Scott Thornbury gives us some imaginative tips and ideas for using role-plays in lessons.


In Minimal resources: Speaking activities I looked at ways that dialogues could be set up in the classroom using minimal materials. An extension of dialogue-type interaction is the role-play, in which the interactants get speaking practice by stepping outside their own character, job, and so on, in order to experience a wider range of situations than the classroom normally offers and to explore other registers and domains of language use. From controlled to free, discussions and debates provide learners with opportunities to interact freely and spontaneously, to cope with unpredictability and to voice opinions using language that is both complex and fluent.


Teachers are sometimes discouraged from setting up either role-plays or discussions because they think that they will need to provide elaborate resources, such as role cards or preparatory reading texts, in advance. However, many of the most successful fluency activities require no materials at all. They simply draw on the learners’ own experience, knowledge and imagination.


Here are three materials-light ideas for role-plays and discussions.

1. Choose a holiday

The idea is to set up a situation whereby students, in pairs, shop around for a package holiday, visiting different 'travel agencies' (also pairs of students) in turn, and then making their decision. Divide the class into two – one half will be 'shoppers', the other half 'agents'. Divide these groups again into pairs. The agent pairs should be distributed around the room and separated as much as possible from the shoppers. Tell the agents each to put together an attractive ten-day holiday package, including destination, itinerary, excursions, accommodation and so on. (It is important, by the way, that all the holidays cost the same – fix a price in advance – so that the agents don’t simply undercut one another). Meanwhile, the pairs of shoppers decide what it is that they, personally, want out of their holiday, e.g. relaxation, adventure sports, shopping opportunities, etc. The shoppers then 'visit' each agency in turn – seating should be arranged so that the shoppers can sit down when visiting the agencies. After sufficient time has elapsed for an exchange of information, the shoppers all move round one, and the process starts again, until all the shoppers have visited all the agencies. Each pair of shoppers can then decide which holiday they will choose.

The format for this role-play works for a number of different situations that involve shopping around. I have used it successfully for a 'choosing a school' scenario: each school puts together a policy on such things as discipline, homework, uniform, compulsory subjects and extra-curricular activities, and can even create a school motto! Meanwhile, each pair of 'parents' decide what kind of school they are looking for, for their child. They then interview – and are interviewed by – the school’s representatives.

Other situations that lend themselves to this idea are: choosing a flatmate, choosing a wedding venue, choosing a retirement village, and so on.

The beauty of this role-play format – apart from the lack of materials – is that there is in-built repetition, as each pair of shoppers repeats its interaction with a new agent. Task repetition is an important factor in the development of fluency.

2. Alibis

This is an old favourite which, like the previous activity, is inherently repetitive. It also has an added game element, in that the participants have to try and outwit each other. The basic format starts with two students being 'accused' of having committed some crime, such as a robbery in the institution where the class takes place, in a fixed period – say, between the hours of 10 and 11 in the morning on the preceding day. The two accused then have to establish an alibi, and they go out of the room to do this. The alibi needs to account for their actions only during the time period in question (anything before or after is irrelevant), and it is important to establish that they were together for all that time. While the accused contrive their alibi, the rest of the class can prepare generic questions (with the teacher prompting, if necessary) such as: What were you doing? What did you do next? Did you meet anyone? What did you say? How much did it cost? Who paid? etc. The accused are then led in, one at a time, and have to answer the questions put to them. (It helps to establish the rule that they are not allowed to claim that they don’t remember). Any significant discrepancy in their answers means that they are, of course, guilty.

With large classes, Alibis can be played in groups, each group playing their own version of the game. Alternatively, (and so long as they are out of earshot) the two accused can be interviewed simultaneously by two different groups and then exchange places.

A variant of Alibis is UFO, in which two people are interviewed separately by 'The Institute of Paranormal Research' about an encounter with aliens that they claim to have experienced.

3. Pyramid (or consensus) debate

The principle of this format is that at first individuals work in pairs to achieve consensus on an issue, and then these pairs try to convince other pairs, before forming groups of four, and so on, until the whole class comes to an agreement. For example, the teacher might set the class the task of devising some 'class rules' with regard to such things as classroom etiquette, discipline, duties, homework, etc. First, individuals draft a list of a maximum of, say, eight rules. They then compare in pairs, and draft a new list of eight rules, but one that they are both agreed on. This will normally involve some discussion and negotiation. Once they have their list they join forces with another pair and the process begins again. Finally, the two halves of the class come together to agree on the definitive version.

Other ideas that work well in this format are ranking tasks – e.g. the five most important people in history, the ten best pop songs of all time, the eight things I would take to a desert island, the six school subjects that should be compulsory, and so on.