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Stage Directions: the Vocabulary of Theatrical Delivery

Lesson Question:

How can interpreting the language of stage directions enhance students' comprehension of drama?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students pay special attention to the vocabulary of stage directions and how these parenthetical clues can inform directors, actors, and readers of drama. Small groups of students will use the Visual Thesaurus to define a set of directions and apply them to their dramatic interpretation of a scene from Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.

Length of Lesson:

One hour

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:

  • learn how to identify stage directions in a drama
  • define and interpret various stage directions in A Raisin in the Sun
  • act out a scene from A Raisin in the Sun, following a set of stage directions



Understanding the purpose of stage directions:

  • Display the following line from A Raisin in the Sun:
RUTH (___________ly) Honey, you never say nothing new. I listen to you every day, every night and every morning, and you never say nothing new...

( A Raisin in the Sun, Act I, Scene One)
  • Explain that the (_______ly) indicates a missing word, an adverb (ending in –ly) that playwright Lorraine Hansberry added before this line. The adverb is not meant to be spoken by Ruth; it's a stage direction — Lorraine Hansberry's clue to directors, actors, and for readers of the play, about how that line should be delivered.
  • Emphasize that stage directions can also help readers of drama to more easily see and hear the play being performed in their imaginations. Without these clues from the playwright, readers might misinterpret the tone. (To make this point clear, ask students if they have ever misinterpreted the tone of a text or an email. Stage directions help prevent this type of misinterpretation.)


Experimenting with different adverbs as stage directions:
  • Call on student volunteers to read Ruth's line aloud from the warm-up, without consulting the play to see Hansberry's original stage direction.
  • Experiment with different adverbs as stage directions– such as sharply, sympathetically, indifferently, caustically, etc. and have different students each read the line following a different adverbial stage direction.
  • Finally,  reveal Hansberry's original intent: to have Ruth say the line wearily, and have another volunteer student deliver the line wearily. Display the Visual Thesaurus word map for weary, and discuss how weary can imply physical exhaustion but can also imply a loss of interest due to boredom or stress. Why is wearily a fitting stage direction for the content of Ruth's message to Walter?

Using the Visual Thesaurus to interpret stage directions:

  • Organize the class into small groups of three students each and distribute this "Interpreting Stage Directions" chart to each group.
  • In preparation for acting out a short scene from A Raisin in the Sun, ask each group to use the Visual Thesaurus to help them to define and interpret each of the key words in the stage directions in the chart. They should jot down their notes for each stage direction in the right-hand column of the chart.

Stage Direction Language

Definitions and Notes



(The boy gives her an exasperated look for her lack of understanding, and eats grudgingly.)




(The boy hushes abruptly. They are both quiet and tense for several seconds.)




(Travis jabs his spoon into his cereal bowl viciously, and rests his head in anger upon his fists)


(The boy obeys stiffly and crosses the room, almost mechanically, to the bed and more or less folds the bedding into a heap, then angrily gets his books and cap.)


(Sulking and standing apart from her unnaturally)


(Looking up from the stove to inspect him automatically)


(He crosses to her and she studies his head)


(Travis puts down his books with a great sigh of oppression, and crosses to the mirror. His mother mutters under her breath about his "stubbornness")


(With conspicuously brushed hair and jacket)


(Waving one finger)


(With sullen politeness)


  • Provide each group with the "Excerpt from A Raisin in the Sun" script.
  • Have each group choose one member to act out the part of Travis, another member to play Ruth, and a third member to act as the scene's director.
  • Groups should rehearse acting out the scene, and the director in each group should ensure that actors are delivering the lines in the scene according to the language in Hansberry's stage directions.


Acting out A Raisin in the Sun scenes:

  • If time permits, have each group act out a few lines from the scene from A Raisin in the Sun, following Hansberry's stage directions.
  • As groups perform their lines, other class members should use their stage direction notes as the criteria upon which they should judge the performances.
  • Discuss: How do Hansberry's stage directions set the tone for this scene? How do they contribute to the characterizations of Ruth and Travis? What themes from the play are also evident in the stage directions?

Extending the Lesson:

A fun way to extend this lesson on stage directions would be to have students rewrite the scene scripts, substituting different adverbs and key words in the stage directions. Groups could exchange scripts and perform the scenes according to the revised directions. How does changing the language of the stage directions alter the tone of the scene? Does it also change your impressions of the characters Ruth and Travis?


Each group should be assessed on their stage directions notes to see if they accurately defined words in context. Students' performances should be assessed on how effectively they communicated their lines according to the stage directions.

Educational Standards:

Common Core State Standards
English Language Arts

Language: Vocabulary Acquisition and Use

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5a Interpret figures of speech (e.g. verbal irony, puns) in context.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5b Use the relationship between particular words to better understand each of the words.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5c Distinguish among the connotations (associations) of words with similar denotations (definitions) (e.g., bullheaded, willful, firm, persistent, resolute).
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.6 Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

Reading Literature: Key Ideas and Details

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3 Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) Standards:

Language Arts

Standard 6. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts

Level III (Grades 6-8)
1. Reads a variety of literary passages and texts (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, fantasies, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, historical fiction, drama)
2. Knows the defining features(e.g., setting in science fiction, soliloquy and stage directions in drama, conflict in narratives, perspective in biographies and autobiographies) and structural elements (e.g., chapter, act, scene, stanza) of a variety of literary genres
4. Understands elements of character development (e.g., character traits and motivations; stereotypes; relationships between character and plot development; development of characters through their words, speech patterns, thoughts, actions, narrator's description, and interaction with other characters; how motivations are revealed)  
7. Understands the effects of an author's style (e.g., word choice, speaker, imagery, genre, perspective) on the reader
8. Understands point of view in a literary text (e.g., first and third person, limited and omniscient, subjective and objective)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)
1. Reads a variety of literary texts (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, supernatural tales, satires, parodies, plays, American literature, British literature, world and ancient literature)
2. Knows the defining characteristics of a variety of literary forms and genres (e.g.,the dramatic elements of staging, breaking the fourth wall, expressionism, minimalism, and dramatic irony; the syntax, narrative structure, peoplpe/nature relationships, and male/female roles used in mythic traditions; the range of poem structures, such as fixed and free forms, rhymed and unrhymed, narrative and lyric)
7. Understands the effects of author's style and complex literary devices and techniques on the overall quality of a work (e.g., tone; irony; mood; figurative language; allusion; diction; dialogue; symbolism; point of view; voice; understatement and overstatement; time and sequence; narrator; poetic elements, such as sound, imagery, personification)

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