Preparing for Roleplays

What is a roleplay? It’s a label which can be applied to a lot of classroom activities from short What would you say? situations to much more complex activities which involve understanding a lot of background information. In a roleplay, the students may act as themselves, responding as they would genuinely respond in a similar activity, or they may have to take on a persona which is not their own.

So what are the advantages of using them?

  • They can be used to simulate situations that learners will encounter in real life. For example, in a Business English class, learners who have to negotiate contracts with clients can simulate the situation, and therefore "rehearse" for what they will need to do in reality.
  • In the general purpose class, they are useful for practising functional language. For example, if the lesson has been focusing on making offers, in the freer practice stage a situation can be set where learners have to arrange a party, decide what needs to be done to prepare, and then each offer to do certain of those things.
  • If each learner has a rolecard with information that must be communicated in order to complete the roleplay, it means that everyone must participate. This solves problems sometimes encountered with other types of discussion activity where stronger/more confident learners dominate and weaker or shyer ones take a backseat.
  • Like all other pair and group work activities, they allow the learner to practise the language in relative anonymity, rather than having to speak out immediately in front of the class - which s/he may feel to be stressful and embarassing.

However, roleplays are not always fully successful. So why don’t they always work as well as they might? Here I’d like to suggest that it’s sometimes because students are thrown into the activity without sufficient preparation.

Inevitably, the more complex the roleplay – the more information there is to absorb, and the further it is from the student’s real experience – the more difficult it becomes and the more problems are liable to arise. Some of the most common are :
  • Learners feel uncomfortable with their role and don't want to participate.
  • They can’t remember the situation or the information which they have to convey, grab the rolecard and just read out what was written there.
  • They can’t think of anything to say and “dry up” in the middle

  • Because they can’t think of anything else, they start saying things which are totally unrealistic for the situation and deflect the roleplay into a comedy sketch - which may be fun, but doesn’t provide the opportunity to practise the language you were expecting they would use.

  • They are so focused on remembering what they have to do that they have no chance to think about how they want to express themselves, and as well as causing a natural drop in accuracy, any linguistic focus which you expected to come out of the roleplay is lost – unless in the follow-up stage you bombard students with their “mistakes”.
This last point is of course a normal consequence of any fluency activity – the more students are concentrating on what they want to say, the less they can concentrate on how they say it – and will happen in a genuine communication situation as well as in the classroom. But roleplays, which ask students to remember unfamiliar information or even to invent information on the spot, often present an even higher communicative challenge than the real situation would.

To reduce this level of challenge and avoid the problems listed above :

  • Don't use roleplays which have any potentially embarassing roles or push learners into expressing opinions etc that they may oppose in real life.
  • Ensure that the roleplay is not entirely outside the students’ experience. For example, if roleplaying a job interview, choose a job which the students know something about or might be liable to apply for – not usually a problem with adults, while with teenagers you might use the context of applying for holiday job in Britain (or wherever) to help them improve their English and earn some money art the same time..

  • Make sure the language they will need is at the forefront of their minds. If the roleplay is being used as the final stage of a unit focusing on a particular language area (for example, job interviews often crop up in textbooks linked to the present perfect), then the language preparation will take care of itself. However, if you are using it as just a general fluency activity – for instance in a conversation class – you will need to predict and revise the language that the students will need before starting.

  • Ensure that they have “learnt” the role and all the background information before they start. Give out the rolecards with the necessary information and pair each student with another with the same role. Once the students have had a chance to read the information through, student A turns his card face down while student B continues looking at hers and asks factual questions to test her partners knowledge of the facts. If A can’t remember, she tells him. At the end they swap, and A asks the questions.

  • As far as possible let them decide what they want to say. In a job interview roleplay, for instance, the interviewers might plan what questions they wanted to ask the candidate, and the candidates might plan what questions they want to ask about the job and the organisation. Both groups could also try and predict the questions that the other side might ask, and decide how they would answer them.
  • Let them do the activity more than once. After the preparation stages above, the learners should be ready to change partners - ie be grouped with learners with the other role(s) - and have a "first go" at the roleplay. However, there is no reason that they should do it only once, and the first enactment can be seen as a sort of “dress rehearsal”, during which you monitor noting mistakes, and they find out just how well they have assimilated all the information. After the follow-up, focusing on these areas, and after they have had a chance to check any information that they weren’t sure about, they repeat the roleplay with different partners. And by now the students should be confident enough of what they’re doing to perform the roleplay realistically and well.
For a distinction between roleplay and simulation, see here.

No comments: