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Using Radio Dramas in the GED Class
by Cathy Coleman

In a radio drama from the 1940's called "Sorry Wrong Number," a woman who is confined to bed due to disabilities overhears a phone conversation plotting someone's murder. This drama was the subject of a series of activities that I did with my Pre-GED class at the Worcester Adult Learning Center. I have this radio drama on an audiotape, which I bought as a Christmas present for my parents one year. It is part of a series of tapes with broadcasts from the radio serial "Suspense Theatre."

One of the things we used to discuss a lot in class was the concept (and the techniques of) "active reading." We discussed how helpful it is to use your background knowledge to help you comprehend when you read, to picture the story in your head as if you were creating a movie in your mind, to predict what might happen next, to keep yourself "in" the story. These were skills that many of my students struggled with. They often talked to me about how hard it was to "concentrate on the story" or to "remember things as I read."

"Active reading " was a term I came into contact with in my time in education, but prior to that, the term I was more familiar with was "active listening." Active listening a term that is used quite frequently within the context of psychology and counseling jobs ,which was the focus of much of the work I did prior to teaching. Was there a connection between the skills used in active reading and active listening? Active listening involves somewhat similar techniques for the purpose of staying "in" the conversation and concentrating on the other person. Active listening is something that goes on when people listen to radio dramas, too.

I love radio dramas. I'm not old enough to have heard this particular one when it was originally broadcast, but I am old enough to have fond memories of falling asleep as a ten or eleven year old listening to "Mystery Theatre with E.G. Marshall" which was broadcast each night on WTAG radio in Worcester in the mid-70's. One of my students remembered listening to "Mystery Theatre" during that same time period, and I had one student in my class who was 74 and remembers the "real days of radio," as he put it, but the majority of the class had never heard a radio drama.

When I brought up the idea, the group seemed interested, so I brought the tape in and we listened to it together-in the dark-to set a good mood for the story. I paused the tape at various parts and asked how they pictured the scene. What did they think the woman looked like? What gave them that impression? Where did the action take place? Where did they think the husband was? What did they think might happen next?

Their answers were great. Without exception they were able to picture fairly vividly the scene in which the action took place. Based on their different backgrounds and experiences, their "mind movies" were slightly different (which everyone found interesting as well), but they all took into account important clues in the dialogue in the drama.

"Hmmm," I said to the group, "Does this remind you of anything that we have talked about before?" They laughed and responded with something to the effect of "yeah, yeah, yeah, active reading, movies in your head. Blah,blah, blah." We all laughed, and I thought to myself that this drama proves the point better than anything I have said all year does!

They also predicted quite accurately the outcome of the story (which I won't give away for those of you who might not know it.) Students who often had trouble with questions that required inferential thinking did quite well making them while listening to "Sorry Wrong Number." Another thing we talked about was mood and tone. What was the mood of the drama? How did we figure out the mood? How would that have been the same or different if we had read the same story instead of listening to it?

A really interesting part of our discussion centered on the setting of the story in terms of the time period. The vocabulary in some cases was rather difficult-sometimes as a result of the way changes in language reflect changes in culture. For example, the woman in the story is referred to as "an invalid." Here was a term unfamiliar to most of the group, especially when used in that context. We broke the word down using prefixes and roots-in - valid. With two students in the class with physical disabilities, this was a particularly p owerful conversation. How was this particular disabled woman portrayed ? We could have spent even more time with that discussion. How does language influence culture and vice versa? What terms are OK to use and why? My two students were sure they didn't want to be referred to as "invalids," but how did they feel about "disabled?" "Differently-abled?" "Physically challenged?" Language, freedom of speech, and issues of hate speech and diversity-tough but important issues-began to arise. In retrospect, I wish we had done even more with exploring these issues and pursued them as writing topics.

Having Philip in class, who was 74 at the time and had a wealth of knowledge about World War II and that time period, made for an even more interesting discussion. Philip could discuss why the "bad guy" had a Russian accent. One of the students talked about how all the "bad guys" in the movies they had seen were African American. We moved into a discussion, sometimes heated, that examined how various people are portrayed in the media.

What does all this media literacy stuff have to do with the GED test? Or with learning English or with learning to read and write?"

It is my belief that using various forms of media is one of many ways to teach critical thinking skills that our learners need in the workplace, in their communities, in their families, and yes... in the GED. "We must prepare young people for living in a world of powerful images, words and sounds." (UNESCO, 1982) If this is true for young people, isn't it true for our adult students as well? In our culture, powerful media images surround us all the time. And with the Internet, digital TV, and other forms of sophisticated electronic communication, the images are getting more powerful and more plentiful. If we can use these images and media to our advantage as a teaching tool, why not do that?

Cathy Coleman is the Practitioner Inquiry Coordinator for SABES. Ms Coleman is an Associate Coordinator at the SABES  Central Regional Support Center. She can be reached at 617-482-9485 or by e-mail at:

This article was originally published by SABES/World Education, Boston, Massachusetts
Supplement to: Bright Ideas, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Spring 1999)
Posted on SABES Web site: April 1999

Bright Ideas is a quarterly newsletter that provides a place to share innovative practices, new resources, information and hot topics within the field of adult education. It is published by SABES, the System for Adult Basic Education Support and funded by the federal Adult Education Act (S.353), administered by the Adult and Community Learning Services (ACLS) Unit of the Massachusetts Department of Education.

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Last modified: June 04, 2015