One of the staples of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teaching is the role play. Role plays are used to allow students to practice speaking in a conversational situation, build confidence and fluency, assess progress, and put learning into action.
They are often set up to target particular grammar points – simple past tense, future with ‘going to’, infinitives, etc. – and to test social interaction skills such as negotiating, interrupting, asking for assistance and making small talk. Role plays may be as simple or as complicated as the teacher desires. Verbal instructions, secret messages, gestures and cue cards are all common ways of setting a scene.
In the classroom there are four main types of role plays, but bear in mind that there is often overlap and particular situations may combine two or more of these elements.
1. The conflict role play puts participants on a collision course and asks them to deal with this as best they can. Situations might include attempting to change an airline booking at a peak time or asking a noisy neighbor to turn down the stereo. They test language skills under pressure and are best for students who have some maturity and confidence in their abilities.
2. The cooperative role play takes the opposite tack and requires participants to work together for the common good. Planning a sayonara party for the teacher, deciding the food list for a barbecue, brainstorming ways to attract tourists to local attractions are all cooperative role plays. Often involving ‘safe’ situations, cooperative role plays are good for gently easing shy students into conversations and for building relationships within a student group.
3. Information gap role plays are based around filling in holes in the participants’ knowledge. Answering questions from customs officers, asking for timetabling details, making a library card or interrogating a murder suspect are all information gap type situations. If based on the students’ real selves these role plays are simple to set up, but fictitious situations may require more elaborate preparations. They are an excellent way to practice question and answer patterns and prepare students for real-life encounters.
4. Task-based role plays require participants to complete a set activity such as checking into a hotel, giving directions to a taxi driver, ordering a meal or getting the phone number of a potential love interest. They are useful for helping students to practice realistic survival English skills and are an excellent way to build students’ confidence in their ability to function in real situations.
Role plays are an essential tool to have in the teaching box but it pays to be aware of where you want them to go. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you design a role play.
- What kinds of language structures or grammar points do I want my students to use, and will this role play incorporate them naturally?
- Do I know in my own mind I want to see occur in the role play?
- Do the students have the language and social skills to be able to manage the situation?
- Can I issue set up instructions clearly and make sure that all participants understand their own roles?
- Is the situation appropriate for the age, level and status of the students in this group?
- What do I want the students to take away from the exercise and how can I reinforce this through feedback?
Lastly, it always helps if students are enjoying themselves. Role plays don’t have to be deadly serious affairs, but as teachers we get more out of them if we approach them seriously and tie them in to our broader lesson goals.
How do you approach role plays? Do you have a favorite type or situation?
Tell us about it in the comments section.