In this article we look at role-play. The article discusses why, when and how to use role-play in your classes. The article rounds off with examples of role-plays as well as a link to another article.
Speaking activities in the classroom are often simply a matter of discussing something with a partner or in a group, conveying information in order to complete a task, or solving some kind of puzzle. However, very few of these activities are ‘real speaking’ in terms of what you would do outside the classroom. After all, when was the last time you sat down with someone who had a piece of paper with half the information to complete a task and you had the other half but you didn’t just simply put the papers down and read the information? If, indeed, you would ever have half the information each in the first place! Of course, this type of activity has ‘value’ and does encourage some of the skills you need in order to exchange information, like asking questions, turn-taking, checking etc. However, one type of speaking activity that is more ‘real’ is role-play.
What is a role-play?
Simply put, a role-play is either when someone pretends to be someone else – i.e.:
A: You are a journalist. You are interviewing a famous singer. Find out …
B: You are a famous singer. You are giving an interview. Answer the interviewer’s questions
Or it could refer to when they play themselves but in an imaginary situation or context, i.e. in a restaurant, at the train station, etc. Often, but not always, students are given ‘role’ cards with information about who they are and what the situation is, plus some prompts or questions to get them started. Alternatively, the role card might have an action that needs to be completed, i.e.
You want a return ticket to London. Buy the ticket and find out what time the train leaves.
Why use role-plays?
Role-plays allow you to introduce lots of situations into the classroom from the real world. For example,
A: You work at a train station selling tickets.
B: You want a return ticket to London. Buy the ticket and find out what time the train leaves.
This is a real-life situation, but both students are playing a ‘role’ and are not being themselves. You can also add a twist to the role-play.
A: You are a waiter.
B: You are a customer in a restaurant. Order some food. Later on, complain about something.
By not scripting everything students are going to say, you give them an opportunity to use the language they know and try out language they have recently learnt. These kinds of role-play are also useful as they allow students to practise for situations they may face outside the classroom. Another reason for using role-play is that it allows students to ‘hide behind a mask,’ as they are playing another character and thus might feel less inhibited. This is especially important for shy students. I’ve often found that really quiet students blossom when given a role.
When can you use role-plays?
Traditionally role-plays are used towards the end of a lesson to get students to practise the language taught during a lesson in a ‘real’ situation. However, there is absolutely no reason why you can’t start a lesson with a role-play either to practise language taught in a previous lesson or to find out how well students can cope in a particular situation and then help fill the gaps in their knowledge. This technique is often referred to as 'Test–Teach–Test'. Here the 'test' is actually the roleplay. You would monitor and notice where students were having problems. Perhaps they don’t use appropriate vocabulary, can’t form questions properly, or don’t speak in the correct register, etc. You can then 'teach' the students this ‘missing’ language before 'testing' them again by repeating the role-play.
Are there any disadvantages to role-plays?
Yes. If the situation is unfamiliar to the students, then they may well not be able to do it even in their own language. In this event, it is unlikely that they’ll be able to do it in English. Of course, there are exceptions, where you are asking students to use their imagination. An example of this might be:
A: You are an alien from another planet. You are visiting Earth for the first time. You want to know what different things are used for. Point to something and ask the Earthling how it’s used and what it is used for.
B: You meet an alien. Explain to them how you use the things they point to.
This kind of role-play often works really well with young learners who seem to have fantastic imaginations and limited experience of the real world. For example, this activity will work better with a group of 9 and 10 year olds than one in which they are at a restaurant or train station.
So, it’s important that you think about your students’ experiences and what is actually relevant to them before you give them a role-play.
How do you set up a role-play?
I’ve already mentioned the use of role cards and how they can be used to give information to the students. So, in this section I’ll look at a few other issues that are important to consider when you are setting up a role-play.
The first thing to mention is that you need to make sure students understand the situation/context. It is no good assuming that because the information is on the role card that students understand. This doesn’t mean you need to explain every detail on each role card, simply that you should make sure the situation is familiar and/or clear.
Secondly, give students time to prepare. If you are using role cards, then give students time to read the information and check things in a dictionary or with you. If more than one student has the same role card, it is quite useful to get them to work together, discussing the information and what they might say. However, don’t let students over-prepare. You don’t want them reading out a script that they have written before the role-play. So, tell them to make notes but not to write full sentences.
Finally, think about who you give each role to and how you will organize the pairs, groups or class. If some ‘roles’ are harder than others, think about giving these to the stronger students.
What should I do after a role-play?
Don’t just move on to a different activity. If you move on immediately after a role-play and don’t at least discuss what happened, then students might lose interest in doing role-plays. There needs to be an obvious outcome and a rounding-up of the activity. One way of finishing a role-play is to ask students how it went, did they enjoy it, what happened, was it useful, etc. Alternatively, you could ask for a volunteer pair or group to act it out in front of the class. Personally, I feel that mistakes should not be dealt with immediately after a role-play as it makes students more self-conscious the next time they do a role-play. It’s better to make a note of the mistakes and deal with them by addressing their problems in later lessons. If you do decide to look at some of the mistakes, then do it as anonymously as possible and don’t draw attention to whoever made a particular mistake. One way of doing this is by writing up a few mistakes on the board and asking students to correct these themselves (or in pairs).
Some practical ideas
You want to buy a return ticket to London.
You want to know when the next train leaves.
It’s ten to five now.Student B
You work at the train station.
The prices of the tickets are:
a single – £28
a return – £35
The next train is in ten minutes.
A more complex role-play
A more complex role-play may involve students reading an article first and then being given role cards. For example, your students read an article about eating fast food and then do a role-play with the following cards:
You are the owner of a fast food restaurant. You don’t make people eat your food, it’s their choice. You think people are responsible for what they eat. You just provide a choice.You are overweight and you think it’s because of all the fast food you eat. You blame the fast food restaurants as nobody ever told you fast food was unhealthy.
You could also add more roles such as:You are a farmer. The fast food industry buys a lot of your beef so you think that they are great, but you never eat any of the food yourself.You are a lawyer. You think that some legislation should be brought in forcing fast food restaurants to say that eating their food will make you fat.
You can find a good article for students to read before they do this role-play by clicking on the link under 'related resources' below.
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Speaking matters: Role-play