An ELT Glossary : Roleplay and Simulation

Roleplay and Simulation - are they the same thing or different? Well, it depends very much whose definition you read. So let's look first of all at what is the same about both of them.

Whichever term you choose, the activity involves the learners "acting out" a scenario in the classroom. They are given a situation and asked to behave and communicate as if they were actually in that situation. Here's a simple example :

- You get on a train and see your friend sitting in the carriage. You go and sit next to him/her and start to talk about where you are both going and why.

But notice that this situation could be elaborated in different ways: 

Version 1 (Both students have the same information)

Think about the last time you were on a train going to (a town fairly near where the learners live, whose route they will know and which they are liable to have taken in the past). Why did you take that train? Where exactly were you going? Was it to visit someone? Did you have an appointment there? or what? 
When you get on the train , you see your friend sitting in the carriage. You go and sit next to him/her and start to talk. Ask and tell your friend about where you are both going and why.

Version 2  (Each student only has their own information)

Student A : You are on a train going to London, for a job interview. You have applied for the job of a sales representative in a company which sells furniture. You really want the job because you've been unemployed for the last six months, so you're feeling nervous. You're sitting in a carriage when you see a friend of yours who has just got on the train. S/he comes and sits next to you. Talk to your friend about where you are both going and why.

Student B : You are on a train going to London. You are going there to visit your son who is studying at university there. You're worried about him because he's not very happy there - he doesn't like his course and he hasn't made many friends.
You get on the train and see a friend of yours sitting in the carriage. You go and sit next to him/her. Talk to your friend about where you are both going and why.

There's a difference here that I think is crucial. In version 1, both students remain themselves. The activity is based on their experience and they say what they would actually choose to say in that situation. In other words they are simulating an activity that they might actually find themselves in (or have found themselves in in the past).

In the second however, the details of the situation are completely invented. The learner is asked to "act out" the role of a persona which is not their own, to talk about things which are not true for them and to express emotions that they don't actually feel. So they are definitely playing a role.

It's not always that simple though. Many scenarios may contain elements of both roleplay and simulation. imagine that you are running a business English course for a group of Human Resources managers. One of the things that they have to do in their work is to conduct job interviews in English. So you set up a scenario where they will practice interviewing candidates for a type of job that they actually recruit for. 

Clearly in this scenario, the interviewers are simulating - they are "rehearsing" in the classroom a situation which they will actually be involved in outside the classroom. But in order for them to do so, someone else has to act as the candidate - and this student will not be simulating but playing a role.

So, very often it's impossible to define an activity as either simulation or roleplay. They may well often contain elements of both. It's more a continuum than a clear-cut distinction.

Useful Further Reading

From the ELT Notebook : Preparing for Roleplays
From the British Council : Games, Simulations and Roleplays

Littlewood, W. Communicative Language Teaching, Cambridge