Using Drama to Physicalize a Poem

Chris Parham, Temple University

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Poetry, imagination, physicalization
  • Learner English level: Intermediate
  • Learner maturity: High school and above, particularly drama students
  • Preparation time: 5 minutes
  • Activity time: 50-60 minutes
  • Materials: Poem handout

The following set of activities explores Shel Silverstein’s poem Bad Cold to stimulate student imagination, heighten student physical and vocal expression, and use English in a creative and collaborative way. I have successfully implemented these activities with English and Drama students at high school and university level.


Step 1: Prepare handouts of the poem Bad Cold by Shel Silverstein.


Step 1: Write on the board Have you been sick recently? and What measures did you take to prevent the condition getting worse? Ask students to discuss answers in pairs (in English) before eliciting answers from them.

Step 2: Hand out, or project onto screen, Bad Cold by Shel Silverstein.

Step 3: Read through the poem slowly and ask students to shout “Stop!” or raise a hand when you come to an object in the poem which is used to prevent a cold. Ask students to consider how these objects change as the poem unfolds.

Step 4: Show students how to physicalize the images of the poem. For example, with shirtsleeve, put your wrist to your nose, or handkerchief, raise your hand with thumb and index finger together and then draw your palm across your nose. Once students get the idea of how to physicalize images, read the poem again slowly and get the whole class to physicalize each object as you say them.

Step 5: Divide the students into groups of three or four and ask them to read through the poem in two ways. First, one student reads until they get to the objects identified in step 3, when the role of reader changes. This time only the reader should physicalize the objects. Second, instruct students to read a stanza each while the rest of the group physicalizes the objects. 

Step 6: Ask students to consider who the characters are in the poem (the sick person and his helper) and what happens to the condition of the sickness (it worsens). Ask students to read again with greater exaggeration.

Step 7: Tell students they have 10-15 minutes to rehearse a staged reading of the poem as a group, with each member sharing as equally as possible the roles and dialogue of the poem.  Remind them their physical actions need to be performed clearly in line with the poem.

Step 8: Have each group perform to the rest of the class, or split the class up and have the groups perform in front of smaller audiences.

Step 9: Have the students decide their favorite performance and explain why they chose it.


These activities help students to increase vocabulary, develop fluency through repetition, and gain confidence in public speaking. In my experience, they have also proved to be fun for students. 


Silverstein, S. (1996). Falling Up, New York, NY: HarperCollins.