Improv and ink: Increasing individual writing fluency with collaborative improv.

DeMichele, M. (2015). Improv and ink: Increasing individual writing fluency with collaborative improv. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 16(10). 

Abstract:

This article explores how short form/comedic improvisational theater  (improv) impacts the development of writing fluency. Two quasi-experimental research studies in two school districts, one urban and one suburban, were conducted to determine if the length of the students’ writing would increase after exposure to a sequence of improv story-telling and story-writing games. Data analysis revealed that both regular education and special education populations showed increases in both their word and sentence usage. The article examines how improv’s collaborative nature supported by the rule of “Yes, and,” may address deficits in both social-emotional and literacy skills that effect writing fluency.

Key Findings:

Data analysis suggests that short-form, comedic improv provides a framework that takes students rapidly through essential literacy processes seen on the emergent level; and that exposure to, and practice of, these processes through improv address deficits in social emotional or literacy skills that are important to writing. Key findings include:
  • With only 6%-13% of the time given to individual writing, this research suggests that collaboration, structured by the rule “Yes, and,” impacted writing fluency.
  • With 70% of the time dedicated to playing verbal improv games, the data suggests that the oral and collaborative nature of improv impacts the development of writing fluency.
  • While regular education students clearly increased the length of their writing, at risk students and special needs students experienced more growth showing greater increases with longer exposure.
  • Almost every subsection showed a greater level of growth in sentence usage over word usage, suggesting improv’s rule “Yes, and,” impacts writing fluency. 

Significance of the Findings:

Students in all disciplines need to be able to purposefully write, however by the time students reach high school many have already given up trying to express their own thoughts in free writing. A student’s reluctance to write may be due to social-emotional reasons or literacy-based deficits. With individual reasons usually not known to the teacher, this study shows that improv could serve as an effective broad-based instructional intervention capable of yielding quantifiable results in a relatively short period of time.

Methodology:

In both studies, students played a scaffolded series of short-form, improvisational, narrative, story-telling games. After playing a game, students played the game again but did so in writing. The final activity was individual story-writing. Improv’s effect on writing fluency was assessed through individual, free-writing journal entries in Study 1 and prompted journal writing in Study 2. The average and percentage of change in both word and sentence usage, with subsections of regular education students and students with special needs/at-risk classifications were calculated and recorded.

Study 1: The quasi-experimental comparison study took place at an inner city high school during a six-week, extended-year, summer program. The study consisted of one treatment class of 18 students and two comparison classes, totaling 42 students. While the treatment class learned improv games, the comparison groups attended writing class. Classes consisted of comparable student populations based on educational need, test scores, gender and race or ethnic background. All students had just finished their 9th grade year, were fluent in English, qualified for free or reduced lunch and were ethnically and racially diverse.

Study 2: The second study was a quasi-experimental interrupted time series design, conducted at a suburban high school during class time. It consisted of a 9th grade World History class with 25 students and a 10th grade American Survey class, with 7 students. Classes were ethnically diverse and fluent in English. While there were no special needs students in the 9th grade class, the 10th grade class consisted of students considered at-risk or who had Individual Education Plans (IEP’s).

Limitations of the Research:

  • The relatively small nature of the sample size limits the generalizability of this study to other settings.
  • Seeking to increase the accuracy of the pre- and post-assessments in the second study, the number of journal entries required was increased in the second study. This resulted in a greater loss of subjects.
  • Scheduling restraints in both studies did not allow for additional assessment to determine if writing fluency increases were sustained over time.

Questions to Guide New Research:

  • While both male and female students showed clear increases, female students showed greater improvement than male students in both studies. Would additional practice to transition from improv to journal writing help boys to strengthen the transference of skills to other writing assignments?
  • Improv writing games invite students to repetitively reread each story: reading, scanning, visualizing, and making contextual and syntactic choices. What impact does this approach have on reading fluency and comprehension?
  • Are results replicable on the elementary, middle school and adult level?