Wednesday, May 16, 2012

ESL Improv?

It's a story I may tell another time, but hubby and I had tickets to see Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood at Princeton this past weekend and we missed it.  We were both disappointed.  But I got to thinking about improvisational comedy (they're both alumni of "Whose Line is it Anyway?") and it occurred to me that at the core of improv lies "good listening".  Just the skill that would benefit our English learners!

A quick browse through the Internet confirmed that this isn't an original idea (dang!).  Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert (both favorites) have applied the rules of improv to everyday life. 

The first rule is "Say yes." That doesn't mean "agree with everyone"; it means accept what's happening in this moment and work with it.  In my browsing, I learned that when the other improv performer (interlocutor?) makes a statement it's called an offer.  You're expected to take the offer up and build on it by adding more details to the story. ("Yes, and ...:")

I can imagine watching some brief examples of improv in class, identifying the offer and noticing how the others built on it.  I can also imagine students trying this themselves.  To account for shyness, maybe students could write anonymous "offers", put them in a hat and draw out something to write a response to.  At least, until or unless the class seems ready for something more interactive!

Another rule is to let go of personal agendas about how the story is supposed to go, but really listen to and respond to what the other person is saying.  Oh my gosh, is that not the essence of "deep listening"?  What a great way to practice it!

Here's a quote from Stephen Colbert's commencement address at Northwestern University:

“Now there are very few rules to improv, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene -- everybody else is,” he said. “And if everybody else is more important than you are, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them.

“But the good news is, you’re in the scene, too. So hopefully to them, you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win in improv. And life is an improvisation.”


Here's some improv to watch ... do they follow the "rules"?

(Edit: it seems that links to YouTube get removed periodically. I suppose I should just recommend that you look for some improv on YouTube yourself and check to see if they follow the "rules" ...)

Finally, Tina Fey's tips on applying to rules of improv to business life could also be worth discussing in class!


  1. Dear Kathy,

    Great post! If you are interested in learning more about using impro in foreign language education, you can find more on this on my blog. I've conducted a few classroom studies in Germany, and also published a book on improvised speaking in the EFL classroom.



  2. Thanks for the tip, Jürgen! I see that you draw on more than comedy, considering improvisation in jazz, dance, etc. as well. Without having read a lot yet, I venture to say that these activities aren't lecturing about "how to communicate", they ARE communicating. What I love about jazz (and the blues, etc.) is the fact that the listeners "perform" as well as the performers. What happens comes from everyone in the room paying attention to what is true in this moment and responding to it with open heart. That's what I see being encouraged in the unplugged approach. It ties in well with the proposal by Parker J. Palmer ("The Courage to Teach") that good teaching is neither teacher-centered nor learner-centered but subject-centered. Teacher/learner and learner/teacher gathered around a "great thing", as performer and audience gather around music, dance, etc. I look forward to exploring your blog and site further! Kathy