|Implementing Organization||Sydney Theatre Company|
|Language of Instruction||English. Participants’ first language is also welcomed and integrated into instruction and communication.|
|Date of Inception||2016|
|Programme Partners||The University of Sydney Refugee Language Program, Asylum Seekers Centre, MTC Australia, STARTTS (New South Wales Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors)|
|Funding||Local government, private donors|
|Annual Programme Costs||Approx. USD 19,000|
|Annual Programme Cost per Learner||Approx. USD 50|
|Annual cost of the digital tool||USD 150|
|Digital tool(s) used||Zoom|
|Target population||Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants|
|Learner age||18 to 70+|
|Learner to instructor ratio||6:2–20:2|
|Target skill(s)||English literacy, English speaking|
|Impact||Over 700 learners since 2016|
Australia has a tumultuous history with regard to refugee resettlement. A number of government policies have restricted the number of refugees permitted to enter the country. In more recent years, the country has faced criticism for turning away asylum seekers arriving by boat. These refugees come from countries experiencing civil unrest, such as the Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Since 2013, Australia has forcibly transferred more than 3,000 asylum seekers arriving on its shores to temporary camps on Papua New Guinea and Nauru (Pearson, 2020). Some are eventually resettled in Australia, but many return to their home countries or move to other places.
Refugees who are accepted into Australia wait in detention centres, sometimes for years, to acquire permanent residency status, and are accorded minimal welfare and restrictive work permits (Martin and McAdam, 2020). Australia’s slow resettlement system leaves refugees in a constant state of uncertainty and makes it difficult for them to build communities and access basic services. Low access to English language learning further exacerbates their marginalization.
In response to this challenge, the Australian Government announced major reforms to their Adult Migrant English Programme (Australian Government of Home Affairs, 2020). These reforms allowed wider access to English language learning provided by resettlement organizations. Because of restrictions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, these services have had to adjust to online delivery.
Australia has one of the highest percentages of internet users relative to its population in the world. Nevertheless, a large digital divide still excludes low-income households and rural areas (Curtin, 2020; QUT, 2012). A stable internet connection is needed for about 90 per cent of public services available to residents in Australia (QUT, 2012). Low-income households, among which refugees and migrants are well represented, are less likely to access government services and information online, and doing so can be especially difficult for people whose first language is not English (ibid.). The need for English language learning programmes that can be delivered online thus remains high among marginalized populations in Australia.
Research shows that learning grounded in the arts can be an effective approach to English language education. Arts-based language and literacy education can help learners develop social and emotional growth and build community ties while helping them to develop their English language skills. In a diverse classroom, learning through the arts often has a levelling effect: it accommodates different learning styles, opens pathways to dialogue among learners, and empowers students to direct their own learning (Farokhi and Hashemi, 2012).
Overview of the programme
The Connected programme is run by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) in Sydney, Australia. Established in 1978, STC is Australia’s largest theatre company. In addition to hosting Australian artists through regional, national and international tours, STC seeks to provide enriching opportunities for students, teachers and lifelong learners to engage with theatre on stage, in the classroom, online and in the community.
In 2016, STC established Connected: Adult Language Learning through Drama, a programme providing English language learning to adult refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Australia through drama and literacy workshops. The programme uses imaginative stories, myths and folktales to stimulate English language learning and promote social connectedness through creative expression. Connected works with four community partners to deliver its programme:
- Asylum Seekers Centre (ASC): Provides English language classes, caseworkers, financial relief, healthcare, and food and recreational activities for asylum seekers who do not have access to government-funded resettlement resources for individuals with refugee status;
- MTC Australia: Provides employment and vocational training programmes to youth and adults from marginalized populations;
- The University of Sydney’s Refugee Language Program: Offers classes and individual tutoring to refugees, focusing on communication skills, technology and professional development;
- STARTTS (New South Wales Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors): Provides culturally relevant psychological treatment and support to heal refugee trauma.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Connected provided exclusively in-person services. Due to the crisis, the programme had to transition rapidly to online workshops. Connected opted for Zoom due to the digital platform’s user-friendliness, accessibility and privacy settings.
