Eight ideas for improving your role plays

How often do you use role plays in your lessons?

They can be not only give learners authentic speaking practice, they can also be a lot of fun.

Role plays are unique as a speaking activity in the fact that they require the learners to play different roles to complete a task.  The roles may vary from being a receptionist taking a telephone message to a hotel staff dealing with a customer complaint.  For learners, doing role plays can have a number of benefits compared to other types of speaking practice.  Firstly, they can give learners more realistic practice by putting them in a role they will likely use their language in.  Secondly, playing a different role can encourage learners to focus more on communicating and be less worried about making mistakes.

Having done role plays for many years with different types of learners, I’ve found to be them to one of the most practical, engaging, and fun ways to practice speaking.  They are particularly useful for learners who need English for specific purposes such as business or travel.  The learner feedback is almost always positive, even from those who are more introverted.  While roles can be assigned for one-off role plays, it’s also possible to assign them for multiple classes eg. for a business English class, you could have learners create personas for imaginary employees and that they use for all of their role plays throughout a course.

Sure, there are other ways to have learners practice their speaking, but role plays are, at the very least, a great tool to have your ‘teacher tool-box.’

So, with this in mind, below are some tips I’ve found useful when using role plays in lessons.

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Set the schema
Before doing your role plays, make sure the learners are familiar with the setting and language required. The more time spent here, the more successful your role play will be. For example, if the role play is going to be receptionist taking a telephone message from a customer, then have learners discuss the topic first. Maybe they can talk about whether they have experience using English the phone. Maybe they can talk about what kind of information they might need to get when taking a telephone message, or what kinds of phrases can be used in a business telephone call.

Help learners visualize setting
Before starting the role play, it’s important to help the learners clearly visualize the setting. While it’s better to avoid long-winded explanations, try to further trigger the learners’ imagination by giving a few more setting details. For example, instead of saying ‘You are in a restaurant’, try saying ‘You are in a busy Italian restaurant in New York City.’

Use the classroom
Other simple adjustments can help take the learners out of their classroom mindset. For example, have learners close their books and stand up. Even better, if you can, use classroom items and furniture to create simple props eg. repositioning chairs for a restaurant table, making the table an office desk, using pens as telephones (see Fig.1).


Use information gaps
In addition to assigning roles, make your role plays even more realistic by giving the learners different or conflicting information. This gives them more realistic motivation to interact to complete the role play. For more advanced learners, adding unexpected information can further challenge them to ‘think on their feet’ and improvise with their language to solve a problem.

Let the learners take control
Once the role play is set up, it’s a good idea for the teacher to take a step back and be a silent observer. This will encourage the learners to be less teacher-dependent. Also, some learners might be intimidated by the teacher taking part (even if they are just playing a role). Use the time to take some basic notes to for the ensuing feedback session. Initiation of the role play should be decisive and clear for the learners in order to put them to their imaginary environments. Simply snap your fingers and say, ‘start’, or, like they do in the movies, ‘action!’ There might be cases where the teacher has to take a role (eg. a one-student lesson), then it’s important to keep participation to a minimum and let the learners take the initiative. But, teachers can contribute to the realism by changing voices, using gestures and generally dramatizing the situations.

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Finish on a high
While setting up the schema and role pay may take time, the role play itself does not need to continue for a long time. In fact, it is a good idea not to let the role play drag on and go flat, but rather stop it after 2-3 minutes and move onto the feedback session. The conclusion of the role play might be natural, i.e. when the problem is solved, or at the teacher may decide to conclude it with a simple ‘OK, let’s stop there.’ If needed, the role play can easily be repeated later after the feedback session.

Make time for reflection and feedback
Be sure to save time to discuss the role play after it’s finished. Have the learners summarize what happened in the role play. Ask them some simple questions eg. “Do you think X is a good tour guide?” “Could you solve the problem?” Then move on to some more specific feedback for the learners. It’s a good idea not to give too much feedback; try to focus only on problems that inhibited communication.  Maybe from pronunciation or grammatical accuracy?  Maybe it was from learners using L2? Note the problems on the whiteboard and elicit learners to self-correct. Don’t forget to also recognize good things the learners did. It’s also good to introduce a few useful phrases at the end, especially ones that improve the appropriateness or register of learner language.

How about a rerun?
After the feedback, it’s sometimes a good idea to repeat the same role play. Doing this  immediately after the feedback can let learners apply the feedback points while they’re fresh in their minds.  Letting them repeat the role play with a different partner can also help keep things interesting.

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