Improvisational Techniques - group 1 of 4

Numer JOwS: 
str. 35
Ilustracja: Dorota Zajączkowska

A person can acquire knowledge of grammar and syntax, and build vocabulary, but this in itself does not result in functionality. Knowing the mechanics to ride a bicycle or play a piano is insufficient to actually riding or performing. Knowing the mechanics of a language is necessary but insufficient toward its application in real life. Realistic experience develops proficiency between thought and action; the state of doing without thinking about doing. Conversation is fluid; often unpredictable. Improvisational exercises aim to reproduce this fluidity and unpredictability in the classroom, but outside the formality of the classroom. It seeks to reproduce the experience of real-world conversation through an approach both engaging and enjoyable, and where the only wrong answer is not to engage in the atmosphere of teamwork with fellow student. Each set of exercises, published in the four 2019 editions, is built around a theme. The first set lays the foundation through simple story development. The second set employs question and answer situations to develop conversational interplay. The third addresses precision. Finally, the fourth utilizes improvisational role playing to unite everything into an active, conversational format. The ultimate goal is to provide students with the personal confidence in their ability to readily employ the language they are learning in everyday situations anywhere in the world.

This first group of exercises constructs the foundation upon which we will erect, in future groups, more complex and realistic improvisational conversations. These basic exercises are applicable to learners at all levels but the introductory one. Though basic, their flexibility allows you, as the rule setter, to adapt each to your goals and the level of your students. Children and new learners will employ shorter sentences with a limited vocabulary. For advanced learners you can require a greater range and higher level of vocabulary with more complexity in sentence structure.

The common theme is to develop the power of listening; then from listening, properly adding to the continuity of a story line. In the first three exercises this occurs as words or sentences progress one by one through the participating students. Each student must listen carefully as their turn approaches. As they listen they assemble the developing story; start thinking about the possibilities for their addition; finally identifying the part of speech in which their addition must be fitted. In the final exercise each student develops a full segment within the context of the team effort

For learners whose language does not employ articles, such as Slavic, the first exercise in particular works fine to observe how well they follow the rules for using, and not using, “a”, “an” and “the” before a noun. In their focus on the word to add, even more advanced students will often jump directly to the noun, omitting the necessary article. This is one example of how you can observe subtleties in knowledge and ability through improvisational exercises from which you can adapt lessons and study. And the students have no idea they are, in effect, being tested.

One Word At A Time

This is a quick moving exercise without a suggested topic. It encompasses listening, speaking and creative thinking. The story line progresses under its own momentum. It is an excellent warm-up exercise, especially for early learners. It can be made more challenging for advanced students.


The entire class can participate, or you can divide the class into groups of five or six players. When the full class participates, flow will move from student to student at their desks in the order you prescribe. When forming small groups, the players form an arc at the front of the class so they can see each other as the action moves from player to player.

Instruct the students that they will tell a story by each, at their turn, adding one word, and only one word. So they need to listen closely to the story because the word they add must fit the continuity of the story and be grammatically correct. To begin, the first student has the honor to select any word they wish. I ask that student to make it a really good word.

While adjectives and adverbs add descriptiveness, they cannot string these modifies as a stalling technique. If this occurs it will be one of the few times you, as the referee, will step in to correct the situation by asking for some other appropriate solution such as a noun or verb.

Students often let sentences run on and on by using conjunctions. Therefore, make them aware that at a logical point where a full or complete thought is achieved, the next student can call out “Sentence”. That student then chooses any word to begin a new sentence in keeping with the story.

If you need to keep the story running, use motivational directions:

  • Give us one good word.
  • What word would describe that?
  • Can you start a new sentence here?
  • Would a preposition/adjective/… work here?

You need to listen. From time to time it will be necessary for you to restate the last string of words to help someone who is stuck. Based on your judgment, you might correct a situation such as the omission of an article or incorrect tense; but keep it to a minimum.

