial expressions naturally and intuitively to convey and respond to meaning. Such visual signs or clues can also be consciously and deliberately crafted and used to communicate effectively, with or without spoken or written words, in drama.

Performing in Role

In the English classroom, drama is a very effective teaching and learning methodology. It provides a process that enhances exploring language. Performing in role, or role-play as it is sometimes known, is particularly useful. When performing in role, students (and sometimes the teacher) assume specific roles in order to gain perspectives on those who have those roles, in real life or in the imaginary life of literature, and to understand their actions and motives.

Performing in role can help students to explore different feelings, points of view, courses of action, and decision-making processes. They can also explore language in use as they express understandings of the persona they have adopted. Role-play can help students explore social and personal issues, including gender, culture, and equity, in the process gaining knowledge and understanding of another culture's traditions, oratory, storytelling, movement, song, and dance.

A role can also be taken and explored in fictional ways. Students can adopt characterisations, with appropriate forms of speech and visual conventions for people whose roles are very different from their own, expanding their own repertoire of oral and visual language as they explore those roles. Students presenting and questioning each other in the roles of characters in a book increase not only their insights into the characters themselves but also their understanding and knowledge of language. Mock trials or presentations of ideas for television advertisements need to take into account both verbal and visual features.

Mime is another medium for performing in role without using words and focusing on conveying richness of meaning through visual language alone.

Although the purpose of performing in role is often to increase knowledge of a character, situation, or issue, students’ knowledge of oral, written, and visual language is enhanced in the process.

As role-play is very public compared with most writing, it needs to be managed sensitively, with good preparation and time for reflection and with care taken that students are able to select roles appropriate to them. Performing in role as a classroom activity is designed for language and other exploration, not for psychodrama.

Summary of Terms

in role role-play mime Classroom and Stage Drama Production and Performance Performing in role lies at the heart of all drama

The viewing or close reading of dramatic texts includes exploring and extending students' knowledge and understanding of drama as:

  • visual language
  • performance
  • a theatre genre
  • a literary genre
  • an important activity for the different cultures in our society.

Classroom performance can be in the form of a stage production, but it does not usually lead to a complete or public performance. An integrated teaching and learning approach that develops and shapes towards a stage production provides many opportunities for exploring how verbal and visual language are combined.

What we present, view, and interpret on the stage or screen is the result of combining a number of elements that have been chosen and integrated to convey particular meanings to a specific audience.

Stage drama and drama in the classroom both demand a great deal from students. They need to be alert whenever they are on stage, and they need to convey strong, clear relationships between the characters, who may at all times be in sight of viewers who have different sightlines. Drama is a very powerful medium for exploring language in all its aspects, especially in storytelling and in interpreting character.

Move It - and Don't Forget Your Lines

Movement is fundamental to conveying meaning through drama. Performers must physically express their adopted characters consistently in their facial expressions and in every body movement, from entrance to exit.

Every movement on stage has a motivation and purpose, maintaining the narrative of the play and communicating response, mood, and new information to the audience. The playwright may have indicated the stage directions most important to these movements. Each movement is performed on cue, that is, on the verbal or physical signal for a performer to take some action or for a lighting or sound effect to be carried out. In case a performer forgets a cue or line, a prompter is always appointed to prompt by supplying the missed cue as unobtrusively as possible.

When presenting, inexperienced students may understand their role and relationship to others and be able to deliver their lines quite appropriately, but they may find it more difficult to move in role at the same time - they may well tend to move in the way they usually do. Accordingly, the producer (student or teacher) will assist the student to gain confidence in their characterisation by blocking the movements, arranging and walking through the part with minimal words to help them to interpret and visually communicate meaning.

Delivering the Lines

Audiences make meaning from the way the text is delivered. That delivery can be very challenging and complex. There are many ways of delivering a line and sometimes many different subtleties of meaning in each different delivery. The information in the Oral Language section, particularly that on intonation, is relevant to performing in role and drama.

Drama is rich in subtext, both in the words and their delivery, and in the visual information. Desdemona's dropped handkerchief in Othello contributes a subtext that drives both the subplot and the main plot of the whole play. Performance demands close reading of the script so that the performers are fully aware of the play as a whole and recognise the impact of each element of subtext so that proper weight is given to conveying the meaning. Words such as, "The summer is really over now" might refer not just to weather and seasons but also to the ending of a relationship or of some significant time of happiness. The performer chooses how to move and to deliver the words to communicate their implications.

Summary of Terms

sightlines stage directions prompt
movement cue blocking exit
entrance prompter subtext  

The Stage

The type of stage and the use made of stage space are important elements of visual language, communicating immediately to the audience an understanding of the conventions that will be used in the performance. A classroom production may be constrained by the physical boundaries of the room, or students may have access to a drama room or theatre stage.

Most school assembly halls have a traditional proscenium stage that may be used for drama. All the audience sit in front of this stage, with distance between them and the performers, often framed by a curtain. The audience is therefore at once partly detached from the action. A thrust stage projects into the auditorium so that the audience can sit on three sides, and this arrangement changes the dynamics of communication. Theatre in the round provides an acting space with the audience on all sides, bringing the audience into the action and often involving them when performers move to and from the acting area.