The programme has three primary objectives; they are to:
- improve literacy in English, particularly confidence in speaking
- use process-based drama (combined with imaginative stories, see ‘Teaching and learning approaches’), which helps students practise speaking English in meaningful and purposeful ways, to increase new learners’ confidence and decrease their anxiety when learning;
- build social connections among socially isolated refugee and migrant adult learners.
Connected learners are adults from refugee and migrant backgrounds, ranging in age from 18 to over 70. Participants vary in terms of their gender, native languages and home countries, the latter including the Syrian Arab Republic, Iran, Viet Nam, the People’s Republic of China and Afghanistan. Learners begin the programme with varying levels of English language proficiency. Some are beginners (perhaps familiar with basic greetings), while others have more intermediate fluency. Most learners live in urban or suburban areas of Sydney, where Connected is one of many programmes offering support and English language courses to the refugee community.
Specific learner demographics differ depending on the partner organization. For example, ASC learners tend to be recent arrivals to Australia and are from more diverse language backgrounds. As a result, as many as five or six different languages may be represented in Connected workshops. Meanwhile, Connected’s partner, MTC Australia, works alongside Skills for Education and Employment (SEE), a government-funded language, literacy and numeracy programme for various groups including migrant communities and the long-term unemployed. Consequently, most MTC learners are seeking employment. STARTTS learners may have lived in Australia for many years and are motivated to learn English for social purposes rather than for employment. Connected’s flexible curriculum design allows it to work across these diverse populations and adapt to the needs of learners.
Enrolment of learners
Connected workshops are open to all individuals who wish to enrol, at no cost to the learner or partner organization. Connected relies closely on its partner organizations to enrol learners, and travels to the partners’ headquarters to deliver its workshops. For some partners, Connected functions as a weekly drop-in programme that does not require any formal commitment from participants. For others, a workshop lasts seven weeks and is attended by the same group of learners throughout; on completion, a further seven-week workshop starts with a new group of learners. In some cases, Connected is invited back to work with the same group for a second seven-week period.
Assessment of learners
Connected deliberately creates an environment that does not administer examinations or collect traditional data (e.g. test scores) about literacy outcomes, as it is intended to supplement adult education programmes rather than serve as a comprehensive, stand-alone programme. Although partner organizations (e.g. adult learning centres) may offer language testing to learners who have participated in workshops, Connected only measures learners’ experiences in terms of their personal, social and creative engagement in the programme. For this, it relies on focus group discussions, facilitator reflections, and surveys with its partner organizations. In their benchmarking data reports, teachers anecdotally assess students’ vocabulary, pronunciation, eye contact and vocal expression. The following excerpt from one such report indicates that teachers at partner organizations also evaluate the programme’s social impact on participants:
[Student 1] has gained more knowledge and understanding in communicating creatively and effectively. [Student 2] has improved considerably with her grammar and delivery of sentences. She has gained confidence through these seven weeks and enjoyed being part of the programme.
Excerpt from teacher report
Teaching and learning approaches
Connected workshops are usually held once a week over a period of seven weeks. Each workshop lasts 90 minutes and brings together between 5 and 25 students (depending on the partner organization) and two facilitators. Two- or three-day intensive programmes are also offered. Required materials include minimal costumes, props, printed or digital images for vocabulary practice, and (in some cases) printed or digital texts that are relevant to the storylines used in the drama activities.
Connected draws on a number of theatre-based pedagogical resources and approaches. The programme’s incorporation of creative expression into English language learning is informed by ‘School Drama’, STC’s well-established drama and literacy programme for primary schools. Developed in 2009, in partnership with The University of Sydney and Professor Emerita Robyn Ewing AM, School Drama has worked with over 35,000 students and teachers in Australia and New Zealand and has consistently demonstrated a positive correlation between drama experience and literacy learning. In 2016, STC began adapting School Drama approaches in adult language learning contexts, leading to the launch of Connected.
Connected draws on ‘process drama’ pedagogy, defined as the exploration of a given theme through dramatic devices, culminating in an improvised drama experience (Haseman, 1991; O’Neill, 1995). In process drama, participants work with facilitators to create a fictional ‘world’ by means of a theatrical scenario. This ensures that the content of the dramatic activities is relevant and has personal meaning to participants, as each plays a part in creating it.
