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.
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 :
- Students can’t think of anything to say and “dry up” in the middle
- 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.
- 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.
- Students 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 accuracy – 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 :
- 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 a holiday job in Britain (or wherever) to help them improve their English.
- 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.
At this point the students should be ready to enact 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, and after they have had a chance to check any information that they weren’t sure about, they repeat the roleplay with a different partner. And by now the students should be confident enough of what they’re doing to perform the roleplay realistically and well.