After a period of time, or when it appears the story has reached a natural conclusion, stop. Ask the students to critique the story they created. Ask what they found easy; what they found difficult.


  1. Have a large group or the entire class stand for the exercise. Based on the ability of the class, set a one or two second time frame in which the next word must be spoken. When a student hesitates to say their word within this time limit, you signal sit down. The next student immediately continues the exercise. At some point you can up the challenge by reducing the time frame, such as from two seconds to one second. Continue the elimination process until you have a small group who are running at rapid fire.
  2. For advanced groups, have two teams of equal numbers stand in lines facing each other. To enhance the challenge, instruct them that a point is awarded to a team each time its player uses a word that meets or exceeds the minimum number of syllables you set as the baseline. Of course words with fewer syllables will be used, but no point is awarded. Also, a longer or no time limit is set so they can think of more complex words. Flow alternates between the two teams as it moves through the line of each team. During the exercise you can up the challenge by upping by one the minimum number of syllables to earn a point. The winner either is the first to reach a set score or is ahead after a set time limit, such as two or three minutes.

Beginning, Middle, End

In addition to fostering quick thinking in sentence form adjacent with hearing and verbalizing, this exercise subtly illustrates the construction of a story line from opening idea to development to conclusion. Do not be concerned if a story sometimes fails to come to a full and logical conclusion, or if it ends very simplistically. You are looking for fluidity of response, the use of good language and the expression of complete thoughts with reasonable continuity of idea.


Explain to the class that three students at a time will tell a story in three parts with each part being one complete sentence. The first student in the trio is the “Beginning”. This student opens the story with a single sentence describing the character or characters, the circumstances and the initial action. The second student is the “Middle”. Again employing only one sentence, this student develops and adds depth to the story. The third student is the “End”. With one sentence this student brings the story to a logical conclusion.

Illustrate the process with an example, such as:

Beginning There was a prince who thought he was the most handsome of all princes and all the princesses loved him.

Middle He was right except for once princess who did not think he was handsome.

End This made the prince very sad.


Beginning There was a musician who had a magical piano.

Middle The piano granted a wish to those who played it.

End But if they played badly the wishes did not turn out the way they player expected.

The exercise can be performed either with the entire class at their desks or with five to eight students brought to the front of the class. Have the first three students rise, or step forward if in a row at the front. Designate these first three as “Beginning”, “Middle” and “End”. They then perform their story.

Upon completion of the story: “Beginning” sits or steps back into line. “Middle” becomes “Beginning”. “End” becomes “Middle”. The next student rises or steps forward to become “End”. They perform a new story. The sequencing in trios continues until each student has performed in each of the three roles.

From time to time it may be necessary to prompt, but do not suggest ideas. Ask questions:

What is the first thing that comes to mind? (Beginning)

Give us an interesting situation. (Beginning)

Tell us what happened next. (Middle or End)

What would you do in that situation? (Middle or End)

How would you solve that problem? (End)

What would be your happy ending to this? (End)

If you end at a point with time for discussion about the stories, consider asking:

Which stories worked and why? Which did not work and why?

Was it harder to be the Beginning, Middle or End? Why?

What goes into making a complete story that is interesting or humorous?

Variation: Ask the Oracles

You can involve the remainder of the class by having them ask the three “Oracles” (those known as “Beginning”, “Middle” and “End”) to answer questions put forward by their classmates. Their responses must be in the Beginning-Middle-End format.

Chain Story

The full class develops an extended story with each student adding one sentence in succession. Students must listen closely to the development of the story for a longer period of time, which is similar to engagement in a conversation where one is attentive to comments from several speakers before adding his or her thoughts. One objective to stress is for students to produce more complex sentences with specific details. They can shift time frames by referring to past events in support of the story, or future expectations by the characters. They can also add new characters.


Ask students for the opening conditions. These include the characters; time period, time of day or season; location or setting; occupations if applicable; etc. As the story develops, students can move locations, introduce new characters and add action, but only in relation to what has transpired in the story to that point.