The repeated use of English through responses to visual cues, group discussions, storytelling and dialogue in drama activities encourages fluency of expression. The pace of learning is faster than in a traditional classroom. During a drama activity, students respond to and act on ideas that are proposed spontaneously by others in the group. The responsive nature of these improvisation activities encourages students to try out using new words unselfconsciously.
We will see a shy student much more likely to make that leap to speaking English because there’s not such a focus on getting things right. The process frees them up to take more risks.
Zoe Hogan, Director of Education and Community Partnerships at STC
In addition, drama activities and vocal warm-ups used in theatre can make learners aware of the stress and intonation patterns of English, which in turn improves their speaking rhythm and pronunciation. Drama activities also introduce learners to new vocabulary and expressions. In one learning activity at Connected, participants are given a prop and mime different uses for it in a small group of their peers. Creativity adds to the motivation to learn and practise new words. For example, using body language and physical/non-verbal expression, a scarf could become a fishing net, a skirt, or a bag. While the student is acting out the item’s purpose, the other learners are searching for the right English word to describe the object in the mime.
In other Connected activities, students simulate examples of human situations (e.g. requesting information) that require learners to communicate various intentions and feelings, such as justification or doubt. This role play brings context to the language the students are learning, making it more relatable to cultural and personal experiences. Moreover, learners’ improved ability to improvise and respond rapidly in the target language through meaningful role play, coupled with improved pronunciation and wider vocabulary, will subsequently prove invaluable to learners in real-life contexts:
The student reflected that the drama devices allowed spontaneous creativity and thinking quickly on one’s feet. He believes these skills are now more internalized, helping him with rapid thinking. Using improvisation techniques will prove to be an advantage during job interviews.
SEE trainer at MTC
Connected does not merely focus on the needs of the individual, however: a core objective is to foster collaboration. To this end, it follows a process drama pedagogy approach, with the aim of encouraging teamwork and, ultimately, building community. Connected facilitators and partner organization staff select a myth or folktale that they think will resonate with learners. During the seven-week workshop, learners collaborate to create a new version of the folktale. For example, workshops might use the pretext of Pandora’s box, a popular Greek mythical tale, as an overarching theme. Throughout the co-development of the folktale, students focus on a particular ‘word of the week’ that becomes an anchoring theme. By the end of the seven-week period, participants have created their own unique written version of the original tale. This formal end product ensures that participants’ contributions are valued, visible and remain central to the learning experience.
This re-imagining of folktales is a group activity and, indeed, most Connected activities are carried out in pairs or groups in order to encourage cooperation and teamwork in pursuit of a common goal, and to foster social interaction between English learners from many different backgrounds. Learning a new language, especially for an adult, can be an intimidating and frustrating process; however, as psycholinguist Susan Stern observes, ‘drama encourages the operation of certain psychological factors in the participant which facilitate communication: heightened self-esteem, motivation, and spontaneity; increased capacity for empathy; and lowered sensitivity to rejection’ (Stern, 1980, p. 77). Moreover, to further ensure that the workshop offers a welcoming and inclusive environment, Connected practises ‘translanguaging’, a process that recognizes a multilingual person’s full linguistic repertoire, and uses and honours his or her first language in the second language learning process. This approach de-emphasizes language hierarchy and does not prohibit students from using their first language in the classroom. Instead, a drama activity may be conducted in several languages, where participants are invited to teach, speak and embody words in their own and other’s languages (as in Figure 1).
Credit to Zoe Hogan
Figure1: Translanguaging: participants translate a thematic word central to the workshop into their mother tongue and teach it to the group. (Source: Zoe Hogan, STC)
Connected’s partner organizations recognize that this arts-based pedagogical approach differs from traditional language learning programmes that may subject students to rote learning and examinations. Connected can complement traditional language learning programmes by engaging learners on a deeper level through adding a creative element.
