An Interview with Rod Ellis on Performance-Assisted Learning

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David Kluge, Nanzan University

Welcome to TLT Interviews! For the March/April issue, we present a very special interview with Rod Ellis, a renowned linguist who received his Doctorate from the University of London and his Master of Education from the University of Bristol. A former professor at Temple University both in Japan and the US, Dr. Ellis has taught in numerous positions in England, Japan, the US, Zambia and New Zealand, and has published extensively. He is presently in the Department of Education at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. He was interviewed by David Kluge. Mr. Kluge has been teaching English for over 35 years and currently works at Nanzan University. His research interests include oral interpretation, speech, drama, debate, composition, and materials development. He has co-authored three books on composition with Matthew Taylor (National Geographic Learning) and one book on oral communication (Macmillan Language House). So, without further ado, to the interview!

David Kluge: Hello, Rod. Thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Rod Ellis: You’re welcome.

What do you think of a topic of particular interest to me, that is Performance-Assisted Learning — performance activities to help learn, consolidate learning, and evaluate learning across the curriculum?

It seems to me that one of the essential features of Performance-Assisted Learning activities is that they make the expression of meaning, the conveyance of meaningful messages, primary. They also require learners to make use of whatever linguistic resources they have in order to carry out the performance, right? So, there is potentially a spontaneity, although I think there is a danger that a performance can be memorized and then performed as a memorized performance. I would much rather prefer to see performances be extemporary.

What is your own experience with Performance-Assisted Learning activities as a student, teacher, and researcher?

As a student, both at secondary school and at university, I engaged greatly in acting, taking quite major roles, in fact.

For example?

I performed in Ben Jonson plays, an Auden and Isherwood play. I performed in several plays at university. I was so keen on drama that, for some time, I thought about trying to become a professional actor when I left university. But I think I was also aware of my limitations as an actor, and I was aware that it’s a terribly difficult profession to establish yourself in, and therefore, I opted for a much easier life as a teacher.

What was your most memorable acting experience?

I remember I played Little Monk in Brecht’s Galileo, and that was a memorable experience. Also, I have quite clear memories of the various roles that I took part in at school. In School for Scandal by Sheridan, I played a major role. I certainly enjoyed being on stage and having an audience captivated.

I’m sure! How about as a teacher? Did you have experience in teaching debate, drama, or speech?

As a teacher, speech, no, I never was engaged in any formal-type speech events. Nor did I use, as a technique in my classes, asking students to prepare speeches on topics. Drama? Yes. As a teacher I used to function as a director, and I directed a number of small plays with my students.

For example, what plays?

These were short plays, and they were largely specially-written, improvised plays rather than published plays. What I do remember most vividly is when I was a teacher educator, I elected to direct the annual play for the college I was working in, in Zambia. I chose a Brecht play, Caucasian Chalk Circle. But, what I elected to do was not use a script, but rather to produce a synopsis of the story, and then work with the actors to enact the story using their own words as much as possible.

Very good.

I have to say that that was very ambitious with those particular students. I’m not sure that as a piece of drama, it was terribly successful. I wasn’t really satisfied with the final product. It wasn’t smooth enough for my liking. But was it better than having people memorize lines and then just perform them? Maybe as an educational experience, it was better for those students to have had to act without a script.

How about Oral Interpretation or Readers Theater with a script in hand, and interpretive reading?

No. Never done it. I’ve never been involved in Readers Theater, reading scripts, and so on. I’m not sure I have a lot of belief in that because I don’t think that it involves students in the fundamental processing of language that contributes to language learning. I could be wrong.

That also brings up a common language teaching activity which is to have students in pairs read a dialog aloud.

I think that’s useless as well. I give that as an example of what is not a task, and what is arguably not going to contribute very much to language learning. I think that the only thing that it could possibly help a little is with pronunciation. I don’t think it’s going to help with fundamental processes of enabling communication in a foreign language.

One topic we haven’t mentioned so far is debate.

Yes, I have used debates in class. Not extensively, but I have used them. I have some reservations about debates used in a whole class situation because let’s assume it more or less follows a standard pattern of having a main speaker and a supporting speaker for and against the motion, and then perhaps having the situation where people from the floor can either ask questions or make statements. My reservation was that it typically only involves a fairly small number of students in a large class. For that reason, I wasn’t entirely convinced that using debate was the most effective use of class time, but I have used them when I taught in Africa. I think also we did organize one or two formal debates as well.

As a teacher, of the four areas of speech, drama, oral interpretation or readers theater, and debate, is drama the one that you find most valuable?

No, I’m not sure that that’s correct. It’s just that perhaps drama is the one I’ve been most actively involved in as a student and as a teacher. I think I can see merit in students giving speeches. And I think it would be quite interesting to actually develop a methodology for using speeches that both involve the opportunity for students to prepare and perform their speeches, and also give extemporary speeches as well. I would be quite interested to see whether letting students practice a planned performed speech has an effect on their ability to do extemporary speeches.

That would be a good research topic.

I think that would be a good one because, ultimately, I think it’s all about what people can do when they are not simply performing a prepared script or prepared speech.

Let’s move to your experience as a researcher. Have you done research on Performance-Assisted Learning?

No, I haven’t, mainly because most of my research is focused on the role of interaction in language learning, and it seems to me that what you are looking at here is non-interactive language use, rather than interactive language use. That’s not entirely true because drama does involve interactive use, but certainly, formal debates, readers theater, speeches, etcetera., do not involve interactive language use. This really comes from my work in second language acquisition where interaction is seen as one of the principle motors for language learning.

Obviously, I think that there is a case for research. One thing I mentioned to you the other day, is that many of these performances involve what I call long turns. Maybe the emphasis on interaction, which typically involves short turns, often only very short turns, has led to the neglect of the value of performance involving long turns. There is some research that’s looked at long turns. Some of the research on task-based language teaching has looked at learners performing monologic narratives where they’re given pictures, or they watch a video, and then they have to tell the narrative, so that involves a long turn. To my mind, that’s the equivalent of a performance. There has been research that has looked to see what factors are likely to influence effective performance of long turns like the role of planning.

That brings me to my next question, which is how has the experience with performance you’ve had as a student and as a teacher affected you? In other words, what do you think are the benefits of these experiences?

Has my drama experience at school and university benefited me? Well, probably yes, because if you are going to act, you need to project your voice, you need to have a very clear voice, and one of the things that I’m constantly told by students all over the world is that I am very easy to listen to. I’m very clear, so in terms of enunciation, I think that my drama experience was quite valuable to me and has fed into my role as a teacher and my role as a teacher educator.

That’s what I was wondering, if the performance experiences you’ve had apply to the talks you give.

Well, I think that learning to give a talk in front of a large audience is something that I have acquired through giving talks in front of large audiences. The only way that my drama experience has fed into it is really in terms of enunciation.

Yes, but you say when you perform your presentations at conferences or in front of large groups of people, that’s your performance . . .

I consider them a sort of performance. You know, it would come under your label of speeches, yeah?

Do you have any final words that you would like to leave us in terms of our work in speech, drama, and debate?

I think probably if I was to sort of get involved in this, what I would like to do is to sit down and figure out how performances could be researched and evaluated. That would be my academic interest. Obviously, the main purpose of speeches or performances is to enhance proficiency. Along with possibly some affective reasons like increasing people’s motivation and confidence for actually using the language as well. By and large, I would see that these performances are directed at proficiency, in particular, fluency and self-expression, and confidence in so doing. So, I think it would be quite interesting to investigate to what extent engaging learners in these performances does contribute to proficiency, does contribute to increased confidence, or does it just lead to more anxiety?

Do you have any words for researchers who want to research the efficacy of these techniques? Is there anything in particular they should be looking at, looking for, or doing?

I think that one of the big issues with performance is to think about how you can match the type of performance to the proficiency level of the students, right? I mean a speech, for example, could be an hour, or a half an hour, or ten minutes, or two minutes, right? I think it would be quite interesting to look at the issue of time: are you giving one-minute speeches, two-minute speeches, etcetera? I think that time is a potentially quite an important issue. The other issue that I think is quite important is planning, and there’s a huge amount of research that’s looked at what’s called pre-task planning which would be equally applicable to this. What is the role of planning, does it actually improve performances, in what ways does it improve performances, in what ways would performance people be interested in measuring the effect that planning might have on improvement of performances. These are the kinds of issues that I would probably be interested in.

It seems to me that performances of these various kinds are probably going to be a lot more useful for enhancing language proficiency than a lot of other things that go on inside a Japanese English language classroom, right? But maybe there is a need to collect evidence about that.

And that’s our mission for the near future. Thank you very much.


Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.