Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Interview: Lynette Chua, Head of Speech & Drama, Julia Gabriel Education

Many English enrichment centres are touting Speech and Drama classes. Is it just a drama class, as the names suggests and hence has led to some parents misunderstanding what it actually means. What do children in Speech and Drama class learn? Do you know what Language Arts is? How is it related to literacy?

I'm very happy to introduce Lynette Chua, Head of Speech & Drama at Julia Gabriel Education. With a passion for Speech and Drama since her younger days, Lynette works with local educational institutions on speech and communication programmes. She shares with us her insights into what goes on in a Speech and Drama class, and gives us the low down on the latest buzzword in language teaching - Language Arts.

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What is Speech & Drama? Is it a drama class?
Speech and Drama classes aim to help students build their confidence in communication. Teachers introduce a plethora of drama and communication games, voice and speech exercises, poems, rhymes and stories to inculcate a love for language. Drama is used as a powerful tool for learning in all our classes. Children are encouraged to offer ideas, exercise critical thinking skills, use language creatively and take on roles to develop stories or adventures in class.

As students get older, they also build public speaking and presentation skills in Speech and Drama classes. Students are guided to structure information, ideas and opinions into formal talks that they share with an audience.

What does a child learn in Speech & Drama classes?
A child learns to speak expressively with clear Standard English speech sounds, as teachers guide them as positive language models in class. A love for literature and language is nurtured by sharing a wide variety of texts.

Older children gain confidence in public speakers and become more confident communicators as they master the use of language in both formal and informal situations.

Is Speech & Drama useful in promoting literacy? How?
Yes. Speech and Drama is useful in promoting written literacy. This is because the ability to articulate sounds accurately precedes the ability to write. By encouraging children to use language confidently and to speak it accurately, we build a good foundation for literacy by helping them to first gain strong phonemic awareness. Children who are able to hear the sounds of the English language and articulate them clearly will find it much easier to decode the symbols of language (phonics) when that is introduced to them.

The poems, rhymes and stories used in Speech and Drama also help children gain a greater understanding of their world. When children progress towards written literacy, they are then able to decode language with a greater sense of understanding.

At the older levels, the exploration of texts such as poems and extracts from novels, through drama, aids reading comprehension and provides stimulus for writing. Having explored text in Speech and Drama classes through whole body learning activities, students are exposed to vivid language and gain a better appreciation of good literature.

Can Speech & Drama only be taught in a class setting, or can parents also try to nurture that in their children at home? Can you share some tips?
Certain elements in a Speech and Drama class work more effectively when there is a bigger group of children. However, there are some things that parents can do at home to encourage children to appreciate and use language creatively and expressively.

Here are some ideas:
a) Share stories as a family. Read aloud to your child. Pick up books from the library, purchase a poetry anthology or tell stories about your own childhood to your children. Every child loves snuggling up to mum and dad when they share a story.

b) Encourage your child to share their ideas freely with you. Ask lots of open-ended questions to encourage children to elaborate on their ideas. Acknowledge their comments and stay engaged during the conversation.

c) Play make-believe with your child. Pretend to be a patient that requires help from a very wise doctor, a chef, a waiter or any role that your child wants you to be. You might have to endure numerous injections with a pretend syringe, or get scolded for not taking orders fast enough, but through role-play, you are building your child’s imagination and encouraging them to use language that they would normally not use in day-to-day conversation. Just remember to let the play be very much child-led.

There are so many Speech & Drama classes nowadays. Aren't they all the same? What should parents take note of when choosing a class for their children?
Parents should note the following when evaluating a Speech and Drama programme for their child:

a) Philosophy and methodology used in the centre – what kind of drama approach is adopted?
b) Quality of the material or curriculum
c) How the lesson is conducted – elements of each class
d) Class size, teacher to student ratio
e) Qualifications and experience of the teachers
f) Facilities of the centre
g) Cost

Language Arts has been the buzzword lately in primary and secondary education. What is Language Arts? How is Language related to Arts?
The term 'Language Arts' (LA) has many varied definitions. Broadly, it can be understood as an integration of the study of technical language and the study of how language is used for communication. In Singapore, Language Arts (LA) aims to help students build better language skills, specifically reading, writing, speaking, listening and viewing.