When workshops transitioned to Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic, Connected maintained its imaginative and playful content and approach, but made online workshops shorter (60 minutes instead of 90) and more intimate, with about six learners for every two facilitators. Before the pandemic, participants in a 2017 programme evaluation remarked that the drama workshops helped them relax and concentrate their minds on something other than the various challenges and stresses in their lives. This held true during the pandemic: many participants saw the workshops as a way to take their minds off the stress, uncertainty and loneliness they felt during citywide lockdowns.
Recruitment and training of facilitators
Connected is facilitated by a cohort of paid STC ‘teaching artists’: actors, directors and community artists who have a diverse range of performance skills and usually have a background in working with children and youth through STC’s primary school drama literacy programme, School Drama. They are sometimes supported by counsellors and teachers from community organizations, as well as volunteers. Volunteers are screened for professional experience in acting, directing or community theatre, and must express an interest in literacy education. Workshops are co-led by at least two facilitators.
In partnership with the University of Sydney, facilitators attend an annual training week, wherein Connected staff used their experience working with students to share strategies for incorporating storytelling into language learning and nurturing English language learners’ linguistic and cultural knowledge. It brings together teachers of all levels of experience and mentors them to integrate drama-rich approaches in various classroom contexts.
In this creative process, facilitators are equal to learners, and the hierarchical barriers between students and teachers are dismantled, which has garnered positive responses from teaching staff. The training and instructional design of the programme is further enhanced continually based on focus groups with students, feedback from facilitators, and surveys of partner organizations.
Technology: Infrastructure, management and use
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, ASC has focused its digital outreach through online workshops on learners who have previously participated in its drama workshops, drawing on the ASC database. ASC then circulates Zoom meeting information via text messages on the day of the virtual weekly workshop.
ASC donates laptops and internet USB dongles for use by learners who are unable to use Zoom because they do not have suitable devices or internet access. In some cases, ASC conducts home visits to set up this technology for learners and teach them how to join Zoom. For learners who wish to join the workshops via their smartphone but do not have a strong internet connection, the programme pays for their phone data so that they can participate.
To enhance presentation and delivery in small groups, Connected teachers utilize built-in Zoom tools during online workshops. These include Zoom’s digital whiteboard, screensharing function (to practise vocabulary by showing images and text) and breakout rooms. In most cases, however, Connected has deliberately kept its use of inbuilt Zoom functionality and its related interventions as low-tech as possible, as even clicking the appropriate buttons to join a breakout room has proved complicated for some learners with limited digital skills. Moreover, many learners join the virtual sessions via their mobile phones, which limits their ability to use additional features. When Connected’s stock of theatre props cannot be accessed, the programme encourages participants to make creative use of everyday objects as costumes and props. As well as delivering online workshops for students, Connected has also transitioned to Zoom to provide training opportunities for teachers.
To provide technical support during the online workshops, ASC personnel assist Connected facilitators with any ICT problems that may arise. This usually entails calling participants by phone to help them if they lose their internet connection. This helps Connected facilitators to remain focused on the workshop and ensures that they do not need to pause learning to address any technical issues.
Following the online workshop, ASC sends participants an email with a list of related vocabulary. Participants have indicated that this helps them memorize vocabulary before learning new words in the following week’s workshop.
Programme impact and challenges
Impact and achievements
In a typical year, Connected delivers approximately 100 workshops for more than 350 learners, comprising over 2,000 hours of activity-based learning. While improvements in oral expression and literacy are consistently observed, the personal and social benefits – such as increased confidence, reduced social isolation, and enhanced intercultural contact and cooperation – are often valued just as highly by participants.
In a 2017/18 evaluation of the programme surveyed participants from one partner organization . When asked whether the drama workshops had helped them learn English, nine out of 10 participants responded with an emphatic ‘yes’. Partner staff have also noticed improvement in clients who had recently attended a drama workshop. The participants presented at job interviews with greater confidence, which was reflected in their body language and voice. Moreover, in 2019, Connected won two awards: Best Project at the STARTTS Humanitarian Awards, and the Out of the Box prize for most innovative project at the Western Sydney Community Forum’s ZEST Awards.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased Connected’s outreach, enabling a more diverse group of learners who would have been unable to participate in person. This group includes people with young children and people who live in the outer suburbs of the city who would otherwise have had long commutes to attend Connected workshops. Furthermore, the pause on live theatre performances during the pandemic has enabled STC staff to spend more time administering the Connected programme.
