Volume VI - 2001

The Power of Dramatizing Case Studies in ESP
by Russell Dinapoli

Russell Dinapoli has lived and taught English in Valencia, Spain since 1977. He received an MFA in playwriting from UCLA, and a PhD in Philology from the Universidad de Valencia, where he is a lecturer in the Department of English and German. He has written articles and given talks and seminars in Spain and in the United States on the subject of drama and literature in applied linguistics. Additionally, he has written and directed plays and worked as a theatre critic and radio script writer, and translated several books of poetry.

    "Staging" a case study can breathe life and excitement into an otherwise dull set of stereotypes and often stiff prose. That is the great value of using dramatic techniques in the teaching of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). The student performer attempts to express verbally and kinetically the implicit inner environment of a character in a given situation. Even if he or she is only partially successful in creating that character, the excitement of the moment draws on almost everything the student has ever studied about English. The room is charged with the electricity of the conflict. The CEO's recommendations have grave implications for his management committee. Disagreements on just how to realize those recommendations bring the crisis to a head. The tension cannot continue. The classroom "actors" and audience are caught up in the human dimension of a living problem. The emotions are decidedly of the moment. A resolution must be found, and when it occurs, the play-like exercise is over.

Use of Learned Language

    A most valuable situation for language learning has just taken place. Students have experienced the invaluable need to express and understand, and have consequently reached deep inside themselves to find what is essential to communicating aspects of the conflict. Langor (1953, 315) points out that any dramatic text is not just lines of dialogue, but human responses to events in "direct discourse." Nouns, verbs, adjectives, phrases, expressions and principles of intonation that students had learned long ago are suddenly brought out by urgencies of the dramatic situation. To achieve such a situation, it is very effective to use the "case study," which usually consists of a description of the characters and a specific problem in need of solution. The nature of the situation of course depends on the nature of the profession or business in which the language study is taking place. In any case study approach, one fortunate constant is the creativity and dynamism that are inherent. Problem-solving and situational analysis can occur, and that is very good. But even better for the language teacher is that action and inter-action are the principal referents. There are, however, downsides in the use of the case study, and we should point them out before going deeper into the part creativity plays in this approach. We will also offer several specific suggestions on how to make these negative aspects positive.


    Unfortunately, the abundance of material of a technical nature used in ESP courses tends to keep language specific programs locked into a narrow confine. In an attempt to deal with this limitation, Kelly and Krishnan (1995:80) incorporated literature in an ESP curriculum at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. They were also interested in complimenting what they considered to be the "broader academic needs" of their students. For similar reasons, thematically relevant plays were included in the curriculum of Business English courses at the University of Valencia School of Economics (Dinapoli and Algarra, 2000).

    The main drawbacks of most of the case studies used in ESP textbooks is that they perpetuate social stereotypes, and student performances are focused mainly on duplicating the texts, which seem derivative. Because there is little or no implicit personal environment expressed by the performers, role-playing becomes awkward and mechanical. Focusing on the contextual explicitness of a text rather than on the implicit inner environment of the characters results in drill-like performances, as patterns are repeated or varied slightly, and characterizations become redundant. For example, the ideal "manager" or "CEO" is repeated over and over again. Discourse Analysis and Sociolinguistics have widened the pragmatic dimension in the language acquisition field by focusing attention on the dynamics of speech acts in communication. The problems, however, created by the complex and unpredictable nature of learning require a multiple-skilled and performance-based approach (Gimenez and Dinapoli, 1999) that allows for creativity. Generally, this is not dealt with in Discourse Analysis or Sociolinguistics.

Creating a Character

    In order to get students to interact creatively, the implicit aspects of the inner environments of the characters need to be channeled into the explicit context of a situation. We can accomplish this by encouraging students to use their creative faculties when analyzing case studies. Following are six questions that many professional actors ask themselves when creating a character from a given text. These questions are most relevant to the dramatization of case studies.

1. Who am I?
2. What are my circumstances?
3. What is my relationship to the person I am talking to?
4. What do I want?
5. What keeps me from getting what I want?
6. What can I do to overcome the obstacles?

    When these questions are used to analyze characters in case studies found in Business English textbooks, the context ceases to be simply, say, a board meeting. There come together two important elements:
(A) The explicit context provided by the text, and
(B) The implicit environment of the students as performing characters.

    Drama succeeds in ESP when the performers no longer see their characters as business executive stereotypes, but as real people with inner environments that need to be analyzed, using both logical and creative thinking, and interactively expressed in an explicit context. Towards this end, drama and case studies adhere, bringing together analytical and non-analytical modes in a multi-skilled and performance based approach.

