Learning a language is a complex and long process as anyone who has
tried will agree. One of the most difficult and frustrating things is
making the transition from the classroom to the 'real' world. In the
classroom, everyone knows you are a student and mistakes are allowed, and
the environment is contained and safe. Speaking another language outside
the classroom is completely different and often students are lost at sea
as soon as they step outside the door. Lists of memorized vocabulary are
suddenly useless when ordering in a restaurant.
Role-plays, or simulations are one of the ways ESL instructors can ease
students' transition into using English in real world situations. A
simulation is where students act out a real-life situation, for example
checking into at a hotel, but do not act out a different personality.
Role-plays are where students take on different personalities. In a
role-play, for example, one student may be asked to take on the role of
"an angry neighbor" which is out of character for the student.
Role-plays require more imagination by students and teacher and can be
difficult to manage because they are unpredictable. The initial scenario
develops from the students interacting with each other and can literally
go in any direction. This gives students practice in a non-threatening
environment, and gives the motivation and involvement where they have to
think in English. Role-plays are interesting, memorable and engaging, and
students retain the material they have learned. In their assumed role,
students drop their shyness and other personality and cultural
inhibitions, making them one of the best tools available for teaching a
Here are a few pointers and suggestions to assist ESL teachers using
and managing role-plays:
- The more engaging the better. The value of
role-plays come from students immersing themselves in the material.
- Choose a 'hot' topic and stage a debate. Assign
students positions on the topic (for/against). This will get students
out of their personality and into the role where they do not have the
- Preparation is very important to success. Give students 'personality
cards' which sketch out their personal characteristics or scenario. Divide
students into groups and give them time to sketch out various scenarios,
and go over extra or special vocabulary ask them to discuss how they will
act, think about the character and plan what they will say. For example,
what are possible responses/replies for the angry neighbor?
- The teacher, as facilitator of the role-play must support students in
their role, i.e. they 'are' in the backyard arguing over the fence. Don't
do anything to interrupt the pretend environment. Leave grammar correction
to the end. Correcting students in the middle of an argument interrupts
the pretend environment. Make notes and do a debriefing after.
- Exaggeration is good! Encourage students to exaggerate their actions,
opinions and movements. Exaggeration helps students immerse themselves in
- Stage a rehearsal first. Have students practice their role in small
groups with coaching from the other students.
- While the role-play or debate is in progress, have other students
suggest vocabulary first, and act as backup if they do not know.
Role-plays are unpredictable which makes them both a valuable learning
tool and at the same time difficult to manage. Sketch out the various
routes the role-play can take from the initial scenario. This will give
you some idea what to expect and avoid any surprises.
Suggested topics for role-plays:
- Lovers problems (He has to move away to get a
new and better job)
- Spending money (Government, United Nations etc.
spending money, who gets what)
- Traveling (where would you go? what would you
- Debates on current affairs/politics. Extreme
opinions or opinions at the opposite ends of the spectrum work well
(i.e. left wing/right wing etc.)
Role-plays can range from 30 minutes or one hour to a year-long
corporate simulation for business English. Staging role-plays can be
challenging for an instructor, but is also great fun. After you have done
a few, you will know what to expect and feel more confident. My experience
is students love them retain what they learn, and often leave the
classroom laughing and still arguing all the way out of the building.
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