The Arts are essentially expressions of creative skill and imagination. The LA programme invites students to interact with quality texts that are great examples of works of art. These texts become springboards for children to express their creative skills and imagination in their own writing. Through the text study and writing processes, students develop their language and literacy skills.

How is Language Arts taught at the pre-school level?
LA is taught with the use of age-appropriate books that build on phonemic as well as phonological awareness.

At Nursery 1, we introduce three year olds to the sounds and letters of the alphabet.

For students who are in Nursery 2 to Kindergarten 2, we use a progressive reading scheme that helps students build early literacy skills.

Picture books across a variety of themes, drama and word games are used widely in class to build interest in exploring language. Drama also features a part because it provides a whole-body language learning experience, and helps students delve deeper into what they read as well as inspires writing ideas.

How useful is Language Arts in promoting literacy. Why?
LA is all about literacy! LA provides children with a rich diet of sounds, words and ideas from a young age to pique their interest in the language. In an environment where words are enjoyed, spoken, listened to and eventually written, literacy skills are built in a fun way, naturally. This is the best way for children to acquire language. Children are not taught by rote, nor do they have to memorise tedious rules of grammar, which would dampen the enjoyment of learning a language. LA also helps to contextualise learning which facilitates understanding and promote long term retention.

Can parents adopt Language Arts in the home? How can they do it?
Yes of course. A child learns their very first word from interacting with their family members. It is interesting to note that parents usually speak much more to their infants than when their children are toddlers. The constant chattering of an inquisitive toddler and incessant “why’s” being asked could wear tired parents out. However, parents should continue speaking and engaging with their children as they grow older.

Here are some activities parents could do with their children at home:
a) Play word games
b) Encourage children to draw things they see around them.
c) Ensure that books feature as a big part of the child's play. Where possible, build a home library or make library trips a part of your family routine. Read aloud to your child and talk about the stories.

What happens in a Language Arts class?
Typically, LA classes at our centre start with pre-writing activities to help them tune in to the lesson for the day. These activities vary from shared stories, whole-body exercises and drama to word games, and more. Students then explore text for reading, comprehension, learning of concepts and/or to study language conventions. This is followed by a writing activity which varies according to the literacy development stage of the class and the objectives of the lesson. This lesson structure does change according to the profile of the class to meet the needs of the students as we adopt a child-centered approach.

If both Speech & Drama and Language Arts are about nurturing literacy, what's the difference? How does one choose which to attend?
Speech and Drama focuses more on building oral literacy skills. Children become more confident communicators and are able to articulate themselves with greater clarity. As communication is a two-way process, children also build listening skills in these classes. As they interact with peers very actively during class, children also build social skills, cooperation and critical thinking skills to process or solve conflicts during drama adventures.
Language Arts on the other hand, focus more on helping children acquire written literacy skills. Greater emphasis is placed on getting children to decode language so that they build reading and writing skills. In the LA classes, students also learn about language conventions more explicitly and take time to apply the writing process.

Do you think Language Arts is just a fad that will pass?
No, I think Language Arts will become increasingly important. As it is, the Ministry of Education has already revamped the English syllabus for both the PSLE as well as the O’ Level examinations. Greater emphasis is being placed on a student’s ability to not only write well, but speak well. Students are also expected to communicate with a greater breadth of language and awareness of the world around them. Children need to be given opportunities to use language in a variety of forms to become truly adept with it. Speech and Drama and Language Arts provides children with that platform. We believe that through speaking, reading, writing and listening to language creatively, students will gain mastery in both their oral as well as written literacy skills. We must aim to build good communication skills in our children so that they are able to hold themselves with confidence in this increasingly competitive global economy.

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Thank you Lynette.

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