Increase Comprehension with Pantomime

Arts Integration Strategy for Reading Comprehension

Drama-based experiences such as pantomime are a powerful strategy for increasing reading comprehension. In my previous post, I shared a recent study stating that students who get to “act out” text demonstrate dramatic increases in comprehension.

One way to harness the power of “acting out” a story is through pantomime. As you likely know, pantomime is a silent form of drama where the actor uses movement and facial expression to communicate information. No lines or sound effects are allowed. The quiet nature of pantomime is an appealing starting point for classroom teachers who are sometimes worried about maintaining classroom management during drama-based lessons.

Here are three tips for introducing pantomime to your students.

1) Start with simple movements that kids know well. Begin by giving a quick explanation of pantomime and modeling it yourself. Make it a game- say, “I’m going to use movement and my facial expressions to communicate something that I do at home. Watch the whole thing and then I will invite you to guess.” (Don’t allow students to shout out answers during your presentation.) Briefly act out something like cooking supper or washing your hair. Then, invite the children to make guesses. (If you want to incorporate active student response strategies, you can have each child turn and tell a neighbor their guess or write them on a white board.) Once you affirm the correct answer ask, “What did I do that helped you understand my idea?” Prompt children to realize that you have to “stay in character,” be quiet, and use thoughtful movements and facial expressions to communicate clearly. Next, call several children up at a time and whisper a movement they can act out for the class. They may all do it differently and that’s OK! Once they finish, invite the class to guess again. Simple, right?

Some possible “act it out” topics: waking up in the morning, eating a meal, walking the dog, driving a car, mowing the lawn, baking a cake, playing a sport, and brushing teeth.

2) Once your children understand the basic idea of pantomime, take them through a guided pantomime activity as a whole class. Basically, this means that you read a piece of text aloud and guide them in “acting it out” as you go. For example, you could say, “A seed is planted in the soil. (Children get down in small shapes on the floor.) After a few days of water and warmth from the sun, a small sprout begins to shoot up from the seed. (Children use an arm or leg to stretch up to the sun.) The baby plant stretches up, growing a little stronger each day. Leaves begin to form on the stem.” (Children act out growing up like a plant.) See how simple it is?

You can try this type of guided pantomime with any story or content area. One of my teaching friends took her students on an imaginary journey down the Oregon Trail through pantomime. Each day they acted out a new adventure on the trail and then wrote journal entries based on their pantomimed “experiences.” It was wonderful to see 4th graders so excited about history- all because of the drama element she used to increase engagement and bring the content to life! Their journal entries were also amazingly rich and detailed. Though their “experiences” on the trail were imaginary, getting up and acting them out translated into deeper understanding and increased motivation to write.

3) Invite your students to create pantomime independently when appropriate. Once your students get the hang of pantomime, invite them to do it on their own. For example, pantomime is a great way to internalize the meaning of vocabulary words. You could assign each child a word to pantomime and then have a “vocabulary circle time” where each student leads the class through their movement. That way, all students “act out” all the words.

You could also ask students to work in small groups to create pantomimes for a story sequence, a history timeline, a science cycle, cause and effect, etc. There are so many possibilities!

Do you have other pantomime ideas to share? I’d love to hear them!

Photo Credit: “Mime Emily” by C.C. Chapman, used under CC BY / Cropped and enhanced  from original

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