Select a student to begin the story with an opening sentence. Then, one-by-one, each following student adds the next sentence. As it progresses, you make notes of the plot line. One effective method is to write these notes on the board. This need not be every sentence, but when a new element, character or twist is added. Students can refer to these notes to help keep in mind the development of the plot. From time to time, to move past a blockage or to keep the story on track, you might need to assist with a prodding question.

One typically will let the story run through the class two or three times. At the appropriate time, indicate the story will conclude with the next three students creating the close. Afterward, lead a discussion of the creative process and the results. Be sure to ask “Why?/Why not?” questions after any “Yes/No” responses. Cover ideas such as:

Did they like the story?

Did the story make sense?

Were the characters and situations believable?

Was it interesting?

Would anyone have ended it differently? How?

Could anything have been described more fully? What?

Did changes in characters, locations, etc. add to the story?

You can add to the exercise by asking who (individual or small team) would like to write an expanded, more descriptive version for the class.

Storyboard Tales

This exercise is particularly appropriate to young and very early learners, but also quite adaptable to, and valuable for, more advanced students.

Children love stories. Children also love to draw. Here we exploit the love of stories and drawing to engage the young student in creative speaking through story telling. It aims to combine creative thinking, the expansion of vocabulary, practice in constructing descriptive sentences, building paragraphs, and overcoming the natural hesitancy to speak. It is done by putting the imagination of each child in charge of the exercise.

A key value is that each sheet of the story – the picture with the text – effectively constitutes a paragraph. Thus, this exercise assists, subtly, in building the concept of good paragraph construction. Furthermore, pictorial representation, converted into written/verbal form, reinforces the association of vocabulary with imagery.

This technique easily adapts to all ages and levels of learning. It is not the complexity of the story and language that is sought; the goal is the building of a story from concept to pictorial representation translated into language to be presented verbally. However, from higher level students one does expect a higher level of descriptiveness, vocabulary and construction. This exercise also develops teamwork.


Teams of four or five students work well. One can increase the size of the teams for older students to produce a longer story.

Tell the students they will create a short story. They will come up with the plot, the location, the time of the action and the characters. To help them understand their exercise, tell them each team is the story designer for a Hollywood movie. Central to movie development is the “storyboard”. The “storyboard” creates the look and feel of each scene in its proper order. Each scene of the action is drawn on a sheet that is posted to a board in its position with all the other scenes. This allows the writers and directors to envision the flow of the movie, the lighting and camera position for each shot, the placement of actors and their movement, etc.

Provide each team with sheets of paper plus some colored pencils or crayons. Each team begins with a story and decides on a title. Depending on their age, you might need to work closely with them at this stage. For young children you might have teams choose from a list of fairy tales with which they are familiar (as Disney did with his early animations). Older students should create fresh stories.

Each member of the team is a “producer” who is responsible for one scene in the movie. They might also designate an “executive producer” to lead the team. Then they decide on the complete flow of the movie, each individual scene and which “producer” is responsible for which scene.

The next step is to write the description for each scene. Dialog can be included. They decide if this will be done by each “producer” being assigned a scene or by the “producers” working together. The text of each scene is written on a separate sheet of paper.

From the written description, the visual representation for the scene is created on the reverse side. Assure them this is not an art class. Stick people, outline sketches and rough backgrounds are acceptable representations. Furthermore, each “producer” can draw their own sheet, there can be a drawing team, or they can assist each other as needed. They decide how team members cooperate. Remind them to write with the paper in the correct position so they can read it while they hold the picture for the class to view. It should not be upside down or sideways when the picture is presented.

When complete, teams present their story to the class. One-by-one, each member of the team holds the drawing of a scene and reads the description written on the back. Confidence in telling the story is aided by that fact that when held to show to the class they simply read what they have written on the reverse side. There is no memorization.

Afterward, the class can discuss the stories. You should include a discussion of the process; how they worked together; how they developed the text; what was easy and what was difficult; and if they would like to produce a longer story with more panels.