Learner testimonials are equally positive:
I like the drama classes a lot. Everyone has fun. We’re all very happy and speak more English. I’m not scared to make mistakes in English. My teacher and friends help me. I want to learn more every day.
Raad, student from Iraq
We love the school and teacher. We learn English and also learn to respect each other. We are all one family here.
Adil, student from Iraq
Drama classes help me with my speaking and listening. I’m more confident and very happy.
Ghuson, student from Iraq
I have been learning English for four years: grammar, grammar, grammar. I cannot memorize grammar. I think it is a good idea to learn English naturally, with our bodies, like we learn our mother tongue, with people. Refugees have a lot of trauma from their past, they are struggling, they cannot read mindfully, they are always thinking. It is a good idea to learn with laughing – no more stress.
Student participating in the University of Sydney’s Refugee Language Programme
STC’s YouTube channel offers further video testimonials from organizers, facilitators and learners.
Some students who are more accustomed to conventional teaching styles may initially resist engaging with the drama workshops.
More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced three of the programme’s community partners to pause collaboration with Connected in order to focus on providing for the basic needs of their communities. Connected has thus had to rely on just one community partner, ASC, who has the resources at its disposal to equip learners with the laptops and additional support they need in order to continue the programme. The pandemic has also delayed the rollout of Connected programmes to new partners and locations.
Stakeholders and partnerships
In addition to delivering the programme in collaboration with the community partner organizations, STC continues to develop the design of Connected in partnership with the University of Sydney. The Connected programme is currently funded through private donations from STC Foundation and grant funding from the City of Sydney.
In early 2022, STC and Currency Press will publish Connecting Through Drama: Drama and literacy for learning English as an additional language, a resource for language teachers and community artists working with adults learning an additional language. The book includes an overview of the theory, research and principles that underpin the program, in addition to practical, step-by-step workshop plans for teachers and artists who work in language learning contexts.
Now that in-person workshops are beginning to resume, Connected is revisiting plans to scale up its programming to reach more learners and partners across Australia. Reflecting on its success in engaging more hard-to-reach learners through Zoom workshops, Connected is exploring opportunities to continue online programming after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Curtin, J. 2020. A digital divide in rural and regional Australia? Current issues brief 1 2001–02. [online]. Parliament of Australia. Available at: https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/ Parliamentary_Library/Publications_Archive/CIB/cib0102/02CIB01 [Accessed 20 November 2020].
Ewing, R. and Saunders, J.M. 2016. The school drama book: Drama, literature and literacy in the creative classroom. Sydney, Currency Press.
Farokhi, M. and Hashemi, M. 2012. The impact/s of using art in English language learning classes. Procedia Social and Behavioral Science, (31), pp. 923–926.
Haseman, B. 1991. Improvisation, process drama and dramatic art. The Drama Magazine – The Journal of National Drama, July 1991, pp. 19–21.
Martin, L. and McAdam, J. 2020. Australia ‘stopped the boats’ but what happened to the refugees who reached its shores? [online] Just Security. Available at: https://www.justsecurity.org/73868/australia-stopped-the-boats-but-what-happened-to-the-refugees-who-reached-its-shores/ [Accessed 19 February 2021].
O’Neill, C. 1995. Drama worlds: A framework for process drama. Canada, Pearson Education.
Pearson, E. 2020. Seven years of suffering for Australia’s asylum seekers, refugees: Government should end harmful offshore policy. [online] Human Rights Watch. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/16/seven-years-suffering-australias-asylum-seekers-refugees [Accessed 19 February 2021].
Queensland University of Technology (QUT). 2012. Migrants’ use of the Internet in re-settlement. [pdf] Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/19793579.pdf [Accessed 19 February 2021].
Stern, S. 1980. Drama in second language learning from a psycholinguistic perspective. [online] Language Learning: A Journal of Research in Language Studies, (30) 1, pp. 77–100. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-1770.1980.tb00152.x [Accessed 2 November 2021].
 For more information on Connected’s School Drama programme, see https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/education/teacher-learning/school-drama.