Playing With Pronunciation

In many intermediate and advanced ESL classes, it’s common to assign a novel for students to read for class.  Less common is the assignment of a work of nonfiction. And rare indeed, in my experience, is the assignment of a theatrical play.

Yet, as I discovered this semester in a multilevel fluency workshop, plays are exciting to students. Plays are all dialogue and, needless to say, offer endless opportunities for students to showcase their dramatic skills and practice their pronunciation at the same time. The challenge was finding a play that was suitable for a mixed-level class.

I found the answer in a short, 10-minute play entitled Sure Thing (Ives, 1994) by the contemporary playwright David Ives. I first saw it performed at a local high school and quickly realized that this play, about two strangers who meet by accident in a coffee shop, was perfect for an ESL class. Repetition is built into the very structure of the drama, as the two strangers continually stop and restart their conversation each time they say something awkward or embarrassing.

The lines of dialogue are punctuated by a bell that rings at the end of each failed attempt to connect and signals a second chance at getting the conversation right.  As the play opens, Betty is reading a book at a café table, with an empty chair opposite her. Bill enters, and the play begins:

Bill: Excuse me. Is this chair taken?
Betty: Excuse me?
Bill: Is this taken?
Betty: Yes it is.
Bill: Oh, sorry.
Betty: Sure thing (A bell rings softly).
Bill: Excuse me. Is this chair taken?
Betty: Excuse me?
Bill: Is this taken?
Betty: No, but I’m expecting somebody in a minute.
Bill: Oh. Thanks anyway.
Betty: Sure thing. (A bell rings softly.)
Bill: Excuse me. Is this chair taken?
Betty: No, but I’m expecting somebody very shortly.
Bill: Would you mind if I sit here till he or she or it comes?
Betty: (glances at her watch): They seem to be pretty late . . .
Bill: You never know who you might be turning down.
Betty: Sorry. Nice try, though.
Bill: Sure thing (Bell.) Is this seat taken?
Betty: No, it’s not.
Bill: Would you mind if I sit here?
Betty: No. Go ahead.

I introduced the play, which evolves by fits and starts from this awkward introduction, by asking students to discuss how they first met their husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, or best friend. We then watched a performance of the play on YouTube. The play is so short that there was plenty of time to watch it twice in the course of one class session: first without a script as a listening activity and then with a copy of the four-page script in hand. Even though students couldn’t catch all of the cultural references, they were uniformly enthusiastic about this romantic comedy and could relate to the struggle of the two characters to find common ground.

Then it was show time. I put students in pairs. Armed with the script of the play, I asked them to practice just the first page. I had them change partners multiple times, so they could gain confidence in their pronunciation and showcase their dramatic skills.

As the semester progresses, you can gradually lengthen the amount of the script the students practice acting out.  The play can be used to illustrate patterns of syllable stress, word stress, and sentence intonation.  For writing practice, you can invite students to alter the dialogue, adding their own personal touches to the play. And, of course, the play offers ample scope for additional discussions: What is the best way to find a romantic partner? What kinds of conversations have you had with strangers? How do men and women interact in public in your country?

Have you used plays in your English language teaching? Which have you found to be successful?


Ives, D. (1994). Sure thing. In All in the timing: Six one-act comedies (pp. 9–22). New York, NY: Dramatists Play Service.

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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One Response to Playing With Pronunciation

  1. BOCAR says:

    excusing, prising, make a love and peaceful things and expressions towards people who feel same attitudes
    This article is very clear for dealing about how a host express a warm welcome to his her guest
    Take a sit
    Excuse me
    Be happy
    These expressions are focused by the writer

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