Creativity as a Language Learning Skill

    A key ingredient to the above approach to ESL involves the rather complex notion of creativity. Foreign language instructors generally agree that the notion of proficiency includes the four language skills, as well as structural, semantic, discoursal and other communicative aspects. But another skill is creativity, perhaps the least addressed component in the foreign and second language teaching field. Vaguely associated with "imagination," "invention" or "wit," creativity is not easily evaluated in the current classroom context. Perhaps this is one reason why creativity tends to be ignored as a language learning skill.

Difficult to Define

    The difficulty in defining creativity in second or foreign language acquisition makes it an unappealing research topic. As a result, those foreign language teachers who recognize the importance of creativity in the learning process have relatively little to draw on from textbook authors. This is especially the case for higher education instructors, and in particular for those who work in the area of Language for Specific Purposes.

Relevant Literature

    The reticence of textbook authors notwithstanding, several methodological attempts have been introduced that use literature, and in particular drama, to generate the "creative" aspects of normal discourse in the learning environment. While some authors (Collie and Slater, 1990; Lazar, 1993; and Whiteson, 1996) subsume drama under general literature, others focus specifically on the use of drama in second and foreign language teaching (Parry, 1972; Via, 1976; Nomura, 1982; Smith, 1984; Maley and Duff, 1984; Di Pietro, 1994; and Kao and O'Neill, 1988). Additionally, various authors focus on specific aspects involving the use of drama in the language learning context: Hegman (1990) discusses the impact of affect on cognition; Stern (1980) analyses the psycholinguistic variables involved; Scarcella (1978) suggests using "socio-drama" to heighten classroom interaction; Via (1987) proposes introducing "the magic if" to stimulate the imagination; Courtney (1990) places drama on a par with intelligence; and Di Pietro (1994) discusses the fundamental dramatic nature of human interaction.

The Usefulness of the Case Study

    As we have pointed out, one of the most useful approaches in the language learning field today is the case study model. Focusing on the development of situational analysis as well as integrated skills, including problem-solving abilities, the approach addresses content through the use of culturally authentic materials that are promoted in meaningful activities. Originally adopted by the Harvard School of Business (Hammon, 1980; Christensen, 1981; and Gragg, 1982), several authors (Cotton and Owen, 1980; Piotrowsky, 1982; Dow and Ryan, 1987; Uber Grosse, 1988; Westerfield, 1989; St. John, 1996; and Bonet, 1997) have written on the significance of case studies in the language learning environment. They stress the functional inter-communicative tenor of the approach. But while acknowledging that role-playing contributes to the learning process, they-with the exception of Dow and Ryan (1987)- choose to ignore the creative dimension of case studies.

    ESP is one of the areas where the case study approach is especially promising. St. John (1996:10) observes that there is "quite extensive use of case studies and simulations" going on in Business English courses. Fundamental to the approach is the interpretation of roles in various situations. Students expand on information extracted from real cases while they interact in simulations. However, unlike the real case studies analyzed in many schools of business, law and medicine, cases used in Business English tend to be fictional. For example, a meeting is called for the management committee to discuss what to do about the CEO's recommendation (Comfort and Brieger, 1998: 38).

    In this sense, case studies are similar to plays. Students, like actors, analyze fictional texts and interpret the characters in them. Typically, a role depicts a character ideal, such as the Managing Director, the Human Resources Director, and the Workers' Representative, with a character description provided for each one: e.g., "You joined PC Corp as a young graduate 20 years ago" (39).

Value of Traditional Plays

    Given that Business English textbook authors use fictional case studies, it would seem that selected dramatic texts, written by established playwrights, might also be employed. Using discourse analysis, Short (1983) comments on Harold Pinter's play Trouble in Works. The play, depicting a discussion between a factory owner and a foreman as to why the workers refuse to manufacture a product, could also be analyzed as a case study in an intermediate Business English course. Case study material can be found in plays by other well-known authors such as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: for example, in the scene between Willy Loman and his boss Howard Wagner in Act Two, when Willy asks to be transferred to New York and Howard fires him.

    That a text is untrue does not affect the performance of illocutionary acts. Thus, textbook authors, like playwrights, can use the "as if" mode (Searle 1975: 324). Moreover, intermediate level Business English students are used to handling fictional, non-serious discourse, and most of them are likely to have already role-played fictional characters and events depicted in texts. Indeed, one of the main limitations of using such prepared creative dramatic texts is that there are so few of them. Another is that working with a minimal text like the case study tends to dynamically involve the actors in the fleshing out of their own situation and characters. It could be argued that the case study can serve as a productive prototype for the creation of materials that would be quite useful in any language learning situation.


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