Open-air staging can make good use of a natural setting outside the classroom, but a defined space marked by such parameters as a bank or backdrop of trees is necessary if the audience is not to lose touch. The performers often need to work hard to ensure that significant but subtle meanings are conveyed.

Performers make their entrances and exits from and to an area to the side of the stage known as the wings.

Suspension of Disbelief

When a traditional proscenium stage is used, the audience observes a convention or custom where performers and audience assume that the audience is watching the play through a "fourth wall". The other three walls of the stage, which define the performance space, may represent a room or similarly specified location. This convention is an example of how stage drama relies on the audience's suspension of disbelief.

We suspend our disbelief at the theatre or in the classroom when we are able to assume that there is a door through which a character enters, or an active light switch by which a character lights the stage, when there is actually neither door nor light switch. We suspend our disbelief when we accept that two or three trees constitute a forest.

The use of time, space, and action; sound and silence; movement and stillness; light and dark are elements of the language of drama. Many conventions associated with these elements we take for granted in mime, performing in role, or drama. A flashback or a flashforward may move the time; a sleeping or helpless character huddled in a corner may define the significant space; and slow motion may recreate a moment of tragedy or crisis.

Suspension of disbelief and its conventions are important in communicating and responding to meaning and are part of the context in which we explore visual language.


The traditional proscenium stage has provided a standard terminology for positioning and moving performers within a nine-part grid, each part named by its position in relation to the audience.

Downstage is usually a more dominant position than upstage. The strongest position on the stage is downstage centre.

However, a performer who is downstage centre and therefore nearer the audience is not always more important. The performer at downstage centre may look towards a more distant character, focusing the attention of the audience on the latter and signalling a shift in action. To convince the audience of the realism of the scene, performers may address each other in part profile rather than delivering lines towards the audience.

The positioning of characters is important in communicating relationships: the whispering conspirators in their furtive closeness contrast with open positioning, where performers convey confidence and appear to be of similar importance. The positioning of a number of characters is planned to enable the audience to read and respond to the meanings of their groupings.

An apron, that part of the stage in front of the proscenium arch, provides a space for a performer to communicate closely with the viewers. It was from this position that Shakespeare's actors usually delivered a soliloquy, "thinking aloud" or confiding in the audience. Upstage areas are usually weakened further when furniture is placed on stage, but they can provide vital subtexts when a character enters without other performers appearing to be aware of the newcomer. In this situation, however, the audience is "omniscient" and able to interpret the irony, mystery, or impending crisis from visual elements. Poor use of the upstage area can distract the audience - the term "upstaging" derives from inappropriate stage positioning. The aim of staging is to enable the performers to communicate most effectively with each other and the audience. Rostra, or raised platforms, can give more choices for positioning, providing prominence for performers and for parts of a stage.

Make-up and Costume

Make-up and costume provide important visual clues that enable the audience to interpret the roles of performers from their appearance. Shading and highlighting in make-up can communicate age, health, and wealth; hair can be greyed with talcum powder, or wigs can be used to convey information quickly. Costume can also enhance appearance in role and provide an effective means of communicating the period and setting of the play as well as a character's sense of fashion and social and economic status. We read all these visual clues whenever we view any performance.

However, these elements of visual language, useful though they are, are effective only if they are consistent with the way the student interprets the role. Students in the classroom may not have, or need, access to make-up, wigs, or costumes. Some items, such as scarves, a cloak, or symbolic hats, can help students "feel their way" into a character, but full costume can be distracting for young performers.


Lighting is important in a full stage or screen performance and production, focusing the attention of the audience and defining the most important performance space on the stage at each moment. Lighting can indicate the time of day, indicate a fire, or suggest cold and cloudy weather. And lighting can convey different moods, ranging from happiness and joy to depression and sadness, by the use of bright yellow lighting compared with amber or blue lighting.

These visual clues help convey meaning whenever we view a production and performance. However, although lighting can support interpretation, classroom drama or role-play does not require lighting other than that normally and naturally available.

Production Design

Make-up, costume, and lighting are part of the general design of any stage production or film. The term production design refers to the overall design of the set or sets in which the action of a stage play takes place, or where a film is shot in a studio or on location. The set is made up of the furniture, buildings, and scenery on the stage or in the studio where the action is shown as taking place. The term shot on location indicates that a film is shot, and the action is shown as occurring, at an already existing place that is away from the studio.

The properties, commonly referred to as props, are any items or articles used by the performers on the set or location other than costume or scenery. They may include plates, cutlery, glasses, a dagger, a gun, or a walking stick. Props may or may not be used in performing in role or in classroom drama. Where they are chosen, they can be few in number and selected for their symbolic importance, as in the wearing of a crown.

Summary of Terms

proscenium stage positioning lighting thrust stage downstage production design
theatre in the round upstage set open-air staging downstage centre location
wings apron shot on location wings apron shot on location
suspension of disbelief rostra props costume make-up

Exploring Language contents page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009