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Act the part

Sue Palmer finds that drama techniques help to get the shared writing message across

Teachers who have seen shared writing in action usually agree that it is a superb teaching technique, but also that it is not going to be easy. Shared writing is the National Literacy Strategy's latest technique for tackling poor results in national writing tests.

The teacher demonstrating shared writing on the strategy's INSET video can be seen deep in thought, hunching her shoulders, frowning, pen poised in mid-air. Then suddenly she chances on the right word. Her body relaxes, her face breaks into a smile - and the whole class breathes a sigh of relief and smiles with her. "She's in role!" one teacher who watched the video (shown as part of Grammar for Writing training) said to me. "She's acting the part of a writer!" To learn more about these skills of acting the part of a writer, I visited Martha Leishman, actress and co-director of Business Live, which specialises role-play training. Recently, for instance, she ran workshops for hospital doctors on how to break bad news - how to adjust tone of voice and body language. I took the INSET video to our meeting.

"There's no secret to getting into role," Martha says. "All professionals do it every day, when they 'step into' their professional persona. For most teachers the persona is probably a larger-than-life version of themselves." Indeed, without this ability to step in and out of our professional role, life could be very stressful. Acting technique develops the awareness that helps you suport and emphasise natural attributes.

"Actors say that quality Shakespearean acting is about 'moving from moment to moment'," she says. It is a good metaphor for quality teaching. Good teachers carry a class with them through a lesson, making sure each moment is special and having its effect.

"Acting techniques help a teacher to participate actively in the process, not just be carried along," says Martha. She observed that the teacher on the video was giving the impression of thinking aloud - and doing it in slow motion. "See how every word, every thought, is 'thrown' by the teacher, so as to be 'caught' by the pupils. You need to give weight to your thoughts and words, to manipulate the situation so the children focus where you want them to. For that, you have to be conscious of how you sound, how you move, how you look."

I have always suspected there was a fine line between acting and teaching, but I am starting to appreciate just how fine that line is. Perhaps actors such as Martha could help us uncover pedagogical techniques people have previously thought to be simply a gift. And what about other aspects of the job? When I told my husband, a very un-luvvie-like headteacher, about Martha, he asked: "Could she help with things such as body language and voice control for dealing with difficult parents?" And he booked her for a workshop to take place next term.

Sue Palmer is a former primary head and is now a writer, teacher and INSET trainer. For details of workshops contact

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