Playwriting program effect on student essays makes argument for arts education

iStock_000008233708XSmallEvery classroom teacher knows that a quick way to engage a bored class is to ask to students to stage an impromptu performance to dramatize the material at hand.

Now, a recent study in Educational and Urban Society reports that, in much the same way, playwriting can motivate students to improve their writing skills. And they don’t just get better at writing scripts, but also at writing essays for standardized writing assessments, the researcher says.

Students who participated in a 9-week playwriting program for 8th-graders at a southern California urban middle school with a large Latino population scored higher on a standardized writing test than students in a traditional language arts curriculum, the study reports. About 40% of students in the school were English Language Learners (ELL).

Arts education is a tough sell in the current climate of accountability and budget tightening , especially when students aren’t meeting standards, but this study says its results provide evidence that arts education is not a frill but an effective way to build basic skills, writes researcher Alexander Williams Chitzhik.

“The ultimate implication of this research… is the development of an empirical base for the argument that art education programs, like playwriting, can improve urban, low-SES students’ basic academic skills that can transfer to multiple contexts, including standardized tests,” writes the researcher.

“Given that art education is sometimes eliminated due to political pressures on schools to raise standardized test scores, especially in urban neighborhoods, results from studies such as this can help to bolster the argument to maintain art education, such as playwriting, during the present standards-based political climate.”

Students at the southern California school completed a districtwide, validated District Writing Sample at the beginning and end of their 8th-grade year. Scores on the District Writing Sample for the 199 participants in the playwriting programs and the students who were in the comparison group were similar before the 9-week playwriting residency, but the playwriting group showed a significant improvement in their end-of-the year samples compared with the comparison group, the author writes. Students in the playwriting residency also reported greater self-efficacy in writing after the program than controls.

Local playwrights taught residency

The 199 8th-grade students who participated in the residency program were from 8 classrooms (5 general education classes, an ELL class, a special education class and a gifted and talented class). A total of 95 students from a similar mix of classes served as the comparison group on writing efficacy and all 8th grade students (381 students) served as the comparison group for the standardized writing assessment because of the school’s policy of aggregating records for the District Writing Sample.

The goal of the playwriting program was for the students to each write a 3-scene play that would be performed by actors.

Two local playwrights taught theater skills and playwriting once a week for a 9-week period in 2-hour block sessions. The middle school collaborated with a nonprofit organization (The Playwrights Project) to bring the local playwrights into the classroom.

The playwrights worked closely with classroom teachers to integrate the playwriting literacy program known as Stage Write into the language arts curriculum. During the playwriting sessions, students engaged in games of theater skills as well as playwriting exercises. The theater games emphasized focus, concentration, memorization, movement, improvisation, and responding to clues. In one game, students had to “describe” an object in their hands solely through movement.

In one playwriting exercise, students had to answer questions about the characters in the William Carlos Williams poem, “Young Woman at a Window.”

She sits with
tears on
her cheek
her cheek on
her hand
the child
in her lap
his nose
to the glass.

In writing their 3-scene plays, the students’ tasks were to introduce the character in the first scene and disclose the character’s desire, the reason for the desire and the obstacles that exist in attaining that desire. In the final scene, the task was to reach a resolution and show how the character had changed as a result of his or her quest.

3 kinds of thinking

Playwriting requires three kinds of thinking needed for problem solving–creative, analytical and practical intelligence, the researcher notes. This triarchic intelligence provides the foundation for transferring literacy skills from the context of playwriting to other forms of writing, the researcher writes.

In their comments about the program’s impact, teachers noted that students added more detail in their writing and were more serious about revisions.

Said one teacher, the students “care enough to take it to the final draft, to make sure they have a nice clean presentation, which is like pulling teeth normally.” Students who would never write anything or would ask ‘how many pages does this have to be?’ wrote 15-page scripts, reported others. Still another said, “I found that my students learned to focus more on details after writing their plays.”

Because drama often involves many students working together, the program created a learning community where students felt a sense of belonging regardless of whether they were from rural or urban neighborhoods. The program also created a space where students felt confident to write their stories. ”

To build such an environment, students in the study were given the freedom to develop urban-themed plays that often dealt with serious issues, including poverty, death, and cross-border relationship. Importantly, students learned how to provide meaningful feedback with a focus on improving the meaning that each student wanted to convey,” the study says.


Reading of students’ unfinished manuscripts by fellow students and actors encouraged discussions that led to substantial revisions in the developing plays. In this study, professional actors and playwrights read students’ plays, but the author believes that reading of student plays by fellow students or adult visitors may lead to similar growth in writing confidence and actual writing skills.

Students reported a greater sense of self-efficacy in writing than controls based on a validated 10-item writing self-efficacy measure. Students responded on a scale of 10 to 100, with 10 being not sure and 100 being very sure. Students in the playwriting residency had an average score of 68.41 at the beginning of the year and 78.21 at the end while the self-efficacy of the comparison group started at 66.19 and ended at 61.12.

“Findings from this research support the notion that a playwriting residency program improves students’ writing skills to a greater extent than traditional language arts instruction, as measured by a standardized writing assessment,” the study reports. “In addition, findings substantiate the claim that a playwriting residency program improves students’ confidence in writing as compared with traditional language arts instruction.”

Playwriting helped build connections between what was taught in school with what was culturally practiced in urban communities outside of school, teachers reported.

“Literacy for Playwriting or Playwriting for Literacy,” Education and Urban Society, March 2009, Volume 41, Number 3, pp. 387-409.


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